Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Rating:           8

General Rating: A bit disappointed. (Like Crawdad’s, I may have expected too much.) Ng’s writing earns a nine, but the scattered storyline, a seven, averaging a solid eight rating.

Skip factor:  8%. I skipped some of Mia’s flashbacks. Her backstory dragged.  

Who should read:  If you read Everything I Never Told You, if you are a writer, or at least love writing, you’ll enjoy this. I don’t believe people who grab this book before reading Everything I Never Told You will be as enamored by Ng. This is a good book, but I expected great from Ng.

Summary: The story begins with a fire and the mention of Izzy Richardson. Izzy is one of four children who lives in the house burning to the ground. The story also mentions a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who rent one of the Richardsons’ apartments. Mia and Pearl leave the afternoon of the fire, so right away the reader wants to know what’s going on.

The novel tells the story of the well-to-do Richardson family living in the Shaker Heights neighborhood of Cleveland. When Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl rent an apartment from the Richardson’s, their lives intersect in more than tenant-landlord fashion. Elena Richardson admires Mia’s art and hires her to cook and clean for them part-time, saying Mia must continue her art. Mia accepts reluctantly but the position, along with a second part-time job, allows her the freedom to continue her photography.

Eventually, all four of the Richardson children become involved with Mia and Pearl who seem slightly mysterious.

Enter Beebe and Mrs. McCullough. Beebe works with Mia at Mia’s part-time coffee shop job and Mrs. McCullough has been Elena Richardson’s best friend for years. When Mia realizes the adopted McCullough baby may be Beebe’s lost child, the story takes an emotional turn.

There are numerous twists and turns to this story. (Possibly too many.) The author jumps back and forth in time, and where normally I like this, I didn’t here. I found myself skipping Mia’s backstory.

Characters:  I loved all four Richardson children and Pearl. I did not like Elena Richardson or Mrs. McCullough, although I did feel sorry for Mrs. McCullough who could not have children of her own. I believe I experienced all of the emotions the author hoped readers would experience with the characters except for Mia. Mia was too odd for my liking, and the author’s attempt at creating a sad background for Mia didn’t work.

Storyline:  This novel winds through several important life topics: suburban racism, family dynamics, rich versus poor, adoption tribulations, motherhood, and even carries YA coming-of-age subject matter. The story has several protagonists, two mothers, one rich, one poor; five children between them who are at the height of their emotional teenage years; and a destitute woman who finds herself in an impossible situation.

Without spoiling the story, I’ll say this touches heartfeltly on family, pregnancy, adoption, and even abortion.

Writing:  The novel is well written, yet there were many parts where I felt the dramatics of the situations were drawn-out and overdone, hurting the importance of the topics. Mia’s backstory could have been tightened to make readers feel more of a connection with her.

Read this author again?  Yes, I will. I love her writing and am hoping for another book like Everything I Never Told You.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, TwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Valencia and Valentine by Suzy Krause

Rating:                              9.5

General Rating: A wonderful story that jumps between the lives of thirty-something Valencia and eighty-something Mrs. Valentine.  

Skip factor:  0% I skipped nothing. This is the second book I’ve read by Krause and I’ve skipped 0% in both. Simply, I love her writing.

Who should read:  Women who like good writing and unique stories, have ever felt lonely, have even a smidge of OCD, or are helpless dreamers.

Favorite line(s): “But in real life you go around thinking that everything good is going to last forever, and it takes you by surprise when it doesn’t. And when you suddenly realize that it has happened for the last time, it’s too late.”

Summary:  This novel entails two stories, one of Valencia, the thirty-something, and Mrs. Valentine, the eighty-something. Valencia has OCD and sometimes confuses her imagination with reality. Mrs. Valentine has no difficulty distinguishing between reality and the imaginary, but she has a wild imagination and tells lively, believable stories.

Characters:  Krause creates two equally-lovable main characters and several likable ones:

Valencia has been diagnosed, medicated, and sees a psychiatrist for OCD. She’s a debt collector, occasionally wonders if she’s schizophrenic, and never rides/drives on the highway or boards a plane.

Mrs. Valentine is an elderly woman who invites people into her life in order to spend time telling her stories. She’s lonely and the reader develops instant compassion toward her.

Anna is the granddaughter of Mrs. Valentine’s deceased friend (whom she pretends is alive) and the new listener of Mrs. Valentine’s stories.

