Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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I can’t quite figure out this book. There’s a lot of young adult, more than a smidge of chick lit and loads of mystery. It’s also beautifully written. But the most interesting character is frequently ignored by all the others as well as the author and so much of her is left unexplored and unexplained.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl, have just arrived in Shaker Heights, Ohio. It’s a planned community, a little progressive but a little Stepford at the same time. They rent a home from the Richardsons and immediately become entangled in their landlords’ lives. Mother Elena is a local reporter, father Bill is a lawyer and the kids are spoiled and mostly ungrateful. And the youngest, Izzy, is also frustratingly rebellious. The book opens with her burning down her family home (she sets “little fires everywhere”) and then rewinds to the day the Warrens moved into town to show how all the events before lead up to that moment. Continue reading

Book Review: How to Make a Movie in 12 Days by Fiona Hardy

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This book has the best crafted opening chapter I’ve read in a long time. From there it settles into a pleasant middle grade novel with enough touches of brilliance to make up for a few problematic areas.

Eleven-year-old Hayley is obsessed with films and wants to be a director. She and her grandmother were writing the script for a horror film about a killer rose bush, which her grandmother was also going to star in, when she unexpectedly died. Hayley is devastated. But part of Hayley’s inheritance is a brand new video camera so that she can start making her movie. Hayley suggests to her mother that they throw a party to celebrate her grandmother’s life and screen the movie at it. The only date they can get at the function hall leaves Hayley just twelve days to film all the scenes, edit them together and finalise the movie. Thus the title of the book. Continue reading

Book Review: All That I Am by Anna Funder

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I spent the first half of this book almost positive that it was an entirely unnecessary literary contribution. It’s a fictionalised version of real events and real people so why not just read a history book? It does a lot of info dumping, just like a history book, with too much telling and not enough showing as a means of proving the immense amount of research that has clearly been done. But by the time I finished, none of that seemed to matter. I was utterly seduced.

Ruth is coming to the end of her life in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. She unexpectedly receives a manuscript in the mail; it’s an autobiography written by revolutionary Ernst Toller, someone from her former life. And suddenly she’s swept back to growing up in Germany as the Great War rages. The most important person in her life is her older cousin, Dora. Together, they become part of the resistance that watches the rise and rise of Hitler and is determined to fight him.

By 1933, Hitler is in control and the members of the resistance are being kidnapped and murdered. Ruth, her husband, Hans, and Dora flee to London where they live in limbo. Their status as refugees means they can’t work but Ruth’s parents, who are German but live in Poland because of a changed border, are wealthy and send money to support them. Their status as refugees also means they aren’t supposed to engage in political activities and getting caught doing so could see them sent back to Germany to face certain death. It doesn’t stop them though; they know how important it is to show the rest of the world what’s really going on.

The story is told in alternating chapters narrated by Ruth, who remembers her story through the distant lens of old age, and Ernst, as he updates his previously written autobiography from a New York hotel room in 1939 to include details he had left out in order to be discreet. Ruth has the naiveté and hope of a young resistance fighter but Ernst is wracked with depression and despair because he already knows how it all ends (or at least how the war begins).

When I started reading this book, I didn’t realise that they were almost all real people. I foolishly googled Ernst Toller just to check if he was one of them and then got caught up in reading his Wikipedia entry. I would highly recommend not doing it. It didn’t ruin the book but it would have been a better experience for me if I hadn’t pre-empted the ending.

If you’re expecting a comprehensive history of Hitler’s impact on Germany, All That I Am isn’t that book. It’s specific to a very small group of upper class resisters and their experiences. But you will likely still learn plenty, particularly that the Second World War didn’t just come out of nowhere. The people in this book foresaw the brutality and then experienced it firsthand all before the war ever started and under a legitimately elected government. But no one would listen to them. There are lessons in there that seem especially relevant for today’s incredibly uncertain times where we are crying out for leaders we can rally behind for the greater good of everyone instead of just ourselves. “Fear is the psychological foundation of dictatorship,” Ernst Toller wrote.

Even though the book is set in a very specific period of time, it has a timeless quality, which probably comes down to the beautiful writing because sometimes the characters – despite their noble cause – aren’t always easy to empathise with. But perhaps it’s their flaws that make their lives and their deaths so much more heartbreaking.

I imagine this book is studied in high school English classes and it is perfect for that purpose but it doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of book that reveals more layers in further readings. Its power is in the way it builds up, revealing its layers as it goes. Because of that, it doesn’t feel like the kind of book anyone would want to read over and over. But once is enough. Once was remarkable.

Verdict: a worthy Miles Franklin Prize winner.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 7 October 2019

Book Review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

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When I read the blurb of this book, I thought it was strangely vague but it isn’t strange at all. Vague is exactly what this book is. There might have been a story worth telling buried in it somewhere but Paula Hawkins didn’t find it. And, unfortunately, that means it suffers from the same problem that so many second books do, which is that it pales in comparison to the author’s debut.

Into the Water should have been Nel’s story. But Nel is already dead from the moment you read the first words and narration duties are instead shared by Nel’s sister, her daughter, the police, teachers from the local school, other parents from the local school, the town eccentric and the killer. And they’re all so busy keeping secrets that this book could have been half as long. Continue reading

Book Review: The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty

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I completely blame myself for focusing only on the author and not the title of this book when choosing to read it. I closed the back cover and thought indignantly to myself, “This was a romance!” No $#!@, Sherlock. It’s literally right there in the title! Having said that and despite romances not really being my cup of tea, as with all Liane Moriarty books, it’s better than the average. But it’s some way off her best. Continue reading

Book Review: Matilda Is Missing by Caroline Overington

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I am still yet to read a book by Caroline Overington that I haven’t liked. This isn’t her best book but it seems like Overington’s worst books are still better than the best books of many other writers.

Softie Monaghan and Garry Hartshorn should never have gotten married. She was a sophisticated career woman. He was a rough country boy who’d had plenty of jobs but no career. But she was desperate for a child and he knew a good thing when he saw it. Even before Matilda was born, Softie knew she’d made a mistake. But she wanted a proper family for her daughter so she tried to push through.

But after two years, she was a broken woman (it seems clear that there’s some sort of post-natal depression going on as well as having a husband whose parenting approach is completely at odds with her own). So she takes Matilda and leaves. Continue reading

Book Review: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

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Let me say straight up, it was a challenge to get through this book. I felt physically sick for quite a lot of it. After all, it’s a first person account of a paedophile pursuing children for sex. It’s literature, it’s well written but don’t have any doubts about the fact that the subject matter is absolutely vile.

I think the reason that Nutting just manages to get away with it is because the paedophile in this case is a woman. Celeste Price is married, young, beautiful, sexy and absolutely the last person you’d think of when describing a paedophile. She is a junior high teacher in Tampa, Florida, for the simple reason that it gives her easy access to her preferred prey: fourteen-year-old boys. Continue reading