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review 2018-06-23 18:33
"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

 

I knew, on finishing "Little Fires Everywhere" that I had enjoyed the book and that it was a first-rate piece of writing, excellently narrated. Yet I wasn't clear enough about what I thought of the book to write a review. So, I've let a few weeks pass, let the ideas and the images settle and gotten a little space from the characters and now I'm starting to see some shapes.

 

I think my inability to see the whole book at once is a consequence of how the book is designed. The authorial voice is used throughout, guiding us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters as they react to the little fires of passion, most of them to related to motherhood, that challenge and or define them. Yet, although I hear the author's voice all the time, by the end of the novel, the author had not given me any unequivocal answers as to whose side she is on. I think this is one of the key strengths of the book. It refuses to be didactic or polarising. It puts forward the views of both sides and asks you to think, to access your emotions. Perhaps to start a little fire of your own.mo

 

The book brings together two families, Mia and her daughter, who live a nomadic life, with Mia working on her art as a photographer while raising her daughter, and the Richardsons, mother, father and four children, raised in the idyllic, safe, solidly upper-middle-class Shaker Heights. Mia rents an apartment from Mrs Richardson. Their children, all in their teens, start to spend time together, Mia starts to work part-time cooking and cleaning for the Richardsons so that she can observe the family her, previously independent and possibly lonely, daughter has fallen under the spell of.

 

This "compare and contrast lifestyles" set-up is used to examine choices on motherhood, different types of mother-daughter relationships, the rights and wrongs of adoption (especially of a Chinese baby by a childless white couple) of abortion, and of surrogacy. It looks at whether families are born or made or both. It contrasts choosing to follow rules with choosing to follow your passion and asks if either choice makes sense.

 

It does all this without turning into an ethics essay. It stays focused on the people, the choices that have made them who they are and the potential that they have for changing and or for becoming even more deeply that people that they have already become.

 

The issues the characters deal with are controversial, have a high potential for conflict and speak deeply to core beliefs. So how do I get to the end of a novel told in the authorial voice and not know what the author's answer is?

 

Well, I needed to step back. I think Celeste Ng didn't set out to take sides on the issues. She wants us to understand that there are no simple answers. If there were, these little passion-fed fires wouldn't break out everywhere. 

 

The message I took from the book was that little fires are both inevitable and necessary. If we're lucky, they give us the passage to find an answer that is right for us. Yet the fires are dangerous, They can get out of control. So we are all faced with a choice on what to do with the fires? Do we damp them down, avoiding risk by starving them of oxygen? Do we spread the flame to others? Do we limit the damage? our passions, cutting off their oxygen to avoid risks?

 

Good questions. In "Little Fires Everywhere" Celeste Ng shows us all of those choices but leaves us to decide which to take for ourselves. Along the way, she builds up some memorable characters that start to feel like family.

 

To give you a flavour of the prose and the use of metaphor, I've quoted a section from the middle of the book, where the author shares Mrs Richardson's thoughts on passion and rules. 

"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 lept like flees 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 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."

 

"Rules existed for a reason. If you followed them, you would succeed. If you didn't, you might burn the world to the ground."

If this appeals to you, I recommend the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Jennifer Lim's narration.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/349277108" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-06-16 15:04
"Fire Touched - Mercy Thompson #9" by Patricia Briggs - a nice ensemble piece
Fire Touched (A Mercy Thompson Novel) - Patricia Briggs

Having been a little disappointed in the eighth book "Night Broken" I was pleased that "Fire Touched" was a return to form for the Mercy Thompson series.

 

There were lots of things to like about this book. Personally, I'll grin at any series where, at the end of a period of domestic discussion, the step-mother says to her step-daughter, as she and her husband rush from the house,"Gotta go, kid, there's a monster on the bridge."

 

It was large and hard-to-kill monster and the battle scene was only exceeded by the melodrama (which I thought was actually quite stylish) of the rallying call that Mercy gives, blood-spattered, walking stick/spear lit with pulsing red sigils raised above her head, her mate apparently unconscious at her feet. No wonder it made national television.

