Book Review: Such A Fun Age

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Kiley Reid’s debut novel, “Such A Fun Age”, is an ambitious, funny, yet compassionate novel that explores race, class, and white privilege. Everything about the novel is fresh that while themes about race and privilege are social issues that when explored in fiction usually exude a downright heavy atmosphere, Reid’s book is light and subtle yet an eye-opener like no other. 

Here is Emira, a young black woman who receives a late-night call from her white employer, Alix Chamberlain,  asking her to take her daughter, Briar, to the grocery store while Alix tends to a domestic situation. Emira, of course, said yes though she was having a wonderful time celebrating her friend’s birthday, she decided she could really use the cash.  What was supposed to be a night of earning extra for herself, Emira got into a familiar situation for a person of color in a majority-white neighborhood grocery store. Accused of kidnapping three-year-old Briar, Emira was nearly taken into police custody had it not been for Briar’s father who rushed to the grocery store to clear Emira of the accusation.  What Emira soon realizes is how the incident greatly affected her employer, Alix, in ways Emira finds overbearing. 

This book stabs at privileges that come with being “white.” It explores a contemporary version of the “white man’s burden” (the supposed obligation of white colonizers to manage the affairs of their non-white colonial subjects) disguised as a narcissistic obsession.  This burden comes with the persuasions concerning what white people can offer to black people so white people can be seen as sympathetic to their plight. Similarly, it also delves on the psychology that exposure to blackness is quarantining white people from behaviors that could judge them as racist.  Take, for example, Kelley Copeland’s character who enjoys the company of black friends and prefers to date women of color. Emira has struggled to draw the line if Kelley’s obsession with black people is sincere or if he does so as a means of purgation. It is hard not to feel the seeming tug-of-war tension between Emira and Kelley. While Kelley pushes Emira to stand her ground, she argues that Kelley is no better, that his argument against Alix applies to him as well. 

Alix’s character is Reid’s antagonist but she does so in a way that Alix seems to be devoid of any knowledge of her self-serving motivation.  All Alix sees is her need to protect her babysitter at all costs founded on what could only be described as a deep sense of ownership toward Emira.  Moreso, Alix wanted what she thought was best for her babysitter by being over-protective but in so doing, Alix’s overcompensation defense makes her blind to what Emira truly wants; to what she truly needs like health insurance and a full-time job so she can pay her rent.  The dynamics between Alix and Emira as they explore their differences–entitlement vs the lack of it–is the heart and core of this novel.  

While there are other themes explored in the novel, what strikes me the most is Reid’s use of irony as a literary device.  Whereas Alix and Kelley are both obsessed at protecting Emira from prejudice and discrimination; their incessant justification as to why she should defend her being black, she only concerns herself with issues like health insurance and rent payment. If anything, “Such A Fun Age” is a fun novel all the while exposing the duplicity of overcompensation making it hard for people of color to understand the true intentions of white liberals.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Kiley Reid

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 320 pages

Publisher: December 31st 2019 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

ISBN-10: 052554190X

ISBN-13: 9780525541905

Book Review: The Other Mrs.

She tried to run, but she can’t escape the other Mrs.

Sadie and Will Foust have only just moved their family from bustling Chicago to small-town Maine when their neighbor Morgan Baines is found dead in her home. The murder rocks their tiny coastal island, but no one is more shaken than Sadie.

But it’s not just Morgan’s death that has Sadie on edge. And as the eyes of suspicion turn toward the new family in town, Sadie is drawn deeper into the mystery of what really happened that dark and deadly night. But Sadie must be careful, for the more she discovers about Mrs. Baines, the more she begins to realize just how much she has to lose if the truth ever comes to light.

Kubica has created a well-researched narrative that explores multiple layers of mental illness which is quite a common trope in most thriller novels.  The fate of the characters in this nerve-wracking fictional work hangs on a balance and to be dealt with yet again the powerful tool of the unreliable narrator is enough to stay right till the end regardless of its almost predictable plot.

The most important theme of the novel concerns stigma and discrimination against mental illness.  People with mental illness are easily dismissed either as targets for public stigma and/or the stigma against the self.  The lesson to be learned from this work of fiction constitutes the 3A’s: awareness, acknowledgment, and action. Ignorance is not an excuse and apathy could dismiss any fundamental hopes of building confidence and healthy relationships and conditions. There is nothing more admirable than thrillers morphing into social novels that catalyze consciousness and elicit fury against injustices from people and society.  

