Sunday, 22 November 2020

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


"To Lexie, the world seemed nearly perfect, and her fantasies were her real life with all the colours dialed up."

There is a reason some books are best sellers. They are easy to read and hit a nerve with the prevailing zeitgeist. That could possibly be the most pretentious sentence I've written here in a while and that would seem inappropriate. At the centre of this novel is the question of who provides a better life, someone with money, or less opportunities due to their ethnicity, lack of finesse with English and 'otherness'. Ultimately this is a novel concerned with 'otherness' - a feeling of isolation from the picture perfect life that the tailored streets of the Shaker Heights community suggest. If you've watched the mini-series this becomes even more about race when they cast Kerry Washington as Mia.
Shaker Heights reminded me of growing up in the suburbs, where to be anything but the accepted norm was to be frowned upon. Fitting in meant wearing the right clothes, looking the same, sharing the same views, all of which seemed to be a kind of prison to me. Izzy is vexed by the fact she doesn't subscribe to her well to do family's status quo. New arrivals Mia and her daughter Pearl, go from living in a car to finding a home at the rental property owned by Elena. As their daughters shift allegiances, ambitious Pearl enthralled by Elena's lifestyle and artistic Izzy mesmerised by Mia's creativity, their lives are shaken by another struggle between two mothers.

This was chosen for our book club and it really is a great choice because there is so much thematically to discuss. While that can sometimes labour the pace of a novel, this one really hits all the marks.

5 out of 5 families are like icebergs, you only see the top.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


“You still waste time with those things, LenĂ¹? We are flying over a ball of fire. The part that has cooled floats on lava. On that part we construct buildings, the bridges, and the streets, and every so often the lava comes out of Vesuvius or causes an earthquake that destroys everything. There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die.”

This is one is a really slow burn. I'd heard nothing but rave reviews which kept me reading and eventually that tenacity paid off. I kept thinking this was a book that would appeal more to my mother due to its detailed descriptions of minutiae, much like the way she describes every detail of her day. Perhaps what turned me off so much to begin with was the fact that I just didn't like the two protagonists. Lila and Elena were not characters I could particularly warm to in their infancy. Perhaps that was because they brought up uncomfortable memories of how cruel children can be to each other, and the unpleasant recollections of a childhood full of bullying. 
Yet dear reader I read on. Now, as you might guess by the lack of reviews of late, I finished this quite some months ago. Life has thrown some curve balls, and stress has possibly played tricks with my memory. I know that upon finishing the last few pages I immediately ordered the other novels in the Neapolitan novels which suggests my ultimate appraisal as a positive one. 

5 out 5 a childhood friendship is a complicated one.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

"She murmured, We could always blame the stars. I beg your pardon, Doctor? That's what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed. I pictured that, the celestial bodies trying to fly us like upsidedown kites. Or perhaps just yanking on us for their obscure amusement.”

 I had no idea what this was about when I started reading it, which was incidentally in the middle of the pandemic lockdown. Set in an influenza maternity ward during the Spanish flu,  this tale combines two of my least favourite topics: gory childbirth and hospitals. The last few months I've spent more time visiting hospitals of different varieties then I'd ever care to. So reading this was hard going. That being said, it is fantastically written - I mean does Emma Donoghue ever disappoint? In my opinion, never!

This is a love story, a story of hardship and unprecedented times, much like we're experiencing today. The highs are so acutely felt, precisely because the surrounding circumstances are so dire.

Perhaps not the upbeat solution to trying times, but a fabulous read nonetheless.

 5 out of 5 glimmers of hope amid despair shine all the brighter.

The Yield by Tara June Winch


“The ancestors taught me all the things I wasn’t taught at the Boys’ Home:  they taught me men’s business they taught me where to find food, the names and uses of all the plants and animals”

I'm afraid I've been so busy that my blogging has really taken a backseat to life, family dramas and work deadlines. I finished reading this fantastic novel way back in August and I can hardly believe its already November. My memory might be a little fuzzy and yet I recall this was a rather intriguing read and well deserving of its Miles Franklin Award.

