October 10, 2017

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading consisted of a pair of second novels whose authors both managed the tricky feat of living up to the high expectations set by their excellent debuts:

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng: In the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, life is carefully ordered, and the ugly parts (garbage cans, racism) are kept out of sight. The Richardsons are the perfect Shaker Heights family: successful and well-off, generous to those less fortunate, blessed with three smart, popular children... and Izzy, the youngest, who never stops causing trouble. Izzy's rebellion reaches a shocking new level when she burns down the Richardson home at the end of a complicated year in which the arrival of an artist and her daughter affects each member of the family in a different way. And both families are impacted by their connections to a custody battle that disturbs the peaceful structure of Shaker Heights.

The novel charts the events of the complicated year by spending time with each character, and the reader gradually understands how everyone's actions are driven by experiences the other characters often don't know about. As in EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Ng does a fantastic job creating believable scenarios in which characters fail to understand each other. I liked how the full story of the past and present emerges, with interesting choices such as keeping Izzy ignored in the background (the way she is within the family) until fairly far into the book, despite her pivotal role.

There are so many fascinating, complex elements to LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. It's crammed with intriguing character details and nuanced interpersonal dynamics. The story delves into difficult topics of class and race and explores questions about who gets to raise a child. There's tension, mystery, and emotion on every page. Once again, I'm extremely impressed, and a bit envious, of what Ng has accomplished.

SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan serves up the same geeky fun as his debut, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but this time the wild quests and secretive societies revolve around food rather than books.

Lois has recently moved to San Francisco for a programming job at a robotics company striving to make work obsolete by overworking its employees. She's miserable in her new life, her stomach hurts constantly from stress, and she has no time away from the office to unwind or make friends. A small bright spot appears when she begins ordering dinner every night from a neighborhood restaurant run by two friendly brothers whose spicy soup and sourdough restore her body and soul. But soon the brothers' visas expire, and they move away, leaving Lois their sourdough starter and the responsibility of keeping it alive. Lois has never prepared food or even thought much about it, but she gives bread baking a try, and this sets her on the path to another new life, one that's far more exciting and delicious.

This novel is delightful and clever from beginning to end. The world of the story combines actual San Francisco and East Bay landmarks with locations that are wonderfully close to plausible, and then it mixes in a dash of the improbable. Lois remains an excellently real protagonist, however, and I sympathized with her hopes and frustrations. The writing made me laugh frequently, but the various plot threads eventually become quite suspenseful, and the satisfying way they tie up left me finishing the book with happy tears. SOURDOUGH is a warm and nourishing treat of a book!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Jennifer Kitses describes what trying to finish a crime novel taught her about writing: "A character might face multiple threats--he's being pursued by the Feds, and also by his partners in crime, and maybe his very survival depends on completing a job that is already hopelessly botched--but what sends him over the edge is worrying about his kids. In a domestic novel, the nature of the stakes and the source of danger might not involve a crime (though they surely can), but from the characters' points of view, the stresses they face at their jobs and in their homes feel no less urgent."