Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“All her life she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.” (161)

Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the Clinton era of the ‘90s, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng centers on the picture perfect Richardson family who live in a perfectly curated neighbourhood and their new enigmatic tenant, Mia and teen daughter, Pearl.

Mia and Pearl are the exact opposite of the Richardson family – the exact opposite of what Shaker Height’s represents – perfection. Mia is an artist and a single-mother, whereas the Richardsons appear to be the epitome of what upper-middle-class families are to represent in Shaker Heights: Mr. Richardson is a partner at his law firm; Mrs. Richardson is a journalist for the local paper, and their four children, two boys and two girls seem to be the ideal children and students. Although, things are not always as they seem to be, but to Pearl, a girl who has moved every year of her life, finds the Richardsons, and the life they comfortably live, enchanting.

Now mix in another upper-middle-class couple, the McCulloughs, who have been desperately trying to build their own family without any luck of their own, announce that they are adopting a Chinese baby that was abandoned at a fire station. The same baby that Mia’s colleague had given up because, at the time, she was unable to provide for her baby, but now wants her back. A custody battle ensues which drastically divide Mia and Mrs. Richardson. Suspicious of Mia’s motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes obsessed to uncover Mia’s secrets, but at a cost that dispels all three families.

In Little Fires Everywhere themes of family, motherhood and politics are predominant, while silent questions of who is fit to be a mother and have a family resonate throughout the novel: is it wealth, age, or a nuclear family structure? This is a beautifully written book, and a powerful story.IMG_5300.JPG

11/22/63 by Stephen King

“She takes my hand like a woman in a dream. She is in a dream, and so am I. Like all sweet dreams, it will be brief…but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when time is gone, you can never get it back.”

I can’t remember how I stumbled upon Stephen King’s 11/22/63, it might have been the fact that I read and fell in love with King’s writing style while reading “On Writing” or it might have been because I watched Jackie and afterwards, wanted to learn everything about the Kennedy’s (through fiction, obviously), but whatever the reason I am so happy that I read the 849 page quasi-historical, science-fiction, love story.

Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine and recently divorced, finds himself in a predicament while facing a time-traveling portal that his friend Al Templeton found inside his Diner: Go back in time starting from September 9, 1958 and stop the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or remain in the present (June 2011) and constantly face the “what if” question. The portal rules are complicated, but two things remain the same: Trips only last two minutes in present day and every visit is a complete reset. Everything that was accomplished on a previous visit will be instantly erased the next time he returns.

What does Jake do? Of course he travels back in time to place the world back on its proper trajectory, where JFK lives. In 1958 Jake Epping becomes George Amberson, and with the guidance of Al’s notes from his visits to the past, Jake/George is able to live in history. He settles down in a small Texas town, becomes a teacher, falls in love, and tracks the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald.  But, as we are constantly reminded, “history is obdurate” and Jake/George is challenged many times as he tries to change history.

In 11/22/63, you will find memorable characters  – who touch us viscerally and make us root for them – and a powerful sense of place and time, which is remarkably described in great detail about the stores, songs, clothes and cars found in 1958-’63 that make this fantasy seem plausible.

I don’t know if I can read anything else by Stephen King, this book was my first fictional read by him and it surpassed all of my reading expectations: made me laugh, made me nervous, and made me cry. I recognize that this type of book may not be for everyone, but if you are up for a “what if” historical tale, then this tome is for you.  image1P.S. Have you seen the series on hulu? I think I may start binge-watching it this weekend.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

“Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.”

Claire Fuller’s latest novel, Swimming Lessons, imbues a catharsis of emotions as one family attempts to piece together the mystery of their missing mother and wife, Ingrid. In what is described as a spine-tingling tale, this novel lacks that nail-biting instant thriller, but slowly unravels a dark family secret. Told through alternating literary techniques (epistolary and prose), the reader is swept back in time by reading past letters and then quickly brought to the present with each new chapter.

The novel begins with Gil Coleman seeing his long-lost wife, Ingrid, walking on the street, he follows her, but to no avail, and while walking  back he takes a near fatal-fall. Nan, the eldest daughter, is on-hand at the hospital with her father, while Flora is enjoying an intimate foray with a lover, which we later learn is a similar trait of her father’s. What follows is an ebb and flow of heart-aching stories told through letters Ingrid wrote to her husband that she sporadically places in novels strewn throughout their home, while the other thread follows present day daughters, Flora and Nan, as they deal with their dying father and the true history of their parents’ relationship.

I did not love this book (I gave it three stars on my Goodreads account), however I did enjoy the unconventional way this story was told, and the references to the other books that Ingrid hid her letters in. Each letter  is hidden in a book that mirrors the letter’s theme. It’s a short read, only 295 pages, but I found the storyline too slow, and the dark family secret a bit too predictable.

