Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 338 pp

Publisher: Penguin Press

Year: 2017

Shaker Heights is a planned community near Cleveland, OH. All the houses are perfectly maintained, the yards perfectly manicured, the house colors all within code. The people who live there all follow the rules and look after each other and never have to worry about locking their doors. Everything and everyone has a plan and no one really deviates from it. Elena Richardson is a product of Shaker, born and bred, and she takes the place of rules, law, and order in her life very seriously. Mia Warren, Elena’s new tenant, flies in the face of everything Shaker, and Elena herself, stands for, living an itinerant and carefree life with her teenage daughter, Pearl. When family friends of the Richardsons find themselves in the middle of a contentious, racially charged adoption, secrets come out on all sides and have shattering consequences for everyone.

I loved this book so much. It was quiet and subversive and just about perfect. There are a lot of people worthy of sympathy: Mia is a free spirit and keeps moving to stoke her creative spirit. Pearl has never been able to make friends because they move every few months, so her refuge is in books and her own intelligence. Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson brood, is overlooked or criticized at every turn and struggles to find her voice through a series of increasingly irrational acts. These three were my favorite characters. I loathed Elena Richardson, even though she was a sympathetic figure in her own way as well. She was really the one who set in motion the whole devastating series of events, even though at first it appears to be Mia who did so.

There was just so much to unpack in this novel. It was subtle in its subversion, which is often the best kind. You are reading along and come across a scene and a few pages later you go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back to something. It hits you later and makes you think. Those are the best books. For me, this made me think about the various ways motherhood played a role in this narrative. I couldn’t stand Elena Richardson, but I wonder if she was a better mother than Mia Warren. Mia clearly loved Pearl with all her heart and would never make her feel inadequate or picked on and wouldn’t criticize everything she does the way Elena does Izzy. Elena treats Izzy differently than her other three children, constantly picking on her, being annoyed by her, criticizing her for every little thing. NOT OK. However, once we learn why she does that, it doesn’t make it ok but it does make it understandable. It makes me wonder how it might have changed Elena’s relationship with Izzy if she had told her why. Mia, on the other hand, has moved Pearl every few months. Pearl has no friends until they move to Shaker Heights, where they initially plan to stay forever. Mia might seem to love Pearl more fiercely and in a manner that I, at least, can relate to more easily, but she also may not have done the best thing for Pearl by moving her so much because she isn’t very good at making friends, doesn’t really know how to be a normal teenager. Mia kept a lot of important things from Pearl but, unlike Elena, she does tell her eventually. I wonder how it will affect their relationship, too.

Motherhood intersects with race when it comes to Bebe, the McCulloughs, and May Ling/Mirabelle. This was such a heartbreaking part of the story. On the one hand, I generally tend to believe that most people deserve second chances. Bebe had tried to do the right thing by her baby, May Ling, and when she couldn’t, she took her to a place she felt would be safe and where she could get her back when she was able to get on her feet again. The fact that she didn’t know at all about any resources available to help her wasn’t her fault. She didn’t speak English well at the time and she didn’t know what to ask or who to go to. When the McCulloughs tried to adopt the baby, renaming her Mirabelle, they highlighted the institutional racism they were inundated with. They had no idea about Asian culture or how to teach their adopted daughter about it. They made casual, cringe-worthy remarks about how she already likes rice and panda bears. Ugh. They didn’t even consider keeping her birth name and didn’t think it was wrong to change it until Izzy challenged them about it. They felt they were more suited to raise May Ling than Bebe because they’re rich and the wife will be a stay at home mother; the unsaid message is that it’s also because they’re white. The excuse they used in court is that Bebe left the baby at a fire department, terminating her parental rights, whereas they have been trying for years to have children to no avail, so clearly they want kids. At some point, May Ling becomes an object rather than a person, even if she is still a baby, and it seems like the McCulloughs just want a baby, any one will do. To me, that point is proven later when they end up trying to adopt another baby even after May Ling is gone. If I was so attached to a child (and I am, I am a mother myself), I don’t think I could bear to try to have another one if anything took that child away from me. It would feel like replacing the child with a new one.

