Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

COVER Ng Little Fires Everywhere

First off, I LOVED Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which told the story of a teenage girl from a Chinese-American family who commits suicide (not a spoiler; the first line of the book is “Lydia is dead.”). So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Ng’s new book, Little Fires Everywhere, from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This book was SUCH a good read. At the start, we learn that “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. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow…”. So we’re introduced right away to the gossipy planned community of Shaker Heights, the Richardson family, and a little girl with some confusion about her name.

A lifelong resident of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson embodies the spirit of Shaker Heights: following the rules, behaving in acceptable ways, and guiding her family and (as much as possible) the community down the proper path. Her four children include Trip, the high-school golden boy athlete, Lexie, the star student bound for Yale who has a touch of the rebel in her relationship with her African-American boyfriend, Moody, the nerdy but lovable boy, and Izzy, the alleged firestarter. Into the mix come Mia and her daughter Pearl, a couple of vagabonds who who come to town and rent Elena’s inherited duplex. Mia is an artist who marches to her own drummer, and Pearl is a sensitive girl who instantly bonds with Moody (but has a mega crush on Trip).

Elena is so rigidly living her life that she can’t handle Mia and what she represents. “She had…done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completly different, life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.” The families become intertwined and involved with a co-worker of Mia’s, who left her infant at a fire station but has turned her life around and now wants her back, although Elena’s close friend and her husband are on the cusp of adopting little Mirabelle (or May Ling). The legal wrangling of the custody battle involves Elena’s husband, an attorney who represents the upper-middle-class couple who want to keep Mirabelle, and Elena makes it her mission in life to get into everyone’s business while she isn’t quite seeing what is going on with her own family. In the legal fight, Mia and Elena are on opposite sides, and there are strong feelings on the part of the adults and the children.

I loved this book. Highly recommended. Great characters, excellent look at cultural appropriation and the issues around mixed-race adoption, as well as a good plot that starts with the Richardson house burning down then goes back and tells the story of what led to that event. I was glued to the book from start to finish. Good for sharp YAs and book clubs. Five stars.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

cover Steiner Persons Unknown

Last year, I read and reviewed Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, her previous detective story featuring Manon Bradshaw (four stars). In that review I expressed my fondness for novels by Tana French and Kate Atkinson, and noted “I have to say that Steiner’s protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers of the Lynley series. Like Barbara, she is a no-longer young woman who has an interesting and successful career – but she is dissatisfied with her situation, and she REALLY wants to be in a relationship. She is 39, and trying to get her life in order, “ Well, here we are again!

As Persons Unknown opens, Detective Manon Bradshaw has sort of given up on that whole finding a relationship thing, and has transferred back to Cambridgeshire where she is living with her sister Ellie, Ellie’s toddler son Solly, and Fly Dent, the twelve-year-old boy Manon has adopted. She hopes that moving away from London will provide Fly with a fresh start, where he won’t be routinely stopped and frisked by police who see only his skin color. Fly is a “…tall black youth with his hood up? He might as well wear a sign saying “Arrest me now,”” Oh, and she is five months pregnant (spoiler alert) via donor and has abandoned the search for a life partner!

What she really wants is the elusive dream of work-life balance, so she transfers to the routine, stable (and boring?) cold case group, and is determined to be a good mom to Fly and the new baby. Manon feared that the move would beneficial for Fly and she tells herself this is just what they all need.

A stabbing victim is found, and he turns out to be someone well known to Manon’s sister Ellie: he is Solly’s birth father who is a banker from London, who just happens to be worth millions. Manon finds herself trying to work on the case, although she is prohibited from doing so officially when it begins to move ever closer to her home and family.

The writing is terrific. As was the case with Missing, Presumed, I love some of the minor characters, and their wry humor. This trait is revealed in Birdie, who becomes important to the investigation: “When you’re young you think happiness might be some kind of perpetual state of orgasm, but later, once the joints go, you realize it can be simulated with some cheese and a cracker.”