What this novel presents, is real people dealing with real, oppressive problems. Kubica managed to represent characters battling against physical and mental health disorders and how self-centered, coercive, and manipulative people have taken advantage of their situation.  Bullying and abuse were also portrayed in this book and these socio-psychological problems are lethal seeds that grow into destructive ammunition later on in life.

Multiple timelines and multiple narrators, each with different perspectives and persuasions are the tools by which the author made use of to manipulate the readers.  The complexity of each of the characters–flawed and immanently human, yet vile and greedy–forms many archetypes common in fiction: “the villain”, “the victim”, “the rebel” and “the trickster”. But the element of surprise, judging by this book alone, is Kubica’s poison that kills whatever disappointment one reader may have of the plot’s predictability.  One might have misjudged the book early on but surprise, surprise, the narrative is not what you think it is. Just when you thought you already know the path the book is heading toward, the remarkable twist hits you right in the face. There seem to be no inhibitions on Kubica’s creative genius of a mind and to think that this novel is another suspenseful yet formulaic domestic thriller, will be in for a treat.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Mary Kubica

Genre: Thriller / Mystery

Length: 368 pages

Publisher: Park Row; Original edition (February 18, 2020)

ISBN-10: 0778369110

ISBN-13: 978-0778369110

Book Review: The Other People

Driving home one night, stuck behind a rusty old car, Gabe sees a little girl’s face appear in the rear window. She mouths one word: ‘Daddy.’ It’s his five-year-old daughter, Izzy.

He never sees her again.

Three years later, Gabe spends his days and nights traveling up and down the motorway, searching for the car that took his daughter, refusing to give up hope, even though most people believe that Izzy is dead.

Fran and her daughter, Alice, also put in a lot of miles on the motorway. Not searching. But running. Trying to keep one step ahead of the people who want to hurt them. Because Fran knows the truth. She knows what really happened to Gabe’s daughter.

Then, the car that Gabe saw driving away that night is found, in a lake, with a body inside and Gabe is forced to confront events, not just from the night his daughter disappeared, but from far deeper in his past.

His search leads him to a group called The Other People.

If you have lost a loved one, The Other People want to help. Because they know what loss is like. They know what pain is like. They know what death is like.

There’s just one problem . . . they want other people to know it too.

CJ Tudor’s fourth standalone novel, “The Other People” is nothing short of a thrilling, unputdownable mystery fiction that deftly reflects on circumstances and tragedies in relation to one’s frame of reference on death and revenge.  Gabe, Tudor’s main character, is presented as a father who had years to deal with the unfathomable loss of his wife and daughter. But Gabe had not come to terms with his daughter Izzy’s death just as yet. He stood by what he saw the night of the murder: Izzy’s face, with an unmistakable tooth missing in front, surfaced in a beat-up car just in front of Gabe while driving along the M1 motorway. He knew what he saw, believed it, and acted upon it with all the desperate hope a father always has for his child– holding on the belief that his daughter is alive and he will do whatever it takes to get her back.  

A story about a father’s undoing by what he believed was caused by his costly miscalculations, “The Other People” gives an insight into coping with grief and loss burdened by guilt and revenge.  Similar to another thriller novel, “The Kill Club” by Wendy Heard, Tudor has also fabricated a sinister underground organization hired to exact revenge founded on the Old Testament biblical justification: “an eye for an eye” on quid pro quo terms.

Layered with multiple narratives, Tudor has expertly presented each character’s backstory in well-structured chapters reaching mini-climaxes here and there, ending with suspenseful dialogues and cliffhangers.  The plot’s dramatic tension a stark reminder of why thriller novels serve to delight readers of the genre despite its taxing nature. I was unquestionably hooked from the beginning–how Tudor ably introduced her characters individually until the readers get to piece the events together, revealing how they were all connected by circumstances.  But the plot promises more than just another nail-biting bootless errand; not just another mystery to solve but one that appends a paranormal side story to contend with.