What are your thoughts if you read the novel? I’d love to hear them.image1

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

“I think she’s sad because she never fell in love. Except she needn’t worry, because love doesn’t exist.”
“How do you know that?”
Rose wiped a large snowflake from her eyelash and raised her head to try to catch one with her tongue. Pierrot put his hands out to catch some.
“I read it in a Russian novel,” she said, looking at Pierrot again. “The Russians have figured everything out because their winters are so long. It makes them so thoughtful.”

A blend of whimsy, magic and sadness, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is a melancholic love story involving orphans, gangsters, circus performers, drug dealers and an imaginary bear; where the lines of innocence and seduction are blurred; and thievery, drugs and sexuality are ordinary ways of life.

Set in moody Montreal during the depression era, talented orphans, Rose and Pierrot, are the novel’s heroine and hero, and readers follow their cohesive, yet turbulent journey as the two navigate a world that is both brutal and fantastical.

Growing up in an orphanage under the care of vile and wicked nuns, the imaginative and dreamy performers are drawn to each other at a young age, and soon are sent to perform music and dance (Pierrot is a pianist, and Rose a dancer) acts to rich city folk in exchange for donations to the orphanage.  After one of their performances and under a snowy sky,  Rose and Pierrot develop a plan to create a travelling clown show called The Snowflake Icicle Extravaganza, and vow to one another that they will marry, become rich and famous, and live happily ever after. At age 15, these star-crossed lovers are separated; Rose is sent to be a governess to children of a wealthy gangster businessman, and Pierrot is sent to live with an old wealthy aristocrat.

What follows are stories of secondary characters that are intertwined in Rose and Pierrot’s narrative after life at the orphanage. But, the beauty of this novel, and its emotional core is the never-ending love Rose and Pierrot have for one another despite being separated for most of the book. Finally, the two are reconnected, and their dreams come true, but not without a new kind of pain.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a provocative and gritty read that may not be for everyone, but if you do happen upon this magical book, the dream-like narrative and loveable protagonists, will linger even after the novel is over.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Heather O’Neill speak as part of The Canadian Author Series in Port Colborne, Ontario. Not only is she a master storyteller, she is hilarious – the room was captivated by her words. If you have the opportunity to hear you speak, go.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Imagine witnessing your two best friends being killed: one caused by a drive-by shooting in a public park and the second by a trigger pulled by a cop. Can you imagine it? I can’t either, but for 16-year-old Starr Carter, this is her reality. New York Times bestseller, The Hate U Give written by Angie Thomas, follows Starr’s story after the unjustly death of her best friend, Khahlil, who was murdered by a cop, “Officer One-Fifteen.” As the only witness to this crime, Starr has to bear the outrage from her community and of her race.

Starr lives a stable life that is divided by two worlds: the poor black neighbourhood where she lives and the fancy predominately white prep school in the suburbs that she attends. Her father owns a local convenience store and her mother is a nurse. Starr wears expensive name-brand clothes, is a devote basketball player, has two brothers, and unbeknown to her dad, is dating a white guy from her school.

The inner conflict in the novel is the dilemma of right and wrong: Starr wants to do what is right – tell the cops, tell the jury, tell her community what she saw, but telling the truth could also endanger her life. Finally, she summons up the courage to tell the truth to the grand jury, and as the world outside of the courtroom waits to hear if the officer will face charges, tension mounts as the reader suffers with Starr, her family and the community.

The Hate U Give, named for a Tupac’s song, (Thug Life – the hate U give little infants f*cks everybody) is a novel that exposes the injustices of the judicial system, systemic racism, and police violence but it is told with care, intelligence, and honesty. The reader falls in love with Starr, and is connected to her through the use of first-person narration. Starr allows the reader into her world: she is funny, she is authentic; she’s a 16-year-old girl who is faced with a reality that is different from her prep-school peers

As a book found in the YA section of a bookstore, The Hate U Give reminds readers that radicalized violence does not limit itself to one age group, but is everywhere. Not too long ago I was sitting in front of my computer, tears streaming down my face, as I watched the live feed of the injustice, the gob-smackingly blatant racism that tragically ended Michael Brown’s life way too soon. This event opened my eyes to the horrendous and unjust acts people with ‘power’ inflict on the ‘other.’ I know events like that happened before, and they continue to happen,  but this novel, albeit fictitious, mirrored a life that my white privilege shelters me from, yet it served as a tool that cultivated an emotional understanding. This book won’t make racism disappear overnight, but it does have the potential to make one think and reassess their own personal judgments.

Read it! Even if you think you’re too old for YA, do yourself a favour and read it. I’ll even lend you my copy.

