Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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I was anticipating this book months before it was released because I loved her previous book Everything I Never Told You. This novel did not disappoint.

This novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio an idyllic suburb of Cleveland in which the city’s motto is: “‘Most communities just happen; the best are planned’: the underlying philosophy that everything could-and should- be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”

Elena Richardson, the matriarch of The Richardson family embodies the spirit of the town herself and attempts to cultivate these values on her family. Mia Warren, a mysterious artist and single mom to a teenage daughter Pearl enters the town and rents a house from the Richardsons. Mia threatens to disrupt the perfection of this town with her unconventional values and distain for order.

Friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese American baby who is left in front of a fire station, however the birth mom Bebe comes forward in attempt to regain custody of the child. The town becomes divided over this custody battle, which also puts Elena and Mia on opposing sides of the debate.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for existed at once.”

This novel addresses issues of privilege, race, teenage love, secrets kept, motherhood and the absurdity of attempting perfection. Though there have been many books written about suburban dysfunction, this one stands apart by tackling issues of privilege, class and racism as well as fully developing characters with gorgeous prose. Ng is a masterful storyteller. Do yourself a favor and read this book now.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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This is a realistic immigrant story. I hope that doesn’t spoil anything.

Jende Jonga is an immigrant from Cameroon who came to the USA to have a better life for himself, his wife Neni and their son Liomi. Jende becomes a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards. Eventually Jende’s wife Neni also gets temporary employment through Clark’s wife Cindy at their summer home in the Hamptons.

You get a good sense of the juxtaposition between the worlds the Edwardses and Jongas embody and the differing challenges and struggles that come their way.

You will enjoy this book if you like reading realistic immigrant stories, issues of poverty/wealth, family bonds, culture and gender roles attributed to culture. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters, especially people in the Jonga’s world in Harlem, Manhattan.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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I really liked this book. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t sure about Eleanor Oliphant in the first few chapters. Some of her judgments and observations seemed harsh and unfair. If you were like me and thought this way, I challenge you to keep reading.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. She works her office job during the week and treats herself to pizza and vodka Friday night and through the weekend. Her mummy calls her once a week to berate her on her current shortcomings.

There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out.”

Eleanor meets Raymond, a bumbling, awkward and borderline unhygenic IT guy from her office. Begrudgingly, she befriends him and saves an elderly man who fell in the street.

I realized that such small gestures- the way his mother had made me a cup of tea after our meal without asking, remembering that I didn’t take sugar, the way Laura had placed two little biscuits on the saucer when she brought me coffee in the salon- such things meant so much.”

Eleanor begins to soften much over the course of the novel, which is a good thing. Her mother raised her to be judgmental and cold to others, polite but withholding, so it takes her time to unlearn bad habits.

Eleanor Oliphant is a character that will leave a distinct impression on you. She’s very memorable and sympathetic while also being quite humorous. There were several times that I literally laughed out loud due to Eleanor’ s hilarious observations and witticisms. I will leave you with these last two excerpts. Please read this book. You won’t regret it. If you love dry humor, quirky characters, novels with a lot of heart and character development, you will love this novel. I know I did.

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it may seem, the possibility of change.”

“I felt the heat where his hand had been; it was only a moment, but it left a warm imprint, almost as though it might be visible. A human hand was exactly the right weight, exactly the right temperature for touching another person, I realized.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

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I rounded this book up half a star while reflecting on it because I realized I really enjoyed this book. It’s a book that feels so familiar, like talking to an old friend. You really feel like you know the characters well as you are going through this book.

This is a story about Polly and her son Deming (later renamed Daniel). Polly is an immigrant from China and Deming was born in New York City. One day, Polly doesn’t return from her job at the nail salon and leaves eleven year old Deming alone. Deming knows his mother wouldn’t leave him on purpose-or would she? Eventually, Deming becomes adopted by two white Professors who change his name to Daniel and attempt to assimilate him into white and affluent culture.

The book goes between Deming’s/Daniel’s perspective and Polly’s perspective over the course of several years, including before Deming was born and as he grows into young man.

“I could raise my child to be smart and funny and strong. I want you to know you were wanted. I decided: I wanted you.”

Much of the book goes through many difficult decisions Polly makes over the years and Deming’s struggle with trying to fit into white/affluent culture and the expectations of his adoptive parents while feeling that something is missing.

“Daniel envied people who could take their origins for granted, who could decide to hate their parents.”

Overall, I highly recommend this book. This is a satisfying read addressing themes such as immigration, white privilege, adoption, identity development and the bonds between a mother and her son.

“All this time, he’d been waiting for his real life to begin: once he was accepted by Roland’ s friends and the band made it big. Once he found his mother. Then, things would change. But his life had been happening all along, in the jolt of the orange juice on his tongue or how he dreamt in two languages, how his students’ faces looked when they figured out a meaning of a new word, the wisp of smoke as he blew out his birthday candles. The surge and turn and crunch of a perfect melody.”

