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Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere is out today in the UK and I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Here’s what the blurb says about it:

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours 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 teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just 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 rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost.

While putting people in little boxes, even large boxes with impeccable interior design, setting them strict rules and city ordinances to live by, which control everything from bin collection to the external colour scheme of their homes, may seem like a good idea in theory, it’s no guarantee that they’ll play their part and always stick to the script. All the best intentions can go awry once you add people, with all their competing egos and beliefs, polarising politics, differing dynamics and underlying tensions, to the mix.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two families whose lives become entwined and will never be the same again. It hones in on the roles we play within a family and the wider community, how those dynamics are set up, and how little it takes to upset them. Little Fires Everywhere is so well written that I read it in two heady sittings, reluctant to put it down. This story of one seemingly content and compliant community stirred up by the arrival of two outsiders reads like a literary psychological thriller and I was quickly drawn into the lives of the respectable Richardson family, the more nomadic newly-arrived Warrens, and their friends and neighbours. Celeste Ng moves seamlessly around the carefully-planned streets of Shaker Heights, taking me right to the heart of this community almost before I realised how far in I was. Read more

Book Review: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody #DeathintheStars #BlogTour

I’m happy to say that tenacious amateur sleuth Kate Shackleton is back for her eighth outing. (I wrote about my first encounter with Kate in Whitby here.) This time she’s in for some starry encounters, as she scores an unusual invitation to view the 1927 eclipse and is drawn into investigating some dramatic deaths.

Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.

During the eclipse, Selina’s friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can’t help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths – and whether there is a murderer in the company.

When Selina’s elusive husband Jarrod, injured in the war and subject to violent mood swings, comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame . . .

Frances Brody captures all the excitement of the 1927 eclipse well and weaves it seamlessly into her story. It’s fascinating to see where the Astronomer Royal chooses to view it from in the path of totality and how the author uses that setting so well, bringing in minor as well as the main characters to help us see the relevance to them as well as those who attend the ticketed event. I got a real sense of occasion, the planning which went into it, and its importance to the chosen school. I also enjoyed how breezily Kate manages to arrange a flight up there and back.

Death in the Stars clips along at a fair old pace and I read it quickly. I enjoyed the look both in front of and behind the curtain at variety shows during the late 1920s and how the rise in radio and movies was threatening their continued existence. Change is in the air and there is a way of life slowly dying out here too, alongside the more sudden deaths of troupe members. I also appreciated how Frances Brody touches on post-traumatic stress from people’s wartime efforts or their being closely involved in a shocking incident and the physical and mental legacy of their experiences. She shows the reader both the supposed glamour of life on the stage and showbiz parties as well as the more routine life backstage and in between performances, once the lights come up, the audience goes home, the costumes and make-up removed.  Read more

Book Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

In her latest novel, Rachel Joyce’s writing is pitch perfect and every bit as healing as the tracks that Frank selects as prescribed listening for his customers in The Music Shop.

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …

If you’ve ever played sad songs to make yourself feel better when you’re blue, if you’ve ever heard a song on the radio that makes you realise you’re not alone in how you feel, if a piece of music brings back memories of a person, a place or a time in your life or you’ve ever made up a mix tape for yourself or someone you cared for, if you can’t help starting to sway, dance or even sing along when the first chords of a track start, then you need to read The Music Shop.

Rachel Joyce creates a real community around Frank and his titular music shop, with his customers and assistant Kit, the other shopkeepers in the parade and residents of Unity Street. She shows how it comes together but also how it’s under pressure to change: record reps want Frank to start selling CDs like the Woolworths in the High Street and unscrupulous property developers are circling.

Rachel Joyce’s writing may seem gentle, deceptively so, but there’s real drama here too; her true range reflected in the music Frank chooses, and how she orchestrates the cast of characters. (I couldn’t help but assign each one their own musical instrument as I was reading.) Rachel Joyce’s words heal every bit as much as Frank’s musical prescriptions. The Music Shop is an incredibly moving novel about the power and importance of music in our lives, helping us to connect with our feelings and soothing our various ills and woes. It’s also a rather beautiful love story in which music brings two damaged people closer together.

You’ll want to listen to this book’s soundtrack while you read it, and you’ll wish that Frank, his racks of vinyl, listening booths and customers, everything which makes up The Music Shop were as real now as you once wished the fancy dress shop in Mr Benn was when you were a child. Brava, Rachel Joyce, you’ve scored something truly beautiful and life-affirming in The Music Shop.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is out today and is published by Doubleday, a Transworld imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For updates on Rachel Joyce, her books and events, visit her publisher’s Author Page

My thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld and Lovereading for providing me with a copy for review. (A shorter version of this review was originally posted on the Lovereading UK site.) 