On a side note: Have you been watching “Dear White People” on Netflix? A show clueless white people (talking to myself) should watch and learn. Synopsis from Netflix: “Students of color navigate the daily slights and slippery politics of life at an Ivy League college that’s not nearly as “post-racial” as it thinks.”

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The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unriped secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t. We shared this secret, a secret that began the spring Nadia Turner got knocked up by the pastor’s son and went to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it”.

Britt Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers centers around a young woman grieving the recent suicide of her mother, falls into a forbidden relationship with the church pastor’s son, has an abortion and then has to live with the consequences. However, these repercussions aren’t necessarily what one might think — and therein lies the brilliant beauty of this book, which challenges the judgments we make about women’s choices, and the people who make those judgments to begin with.

The Mothers explores the concept of motherhood while transgressing the conventional definition of ‘mother’ by examining the idea that mothering is an act and not the static notion that one is a mother because they bore a child. Mothering is the main theme throughout the novel even though the ‘mother’ character is absent: Nadia and her best friend, Aubrey, are both motherless and Nadia aborts becoming a mother. Yet the act of mothering is portrayed through secondary characters: A nurse at the hospital, Aubrey’s older sister, and the women at the community church.

Delving deeper into the undertones of this novel, I will also argue that the ‘body’ imagery is also an integral part of novel’s theme, from the physical descriptions of the main characters bodies, to the actions of human destruction on the body, and the role the church body inflicts and/or empowers on the community. The Church is a significant character in The Mothers as its body represents the older and somewhat hypocritical women whose authoritative voices are heard throughout the novel, it is is also a symbol of security for Nadia’s father after her mother’s suicide, and it is a place where secrets are told and hidden within its walls.

I finished this novel over a week ago, and am still thinking about the story and the characters who Bennett makes so human. This is a powerful, evocative, and sad novel about the actions and repercussions of love, friendship, family and loss.

I highly recommend this novel and once you read it, let me know what you think!

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The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

“Imagine the person you love and trust becoming a different person overnight. What would you do?”

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a novel about a sheltered and privileged family (WASP), living in an upper-class small town community. Life appears perfect for the Woodbury family: George, a loveable family man, likeable teacher, and respected in the community, lives in a picturesque home with his doting wife, Joan, and their daughter, Sadie, a popular A+ high school student; their son Andrew, is a lawyer living in New York with his boyfriend. That is until George is taken into custody under multiple allegations of sexual assault involving several young female students causing the Woodbury’s happy-go-lucky life to instantaneously turn upside down.

Readers follow the aftermath that these accusations have on Joan, Sadie and Andrew, and are provided a glimpse into their minds through third-person narration as their stories are told in alternate chapters. However, George’s character is silenced, causing readers to speculate and form their own opinions based on the facts and accusations that come to light throughout the novel.

The Best Kind of People explores the nuances around rape culture, blaming the victim, and the ‘what if’ debate. What if George was innocent and these girls lied; what if the girls told the truth but there was not enough evidence to support their statements; what if he did sexually assault these young girls?

This is an important read, now more than ever, as the Jian Ghomeshis and Brock Turners are found to be ‘innocent’ or face minimal sentencing for their horrific actions, while the women who bravely come forward are labeled attention whores and slut-shamed. Victim blaming is real. Rape denial is real. Rape culture is real.

Read this gripping and thought-provoking novel and let me know your thoughts! Do you think George is innocent or guilty? What are your thoughts on the novel’s ending, and Joan’s actions?

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is a multigenerational saga that follows the lives of two half sisters and their descendants from Ghana, Africa to America over three hundred years.

Born in different villages in the 1700s, half sisters Effie and Esi live two completely separate lives; Effie marries a wealthy Englishman and lives a life of grandeur in the Cape Coast Castle, while Esi, unbeknownst to her sister, is imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon to be sold as a slave. Told in two threads, with alternating chapters between the sisters’ offsprings. One thread follows Effie’s multiracial offspring and the warfare in Ghana, as the nation wrestles with slave trade and British colonization, and the other thread, Esi’s, follows her generations as they settle in America, from the plantations, coal mines, jazz clubs, to the present day. Throughout the generations, both bloodlines endure hardship as they establish their lives and their identities.

Readers don’t spend much time with each individual character, but the breadth and scope of the story is mind-blowing. With each new chapter, the reader gets a glimpse of how the injustices of the past, whether they’re rooted in American slavery or African colonialism, build on each other to affect the future.

Gyasi’s debut novel is beautifully written, a stark contrast to the harsh injustices her characters endure. This is a powerful story that gives readers a new perspective on racial history.

(This was a difficult read on the ugliness our African American ancestors had to endure, however I highly recommend this novel.)

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