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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I received an ARC from Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review. My opinions in this review were not influenced by this.

So this is the first ‘just ok’ review I’ve written in this space and it’s hard for me to write because I love this genre of fiction: psychological thriller, suspense, missing persons.

This book is about two sisters: Cass and Emma, who disappear one summer at the age of 15 and 17. This book gets into the dysfunctional underpinnings of their blended family: especially their mother Mrs. Martin, who is presumed to have Narcissistic personality disorder and often pits the sisters against each other in order to have the girls striving for her affections.

Cass returns home 3 years later with stories to tell about the circumstances of their lost years.

The book is told from the perspective of a forensic psychologist from the FBI, investigating the disappearances and from Cass.

As you can imagine, things are not as they seem and the writer does a good job of surprising us. However, for me, a lot of this book dragged. Most of the characters were unlikable. I found myself more drawn to Dr. Winter’s perspective and found get voice more likable. Some parts were confusing because it wasn’t clear if the perspective was from the present day or the past.

Thank you, Wendy Walker, St. Martin’s Press and Netgalley for the privilege of reading an ARC in exchange for my review.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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Wow.

Ok, so I read some mixed reviews on this book, but let me tell you: the naysayers are wrong. This was a phenomenally suspenseful thriller kind of book, but more than that– it’s a story of the fierce love between a mother and her son.

The book is set in a zoo within the span of about three hours. Joan and her son Lincoln are visiting the zoo and mistakenly stay until the zoo is about to close. However, something’s wrong: the animals are suspiciously quiet and eventually Joan discovers dead bodies on the ground. There is a gunman(gunmen?) having a shooting spree in the zoo.

From that point forward, we follow Joan and Lincoln (her son), as well as Kailynn (a teenager) and Margaret (a retired schoolteacher) through their journey of attempting to hide from the gunman (gunmen?).

“And here they are, where death is shoving its bloody about in their faces, and she has not considered it, not really, because she has some vague idea of what she will unleash if she does, the great, gaping chasm that will open up. That is what you do when you have a child, isn’t it, open yourself up to unimaginable pain and then try to pretend away the possibilities.”

What I found most enjoyable and satisfying was learning the nuances of Joan and Lincoln’s relationship in the middle of an extremely stressful situation. Some complaints of this novel was an argument that the ending was open ended. I didn’t feel this way. The main questions and concerns I had were answered. And best of all, the love and strong bond between mother and son were highlighted.

Highly recommend if you enjoy suspenseful thrillers and/or the stories of the bonds between a mother and child. Also if you watch Criminal Minds. I feel like this could be an episode of that show.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

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I was really looking forward to this book months ahead of time because I loved Ruth Ware’s precious suspenseful novels: In a Dark,Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10. For the most part, it didn’t disappoint.

The novel starts off from the perspective of Isa, a woman in her 30s receiving a text from an old friend from boarding school, Kate that simply says: “I need you”. This text summons Isa as well as Thea and Fatima, who were all in a clique in boarding school and participated in something called “The Lying Game”(The Lying Game was something the clique participated in while in boarding school, which, understandably got them into trouble). The women all commute back to Salten, despite many of the women having families and children to attend to because of Kate’s text message.

The women relive some of their past transgressions when visiting Kate and have difficulty transitioning between their current lives and the drama that meets when when visiting Salten.

Overall, I found it enjoyable. I loved the atmospheric nature of the book (eerie old buildings, a tidal estuary, etc) and it surprised me with some twists and turns. If I had to state any criticism, it would be that some parts were slow and that the book could have been condensed into something at least 50 pages shorter.

Recommend for people who love atmospheric, slow burn, suspense thrillers.

Marlena by Julie Buntin

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I am a member of Book of the Month Club and saw this book listed as a choice a few months back. I strayed away from it at first because some of the themes I saw it described as has been done to death… toxic female relationships in teenage years, the grown broken women looking back on her teenager years with regret: been there, read that.

However, this book was enjoyable, raw, vulnerable and felt real. I felt the boredom and apathy in her teenage years, the struggle with poverty. Having a best friend you love but ultimately don’t understand and have limited impact on.

The book cuts between two places: in Michigan (teenage years) and current day (New York), and is from the perspective of Cat as a 30 something year old woman reflecting on her teenage years and specifically her friendship with Marlena.

“I want to go home, I want to go home, but what I mean, what I’m grasping for, is not a place, it’s a feeling. But back where? Maybe to the first time I heard Stevie Nicks, to watching the snow fall outside the window with a paperback folded open in my lap, to the moment before I tasted alcohol, to virginity and not really knowing that things die, back to believing that something great is still up ahead, back to before I made the choices that would hem me into the life I live now.”

This book was a satisfying and important read, but ultimately a book I see no need to revisit at a later date. It’s a hard read in some parts, dealing with drugs as well, drug production and untimely death.

Overall, I give it 4/5 stars. Recommend if you enjoy the retrospective narrator, teenage girl friendships and difficult topics such as drug abuse, production and untimely death.