 

This story avoided being another Mercy-takes-on-the-big-bad-almost-alone-nearly-dies-but-is-saved-by-friends theme that was becoming repetitive (albeit well done each time). Instead, it was more of an ensemble piece with some strategic ideas about the relationship between the wolves and the fae that moved things in interesting directions.

 

The Pack now feels real, populated by people I know who are acting from motives that I understand. It helped that Adam finally stepped up and did the full-on Alpha thing.

 

Three new characters are introduced, none of whom are narcissistic psychopaths who could run for President. Old characters re-appear but doing new things and sometimes working to new agendas. The politics is has become more complex and less easy to second-guess. The depiction of Fairy Land is original and quite chilling.

 

There was also some clever but unobtrusive cross-over references with the Maroc and Charles that reminded me to make a start on the Alpha and Omega series.

 

While there is still a lot of action, much of it involving Mercy taking on things many times her size and the body-count is satisfyingly high, the action was there to illustrate the story, not drive it. We're back to a story driven by the characters and their situation. 

 

I ended the book having enjoyed my visit with Mercy and looking forward to the next one.

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review 2018-06-16 00:38
"Who Is Vera Kelly?" by Rosalie Knecht
Who is Vera Kelly? - Rosalie Knecht

I slid straight into "Who Is Vera Kelly?", carried along not by the pace of the plot, which is not the usual you-have-twenty-four-hours- to-save-the-world spy thriller pace but by the nuanced but unpretentious prose and by the clear, calm way in which Vera describes herself and her situation.

 

We meet two Veras in the book - the 1957 not-quite-eighteen Vera, in emotional distress and heading towards juvie and 1966 twenty-six going on twenty-seven Vera who works for the CIA undercover in Argentina collecting covert surveillance material on politicians and dissidents.

 

I liked the fact that neither Vera discusses the other. Both are fully occupied by their present. There is no clumsy forboding or regretful reminiscence, just life as it happens.

What links the two Veras is a deep awareness of their isolation and their inability to live an authentic life without running the risk of being punished for their sexual orientation.

 

I enjoyed anticipating the slow reveal that would let me see how the 1957 Vera, in love with her best friend, in conflict with her mother and locked away by the authorities became 1966 Vera, working for a CIA that has a policy of not knowingly employing gay people because of the risk of blackmail.

 

Vera's narrative about her teenage life has the stunned quiet of shock and dislocation about it that comes from being a teenager dealing with emotions that are larger than you are, when you have no experience to guide you and no power to protect yourself.

 

One of my favourite passages in the book is seventeen-year-old Vera's description of how she feels about Joanne, the girl she loves, in which she recognises her own inability to look at herself and her emotions directly or set them in context but in which she is able to express their power:

"When I thought of Joanne I could do never do better than a kind of wounded evasion of my romantic feelings for her.

 

I pretended that I was like one of the great ladies of the nineteenth century who sent each other genteel letters when they were apart about how desperately they missed each other. When we read those letters in history classes, or came across that kind of talk in books, our teachers would explain that what read like passion was just the natural affinity of women for each other andthere was nothing out of the way about it at all.

 

Joanne had been my favourite person in the world and when she hugged me and her face pressed against my neck I felt a fizzing, nauseous thrill from the pit of my stomach to the bones of my feet. That was all I knew about it and all I could have told anyone if anyone had asked."

Vera's narrative about her time undercover in Buenos Aires is tense in a way that speaks to fear long lived with rather than an adrenalin rush. She habitually and skillfully hides who she is. She is alone, reaching for detachment and finding first panic and then determination and courage. The tension is handled in a low-key way that builds pressure at an inexorable pace that feels like a slow-motion car-crash in which Vera is in the passenger seat.

 

One of the things I found most engaging about Vera is how clearly she expresses what she sees. Her interior dialogue is nuanced and rich. Here's an example of her reaction to something as she walks through the pre-dawn streets of Buenos Aires as a coupe d'êtat takes place:

"I passed a nightclub with the doors propped open, young people streaming out into the street. I was startled by the intrusion of raucous nightime into this quiet dawn moment."