The multiple story lines drift in and out much like a song connecting the generations. August's story is the one that drew me in the most, possibly as it is set in the present. Her homecoming for her grandfather's funeral will dredge up feelings long buried and uncover the secrets of Prosperous. Meanwhile, you'll be swept up in the history of a place and its people, that will have you rapidly turning pages.

5 out of 5 family histories are always complicated.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron


“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're thirty-four.”

Nora Ephron's short story collection is just non stop delight in my opinion. The creator of When Harry Met Sally and author of Heartburn was a phenomenal writer and these short stories showcase her ability to capture the strange and often hilarious aspects of a woman's life. It is tragic that she died in 2012 and isn't around to write more entertaining treatises.
The trials and tribulations of removing unwanted hair, the youth affirming properties of hair dye, the utility of an unattractive handbag and the dramas of parenthood and ageing, are all delivered with wit and humour and with a voice that is utterly compelling. First published in 2006, these delightful essays don't get old.

5 out of 5 - pass me the moisturiser.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid


“Emira found herself arranging her mouth as if she’d ingested something too hot. She caught a morphed reflection in a freezer door, and she saw herself in her entirety.”

So I'd been hearing a lot about this book and wondered what the fuss was all about. For a first novel it is amazingly good. Equal parts hilarious, uncomfortable and troubling it is undoubtedly an amazing piece of writing that I throughly recommend ( as have a host of reviewers out there).
Reviewing a novel about race is challenging these days. I don't want to offend anyone, I can only relate my feelings about reading this book. As a white reader I experienced the creepy sensation of the do-gooder boss who sees Emira as a project and reflection of her liberal attitudes. In Alix's gaze, Emira ceases to be a person and is a walking beacon of virtue signalling by a cardboard self-help guru whose facade is purely plastic. The ***spoilers ahead*** revelations of Alix's past and relationship with Kelley further illustrate her fake nature.

Kelley isn't as colour blind as he repeatedly insists he is. In some ways, he's the embodiment of the sexual fetishisation of people of colour, with his penchant for dark skinned girlfriends coming as a disappointing revelation. I so wanted him to be the perfect boyfriend, but then I remembered they rarely exist, even in literature.

If I've made you think this is all serious and depressing, then fear not. One of the greatest achievements of the novel is that the heroine, Emira, is such a well rounded, engaging character and so entertaining as we, the reader, share her knowing winks, disappointments and eventual triumphant escape from the babysitting rut.

Personally, I think we're all humans and there are aspects within us all  that make us feel like the 'other'. Some of us pass through the world with less of these complications, that doesn't impede our ability to empathise with others subject to more obvious biases. What this story so brilliantly does is bring those to the fore, so that we can think about what needs to change in today's world, how complicit we are in that structure ,what should have changed many centuries before and the comforting lies we sometimes tell ourselves.

5 out of 5 - believe the hype.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman


But we are always optimists when it comes to time; we think there will be time to do things with other people. And time to say things to them.”

Sometimes you just read the perfect book at the perfect time.The lovely Andrea who helped me set up our newly established bookclub, picked this delightful novel and what a fantastic selection. Ove is determined to end his life after the loss of his wife and yet life has other plans. I'm probably giving way too much away here and yet this endearing portrait of a grumpy widower who finds reasons for living due to his neighbours leaves such a beautiful impression that doesn't fade with time.
His passion for Saabs is reminiscent of the Ford versus Holden diehards of the nineteen eighties. In fact, Ove's general grumpy demeanour and kind heart reminded me of my dad, a similarity that gained additional poignancy as he's been not himself lately.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this novel to anyone, it has a decidedly universal appeal and is the perfect antidote to these misery guts COVID times.

 5 out of 5 - don't park on his grass and you will need tissues.