Throughout the story, we wonder who should be a mother? What makes a mother? Can we choose our mothers? Can we have more than one mother? What makes a good mother or an unfit mother? Ng never answers the questions she raises about mothers and motherhood, and I like that ambiguity. She lets her readers think about them and come to their own conclusions about them. I’ve changed my own mind a bunch of times just since the beginning of this review…


The Splendor before the Dark

51ademwwk4l-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

I read it as an: advanced reading copy

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 592 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

This book picked up right where the previous book in Margaret George’s Nero series (duology would be a better term) left off. Jumping right into the thick of things, Nero has just learned about the fire sweeping through Rome. He rushes back, determined to do anything he can to stop it. He was in the middle of the efforts to stop the Great Fire, though later he would fall victim to rumors that he started the fire himself to make room for his Golden House, or, infamously, that he was fiddling about the fall of Troy as Rome burned.

Nero’s troubles didn’t end with the last smoke of the fire. He had to deal with fossilized senators from old families who were scandalized that he wanted to do things in new ways. Hey, kind of like the fossilized old farts in the senate today! How much things remain the same… Nero wanted to introduce arts and theatre and culture to Rome, and Rome, especially the patrician Romans, wanted nothing to do with it.

He also had to deal with numerous revolts, uprisings, and betrayals during his reign. Nero changed from an idealistic young boy to a somewhat paranoid man because of the betrayals he had suffered in his short life. He thought that betrayal, when it inevitably came, would come from within his family or possibly the senate, but he never saw it coming from the provinces or his Praetorian Guard. And certainly not from some of those he trusted most.

I really loved this book, at least as much as the first Nero book Ms George wrote. Here, we truly get to see Nero as he most likely really was – a sensitive, thoughtful man who wanted to make sweeping changes to a centuries-old system and instead got destroyed in the politics of it. He was first and foremost an artist and musician, loving nothing more than to write and perform poetry and music. I took years and years of Latin from high school through grad school; I’ve read Tacitus and his comments about Nero. I never thought they seemed very realistic. The outstanding research that went into this book and its predecessor really highlights how misunderstood Nero has become to history. He wasn’t insane, cruel, or in love with persecuting Christians. He was flawed, yes, maybe a bit childish and naive for the ruler of the known world. Likely he was a bit narcissistic, or at least he came across that way somewhat, but not in a malignant way *coughtrumpcough* nor in an entirely self-centered way, if that makes sense. His narcissism, such as it was, seemed to be derived purely from being a child of luxury and privilege and not knowing anything else. Sometimes while reading this, I felt a little embarrassed for him, as I think I was meant to, because, like others in the room with Nero, I wanted to tell him to stop, or ask him, “Don’t you know you can’t do that/say that here to these people?” He was so idealistic that he was really clueless about a lot of things, and it made him a target in a variety of ways.

As with all her other books, Margaret George has some absolutely lovely prose in this one as well. When speaking of the gods and religion, Nero has many things to say that were intriguing and well crafted. When one senator accused him of being an atheist, Nero replied that, in practical terms, he is because

“since we cannot know [the gods’] thoughts, it is best to admit that and proceed in the dark, unlike ignorant people who think they know and make stupid interpretations.”

Later, regarding the Christians who he ordered executed for their alleged role in the fire, Nero said,

“In some ways they are to be envied…. Having something so precious that it overrides all else in your life, even your life itself.”

As an atheist myself, I don’t feel this way about religion, but I do understand the sentiment. I hold many things in higher regard than my own life. Nero felt this way about his art, and came to realize he felt that way about Rome itself.

Combining thoughts on religion with philosophy, another of Nero’s favorite pastimes, is a terrific scene that comes just after he competes in his first chariot race. Nero’s wife Poppaea berates him for racing, an act that a charioteer (i.e., a slave) would do, not a patrician, and she was afraid for him for many reasons. She told him he was acting like a child:

“You are no longer a child. Or are you? You behave like one.”

“If I behave like one, it is because deep inside the child is still there.” …

“Childhood is a phase of life, to be put aside as one grows up.”

“No, it should be cherished, because it is the truest part of ourselves, the part that came into being first. …It is when we are our childhood selves that we are closest to the gods.”

This one reminded me to cherish my daughter’s childhood and to get more in touch with my own inner child. When Nero is on stage or talking about the arts, his true love, is when his real personality comes through. Nero and an actor are discussing the destruction of many of the theatres in the fire and how to rebuild so that plays can be put on again. Nero says,

“Yes, people need that. Especially after such sorrow. It helps them to know that life goes on.”

“Oddly enough, tragedies are a remedy for that. They put our own sorrows in context, the context of being human. Suffering is woven into all existence.”

“Oh my,” [says Nero,] “perhaps you are in the wrong profession, and belong with the philosophers.”