However, what started out as a brilliant atmospheric plot catapulted into an upsetting ending.  The build-up toward an intriguing plot twist was palpable and gripping yet, it was the novel’s ending that I found least convincing. What made up for the plot’s “thriller and suspense” facet, went downhill due to its lackluster depiction of the supernatural storyline: the paranormal connection between Alice and the girl she sees in the mirror.  The big reveal somehow failed to justify the atmospheric tension built on a purportedly solid premise. Despite being brilliant in many ways, this novel left me with a nagging feeling of being shortchanged. I was mostly geared toward the supernatural aspect of the story but the tasteless and rushed denouement of that part of the story failed to have upped the ante otherwise, it would have been a perfect thriller novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Author: C.J Tudor

Genre: Thriller / Mystery / Horror

Length: 327 pages

Publisher: January 28th 2020 by Ballantine Books

ISBN-10: 1984824996

ISBN-13: 978-1984824998

Book Review: Nothing To See Here

Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help.

Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way. Lillian is convinced Madison is pulling her leg, but it’s the truth.

Thinking of her dead-end life at home, the life that has consistently disappointed her, Lillian figures she has nothing to lose. Over the course of one humid, demanding summer, Lillian and the twins learn to trust each other—and stay cool—while also staying out of the way of Madison’s buttoned-up politician husband. Surprised by her own ingenuity yet unused to the intense feelings of protectiveness she feels for them, Lillian ultimately begins to accept that she needs these strange children as much as they need her—urgently and fiercely. Couldn’t this be the start of the amazing life she’d always hoped for?

With white-hot wit and a big, tender heart, Kevin Wilson has written his best book yet—a most unusual story of parental love.

Magical realism is a literary style fabricating fictional texts into the portrayal and characterization of ordinary people going against extraordinary ones, but the magic is always left unexplained. There are more than a hundred books maybe thousands written on magical realism but the more popular ones include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits”, Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to name a few.

Now, Kevin Wilson’s novel, “Nothing To See Here” is a wonder of a book that is fun to read but also moving and rewarding. Wilson has done a wonderful job of incorporating fantastical elements into a real-world setting. Wilson’s obsession with spontaneous human combustion made perfect sense why he chose to write a novel about it. But the phenomenon of people spontaneously bursting into flames is no stranger to fiction.  Charles Dickens’ novel, “In Bleak House” attributed SHC to alcoholism as was Nikolai Gogol’s, “Dead Souls”. There are more than a few books (fiction and non-fiction alike) that have fueled theories on the phenomenon’s existence that the probability of it lies in the so-called odd circumstances under which victims burst into flames.

But this novel does not persuade its readers to jump into the wagon associated with the science or the mystery about this phenomenon. The book is rather a narrative that posits: in human nature belonging is a strong and inevitable feeling that the need for it makes us commit wise choices even bad ones. 

Recently turned twenty-eight, Lillian Breaker received a letter from her not-so estranged friend Madison Roberts, asking her to come to her estate in Tennessee with the prospect of an interesting job opportunity. The “job opportunity” as Lillian had come to know was to take care of Madison’s stepkids, Bessie and Roland, who recently lost their mother, their father being the cause of it, and just as one would think nothing more heartbreaking could come close to the circumstances the ten-year-olds have been thrown into, they also just happen to simultaneously burst into flames when their emotions run high. 

The story takes us to how people who have been making a mess of things have consistently waited for some sort of validation to right a wrong. There are several viewpoints that Wilson wanted to expound on but the heart of the novel is how the main protagonist, Lillian, opens herself up to the two kids and made her transition from someone being close to a recluse to someone who takes on the responsibility of parenthood.  

Lillian’s inherent need to protect the twins physically and emotionally was a result of her own need to be loved and accepted. As a child, she had never known her father, and her mother, she assumes, secretly hated her existence.  Her seemingly bad life was for her a matter that need not be dealt with heavily, rather a matter-of-fact just like every other shitty thing in her life that went by. Her acceptance of her failed career decisions made it easier to ignore the consequences but the fact of which made her doubt her own capacity to handle bigger responsibilities.  Wilson’s take on the SHC is symbolic of how kids really are–how they figuratively burst into flames when agitated and the consequences of it elicit varying behaviors and responses from their parents. 

There’s also a lot of references to the dynamics of family relationships in the novel but the readers get to know two sides of parenting: one that lets parents provide something essential for the child and one that challenges the child to provide the parents with a maturity to acknowledge the limits of provision, an outward display of obedience and/or learning the art of accountability.  The contrasting behaviors exhibited by Bessie and Roland’s father, Jasper, as opposed to the way Lillian handles parenting, are what readers should reflect on upon finishing the novel. 