Grace is one of the few friends who has ever accepted Valencia just the way she is. You like her instantly.

James is someone Valencia meets over the phone and, though I liked him much, I was wary of him.

Peter, Peter, Peter. I loved him. Rooted for him throughout.

Storyline:  Unique. Readers are sure the two stories unraveling are related but aren’t sure how. Valencia hints she caused a death, and Mrs. Valentine pretends she’s talking to the dead, which hooks your interest and keeps you turning pages.

I will not reveal too much but I’ll say this. The story is brilliant and the ending magnificent. I haven’t cried so hard at the end of a story in years, and I’m not sure whether I was crying over the story or the fact that I had just finished such a work of art. It was sad and happy and beautiful all wrapped together and packaged to perfection.

Writing:  In Valencia and Valentine, Krause masters writing style, technique, word usage, and character development. Normally when you find a book that tells two stories, you like one more than the other and zip through one section to get to the other. Not so here. Remarkably, I loved both stories equally.

Read this author again? Yes, yes, yes, rumor has it she’s written a third novel. This book has made me a Suzy-Krauss book stalker. I can’t wait for her next one.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. She is currently in the process of editing her fifth novel, Don’t Mind Me, I Came with the House.

All of Zahner’s novels arose, to some degree, out of true-life events. Her Friend’s novel is “nearly” a memoir, and her “dream” series was inspired by odd events in Zahner’s life. (See the video of her paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here.)

Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Rating:           9

General Rating: Ng is an author to watch. The writing is fabulous—the best I’ve seen recently.

Favorite line: “Everything seems worse in the darkest hours of the night.” (So true!)

Skip factor:  2%. I skipped little.

Who should read:  While I believe this is more for women or young females, anyone who has experienced discrimination or who would like to understand the suffering of those discriminated against, should read. Because the novel includes a suicide topic, I would NOT recommend for YA.

Summary: The beginning reveals Marilyn’s and James’s oldest child, Lydia, is not alive, but the family doesn’t know it yet. An interesting premise, which hooks you immediately.

The novel tells the story of the Lee family who attempt to survive the devastating death of the favored child, Lydia. Each struggle with regrets. The mother, Marilyn, is an American who disappointed her family by marrying a Chinese man. James, a college professor, could not secure the type of position he wanted due to his Chinese ethnicity. Though they were in love when they married, Marilyn is disappointed that she never fulfilled herself. She leaves her husband and two older children to pursue her dreams but then returns, when she realizes she is a few months pregnant with a third child.

James and the two older children, Lydia and Nath, never mend from her leaving them, and when Marilyn returns, feeling she will never reach her full potential in life, she transfers her hopes and dreams to Lydia. Lydia works wholeheartedly to please her mother for fear she will leave them again.

Despite being the center of her parent’s hopes, Lydia is not the student Nath is. Overshadowed by his sister, Nath attempts to win his father’s support but always feels second to Lydia.

Both Nath and Lydia are ostracized for their ethnicity in school and learn to rely on each other. When Nath is accepted to college, Lydia has a hard time fathoming what her life will be like without him. Hannah, the youngest child, adores Lydia but hides in the shadow of both of her older siblings. She notices everything around her, possibly knows more about the family than anyone.

Characters:  

Lydia – I loved this character. Ng shows the inner struggles of teenagers who are discriminated against through this character.

Hannah – The sweet, youngest Lee child is ignored by the family. I wanted to know more about her throughout the entire book.  

Nath – Through Nath, Ng clearly depicts the cruelty of discrimination, because of both his and his father’s Chinese heritage.

Marilyn – I felt sorry for this character. The author makes her out to be a monster. And herein lies the reason I did not give this a 9.5 or even a 10 for the writing. This woman, clearly conflicted, was unintentionally too hard on her daughter. Yet she loved her. There was good and bad to her of course, but, maybe because I am a mother myself, I felt the overtone of the book conveyed only bitterness, no empathy toward her. (I wondered if the author had a rocky relationship with her mother and would love to see how she feels about Marilyn twenty years from now when she herself has grown children.)  

James – I liked the father but couldn’t connect with thim. James was hard on his son, adored Lydia, and ignored Hannah. He was a bit too business-minded for me. However, he too deserved empathy. He was a product of his past.

Other characters – Ng brought a few other characters into the mix when needed to enhance the family’s story.