“Actors bring philosophy to people in a form they can understand,” [the actor] said.

I love this exchange so hard because it encompasses so much of what the humanities as a whole stand for. If you’ve known me for any length of time at all, you will have been subject to one of my epic soapbox rants about the vital role the humanities play in modern society and how it is stupid and short-sighted to cut such programs from schools. The humanities teach us literally the human experience, how people experience the world around them. We may have all kinds of cool technology now, but someone had to think it up in the first place, and think about how it impacts human life and experience. Just…don’t get me started. But I loved this scene for a lot of reasons.

Overall, I think this was just about a perfect novel. I just loved the deep research that clearly went into it, and the discovery of a man who is so different than how he is often portrayed in history. I think Margaret George has uncovered a more realistic version of Nero than anyone else and I adore the way she handles him and the multitude of myths and scandals that surround him.


12 Rules for Life

412z30w2n-l-_sx330_bo1204203200_12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 448 pp

Publisher: Random House

Year:  2018

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and this book is his formula for things to do, or not to do, to be a successful human being. He covers, as you may suspect, 12 basic rules, ranging from things such as stand up straight to make your kids act like civilized humans to tell the truth. Generally, it is a fairly standard sort of rule book. 

This is quite long, so I’ll put the rest behind a cut.Read More »

Watch “Patrick Stewart Gets Emotional Announcing Return To Captain Picard Role – 8-4-18” on YouTube

This made me so happy, I cried. TNG was such a big part of my life and there were times when seeing a new episode was the only thing I had to look forward to each week. The characters were not characters, they were real people. Maybe that makes me a geek, or a loser, but I don’t care. I love Star Trek, and I love these people, and I can’t express how happy I am that Patrick Stewart is going to reprise his role as Jean-Luc Picard.

The Pawns of Sion

51bvfgsfb0lThe Pawns of Sion by Scott Rezer

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen HollickDiscovering Diamonds

Length: 445 pp

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Year: 2018

The Pawns of Sion is the sequel to Rezer’s first novel in this trilogy, The Leper King. This novel takes place following the death of Baldwin IV “the Leper,” King of Jerusalem. After Baldwin’s death, his young nephew, Baldwin V, the child of his sister Sibylla, reigned as king for a brief time as co-king with his uncle, and then on his own for just over a year until his own death. Sibylla and her half-sister, Isabella, are pawns in the games their men play to see who will be crowned next, for they are each next in line with legitimate claims to the throne. Throughout the political machinations of the Angevins and Lusignans, a young squire to Balian d’Ibelin learns that he is actually the illegitimate son of another lord, one of the main players in the political scheming taking place in Jerusalem. He also discovers that the woman tending to his dying mother is Mary Magdalene in disguise and that she is trying to find the Cup of Christ in order to prevent the Order of Sion, a shadowy demonic order, from destroying her and the Holy Land.

I had mixed feelings about this book. The writing is exciting, the characters are multidimensional and lifelike, the historical detail is accurate, and there is a lot of exciting action and adventure to keep anyone engaged. There is a  great deal to like. However, I had missed the first book of the series, so I was totally lost about the Order of Sion, which drew away from some of my enjoyment of it, through no real fault of the author. I do feel a little reminder or recap would serve well, though, just a short prologue or something, since otherwise I think this could be a good standalone novel. Also, the magic – yes, it is integral to the story, but it wasn’t really necessary, was it? It would have been a great story without magic and Mary Mag walking around, wouldn’t it? But it was still a fun read and I can cheerfully recommend it to readers who enjoy a bit of fantasy mixed with their history.

Catch-Up Round: Megge of Bury Down; The Death Beat

megge-of-bury-down-rebecca-kightlinger-130x200Megge of Bury Down by Rebecca Kightlinger

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 252 pp

Publisher: Zumaya Arcane

Year: 2018

In Kightlinger’s debut novel, Megge is a woman of Bury Down, a small village in the medieval Cornish countryside. To an outside observer, her life may seem ordinary enough. She lives with her mother, aunt, cousin, and great aunts, working as healers and tending their sheep. However, she is actually the latest in a long line of hedgewitches. When it is Megge’s turn to learn the secrets of her mother’s magical book on her sixth birthday, it calls her a murderer. Terrified, Megge refuses to have anything to do with her family’s traditions. Instead, she learns the trades of weaver and herder. However, when a horrific event takes place, Megge is forced to follow tradition and fight to keep the book out of the hands of wicked people.