Book Review: Soot by Andrew Martin

Set in York at the end of the eighteenth century, Soot features an unlikely amateur sleuth in Fletcher Rigge. Plucked from the debtor’s prison by a questionable benefactor from the wrong part of town, he’s given a month to investigate the murder of Captain Harvey’s father, one of York’s silhouette artists. The suspects are his last sitters, with only their duplicate shades to identify them.

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home – stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey’s death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade – for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist’s last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor’s prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows…

The art of the silhouette maker appears to capture the essence of each character and it’s illuminating how much Fletcher Rigge is able to take from these deceptively simple shades of people. They represent the impression we leave behind and it’s for Rigge to fill in the detail, as he attempts to identify each sitter inside a month. In this, Rigge is the happy beneficiary of coincidence while pursuing his investigations but I can forgive him that in a York of this period. He also shows scant regard for his own safety or wellbeing. Maybe he thinks he has little left to lose, despite being drawn into a dangerous game where a murderer is still at large. Will Rigge prove to be a willing pawn or more skilled and capable of outwitting practised confidence artists and other undesirables than we expect? And why does he seem set on undoing all the good work he and others are doing on his behalf?

Soot held my attention from its first page when Mr Erskine, a lawyer, sends the York magistrate a bundle of documents concerning the violent death of Matthew Harvey. I tumbled headlong into the (rather aptly) shadowy world of this city at the close of the eighteenth century. Reading this collection of letters, diary entries and witness statements (complete with the lawyer’s annotations), the lawyer in me loved trying to piece together this whodunit/whydunit from all the material provided. Read more

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible is the fourth retelling of a Jane Austen novel in the Austen Project series and arguably the hardest to do because of how well known and loved Pride and Prejudice, the source novel, is but I think Curtis Sittenfeld has pulled it off with aplomb. 

The Bennet sisters have been summoned from New York City.

Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery, to tidy up the crumbling Tudor-style family home, and to wrench their three sisters from their various states of arrested development.

Once they are under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status, their only respite the early morning runs they escape on together. For two successful women in their late thirties, it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men . . .

Chip Bingley is not only a charming doctor, he’s a reality TV star too. But Chip’s friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, can barely stomach Cincinnati or its inhabitants. Jane is entranced by Chip; Liz, sceptical of Darcy. As Liz is consumed by her father’s mounting medical bills, her wayward sisters and Cousin Willie trying to stick his tongue down her throat, it isn’t only the local chilli that will leave a bad aftertaste.

But where there are hearts that beat and mothers that push, the mysterious course of love will resolve itself in the most entertaining and unlikely of ways.

If you’re going to carry off a successful modern retelling, you can’t simply transplant a 200-year-old story to a modern-day setting. There will of necessity have to be changes, compromises and tweaks to the original and these all work for me here. The author transfers the action to modern-day Cincinnati, with brief excursions to New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and really makes that work for her characters and the story. I could understand why Curtis Sittenfeld told the story the way she did, and in doing so, I think she creates something which is a clever retelling of the story with attention paid to how it would play out in a contemporary setting but also something which could stand on its own as a novel and quite happily be read for its own sake and enjoyment. Read more

Book Review: Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

A darker, more addictive read, Susie Steiner’s brilliantly written Manon Bradshaw series gets personal when a murder case threatens characters and relationships so well established in Missing, Presumed, which I reviewed here.

As dusk falls a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding heavily from a stab wound. He dies where he falls; cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life.

DI Manon Bradshaw can’t help taking an interest – these days she only handles cold cases, but the man died just yards from the police station where she works.

She’s horrified to discover that both victim and prime suspect are more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. And as the Cambridgeshire police force closes ranks against her, she is forced to contemplate the unthinkable.

How well does she know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?

Detective Manon Bradshaw returns and happily for this reader, despite having spent some of the intervening time since Missing, Presumed with the Met Police in London, she is back with the Cambridgeshire squad for its sequel, Persons Unknown.

While Manon retains the qualities which made me completely fall for her as a character in the first book, she’s also experiencing changes both in her personal life and her position on the force. This development is something which I really rate because it gives a sense of the characters’ lives progressing and carrying on… whether or not the reader is there to witness it happening! And this in turn makes them feel more real to me, in much the same way as Susie Steiner showing us the police not only working an investigation but also in their downtime, does. Read more

Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Having read and enjoyed Susie Steiner’s debut novel Homecoming, I was excited to read her second, Missing, Presumed, and the first in a new crime series introducing police detective Manon Bradshaw.

Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.

Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

I defy anyone not to completely fall for Manon Bradshaw. She’s brilliant. It’s such a shame she’s not real. Although she certainly feels real enough on the pages of Missing, Presumed. She’s frank and ballsy, brusque but vulnerable, clumsy yet perceptive. She finds it hard to leave her job behind at the end of a shift and falls asleep to the police radio on low volume. She’s refreshingly independent while also putting herself out there on a string of disastrous Internet dates; she wants some kind of social life leading to a home life but in the meantime doesn’t see why she needs to contemplate living like a nun.

