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I’m close to getting caught up with my Book Of The Month reviews, though my October books include a 600 page tome, so that might slow me down slightly. For September, I picked three books I’ve been hearing a fair deal about, and mostly on the positive side: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Emma In The Night by Wendy Walker. Read my reviews below to see what I thought!
Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng
Publication Date: September 12th 2017
Published By: Penguin Press
Length In Hardcover: 352 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.14
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned — from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren — an enigmatic artist and single mother — who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
Theme of motherhood. This is really central to the novel, which in its essence is an exploration of not only what it means to be a mother, but what it means to be a good mother. We get very different examples of motherhood from Mrs. Richardson and Mia, as well as multiple others throughout the narrative, providing different variations on economic and physical stability, emotional support or lack thereof, biology versus history. There is a trial which is central to the secondary plot of the novel, and which very directly brings into question what motherhood truly means. It definitely made me think about the concept in all its different ramifications.
The interwoven plots. There are actually at least four plots to the novel that each touch on the central themes of the book and also on secondary themes that are specific to each plot. The author did an exceptional job at pulling all these different plots together by the end of the novel into a crescendo of action and discourse. From the mystery of Mia’s past, to the literal fire that the novel’s title hints at, to the difficult life choice which one of the Richardson children find herself having to make, to the trial which involves two different women in the Shaker Heights community, each plot felt relevant and effortlessly combined into the narrative.
Theme of economic privilege. The novel is set in an ‘idyllic’ suburban neighborhood, in which prosperity, opportunity and stability are givens. The main character of Mia charges through this reality with her disregard for earthly possessions and her focus instead on being able to barely subsist effectively enough to pursue her art. Mia and Pearl challenge the expectations of the teenage Richardson children on they way in which they’ve been taught they should look to shape their lives, from good colleges to homes in similarly controlled neighborhoods and lives of corporate servitude. I found the juxtaposition of Mia and Mrs. Richardson’s different economic philosophies really compelling, and I felt drawn to Mia’s necessary minimalism.
The writing. Celest Ng’s prose is the kind of lyrical, descriptive prose I like. There’s a timeless nature to it at the same time that the book is about a world that, though set in the 90s, feels very close to the modern one. I’m going to share a quote here because showing is sometimes better than telling.
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
The ending felt a bit cheesy. The ending of the novel is foreshadowed at the beginning, so in that at least there isn’t much of a surprise. You know what Mia and Pearl will ultimately do, and you know what happens to the Richardson’s home, but of course there are lots of elements of the ending that are still unknown until the actual end of the book itself. Still, there were aspects of the way in which Celeste Ng chose to end the novel that I found to be supremely cheesy, particularly in the symbolic art left beind (no spoilers). Once you read the book you’ll understand.
The character of Izzy was barely developed. Izzy has a pretty big role in the actual plot of the book. Yes, she’s one of the many Richardson teenage children, and it would have been impossible to develop each of them completely without turning this into a much longer and probably also much less interesting book. The boys, Trip and Moody, feel barely fleshed out themselves. But Izzy is supposed to be important based on her role in the plot and also based on her relationship to Mia. I found her completely one-dimensional though, and really failed to connect with her to understand what the author was trying to say through her.
A beautifully written novel on the meaning of motherhood and prosperity, with several captivating interwoven plots, and plenty of action and plot developments to keep the reader engaged.
by Mohsin Hamid
Publication Date: March 2nd 2017
Published By: Riverhead
Length In Hardcover: 240 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.82
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city.
When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.
Highly topical. Immigration is obviously very high on a lot of people’s minds right now, regardless of what corner of the world you’re living in. Concepts of nationality, origin and identity are being challenged by the increasing interconnectedness of the world. Hamid takes this idea one step further, showing what might happen if the movement of people between cities and countries was easier and more instantaneous than it is right now. For those fleeing from impoverished or violent situations, this chance to relocate nearly effortlessly is a boon, while for those living in stable and sheltered realities, the arrival of so many newcomers forces them out of their ‘splendid isolation’.
The doors. This was really the cleverest part of Hamid’s plot – and also the only magical realism element in the novel. It allows Hamid to focus on the effects of immigration, rather than the process of immigration, and also to magnify these effects and multiply them exponentially throughout the world. Suddenly, people in an urban center in Europe are not comfortably removed from scenes of shipwrecked immigrants on their news shows. The problem is at their doorsteps and they can no longer harbor utopian dreams of a reversal in the tide, which means they need to re-evaluate their outlook on the issue and the solutions they want to apply to this new reality.
