Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Family Dynamics! The interpersonal relationships within a family create a complex pattern complicated by the cross purposes of each individual as they forge their own pathway towards the fguture. A mother, while she loves her children, has a slightly different connection to each based on their unique personalities. Sometimes there’s one who never seems to get things right and remains an irksome reminder of that illusive impeccable life we all daydream about in our youth. As my own offspring grew, I was amazed at the other parents whose unblemished children never caused them a moments anguish – always behaving appropriately, earning honors at school, scoring the winning run or goal on the sports team. My own children fell far short, although I loved them anyway and urged them to work hard and do their best in every endeavor. I concluded that either my children were subpar, or the other parents were liars (or at the very least in denial). In my experience there are ups and downs in each of our lives, joys and tragedies which pop up on occasion, and it’s the family unit who sticks together that helps us celebrate the highs and get through the low points of our existence. Such is life reflected in the theme of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

Elena Richardson is one of “those” mothers. She created the perfect life in the perfect community with the perfect husband and three perfect children. Unfortunately, she has four offspring. The youngest, Izzy, is a thorn in her side, resisting motherly (smothering) concern, choosing the contrary side of an argument, and just not quite jelling with her siblings. She’s not an evil child, just a soul who marches to the beat of her own drummer which drives a Type A personality like her mother to distraction.

Mrs. Richardson always planned to be a journalist but was not unhappy at her job as a reporter for the local paper which would never win her a Pulitzer but still gave her access to important information and people. Plus when she needed her credentials to do some sleuthing she was not afraid to call in those favors she had easily doled out over the years, assisting others yet keeping a tally for future reference. Things really start happening in her idyllic life once the nomadic Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl become tenants in their rental house. The photographic genius of Mia delights Elena who generously offers the super neat tenant a job as housekeeper/cook in exchange for enough salary to cover the lease agreement. Mia soon becomes a fixture in their home and Pearl develops into a sibling of sorts to the four teens, enjoying the luxuriously lifestyle which is the opposite of the normal hand to mouth existence of her daily world. Izzy latches on to the supportive, common sense manner of Mia, finding in her a comfort which is missing with her own mother. As the plot unfolds, the inner thoughts of each of the characters are revealed clarifying the life altering decisions which affect the outcome of all concerned.

The idea of motherhood is explored through various stories involving mother/child relationships. In a secondary subplot, Mr Bill Richardson, a lawyer, represents Elena’s friends the McCulloughs who are caring for and hopefully adopting an Asian child who was abandoned at the local fire station. The real mother, a coworker of Mia’s, now has a job, albeit for minimum wage, and wants her daughter back. The question remains – “Who will be the better parent?” – the struggling single parent birth mother or the well-to-do loving family who can provide for the baby’s every need? This issue divides the town, leaving even the presiding judge in a quandary about the best verdict.

I felt a connection to this story since Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the 1990s in a suburb outside of Cleveland during the some time period I was raising my own four children in an upscale community outside of Buffalo. Cultural references brought back memories of those days which compensates for the slow start of this novel. The author Celeste Ng has a talent for skillfully interweaving the lives of the secondary characters flawlessly into the narrative enriching the entire plot. However, while this well written book brings up some interesting questions, it also has some disturbing turn of events which leaves the reader in a wistful mood. There is more than enough finger pointing and blame which doesn’t distract from the pit-in-the-stomach feeling when things fall apart as secrets are revealed, tarnishing the golden glow of sublimeness and recognizing the reality that there is no such thing as smooth sailing. While there are promises of a positive outcome for some, the ambiguity of the future for others is disturbing and I’m not sure even the fire department can put out those flames.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Advertisements

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

When my book club was looking for some lighter fare to read I suggested Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty since I have enjoyed her other novels, and then when the regular study leader could not attend, I volunteered to facilitate. Since I was leading the book discussion, I took a more indepth approach to this novel, both reading the book and listening to the audiotape expertly narrated by Christine Lee. (Yes, some might argue the subject of this particular title isn’t actually in the “fluffy” category, but please note that we had been reading a series of books dealing with subjects such as the Holocaust, the War in Sarajevo, plus the Shakespearean Tragedy MacBeth.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the overall reaction was mixed which was also reflected in the numerous reviews I found on Goodreads. Perhaps I can’t change anyone’s mind as to the worthiness of this title, but I can attempt to give everyone an appreciation of Moriarty’s skill in developing the plot.

I presented this as a circular story where the reader is fed bits of information alternating between the past, present, and future in order to develop a complete understanding of the fateful incident at the barbecue. Even better was the suggestion of one of the book club members who called it a mosaic, or a puzzle which we put together as the story progresses, not seeing the entire picture until the very end. Either way, it took a lot of skill to pull it off, with every segment having an underlying meaning as it connected to the whole.

