BOOK REVIEW | A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison


5/5 stars

It has always amazed me how far broken glass can fly – and how often you find a sliver after you’ve swept the mess away.

My thoughts are a little scattered after finishing A Small Indiscretion; there’s so much more to this book than I was expecting. There is an element of mystery that initially drew me in, but I wasn’t expecting such a rich, complex story.

We follow the life of Annie Black through an explanatory letter she is writing to her son, Robbie. We know that Robbie has been in an accident, and that a mistake Annie made around 20 years ago was a contributing factor. What we don’t know is how the pieces will connect – through alternating timelines, Annie recounts the year that she spent in London and reveals how a past obsession has caught up with her in an unimaginable way.

At age 19, Annie flees an unsatisfactory life in California for adventure in London where she will work in an office by day, and drink too much at night. She quickly becomes entwined in her boss Malcolm’s life, and discovers facets of his marriage that shock and intrigue her. By way of Malcolm, she meets a young photographer named Patrick, and an obsession begins.

Ellison’s writing is quiet and poetic, and at times staggeringly beautiful. I found myself so caught up in Annie’s life that I wasn’t trying uncover the mystery surrounding Robbie, I was truly along for the journey. This is a family drama, certainly, but it’s also so much more. This is a book about the implacability of the past, the complexities of marriage, and the damage that secrets can create. This is not a perfect book and Annie fell a little flat for me at times, but when a final sentence brings tears to my eyes I know I can’t give a book less than 5 stars.

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BOOK REVIEW | Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

4/5 stars

Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

That’s a taste of the Atwood magic at work in Alias Grace – writing that is hard to match with a compelling story to accompany it. Atwood tells the tale of Grace Marks, a young Irish immigrant who comes to Canada to work as a domestic servant. Along with stablehand James McDermott, Marks is convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in the 19th C. Based on true events, Atwood’s telling is entertaining and engrossing, though characteristically a bit long winded. It’s hard not to imagine that Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was influenced by this book.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW | All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

4/5 stars

I’m going to blast out a few very quick reviews today, as I want to get caught up before the new year.

All Things Cease to Appear continually reminded me of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, though the 2 books are very different. In both books, a crime is committed and the details surrounding it never fully become clear. Much like when crimes happen in reality, I suppose.

George Clare returns home one day to find his wife Catherine murdered and their young daughter alone. He quickly becomes the top suspect in the case, and as we learn more about his marriage we begin to suspect him too.

The shining star of this book is Catherine – she transforms throughout the story, finally reclaiming her independence from a bad marriage shortly before he life ends. I went into this expecting a thriller, but this is literary fiction with mystery and tragedy as the drivers. Atmospheric, unsettling, beautifully written.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

4/5 stars

Celeste Ng’s latest work is a heartbreaking story about mothers and daughters, right and wrong, morality and reality, the wealthy and the not so wealthy. Little Fires Everywhere is the perfect title for this book, in which many polarizing controversies are littered throughout. I absolutely adored Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and was beyond thrilled to win an advance copy of her latest book through Goodreads. Ng has created another special book that fans of EINTY will be sure to love.

In the picturesque town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Richardson family is the portrait of happiness and success. Elena and her husband are successful, and their 4 children, each 1 year apart, are well rounded and popular. Izzy, the youngest, doesn’t necessarily fit in with her family – she is a wild spirit with a knack for getting into trouble. Elena struggles to understand her youngest daughter, leading to a tenuous relationship.

When an artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, move into town and begin living out of the Richardson’s rental property, both families are inevitably changed. Elena values order, rules, structure. Mia moves from town to town whenever she loses her artistic inspiration, raising Pearl in an unsettled life. The longer they remain in Shaker heights, the more Pearl sets down roots. She befriends the Richardson children, often fantasizing about life in their family, while Izzy, never feeling comfortable with her own mother, finds a connection with Mia. A legal battle soon takes over Shaker Heights, leaving each family on opposite sides of the argument. Ng navigates both sides of the debate – as a reader I didn’t know where to stand. This battle shapes the later half of the story, ultimately revealing unexpected parts of both Elena’s and Mia’s pasts.

Ng has a way of drawing out qualities in her characters that capture who they are, such as the way Elena subtly leaves a cash donation on her way out of a museum. In one beautiful passage, Mia contemplates a parent’s need to touch their children, to hold them and breathe them in, and how over time the moments lessens. This nearly broke my heart; Ng’s writing is no less impactful than in her debut. I question the choices that some of the characters make towards the end, but felt safe in Ng’s capable hands. In some ways, I wish it ended differently, but I think it’s because wasn’t ready for the story to end.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

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3.5 / 5 stars

My thoughts:
This is a solid collection of short stories from an incredibly talented writer. Reading Chaon’s work, you can’t help but feel as though he is either consciously or subconsciously revealing parts of himself. His flaws, his fears, thoughts on family, love, and death. He is a man who has loved and lost, and you feel the depth of his experience between the pages of his books.

This collection has a few brilliant, eerie stories. The first story, The Bees is so, so good, and so, so creepy. This collection started off with a bang! There’s some imagery there that I can’t get out of my mind. This story felt complete, it gave me everything I needed.

I struggle a little with short stories because I almost always want more, and this collection is no different. Many of the stories felt incomplete – I wanted Chaon to save therm to flesh out full novels! That said, they were all great to read and that is certainly the mark of a great writer – give me more! All of the stories are dark and twisted in one way or another.

Chaon is my kind of writer, and I am excited to continue working through his catalog. If you’ve read Chaon, tell me what I should pick up next!

 

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.