As things got worse in Buenos Aires I kept asking myself why Vera had chosen to put herself at risk by going under-cover in a foreign land. I could see no driving idealism or fervent patriotism or even thrill-seeking to explain the choice. As the story unfolded and I started to get an answer to the question, "Who Is Vera Kelly?" I began to understand that Vera's situation in Buenos Aires is only an amplification of her life in the US. Vera has been living under-cover her whole life. It seemed to me that her situation also gave Vera a legitimate reason for watching and manipulating people while remaining distant and hiding who she is.

 

This feeling was reinforced when Vera finally talks about her relationship with her first-love, Joanne. She Says:

"Joanne was the last person who could look at me and  see me looking back. Who could put out her hand and find me there. I wouldn't let it be so easy again."

"Who Is Vera Kelly?" is an accessible, easy-to-read book but that doesn't mean it's a simple one. Part of my pleasure in reading the book came from the way in which the novel uses the spy genre to demonstrate what it's like to live in an environment so hostile to your sexual orientation that you dare not admit to being who you are and the consequential stress, isolation and blurring of identity.

 

I listened to the audiobook edition, which is narrated with great skill by Elisabeth Rodgers, You can hear a sample of her narration of "Who Is Vera Kelly?" by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/458792880" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

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text 2018-06-14 19:32
Reading progress update: I've read 37%. - doing something different with spy fiction
Who is Vera Kelly? - Rosalie Knecht

I slid straight in to "Who Is Vera Kelly", carried along by the prose and by the clear, calm way in which Vera describes herself and her situation.

 

We meet two Veras in the book - the 1957 not-quite-eighteen Vera, in emotional distress and heading towards juvie and 1966 Vera who works for the CIA undercover in Argentina collecting covert surveillance material on politicians and dissidents.

 

Neither Vera discusses the other. Both are fully occupied by their present.

 

What links them is a deep awareness of their isolation and their inability to live authentic lives without running the risk of being punished for their sexual orientation.

 

How 1957 Vera became 1966 Vera, working for a CIA that has a policy of not knowingly employing gay people because of the risk of blackmail isn't clear to me yet but I'm looking forward to finding out.

 

Vera is a spy and she's undercover but I suspect that the real point here is that she's been undercover her whole life.

 

 

 

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review 2018-06-11 20:13
"The Traitor's Story" by Kevin Wignall - ten hours of my life I'll never get back
The Traitor's Story - Kevin Wignall

I picked "The Traitor's Story" as one of my Summer Of Spies books because it's about British spies but it's set in Lausanne, a city I know well.

 

The first disappointment was the narrator: Simon Vance. Yes, I know he's an award-winning narrator, but I found his plumy Brit accent irritating, especially as he delivered the story with all the vocal range and passion of Gregorian Chant. He also sounded too old for the main character in the book. Still, his delivery was news-reader clear and unhalting so I decided to try and tune him out and let the book stand on its text.

 

The text itself was the next disappointment. The prose is sparse without being lean: functional in that put-me-out-of-my-misery-and-give-me-the-movie version sort of way. There where many exotic European locations, most of which I know well and yet there was almost no sense of place.

 

The characterisation ranged from the cute (which means bad things are bound to happen to them) to the dispassionate (which might even be appropriate given that the main character is a hollow, desiccated man whose only distinguishing characteristics seem to be emotional withdrawal and a willingness to kill). I quickly realised that I didn't really care what happened to any of these people.

 

For a while, I thought the plot might come to the rescue as it ran two timelines in parallel which suggested that we were heading for an interesting convergence at some point. The plot was well constructed but completely unsurprising. In fact, the only surprising thing about this book was that the main character has been able to afford to live in Lausanne for six years of the proceeds of writing a few popular history books.

 

The final confrontation between the bad guy and the slightly less bad guy who was the Traitor of the title summed up my feelings about the book. The hero looks at the destruction he has wrought and asks

"But what was the point of final words between them? What had been the point of any of it?"


Sadly, the book lumbered on for another couple of chapters to wrap up loose ends I no longer cared about and to make a belated and unsuccessful effort to convince me that our hero might still have a chance of living a worthwhile life.

 

I'm done with Kevin Wignall and Simon Vance.

 

On the off chance that you can hear something in Simon Vance's performance that I missed, you can click on the SoundCloud link below to play a sample.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/270059970" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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