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“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Genre: General Fiction (Adult)Little Fires Everywhere
Pub. Date: Sept. 13, 2017
Publisher: The Penguin Press

Celeste Ng’s second novel revisits many of the themes that were in her award-winning debut book (a novel I thoroughly enjoyed), “Everything I Never Told You”:  race, family, and the debatable advantages of similarity.  “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in the suburban town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where there are strict rules to keep the town picture perfect, such as the colors you can paint your house, how high your lawn is permitted to grow before it needs to be mowed.  Garbage cans are not permitted to be placed in front of the house, (even on garbage pick up day) and other obnoxious rules.  “Little Fires” has been a best seller for months.  I am wondering how many readers are aware that Shaker Heights is a real town in Ohio that was planned to be a utopia.   “In 1905, business partners and brothers Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen began purchasing the settlement’s original 1,366 acres to develop a scenic residential suburb.  They based their plans on the popular Garden City movement.  Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from the bustle of the city: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation.”   Personally, I think this concept screams of the beginnings of “white flight.”  And, sadly, as well as the current administration in the White House.   I admit I didn’t spend too much time researching Shaker Heights.   Still, I believe these rules were enforced until the 1980s, when the federal government more or less stopped enforcing housing rules.

This story takes place in 1997 and the rules still very much apply, maybe not on legal papers, but in the minds of those on the housing board.   The unwelcome change is not about a family of color moving into town but rather an unmarried artist, along with her 15-year old daughter.   This unconventional artist is more interested in making art than making money.   (I know, shocking.  No wonder she caused such an uproar).  They move into town and become the tenants in a rental house of the town’s most affluent upstanding citizen and wife who has teenage children of her own.  The tale begins when the house of the outwardly perfect-seeming family is burning to the ground.  No family member questions that it is their youngest offspring, always the rebel, who is the culprit of the fire.  We just don’t know why a 13-year old would do such a thing.  The novel then goes back in time to eleven months earlier, when the artist and her daughter first appear.  They rent a tiny one bedroom house owned by the wealthy mother who likes to rent to those who wouldn’t usually be able to afford to live in such a town.  In exchange for rent, the artist becomes her landlord’s cleaning woman.  The landlord mom is proud of her charity and sees herself as a philanthropist.

Throughout the novel, the author lays down the stepping stones that lead to the front gate of the burning house.  There is good character development throughout the plot, which revolves around the two mothers and their offspring.  Both mothers are baffled by the others’ morals and lifestyles. They clash with each other while simultaneously their children befriend one other.  Slowly, Ng lets us into their psyches and hidden pains.  The author does a superior job with all the adolescent characters, nailing teenage voices, feelings, crushes and sexuality as well as the ever-thorny subject of class.   One teenage girl has her own credit card while the other’s mother does not even own one.  One girl has her own car while the other has lived in a car.  Ng also introduces a heartbreaking local custody battle.  A one-year-old girl is wanted by both her Chinese immigrant mother and the white couple who has raised the baby.  The immigrant mother happens to be friends with the bohemian artist, which enhances the tensions between herself and her landlady/employer who sides with the white family.  One does not need to read between the lines to realize that there is more to this novel than why planned communities are destined to fail.  The book’s themes revolve around motherhood, planned and unplanned pregnancies, surrogacy, abortion, and adoption.   Most importantly it has the reader wondering just what magic ingredients make for a good mother versus a disastrous one.  Little fires are typical in a family and they are normally easy to extinguish.   How did the family dynamics in this novel create such an unstoppable blaze?  Although this is a question that has been asked many times before, Ng is such a talented writer that I still enjoyed her version of a familiar tale.

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Review: The English Wife by Lauren Willig

Novelgossip

Goodreads|Amazon

Release date: January 9, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it…

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“Girl Unknown” by Karen Perry

Genre:         (General Fiction) AdultGirl Unkown
Pub. Date:   Feb. 6, 2018
Publisher:    Henry Holt and Co.

This book is marketed as general fiction, but I feel it is a psychological thriller, as it appears to be with all books that have the word “girl” in the title.  The reader will meet a family consisting of husband, wife and two children, a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.  I liked the fact that the author did not present this Irish family as perfect.  Both parents have secrets from one another.  They certainly have their troubles, but the parents work hard on making their marriage work.   They do love one another and want the best for their children.  The father is a college professor.   In his first-year class, a 19-year-old female student informs him that he is her father from a relationship he had before he married.  The reader already knows that this girl’s mother is the true love of his life.

He accepts the girl into his world right away.  He is rather naïve in thinking he can easily integrate this daughter into his established family.  As the reader expects, almost immediately problems arise.  The novel is narrated by the husband and wife.  As the title indicates, this girl is an unknown variable in their lives.  She has more of her own secrets than this family ever had.  She seems to take pleasure in causing conflict, usually ending with the females in the family seeing her as a narcissistic person enjoying the drama she creates, while the males feel she is a troubled person who needs their support.  I imagine that this book is advertised as general fiction since it reads like a family drama and a character study.  Grant you, an easy character study that is a quick read: a beach book that will probably become a movie.