Just as she does with Manon Bradshaw’s character, Susie Steiner builds a credible team around her, peopled not by stereotypes but those who are more like flawed and realistic human beings. One of the joys of this book is seeing the way that this team of officers is built up, where its strengths and potential weaknesses lie, and it’s a bit of a blow to discover that Manon’s plans might soon see her moving on to a new force. I’d got to know this one, and would be upset not to have at least some of them in any sequel. Read more

Book Review: The Faithful by Juliet West

Juliet West’s timely second novel The Faithful has Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts pitch their summer camp near a sidelined and restless teenager’s seaside home, forever changing her life, if not the course of history as is their wider intention.

July 1935. In the village of Aldwick on the Sussex coast, sixteen-year-old Hazel faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred mother Francine for company. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in Aldwick, and Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting. She finds herself befriended by two very different people: Lucia, an upper-class blackshirt, passionate about the cause; and Tom, a young working-class boy, increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric. In the end, though, it is Tom who wins Hazel’s heart – and Hazel who breaks his.

Autumn 1936. Now living in London, Hazel has grown up fast over the past year. But an encounter with Tom sends her into freefall. He must never know why she cut off all contact last summer, betraying the promises they’d made. Yet Hazel isn’t the only one with secrets. Nor is she the only one with reason to keep the two of them apart . . .

I think most people will be able to identify with Hazel, her lack of direction and boredom at the prospect of facing a long, hot summer largely left to her own devices, exacerbated by her best friend rushing off to Wales with her family to visit their sick grandmother. It’s only natural that she watches these incomers with interest: the blackshirts march through her town, and later relax on the beach on the other side of her garden wall. I can’t blame her for feeling drawn towards these new people, particularly when she experiences those first sparks of recognition and connection with Lucia and Tom, that friction which can catch you off-guard, signalling the beginning of a friendship or relationship, be it love or lust.

This week turns out to be life-changing for Hazel: her own curiosity is partly at play here, and her choice of summer reading almost makes it inevitable. But Hazel’s coming-of-age is both tender and shocking and it’s her reaction to that which made this book for me. Hazel is a revelation and the character who surprises me in The Faithful: there are hidden depths to her. While I started by sympathising with her summer predicament, I ended up admiring her strength and determination to make the best of the situation. In contrast to others in the book, it has far less to do with ideology for her, and more to do with practicality.   Read more

Book Review: The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

Cesca Major’s debut historical novel The Silent Hours takes as its inspiration a truly shocking event which happened during World War II, the anniversary of which fell on 10th June.

Set in wartime France, The Silent Hours follows three people whose lives are bound together, before war tears them apart:

Adeline, a mute who takes refuge in a convent, haunted by memories of her past;

Sebastian, a young Jewish banker whose love for the beautiful Isabelle will change the course of his life dramatically;

Tristin, a nine-year-old boy, whose family moves from Paris to settle in a village that is seemingly untouched by war.

Before I read The Silent Hours, I didn’t know anything about the real-life event around which the novel’s based and I resisted googling it until afterwards so as not to distract from the author’s version of it. I’m so glad I did this because she crafts a real mystery around a woman called Adeline, who we first meet in 1952. She’s in a nunnery, where she has been living for some years. No one can get through to her and her muteness is putting her remaining there in jeopardy. That, together with some memory loss, initially makes it unclear how much she can remember or is choosing to forget about who she is or where she came from, let alone what happened to her. Although both the nuns and the reader can guess at some trauma in her past. Read more

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell #Exquisite #BlogTour

I know from personal experience how intense a week’s writing retreat can be; they forge lasting friendships and can be as life-changing for the individual as they are for their writing. But I’m incredibly relieved they’ve never proved to be as devastating as the one which sparks off the central female relationship in Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Exquisite’s main characters Bo and Alice are writers, albeit at different stages of their careers. And when you have people who make things up for a living telling the story, they might not be the most reliable of narrators. They’re both persuasive storytellers, possibly prone to exaggeration and bending the truth or shaping things to fit their own narrative. To further muddy the waters, there’s an unnamed narrator to try and identify before Sarah Stovell’s ready to reveal them, who could help shine a light on what’s going on here. All of which helps to make this a deliciously dark, fast-paced psychological thriller that not only messes with the minds of its characters, but also that of the reader. It makes you question who you believe, what you’ve read and witnessed, and causes you to doubt your own understanding of events.

Exquisite is a book of contrasts, some of which are real and others illusory. It contains love and beauty, nurture and openness, kindness and generosity alongside calculated behaviour, cruelty and manipulation, lies and deceit. An already damaged person perpetuates more damage on themselves and others to devastating effect, exploiting their vulnerability and openness, and affecting the lives of innocents.      Read more

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