A succinct piece of writing crafted with a humorous and subtle take on fabulism, “Nothing To See Here” is nothing short of an entertaining yet enthralling novel on love, acceptance, and sacrifice. The novel is hilariously funny made obvious by the consistent banter between Lillian and Carl which was a collection of momentous dialogues to behold, but comfortingly heartwarming.  I would assume that every reader would champion a happy conclusion despite the turn of events that every child character in the novel was thrust into. It is without a doubt, a lost opportunity had I not encountered this book. You will surely laugh, sneer at times, and a tear or two may fall surreptitiously, and maybe, just maybe, you’d wonder if you might spontaneously burst into flames.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Author: Kevin Wilson

Genre: Humorous Fiction / Family Life Fiction

Length: 272 pages

Publisher: Ecco (October 29, 2019)

ISBN-10: 0062913468

ISBN-13: 978-0062913463

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea

In the late 1930s, civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.

Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, they embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning, and over the course of their lives, they will face trial after trial. But they will also find joy as they patiently await the day when they will be exiles no more. Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile, and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea shows Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

There are two types of people in war, those who have learned to accept their fate and those who have fought hard against it.

Isabel Allende’s 23rd novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea”, is set in the first half of 20th century Spain during the Spanish Civil War as General Francisco Franco brought about the downfall of the Republican government. When Barcelona fell to General Franco, almost half a million Spaniards crossed the border into France. The Spanish refugees mostly left on foot, or by cart or in a truck.  The thread of refugees was the target of intense Nationalist and Italian air raids. Enveloped in cold and snow, they began their journey across the mountains to reach France only to be met with harsher conditions while detained at internment camps as if hope truly abandoned them during those moments. 

It was through these factual events in history spanning generations of characters that Victor Dalmau’s story unfolds. From being a subsidiary doctor to the wounded and the dying to becoming a licensed doctor who had earned the respect of peers and enemies alike, Victor’s fate had been determined from the moment he breathed life into a wounded soldier at the brink of death. His determination and relentless need to prove a somehow anticipated tragic end wrong has pushed him to cleave unto hope by means of practical decisions and rational choices. Determined to survive from their hopeless and undetermined fate within the confines of the concentration camps in Argelès-sur-Mer, Victor and his dead brother’s wife, Roser, decided to marry in order to seek asylum in another country. On board the SS Winnipeg, chartered by Pablo Neruda, the two embarked on a journey to Chile, where they foraged for the home they left behind, across continents toward a country that is depicted as a long petal of the sea.

This is a book that narrates reality at a point in history where dreams were shattered and lives were lost. It spoke about promises and sacrifices: an ode to the dreams of principled yet hopeful youths and the whims and caprices of the privileged.  It is a subtle but rich portrayal of human behavior in times of war. The novel points out that every person responds differently–that choices are independent of beliefs, political and cultural background, and moral upbringing. It is one thing to read a non-fiction book on the accounts of Spanish refugees who have crossed continents to survive, and another to merge it with layers of fictional characters who are as real and palpable as the actual men and women they represent. 

It didn’t feel like I was immersed in a fictional world.  It felt like reading a history textbook requiring my full attention, intent at memorizing key details–a student yearning to look into the history of the Spanish Civil War up until the military regime of Augusto Pinochet to reflect on the pride, greed, and tyranny of bad leaders and the selfless servitude of those who simply wanted to put an end to suffering and hinder the rise of an oppressive government. Allende has magnificently married fiction and reality on the basis of historical truth and what a pleasure it was to be able to read a fictional novel that chronicles real political heroes and tyrants.  

Once again, Isabel Allende has written a detailed narrative that speaks from the heart, borrowed from the pages of history cloaked in both darkness and light. This is a must-read for anyone who finds historical fiction as both enlightening and informative. No one can argue that Allende’s writing reveals in us a yearning to know more about the events of the past.  For how often can we peek into the lives of those who have sacrificed their lives for the greater good? It is only through remembering them and Allende made sure that we do lest we forget.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Isabel Allende

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 336 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books (January 21, 2020)

ISBN-10: 198482015X

ISBN-13: 978-1984820150