There are two components to the book, a “big” reveal and a series of smaller reveals. Many readers felt the build up to the incident at the barbecue which was not divulged until 60% through the book, was anticlimactic, as if disappointed that the event wasn’t even more tragic. However, it’s those small secrets which truly make this an excellent read. Moriarty’s real genius is the way she develops her characters. As their foibles are disclosed, we get to know them intimately so they become alive in our minds, especially since each of the characters gets to “speak” making the reader aware of their personal thoughts and motivations.

Like in real life, the relationships are complicated. Erica and Clementine’s close friendship involves mixed feelings of resentment and jealousy, but also an intimacy only found between people who have grown up together since childhood. While the marriage between Erica and Oliver is one between two soulmates, Clementine and Sam’s witty banter indicates a love in spite of their frequent spats, often involving their two young children Holly and Ruby. Add in some flashy, gregarious neighbors along with a grumpy old man who finds fault with life itself, plus some “interesting” parent(s), and you have 410 pages or 13 hours of reading pleasure.

Guilt is the theme, as each of the “cast” members has to deal with both the repercussions from the barbecue as well as the angst found in everyday life, while the resolutions from that fateful day changes the dynamics of the couples, leaning towards a promise of healthier future relationships.

With the successful mini series based on Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies being optioned for a second season, keep your eyes on the look out for Truly Madly Guilty to hit the big or small screen as well, especially since Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have purchased the film rights. One wonders if they will once again change the setting from Australia to California.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Woman of God by James Patterson with Maxine Paetro

IN 2002 I bought my first ever brand new car. During that initial year of ownership, I was stopped at a red light on Sheridan and was rear-ended – twice. Over the life span of that car it was in so many accidents I was on a first name basis with the owner of the collision shop. Even though the majority of these incidents were not my fault, my insurance went up because I (or perhaps that particular car) was considered “jinxed”.

In James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God, the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald, is jinxed. Not only does she find herself in difficult situations, but those around her are also endangered with many unable to survive the ordeal. Brigid herself is not left unscathed, experiencing a multitude of near death experiences.

How does this girl, an on again, off again Catholic, end up being considered for the role as the “first” female pope?

It starts with a stint in South Sudan as a member of the staff for Helping Hands (a sort of Doctors Without Borders). Brigid, a young doctor just out of medical school, is thrilled to be at this remote location – think “MASH on Steroids” – right in the middle of the action. When the protective forces move on, the unit is left to the mercies of an adversary who refuses to distinguish between neutral volunteers or the enemy in their quest for genocide. Instead of evacuating, Brigid tries to save one more victim, becoming a target herself. When her vitals indicate death she has an out-of-body experience resulting in an ethereal connection to God after the medics on the rescue chopper bring her back to life. Despite this divine linkage, her continued exposures to traumatic events make her question the existence of a deity, yet God relentlessly reaches out, wordlessly urging her forward. Brigid’s bad luck isn’t helped by her insistence on placing herself in dangerous situations, tempting fate. Even when trying to eke out a somewhat normal life, trouble follows her and those she loves.

After various encounters with the assorted men who are drawn into her circle, she eventually settles down and marries a Priest. Becoming disenfranchised with the Roman Catholic Church, he starts the JMJ (Jesus Mary Joseph) Movement for forward thinking Catholics and other believers. Within a few years, the movement leads to a chain of churches across the United States and into Europe. Brigid is ordained a Priest and her popularity draws huge crowds plus all manner of enemies who disdain what they consider her blasphemy. After her five year old daughter nonchalantly mentions that her mother talks to God to one of the stalking media, Brigid suddenly finds herself on Sixty Minutes admitting her connection with The Lord to the world. This leads to an audience with the Pope and the speculation that she is next in line for the papacy.

What goes around comes around. While my Saturn celebrated its last day of service by spewing its subframe onto the road at the very same intersection as its first accident, Brigid finds herself at a crossroads, not knowing what comes next, but leaning towards the same activities which brought her a sense of fulfillment when she was in her early twenties, back in South Sudan. Whether she survives her further anticipated adventures is up to the reader to decide.

A great book for the light reader who wants some quick entertainment. Cowritten by Maxine Paetro, this is one of a myriad of publications by the Patterson machine, whose popularity endures no matter how many books a year he cranks out.

However, if you want something more from your reading material, keep searching. Trying to create an anology between Brigid and Job, the authors throw one catastrophe after another into her path. While there is a lot of action, everything is superficial, and all too often the reader has to suspend all sense of reality. The writing lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, the plot moves too quickly and at times is confusing or even senseless due to a lack of detail. I won’t even mention the two to three page snippets called chapters. I personally feel this is an outline for a movie, with its faced paced “drama and trauma”. Brigid travels throughout the world with stops in the Sudan, Italy, Germany, and the United States, flitting from one locale to another meeting a myriad of characters who may or may not be significant in her life. I certainly hope Carrot finds her way home, but we never do discover what happens to the majority of Brigid’s chance encounters unless they die while driving her somewhere. Not my cup of tea, but obviously beloved by others. A generous three stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult

Literature highlighting the latent racism hidden amongst even the most liberal of the white population in the United States is especially relevant during a time when the slogan “Make America Great Again” appears to be code for “Make America White Again”. With a self proclaimed white supremacist stashed near President Trump’s ear, the rest of us, no matter which way we voted, need to be vigilant against any attempts to reinstitute laws which are discriminatory. Already there is a cry out against what is referred to as the “New Jim Crow Laws” as our citizens of color march under the banner “Black Lives Matter”.

Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult examines the life of Ruth Anderson, a maternity nurse who lives a comfortable life style in an upscale neighborhood in Connecticut, the widow of an American war veteran and the mother of an outstanding sophomore attending a prestigious high school. (Did I mention that she is black?)

Her entire life changes when a young couple is horrified that a black woman is touching their newborn son and she is asked to step away and refrain from interacting with the tiny babe. Yet, shit happens, and Ruth finds herself alone with the infant when he stops breathing, choosing to resuscitate the limp form but stepping back as soon as she hears help arriving. Asked to start chest compressions while the doctor does his due diligence, little Davis still dies. The parents threaten to sue for negligence, but the hospital lawyer sees Ruth as an easy target and redirects their energies in her direction.

It’s at this point Ruth’s life becomes surreal as she is relieved of her duties at the hospital, loses her nursing license, and finds herself being dragged off to jail in the middle of the night wearing nothing but a nightgown. Out of a job and refusing to touch Edison’s College Fund, Ruth relies on a public defender to plead her case as she slings burgers at McDonalds to make ends meet. Her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white woman, pursues the case for altruistic motives but discovers her own hidden biases as she becomes aware of the subtle (and not so subtle) forms discrimination takes in a society geared towards the needs of a white clientele.

Moving back and forth between the points of view of the three main characters – Turk (Davis’ father), Kennedy, and Ruth – the plot advances through the trial and its aftermath with an epilogue that also hints at future events.

Jodi Piccoult takes on a heavy topic which is made more difficult since she is white and can only empathize with the black community through second hand experiences. Yet Piccoult’s popularity provides a vehicle to explore a sensitive issue which has been ignored for way too long. Based on some real experiences, the author takes a few liberties and at times stretches our sense of credibility, although this longish story is absolutely readable and engrossing on many levels, despite the too convenient ending. Its almost instant popularity guarantees a wide readership and will perhaps open some eyes to many of the daily mishaps experienced by our neighbors who were not lucky enough to be born into a life of privilege based simply on skin color. Of equal importance is a glance into the white supremacist movement, analyzing the various motivations and strategies used by an ever present segment of our society.

Four stars and a thank you to both Netgalley and the author, through Goodreads, for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Calamity! Yes, it’s one calamity after another in the small seaside resort area in Pirriwee, Australia when Madeline sprains her ankle on her way to kindergarten orientation with her precocious daughter Chloe. New resident Jane with her son Ziggy assists the injured woman as they both drop their children off to meet the prospective teacher. Madeline and Jane end up on the beach at the Blues Blue coffee shop where Celeste, the mother of twins, joins them to help the injured party celebrate her birthday. The gift of champagne and flutes are perfect, despite the early hour, because Madeline is now f-o-r-t-y. The party atmosphere continues as they go to pick up their darlings until little Amabelle accuses Ziggy of choking her. Despite the tot’s denial, the parents end up sorting themselves into team Renata (Amabelle’s mum) vs Team Madeline. Amidst the conflict and resulting bedlam, the families deal with the normal chaos of raising children. While behind the scenes each couple has secrets which are slowly revealed, it is the flamboyant, gutsy Madeline who meets life head on, guiding her friends through their individual crisis. She even tries to be “civil” to her ex husband and new wife who also have a daughter attending the same kindergarten program, (although on PMS days, her behavior might not be “quite polite” towards those who have slighted her or her friends).

As the story progresses, bad behaviors escalate until the climax on Trivia Night, a costumed fundraising competition, where an altercation and death occurs. The event is alluded to via short vignettes placed at the beginning or end of a chapter, with various participants giving their take on exactly what happened through the questioning by Investigating Officer Quinlan. The reader is left trying to sort fact from fiction and figure out exactly who the victim might be.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is an amusing, witty romp dealing with societal pressures, spousal abuse, infidelity, love and loss, bullying, blended families, teen angst, working mothers, and fragile egos. Who knew a story about a class of kindergarteners could be so much fun!

Five stars for a “can’t stop reading” book. (For a real treat listen to the CD expertly read by Caroline Lee who makes each character your personal friend or enemy). We will have to wait and see if the upcoming version on HBO retains the flavor of the original novel when the locale is moved from Australia to California.

This review also appears on Goodreads.