There are many things to enjoy in this novel. The main characters all have depth and complexity, though a bit more character development is warranted since the novel covered many years. The descriptions of medieval life were adequate, but better-fleshed-out detail would have added to the atmosphere. The recurring theme “What people can’t see, they fear; what they fear, they hurt” was woven skillfully throughout the narrative. The plot, unfortunately, was quite slow-moving. While this is not a problem in itself, it is when nothing really advances the storyline. A lot of back story doled out piecemeal made for a somewhat choppy read.

Another quibble I had was the age range of the book. Megge is six when we meet her, and 13 by the end. Based on the characters’ ages, I’d say this is suitable for middle grade readers but given the violent content and slow pacing, the book is for adults (and is marketed as such). However, many adult readers may struggle to identify with such a young protagonist. The novel was enjoyable enough, but ultimately, I wanted to like it more than I actually did.

the-death-beat-fiona-veitch-smith-131x200The Death Beat by Fiona Veitch Smith

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Lion Fiction

Year: 2018

In this third installment of the Poppy Denby Investigates series, our titular heroine, burgeoning reporter Poppy Denby begins the novel enraged with her editor, Rollo Rolandson. He made a bet – and lost – that an editor from the NYT could increase the ad revenues of Rollo’s London-based The Daily Globe newspaper within three months. If he does, the new editor can buy 60% of the shares of the paper, effectively forcing Rollo out of the position of managing editor. During the three months the interim editor is trying to improve The Globe (and surely none of Rollo’s staff would sabotage his efforts…), Rollo leaves London as part of the terms of his lost bet; he takes Poppy along with him because since she’s been at the paper, ad revenues have gone way up and he doesn’t want her making money for the temporary editor. While they are in New York, they stumble upon a puzzle they have to solve involving human trafficking, forced prostitution, and immigration. Somehow linked is the murder of a New York socialite in his penthouse. Poppy and Rollo can’t let it go until they figure it out and get the inside scoop ahead of their competition in the cutthroat game of investigative reporting.

As with the previous two novels in the series, this was taut and entertaining. I liked Poppy’s development from the earlier books as well. She’s always been somewhat torn between the way she was raised as the daughter of a Methodist minister and her own desires as a career-minded young woman in the 1920s. Her inner conflict felt more pronounced to me in this book. Poppy had enlightened standards for how women should be treated that deviated quite a bit from her very traditional, conservative upbringing, which at times causes her stress. It fit in well with the blossoming awareness people were gaining about the conditions of immigrants or people forced to work in sweatshops or forced into prostitution. While it was fun to see 1920s New York, I confess I missed London. In any case, it was an exciting, well written story and a good addition to the series. Recommended.

The Princess and the Goblin

12804703The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Frederick Davidson

Source: library

Length: 05:00:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 1872 (originally pubbed, obviously not the audiobook version)

Irene is a princess, and a very sheltered one at that. She lives in a castle in a mountain, unaware much of the world outside, or of what the night sky looks like, or that there are goblins living underneath the castle. She isn’t allowed outside after dark because the goblins come out then, and the castle staff are under orders by her father to keep her safe by keeping her ignorant of the existence of the goblins. When she is trapped inside one day because of rain, she discovers a door in her room which leads up to a garret room. In the room is an old woman who doesn’t always look old. She is Irene’s many-times-great grandmother, who may or may not be some kind of faerie. The grandmother teaches Irene about her name and how to believe without seeing (which made me twitch but whatever) and that not everyone in the castle would see her if Irene showed them the garret room. Eventually, Irene meets a miner’s son, Curdie, when she and her nurse get caught outside at night and become lost. Curdie saves them from the goblins and he and Irene become friends. When the goblins later capture Curdie, Irene goes to her grandmother for help and goes on a quest to rescue him.

This children’s novel actually has quite a lot going on in it. It’s been described by Tolkien himself as a source book for The Hobbit. The argument can be made that it is in part a discussion of post colonialism, since Irene and her people moved in on the goblins’ territory and made them have to leave their homes because of it. It is also very much a hero’s quest, since Irene goes on her quest to save Curdie, growing as an individual in the process. She becomes a young woman rather than a child by the end of the book because of her experiences. I wrote a paper for a class about the quest, actually, which I posted here.