The global vignettes. Most of the story is focused on Nadia and Saeed’s journey, but there are also several small scenes that Hamid constructs, in which the reader gets glimpses of the effects of the magical doors on other people in countries around the world. Typically they are only a couple paragraphs, but I found each one poignant and interesting. One in particular brings together two elderly men from The Netherlands and Brazil, and had a very sweet ending. These mini sub-plots really brought more depth and character to the novel, which, had it just been focused on Nadia and Saeed, may have felt limited.
The run on sentences. I’m not one to shy away from an elaborate writing style, and some of my favorite authors have written British and Russian classics whose prose can only be described as ornate. I found Hamid’s writing, however, to be strangely run-on in a way that only rarely edged toward the beautiful, and more often ended up as convoluted and confusing. There were a few instances in which a single sentence comprised an entire paragraph. What did periods ever do to him, I wonder?
Didn’t get to know the main characters. The novel is heavily focused on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship and the effects on this relationship of the violence and uncertainty around them. I felt that as much as I really understood the dynamics between Nadia and Saeed well, I didn’t get a real sense for who they were as individuals. There were glimpses of them through descriptions of their homes, clothes and families, and of course their actions, but I still felt it hard to connect with either due to the lack of deeper character development. Not surprising in a shorter novel.
The end of the novel. The last third of the novel is pretty heavily focused on new dynamics (no spoilers) in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, and I felt I wasn’t nearly as interested in reading about the progression of their union than about some of the technical consequences of the immigration brought about by the doors. What happens between Nadia and Saeed feels predictable and like you can see it coming from pretty much the beginning of the novel, which made it kind of boring to finally read.
Highly current and interesting take on immigration, which uses a magical realism device of doors between countries and cities to bring questions surrounding immigration to light in a very immediate and thought-provoking way.
Emma In The Night
by Wendy Walker
Publication Date: August 8th 2017
Published By: St. Martin’s Press
Length In Hardcover: 320 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.80
One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime.
The suspense built steadily initially. At first I liked Cassie’s character and found both her and her mother supremely creepy. I knew they must be hiding something truly horrible, based on some of the foreshadowing the reader is exposed to in Cassie’s inward thoughts. There were also enough mini plot twists in the narrative to keep me reading. I have to say that eventually these dried up somewhat in the book, but it did lure me in quite well at the beginning.
Not a lot of dialogue. Yes, weirdly enough, this is a positive for me. I don’t really like novels that include tons of dialogue in the writing. Emma In The Night had mostly narrative prose and only little sections of dialogue, which worked well for me. This is typically true of books I enjoy reading out loud, and the monologues taking place within Cassie’s mind made for particularly fluid reading. At least until they got so repetitive that I almost wished she hadn’t been found.
I think others will like this. This is actually the main reason I gave the book 3 rather than 2 stars. For me, it was a two, maybe two and a half star read. However, I also think about how readers of my blog might react to the book, since part of my role here is to provide recommendations for books you might or might not enjoy. Maybe because of the teenage protagonist, maybe because of the policewoman trope, I didn’t really like this book, but I think others would and it’s by no means a failure of fiction. It’s a solid psychological thriller that had elements that I personally disliked.
The detective character. For some reason, I struggle with novels that have policeman/detective/investigator characters at their center, regardless of their gender. In this case it was an FBI psychologist by the name of Abby Winter, whose backstory connecting her to the protagonist Cassie feels barely developed at best. These characters so often end up being just caricatured versions of the stereotyped ‘investigative mind’ and to me Abby was no exception. I typically love alternating narrators, but because I was so not invested in Abby, I actually found each of her chapters a bit annoying.
It was repetitive. Like I mentioned above, the beginning of the novel felt engaging and suspenseful. A little less than halfway in, though, the plot developments start to peter out, and you really get only a few elements of new information per chapter. The remainder is a lot of paragraphs of Emma talking to herself and going over and over many of the same fears and concerns about the work of the investigators and about her mother’s reactions to her story. I found myself skimming through these sections more and more.
The ending was a let down. For thrillers, the ending is really where you want the shock and awe to be. I won’t say the ending of Emma In The Night was completely predictable – it is still a twist – but it was just an uninteresting twist. I was hoping to discover something darker about Cassie’s character or have there be more of a psychological element to how the story of Emma’s disappearance turned out. In reality the novel sort of ends in a more regular murder mystery style. Hard to get into without spoilers, but if you’ve read it you might know what I mean.
Average psychological thriller that might effectively engage fans of the genre but may prove to be too repetitive and not surprising enough for others.
Have you read Little Fires Everywhere, Exit West or Emma In The Night? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to read my previous reviews for my Book Of The Month deliveries here are links to my August 2017, July 2017, June 2017, May 2017, April 2017, March 2017, February 2017, January 2017, December 2016, November 2016, October 2016 and September 2016 posts.
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Here’s an image from my Instagram of my September 2017 Book Of The Month picks.
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