Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

36112638Verdict: In parts brilliant, in parts unsubtle

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General fiction

Published by Penguin, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

Again it feels like I am the last person to have read a book – and again I am so glad to have finally gotten to it. I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You and while I don’t think this book was quite as strong, it was still brilliant enough that I will be reading every single thing she ever publishes.

At its heart, this is a book about mothers and their relationship to their children. It follows to very different women, free-spirited Mia and perfect Mrs Richardson and their children while at the same time being more of a pastiche depicting a small towns inhabitants. I really enjoyed the rambling nature of the narrative and was happily along for the ride. I thought Ng took incredible care with most of her characters and her command of language in describing these everyday scenes was wonderful.

For me the book got weaker as it neared the ending, when the story became less subtle and it became more clear what Ng wanted the reader to think. I thought this did a disservice to the wonderfully complex moral conundrum at the heart of this novel. There were no easy answers her and for me it felt like the novel pretended as if there were. I found the two women at the centre became less real and more archetypical towards the ending and as such lost power.

On the other end of the spectrum, I adored the way Ng handled the younger generation. All the teenagers felt real and believable and their relationships with each other made my heart ache with its earnesty. Especially the three women had my hearts and I wanted them to be happy; Izzy with her prickliness, Lexie with her strong moral compass that just so happens to not always include her own actions, and Pearl who just wanted to belong. Ng just really has a way of constructing believable characters that make me very excited for whatever she writes next.

Review: The Gender Games by Juno Dawson

35681935Verdict: Hilarious, heartwarming, wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Two Roads, July 2017

Genre: Memoir, Audiobook

Find it on Goodreads.

Why we are all being messed up by gender, and what we can do about it.

‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ are the first words almost all of us hear when we enter the world. Before our names, before we have likes and dislikes – before we, or anyone else, has any idea who we are. And two years ago, as Juno Dawson went to tell her mother she was (and actually, always had been) a woman, she started to realise just how wrong we’ve been getting it.

Gender isn’t just screwing over trans people, it’s messing with everyone. From little girls who think they can’t be doctors to teenagers who come to expect street harassment. From exclusionist feminists to ‘alt-right’ young men. From men who can’t cry to the women who think they shouldn’t. As her body gets in line with her mind, Juno tells not only her own story, but the story of everyone who is shaped by society’s expectations of gender – and what we can do about it.

Featuring insights from well-known gender, feminist and trans activists including Rebecca Root, Laura Bates, Gemma Cairney, Anthony Anaxagorou, Hannah Witton, Alaska Thunderfuck and many more, The Gender Games is a frank, witty and powerful manifesto for a world where what’s in your head is more important than what’s between your legs.

In short: I loved every second of this. I adored the warmth, the humour, the pop culture reference, and how very very positive this was. I listened to the book as read by the author and I can only recommend this. Juno Dawson brings an absolute wonderful joy to this memoir that I just really needed.

Compared to other memoirs I read in my month of reading mostly memoirs, this was lighthearted and fun. This does not mean that Juno Dawson does not have a lot to say, which she does, brilliantly so. She just refuses to use a narrative of sadness for her own journey and I am glad. Coming out stories are not always awful and that gives me hope.

I agree with a lot of Juno Dawson’s thoughts on gender – and that felt nice because I am often the most radical in my social circle. I wasn’t at university (not by a long shot) but back in my small town and with in-laws who are very much of the opinion that boys and girls are fundamentally different and that girls should always wear pink (I am exaggerating, of course, but only a little) I do sometimes feel a bit weird. So listening to somebody who so very eloquently has similar thoughts was absolutely lovely.

I am around the same age as Juno Dawson and as such really appreciated a lot of her pop culture references a whole lot; I mean I was always going to love a book that references Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I just had so much fun listening to this. Please do check this one out if you haven’t already.

Review: The Child Finder – Rene Denfield

36264514Verdict: Oh I liked this. But, evil

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Harper, 2017; listened to on Audible

Find it on Goodreads.

Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight years old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as “the Child Finder,” Naomi is their last hope.

Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl too.

As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?

I very rarely read crime novels or anything that might be considered “Thriller”, but this book came so highly recommended that when I saw it on Audible, I downloaded it on a whim. And I am so glad I did. I have talked elsewhere on the not so brilliant reading month I had and how I had promised myself to finish the books I had started before choosing another but for this I am glad to have broken my own promise.

Written in lyrical language steeped in the words of myths and fairy tales this is a crime novel that I can wholeheartedly recommend. The atmosphere Rene Denfield has created here was my absolute favourite part of the book. I adore the way in which she builds her world around the fairy tales she references while never losing its base in reality. This is a deeply unsettling book under the beautiful language; there is violence here barely hidden under euphemisms; and I thought this contrast worked really well. The violence and horror of child abduction is never sugar-coated but it is also not gratuitously violent. I was figuratively glued to the page and just could not stop listening, even though big parts of the mystery at heart are no mystery to the reader.

There were, however, some parts that did not quite work for me. Most importantly, I found Naomi a little bit underdeveloped, especially when compared to the snow girl. The Love story did not work for me either, but this is probably just a me thing (I read books with love stories at the centre even rarer than crime novels).

At the heart, this is a book about survival, about resistance, and about the importance of human contact. Naomi and B are different sides of the same coin but with vastly different experiences and narratives. I adored this.