I listened to the audiobook version of this, which I got from the library. If I hadn’t, I am not sure I could have made it all the way through the book. The story itself was fun enough and I obviously found enough worth talking about to write a short paper about it. But OMG I absolutely HATED the narrator. The narrator was sooooooooooo intrusive and condescending and obnoxious. I initially tried to eyeball read this and found myself rolling my eyes too much to pay attention because the narrator was so annoying. So I tried the audio version, because I HAD to read it somehow, and that was a little more tolerable, more like an old, out of touch person who just doesn’t know any better talking and so I could ignore it easier. It was impossible to ignore while reading because I couldn’t not see it.

Overall, I could see how this might be a source book for Tolkien, though I am glad he didn’t take the narration style too much to heart. I never could have got through LOTR if he was as annoying as MacDonald’s narrator. I think my daughter will enjoy this story, for Irene is a strong female character, despite the strong traditional gender roles.

Update Round: Dodging and Burning; Finding the Way

35004938Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 365 pp

Publisher: Pegasus Crime

Year: 2018

Copenhaver’s debut novel gives readers a gorgeous, critical look at the LGBTQ community in post-WWII society, revolving around a murder. In Royal Oak, VA, three friends – Jay Greenwood, Bunny Prescott, and Ceola Bliss – spend the summer of 1945 trying to solve the apparent murder of a young woman who Jay photographed. As they investigate, it becomes clear that there is layer upon layer of deceit involving Jay, the woman in the photo, and Ceola’s brother, who had gone missing in action in the Pacific theater two years earlier. As events unfold, Jay’s wartime traumas surface, Ceola struggles to understand the beloved brother she thought she knew, and Bunny sets into motion a chain of reactions that will have ramifications for them all for decades.

Dodging and Burning has some absolutely lovely writing, filled with deep imagery and complex, living characters. The society is richly depicted, from the salt of the earth working poor to the upper middle class people of the town to the gay and lesbian people in the DC underground. The way the LGBTQ community was portrayed in the novel mirrors social mores of the time, which makes for some really intense and upsetting scenes. There is a lot of excellent, much-needed social commentary woven throughout. One character speaks for the LGBTQ community when he says, “If you’re afraid for long enough, you grow numb to it” (289). Another character later on summed up much of mainstream society when he said, “You’ve been blind from the beginning. When you look at Cee or me or anyone, all you see is what you want” (312). The final few pages were an absolute gutpunch, one which was vital. This is a book that must be read and discussed with as many people as possible. 


Finding the Way by Wayne Ng

I read it as an: egalley

Source: HNS/Netgalley

Length: 324 pp

Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Year: 2018

Written mostly in flashback, Ng’s lyrical debut is the story of Lao Tzu’s vibrant and turbulent life. Readers initially meet Lao Tzu as an old man riding into a military camp on the back of a water buffalo. The captain of the camp is at first understandably untrusting, for spies take all manner of guises in his world. But he soon realizes that the old man is who he claims to be – the renowned scholar Lao Tzu – and he quickly commands for a scribe to come and record his tale of escape from the royal Zhou palace and remarkable life story. Lao Tzu and the captain’s tales are closely linked, to the captain’s astonishment, proving to him that The Way has many wandering paths that diverge and intersect but all have a larger purpose in life.

Ng’s novel is a superbly written tale, full of intrigue and drama and rich with cultural narrative. All of the main characters are vivid and multidimensional, and even the secondary characters are distinct and memorable. I think some of the tertiary characters get a little lost, but even they are not just faceless beings in a crowd.

The writing itself is lovely. There are so many turns of phrase throughout this novel that are simply pretty that I took quite a long time to read this, just because I spent a lot of time highlighting things as I read. The philosophical discussions embedded within are welcome food for thought, and I learned a lot about Taoism through reading this. It piqued my interest to learn more, which I think is the highest praise I can give to any book, that it inspired me to go learn something new because of it. 

Kids’ Corner Review: Dinosaur Cove: Attack of the Tyrannosaurus

Dinosaur Cove: Attack of the Tyrannosaurus                

By Rex Stone   

Reviewed by Shannon M. (age 7)

51it1lzvc0l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Plot: Two boys, Tom & Jamie, find a secret entrance to a world filled with dinosaurs! Tom was showing Jamie a smuggler cave when they find a secret entrance to Dinosaur World.

Characters: Tom is thrill-seeking and funny. Jamie is curious and smart. Wanna is a Wannanosaurus. T.Rex is scary.

Setting: Dinosaur Cove and Dinosaur World.

My favorite part was when the T.Rex fought because it was exciting.

My least favorite part was when Tom and Jamie left Dinosaur World because the book was over, just like this review.