• Carolyn

Books I'm reading 5

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

The title of this book popped up on Kindle when I was searching for a completely different novel. It sounded interesting, and after reading a sample, I was hooked.

It's based in the conservative suburb of Shaker Heights, in Cleveland, Ohio. An unconventional mother and her teenage daughter arrive in the neighbourhood and rent a house. Then, gradually, the interactions between the two newcomers and their landlord's family become more and more complex. A neighbourhood that at first seems seems perfect and inclusive, begins to show cracks as the novel progresses.

Like peeling away the layers of an onion, the lives of the different characters - teenagers, adults, professionals, artists - are exposed, and their backstories are gradually revealed.

Even though I couldn't stop reading this novel, I admit that there were a couple of assumptions made by the author. First, the fact that everyone in a conservative suburb 'fits in' and represses any non-conservative passions and ambitions. Second, that, for some reason, an artist is a special person who can 'see' the real personalities and desires of the other characters. There were also a few convenient co-incidences. And whilst the women in the story had plenty of depth of character, some of the male characters seemed somewhat one-dimensional.

But despite all that, the book drew me right in. It was full of surprises and twists, and I enjoyed finding out more about the characters and their relationships to each other, as they were unveiled.

Celeste Ng also wrote 'Everything I Never Told You.'

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

This novel is about Oscar, an overweight, Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. Oscar is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels - he wants to be the Dominican Tolkien - and with falling in love and being kissed. There is also a sprinkling of magic realism. The language is unconventional and, at least for the first few chapters, fun and refreshing.

It's an original approach to have a nerdy main character. I liked Oscar, despite the fact that he tended to wallow in self-pity. And it was fascinating to discover his family's Dominican background as it related to the dictator Trujillo. And I loved finding out about the world of a Latino in New York, especially one whose family seems to suffer from a curse - a curse that continues to affect Oscar.

The novel also spends some time delving into the life of Oscar's sister and mother, but I found that a bit distracting, and I preferred the chapters about Oscar.

I'm glad I read this book, but . . . there are some books where I love to read every word, to savour the use of language, and to pick up each nuance of the plot. This book, for me, was more about the endearing character and the immersion in a new world, and less about the unconventional language - which became a bit tiring and 'clever' - or the story. I skipped through all the geeky fantasy references because I didn't understand many of them. I ended up reading every word of the first half of the novel, and then flipped through the remaining pages to find out what happened.

The frequent use of Dominican Spanish slang could be disappointing for some readers, though apparently Diaz wove it in to demonstrate the difficulties of learning a new language - a major issue for immigrants. And whilst I don't mind the odd swear word, some readers may object.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

This book was written in 1859, and is considered to be one of the first mystery novels. I found it when I was searching Kindle for new and different books. Not that this one is exactly 'new'.

The Victorian language of the era may be too descriptive and wordy for some readers. But I enjoyed the writing, at first laughing at the verbosity, then gradually becoming more impressed by its clever balance, and then simply becoming engrossed by the all-consuming story.

And it's quite some story - a mystery and a romance rolled into one, with heroes, heroines, and nasty baronets and villains. A dastardly Italian count who is too clever by half, a terribly intelligent and 'manly' woman, a beautiful (but slightly dopey) heroine, a poor art teacher who becomes an amateur detective, a wealthy self-indulgent hypochondriac . . . the list goes on.

The mystery and its resolution are seamlessly portrayed, albeit with some helpful co-incidences. Different characters take up the narrative as the plot unfolds. A dedicated reader of detective novels may not find too many surprises in the book, but even so I believe they would find it an enjoyable read.

The book includes some old-fashioned stereotypes, but that's to be expected. And the end may be a bit of an anti-climax for a present-day reader because the 'crime' is relevant only in a historic context.

The book also explains some legal issues such as marriage settlements and their fairness - the author was also a lawyer - and the fact that male relatives made all the decisions. And if the male relatives didn't care, the outcome could be devastating. In such a case, the lawyer for a future wife writes, 'No daughter of mine should have been married to any man alive under such a settlement as I was compelled to make for Laura Fairlie.'

A fun read. Recommended.


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