Half-way through the tale, due to the stressors, all family members begin to crumble.   Both parents have major setbacks in their careers as well as in their personal lives.  The son is acting out in school, while the 11-year-old daughter has become withdrawn.   But it is during a family vacation in France that all hell breaks loose.   I would ruin the story for you if I explain why.  The previous twists in the book were predictable, easy to find since the family dynamics became rather warped.  However, the twist on the last page of the novel did surprise me.   It actually left me wanting to know more, wondering what will happen now, which tells me that “Unknown” is a decent read after all.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Points North: Stories” by Howard Frank Mosher

Genre:          Fiction (Adult)  35343337
Pub. Date:   Jan. 23, 2018
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

Upon his passing in January 2017, many readers mourned Howard Frank Mosher.  Thank goodness his books are immortal and can be read and reread as often as we wish, allowing us to travel into the very real, strikingly beautiful, and remote part of  Northern Vermont known affectionately as The Northeast Kingdom (NEK), which is the setting of all Mosher’s works.  We can also see his books on the big screen. Four of his books were made into movies: “Northern Borders,” “Disappearances,” “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” and “Where the Rivers Flow North.” In his last book, “Points North,” which was published posthumously, he secures his place among the best regional American writers in current times.  In his obituary, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Mosher’s fictional Kingdom County, Vt., became his New England version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.” (Kingdom County is fictional. It is written as a rural county on the Vermont/Canadian border.  The NEK is also located on the Vermont/Canadian border and is very much a real county).  I am lucky enough to spend a good part of the year in the Kingdom.

There are ten stories in “Points North,” all set in Kingdom Common, Kingdom County.   They’re mostly narrated by two brothers with the last name of Kinneson (the fictional family whom Mr. Mosher based on his own family).  One brother is the editor of the local newspaper and the other is the local judge.  They hunt, fish, and grow old together in the county where they were born.  They have been going on an annual fishing trip together since they were boys.  At the age of 80, the elder brother can still lift a canoe and place it over his head.   This feat is accomplished from a lifetime of hard work that is common in the NEK.  The brothers debuted in an earlier novel by Mosher, “God’s Kingdom.”   In “Points” the stories chronicle the intertwining histories of their family:  natives, outcasts, bootleggers, abolitionists, farmers, and others who settled and stayed in this brutally rural area.  The stories are not linear.  They bounce back and forth in time, which I enjoy. In each tale, the reader learns more details about the characters.

The opening and title story, “Points North,” is a touching tale of a man whose family were former slaves.   He disowns his daughter, who “yoked up” with a man he considers trash, but ends up raising her son, his grandson, who was dropped off at his doorstep when the boy is fourteen.   They are already arguing before he even knows the boy’s name.  The teen is obstinate, just like him.  He drives the kid nuts with his moralistic yet repetitive stories of his granddaddy’s granddaddy.   But every now and then he makes a dent in his grandson’s armor.  While showing him how to mark the depths of a river dam, he explains that his granddaddy was just a shaver (Kingdom speak for a boy) when the Klan came riding and killing through the town, leaving a hundred people to burn in a church.   The grandfather tells his grandson that he has always “suspicioned” that the reason the dam was created in the first place was to put the church murders out of sight and mind.

In “Sisters,” we get a good feel for the hardscrabble life in the Kingdom, as well as a good dose of NEK humor.  One sister talks nonstop to the other, who just happens to be dead.  The sisters couldn’t be more unalike.   One is sweet and virginal, though her ornery sister would call her a prude.  When a couple of spooked drivers, with out-of-state plates rudely ask the not-so-sweet sister if they have stumbled onto a scene from the chainsaw movies, she ignores the question, but tells them to be mindful of where they walk, lest they put their foot on a rattlesnake.  Of course, there are no rattlesnakes within a hundred miles of Kingdom County.  The story is filled with the funny quirks of its characters.  However, Mosher wasn’t blind to the dark side of life in his beloved NEK.   At age eleven, one of the sisters drags their drunken dad home on a hand-drawn sled.  She passes another drunken man who is about to have his way with her.

The Kinneson brothers are still young men in “Lonely Hearts.”  The elder brother is married while the younger brother, at age 27, is not.  This does not sit well with his older sibling.  Unbeknownst to the younger, his brother sends in a personal ad to the “Mephremagog Daily Express” to find him a gal.  He signs the ad as Lonely Hearts pretending to be his kid brother.  The younger likes all of his dates that he meets through the ad, but they aren’t his beautiful high school sweetheart, Frannie, who he hasn’t seen since she left to go to college in Canada.  In the interim, the town is looking for a new doctor.   (The next sentence contains a spoiler alert).   When they finally meet again, his sweetheart is now known as Dr. Frannie, a psychiatrist who doubles as a family physician.  This is not as unusual as it sounds.  (I once went to see a doctor in the Kingdom who doubled as an AA facilitator).  She tells her high school sweetheart, in a joking manner that she is moving back to the Kingdom because it’s a treasure trove of mental disorders.  The love story in “Hearts” might be a bit too saccharine for my tastes, but heck, “all the world loves a lover.”

I might be a tad biased on Mosher’s works because I am drawn to the author for my love of the Kingdom and our home there.  I think of the author whenever we pass a house in Orleans (which was the town of his first home in the Kingdom, located minutes away from us) that looks suspiciously like the house pictured on the cover of his book, Stranger in the Kingdom.”  Or, the Orleans Fair which I go to every summer.  At the age of 13, my 75-year old husband snuck into the girlie tent between visits to the oddity tent with the two-headed chicken.  Not to mention, one of my favorite places in the U.S. is “The Old Stone House Museum,” a once student dormitory found in Orleans County, VT.  In 1836, the school was built by the first African-American to be American college-educated at Middlebury College, located in Middlebury, VT.  So, maybe I am biased, though I really doubt it.  I believe that he saved his best for last, as he suspected too:  shortly before his passing, Mosher told the Vermont newspaper, “The Rutland Herald,” “I am happy to leave you all with the gift of what may be my best book in ‘Points North.”

 I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my book reviews at:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read
Leave Me Alone I am Reading & Reviewing: https://books6259.wordpress.com/
Twitter: Martie’s Book Reviews: https://twitter.com/NeesRecord