But I especially love Manon. As she looks at her middle-aged self, she realizes she “…is becoming invisible, pushing her trolley up and down the aisles of Waitrose toward oblivion, picking up some grapefruit-scented all-purpose spray on her way there.”

And especially this: “What would she think of herself, what would the world think, if she were to hurl her haggard self at Mark Talbot…or pinch the bottom of a younger man next to the photocopier in the office; to deny, as men do, the aging of her flesh? Why can’t she, as men do, say” Yes, I am potbellied, wrinkly-bottomed, shortsighted, but I will make a play for that twenty-eight-year-old nevertheless? Why should she hide her desires inside the acceptable consumption of table lamps and Boden cardigans and heritage tomatoes as if this is compensation, when what she wants is callous and vivid?”

Wow!  THIS is a character we know, with real emotions and life situations. Steiner does a great job with the people and the plot, although it did fall apart a tiny bit for me at the end. It was five stars right up until the last part, although when thinking how it might have otherwise ended that would have been preferable, I can’t come up with anything. But, four stars and thanks to Random House and NetGalley!

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

cover-see-tea-girl

I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.

We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.

Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.

There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!

Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.

As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.

As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.

It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.

BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.

Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain

pretending to dance cover

This book shares some things with another of Chamberlain’s books, in terms of a very similar protagonist ( a female who leaves the South, relocates to San Diego, etc. ) Although I had read the earlier book, I was quite eager to read this, although part of me now wishes that I had also read the short story “The Dance Begins,” which is a prequel to this book. In the book, Molly Arnette’s father is a man with serious physical limitations brought on by his MS, and we meet him in that state. He is such a warm and loving character, and such a wonderful father to Molly, I was thinking that in some ways it might have been nice to get a glimpse of him prior to him being nearly completely helpless physically. Although, not having read the story, I have no idea whether he was dancing in it or not, but clearly the characterization was adequately developed that I cared about him dancing or not!

In any case, there are two stories going on in this book: in the one, Moly lives in San Diego with her husband Aidan, and the two of them are going through the process of trying to adopt a baby, as they cannot have their own. In the other story, we see Molly as a teen, growing up on the family compound (“Morrison’s Ridge”) in North Carolina with her father, Graham, her mother Nora (who she has claimed for the twenty years since she left North Carolina following Graham’s death is dead) and assorted other family, both by blood and by choice. The family includes the fascinating character Amalia, who teaches Molly to dance, and we come to learn Amalia is actually Molly’s birth mother.

There is a mystery surrounding Graham’s death and the reasons why Molly has abandoned her roots…as the stories are woven together, various topics are addressed, including family relationships (father/daughter, mother/daughter, birth vs. adoptive parents, dying “with dignity,” and the idea of secrets among families and between spouses. We see Molly and her various family members (both blood and not) dancing together, singing together, and keeping secrets from one another.

Chamberlain has done a good job developing the characters into people we care about, and meshing the threads of the two stories together. I admit, I cared much more about the story of Molly’s childhood and Graham’s death than about Molly and Aidan’s quest for parenthood, but I appreciated both sides. I loved the way the young Molly was shown growing into a slightly more mature girl as she began to discover boys and to test the boundaries of her family rules, as she sneaks off to a rendezvous with a boy named Chris:

“He put his hand on my breast through my T-shirt. I was on my back and knew my breast was almost completely flat in that position. When I imagined being with Johnny Depp, I was always on my side exactly for that reason, but Chris didn’t seem to care.”

 As the story moved along, it reminded me in some ways of a Jodi Picoult novel, in terms of having interesting, well-developed characters whose situation revolved around and moved toward a climactic episode involving a social issue with a moral dilemma.

My expectations may have been a bit high, following my book group’s recent discussion of Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies. The result was that I was a bit disappointed after I finished this one, but as I said, that is likely due to overly high expectations on my part.

I won’t put DC into my list of favorite authors, but I did enjoy the book, and have recommended it to several people. I appreciate the opportunity to review it in exchange for my NetGalley review.