Storyline:  This novel depicts the hardship and discrimination of an American Chinese family. The suffering of the Lee parents impacted how they raised their children. Neither were bad people, but they allowed their past to influence, harm really, their children—a characteristic often present in many families. While that family dynamics may be common, the effect that discrimination has on a family is explicitly told here.

Writing:  I cannot express how well written this novel is. The writing is possibly the best I’ve seen in years. I dawdled over it. The author told the story from an omnipotent view, which is tough and often frowned upon in today’s literary world. She makes the transition from POV to POV appear easy. This is one of those books that is so well written, you wish you had bought rather than loaned.

Read this author again?  Absolutely. I’ve already begun Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes flawlessly. I’ll read anything she writes.

To find more good books click here.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing by Allison Winn Scotch

Rating:           8

General Rating: Strong female characters win me over every time. They will you, too, in this insightful yet humorous story of a woman running for president.

Favorite line: “Emily shrugged as if, well, it was what it was so she became the full-time parent. Not because he was better at his job than she was, not because she was dying to pack lunches and fold laundry and run all the soccer carpools, but because in the default of the gender hierarchy, for some reason, the man’s needs came first.”

Skip factor:  2%. Maybe? I skipped little.

Who should read:  Feminists, single mothers, politically-aspired, or career-driven women. (Have I missed any women? If I have, add them, too.)   

Summary: Senator Cleo McDougal’s parents died when she was young, but before her father passed, he inspired her to keep a list of regrets—so she could learn from her mistakes. Now she is a contender for a presidential nomination, and when an estranged high school friend writes a damaging op-ed, Cleo must face some of the regrets on her list.

Cleo’s chief of staff, Gaby, detests Cleo admitting mistakes. But when she realizes Cleo has maintained a list of regrets all her life (thirty-nine years), Gaby decides surviving the op-ed and future revelations a presidential candidacy will evoke might fare better if Cleo makes amends with the high school friend—publicly. Though not completely sincere, Cleo’s public apology receives favorable feedback, and Gaby encourages her to address all of her regrets. Cleo explains she has over 200 on her list so they agree upon fixing ten, and the story cascades into the various situations that any woman, who has even the slightest of ambition, might face.   

Characters:  Scotch developed her characters into true-to-life people.  

Cleo is a single mother who is well-liked, hard-working, and competitive. She worked her way up the political ladder through sheer determination. I didn’t love her. I’m sure the author would not take offense. Cleo had a journey to make. She is the main character and, as in all novels, had a lesson to learn.   

Lucas – Is a typical fourteen-year-old with an atypical life. Through no fault of his own (isn’t everything a mother’s fault?), he is living within the political arena. To make matters worse, his birth father’s identity has been withheld from him. He floats in and out of the story adding to Cleo’s guilt load because, well, don’t all teenagers?

Gaby –  Is an intelligent, mostly loyal, feminist, and long-time friend of Cleo. She makes the hard decisions for her boss. Unlike Cleo, Gaby has a side fling going on which continually reminds Cleo that she does not.

Arianna – Is Cleo’s assistant. She is also a smart, hardworking woman (I love the strong female characters in this novel) but has one major drawback. She apologizes profusely, which adds much to Cleo’s story.

Georgie – Is Cleo’s much older sister whom she is not close to. Georgie comes in at the final hour to help.

The guys – Is it bad that I don’t remember much of them or care that I remember much about them? There is an important politician, Wolf, an ex-boyfriend, Matty, a biological father, Doug, and a newscaster, Bowen. Each is placed in the story to highlight the different standards applied to women in life as opposed to those expected of men.

Storyline:  This is the story of womanhood, the struggles they face today, the mistakes they make, the insecurities they have, and their ultimate strength and resilience. Cleo McDougal needed to learn a lesson. She had to accept her imperfectness. And while she may be a presidential candidate, everyday women, especially working mothers or single moms, can relate to her life. While society is hard on us, we are sometimes our hardest critics.   

Writing:  The writing was easy, interesting, and balanced. Just enough white space for someone like me who loves dialogue but not too much.

Read this author again? Absolutely.  

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreadsBookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Sorry I Missed You by Suzy Krause

Rating:                              9

General Rating: Do you like quirky? Read this. I had to find out what the fuss over this book was. I mean it’s everywhere, right? Like with many books, I wasn’t enamored by the first few chapters despite Krause’s writing being quick, clever, and fabulous. But hold on! Do not put this one down.  I ended up loving it!

Skip factor:  0% I skipped nothing. Krause’s short, crisp writing with lots of dialogue, kept me from skipping anything at all.

Who should read:  For the first time in a review, I’m not sure who to suggest should read this novel. My guess is if you like frivolous, quirky characters, good writing, and different plots, you’ll like this. That’s as good as my guess gets today.

Summary:  This is the story of three very different women and their nerdy landlord. Upfront, there appear to be ghosts in the attic of the three-unit old-home-converted-to-apartment building they share. Each of the women, along with Landlord Larry, have a past dilemma haunting them (ha-ha) that they must come to terms with.

Nineteen-year-old Mackenzie can’t forgive herself for a lie she told at thirteen. Middle-aged Sunna, a beauty, can’t forgive a friend—a more beautiful, successful friend—for ghosting her. And the totally friendless senior character, Maude, can’t get along with anyone because some man, Richard, left her at the alter, or rather, in the park in a wedding gown.

When a note in the mailbox, “Sorry I missed You” is found all but ripped to shreds, the three attempt to decipher who it was meant for. The only message they can decrypt, however, is someone will meet someone at a local coffee shop on some afternoon. Because of their haunting pasts, each of the women believe the letter was meant for them, and they begin meeting at the coffee shop every day, which results in a rather forced friendship. When the building they live in presents ghosts of its own—real ghosts—they begin to rely heavily on each other.

Without a spoiler, the plot is simple, but by the time a reader realizes this, they’ve got too much invested in these women. By halfway through the book I couldn’t put it down because I LOVED all three of them along with landlord Larry.

Characters:  Krause’s characters are so different you’ll thrive on their interactions. I am honestly unsure which character I liked the most. Very seldom do I begin a book not liking any characters and end up loving all of them, equally. This is a first, so here are the characters in no particular order:

Sunna is a beauty but has been stifled by her ex-friend Britt, a bigger beauty. Sunna has no patience, is curt, and when she becomes acquainted with the older lady in her apartment building, Maude, she realizes she is on a path to become alone and friendless like Maude.

Mackenzie is the youngest and nicest tenant, who at times you believe might be a murderer. Yet you love her anyway for her compassion.

Maude is the old lady you love to hate. She’s bitter, annoyed, whiny, and honest to a fault. You can’t help but wish you had a little bit of her bluntness.

Landlord Larry is a forty-year-old punker, who practically has nerd tattooed on his forehead. His thoughts are so entertaining they add humor to his already peculiar, humorous life.

Minor characters – Not many. Richard, Maude’s ex, shows up but the reader judges him purely from Maude, Sunna, and Mackenzie’s thrashing of him. A few other characters pop in for a line or two, but Krause keeps out the unimportant.

Storyline:  Strange, weird, silly, yet insightful. There are a few questions I have about the plot for Mackenzie and Sunna which make me want to go back and reread it. (Plus I love Krause’s writing style.) And not to ruin the tale, the way Krause winds up the ghosts in the attic is different even for me, an occasional paranormal writer, but unique as is the entire story. Everything is so cleverly written you can’t put it down.  Her writing is superb. I enjoyed the characters’ internal struggles wrap up, and I must figure out how Krause got me from not liking to loving her characters.

Writing:  In Sorry I Missed You, Krause masters writing style, technique, word usage, and character development.

Like most novels, the story begins slowly. Beginnings are tough for writers. We juggle the boredom of the backstory with opening sensationalism. Recently lambasted on Amazon about the beginning of one of my own novels, I’ve done some front-end soul-searching. Did I love the beginning of my own book? No. I didn’t blame my reviewer. My first chapter was okay. Second and third, eh. Fourth, I didn’t like. Then from five on out, I was pretty proud.

Sorry I Missed You re-sparked a flicker of confidence in me. I realized beginnings are tough for most writers—even fabulous ones like Krause.

I walked through her first chapters. However, by forty percent in, I was back in my happy place, speeding along, comfortably curled up on the couch wondering how much reading I could get in before I started feeling guilty about my real-world chores.

If you love great writing and characters, you’ll love this like me.

Read this author again? Yes. I loved Krause’s writing. I’m not a fan of wordy and Krause isn’t. She writes clean and crisp. Her character development is as good as any writer’s and better than most. I’m anxious to read her again.  

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebookGoodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.