Ryan Ruby – The Zero and the One

Ryan Ruby – The Zero and the One

Owen is full of fear. He hates flying, maybe because he hasn’t done it quite so often. But there was no way of avoiding his best friend’s funeral, he has to go to New York to attend the service. How could he end on this plane? Owen Whiting has fought his way from his non-academic family up to Oxford where he spends his first months mostly alone and an outsider. Only when Zach approaches and befriends him do things change. The young American has seen something in Owen that was hidden to the others, Owen is his equal, he can share his thoughts and is ready to transgress the boundaries of life. Still, Owen cannot fully comprehend how it all could have ended like this, maybe he will find answers across the ocean.

“The Zero and the One” keeps the secrets about Zach for quite some time; the structure of narrating the events surrounding the funeral and disrupting them with narratives of the past, postpones the clear picture and the full understanding of the events repeatedly. The beginning was rather slow, nevertheless I liked Owen’s background story, his family, his own expectations of life and his fight for a higher education. After the boys have met, the focus shifts a bit and the whole novel becomes a lot more philosophical. Their treasure hunt for the not so famous author of “The Zero and the One” already provides some suspense, however, it is only in the third part that the action really accelerates and Ryan Ruby can surprise the reader. Never would I have imagined such a story as the one that lies beneath it all.

To some extent, it is a classic coming-of-age novel, on the other hand, we also have quite a typical story of an ambitious young person from a poor background who suddenly enters a completely new sphere where he does not fit in at all and where intelligence and thirst for knowledge just aren’t enough. Thirdly, there is a psychological thrill particularly towards the end which I found most intriguing and fascinating. Zach is the character who can enthral the reader and who is not easily tangible, but here, the protagonist has to offer much more than some well-known cliché.

For quite some time I thought “The Zero and the One” was a good and entertaining novel. The closer I got to the climax and the end, the more I was drawn into it and spellbound.


Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Matt Santos is standing in an auction hall, looking at a picture, Budapest Street Scene by Ervin Kálmán. It will be sold the next day and he is ruminating about how this picture came to let him know more about his family than he ever did before and how it changed his life completely. His father had warned him about it, told him to let go, not to pursue the case any further, but he wouldn’t listen. So he is standing there on his own, alone, with his thoughts about his ex-girl-friend Tracy, whom he still loves, his lawyer Rachel, who helped him to get hold of the picture, and about his now deceased father.

Memento Park is not easy to summarise. It’s a novel about art, Jewish art in Nazi Europe; it’s about a complicated father-son relationship; it’s a story about people leaving their past behind and burying it down in the back of their minds after emigration; it’s about love and trust, and about religion and the faith you have and to what extent this creates your identity.

Matt is the child of Jewish family who suffered in Budapest under the Nazis, yet he doesn’t know anything about it. Even though he was never told anything about his family’s history, it lives on in him and through the relationship with his father. A father who does not seem to be loving or at least a bit affectionate. He is always distant and until the very end, Matt doesn’t understand why and he never asked. To me, this is the central aspect of the novel, even though I found the Kálmán story, his life and word, even though completely fictional but close to the stories of some artists of that time, also interesting.

Mark Sarvas chose an interesting title for his novel, “Memento Park” is the name of a location in Budapest where all the statues of former communist grandees are exhibited. It’s a way of dealing with the past, neither hiding nor ignoring it, but giving it a place where you can confront it; it’s just a part of life and it helped to shape – here to town and country – but also you as a person. In this way, there are more layers to the novel which make it a great reading experience.

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

What can a daughter learn from her mother? Four generations of women of one family suffer from their respective mother’s way of life, the choices they made and the future they planned for their kids. The first generation is embodied by Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby’s wife, a young American who freed herself from Puritan Bostonian convictions and was looking for freedom and a life for the arts in Europe. Her daughter Diana grows up in Paris between all the famous people of the so called “Lost Generation” and never had to chance to just be a girl, too much was projected in her. Diana’s daughters Elena and Leonie found ways of opposing their mother by opting for very traditional models of love and life. Elena’s young children, one even unborn, are now the fourth generation who grows up with a heavy legacy.

The novel oscillates between times and places. We meet the Parisian It-crowd of the twenties when Caresse and Harry have their big time and Diana is just a girl. Then we jump to Caresse’s last days in Italy, decades after she has lost her husband and when her grand-daughters are already grown-up women. Another 20 years on, Diana’s life is coming to an end. Yet, no matter what point in time in general or in the characters’ life, the core question is always the same: what do you expect from life and how much love do you need?

Alternating the setting surely makes the novel lively, on the other hand, the development of the characters suffers from this non-linear or non-chronological arrangement. Even though you can make out especially Diana’s development, her daughters, for example, remained a bit a mystery for me. What I found intriguing, however, was the highly complex mother-daughter relationship which becomes very clear in every constellation: on the one hand, unconditional love and the hope that the daughter can break away from conventions and find love and happiness in life, on the other hand, the fact that they cannot live up to their own ideals and that wishes are not fulfilled makes them also reproachful and mean in their later life.

It is quite interesting to see that the author Tamara Colchester herself is a descendant of this family. This raises the question of how much fiction and how much reality you can find in the text. No matter the answer, it’s a novel about strong women and the choices we make in our lives.

Willem Elsschot – Käse

Willem Elsschot – Käse

Angestachelt durch einen Kreis erfolgreicher Herren, ergreift Frans Laarmans die Chance zum Aufstieg. Eigentlich ist er Büroschreiber bei der General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerpen, was jedoch nicht so vornehm klingt wie die Berufe der anderen Teilnehmer der illustren Diskussionsrunde. Für den holländischen Hornstra kann er jedoch die Generalvertretung für Belgien und das Großherzogtum Luxemburg übernehmen und fortan deren Käse vertreiben. Schnell gewöhnt sich Laarmans daran, nicht mehr nur Büroangestellter, sondern nun Handelsvertreter zu sein und richtet sein Büro in angemessener Weise ein. Dass er nicht den geringsten Schimmer davon hat, wie man Käse vertreibt, ist für ihn bis zu diesem Zeitpunkt nachrangig. Erst als die erste Ladung vor seiner Tür steht, wird ihm bewusst, auf welches Unterfangen er sich eingelassen hat und dass dieses womöglich seine Fähigkeiten überschreitet.

Willem Elsschot ist das Pseudonym Alfons de Ridders, der zu seinen Lebzeiten (1882-1960) nur heimlich schrieb und sein künstlerisches Schaffen vor seiner Familie geheim hielt. „Käse“ entstand 1933, hat jedoch bis heute nichts an seinem sarkastischen, aber durch und durch menschlichen Ton verloren. Der kleine Mann, der die große Chance ergreift und erst zu spät merkt, dass er sich womöglich damit übernommen hat – die Parallelen zu Hans Fallada sind offenkundig.

Der Ich-Erzähler Frans Laarmans ist eigentlich kein falscher Kerl. Er macht seine Arbeit ordentlich und pflichtbewusst, aber ein wenig neidisch ist er schon gegenüber denen, die im Leben mehr erreicht haben, ein größeres Einkommen haben und den besser klingenden Titel besitzen. Man verübelt ihm nicht, dass er sich voller Enthusiasmus in die neue Aufgabe stürzt, auch wenn er von Käse keine Ahnung hat und ein wenig zu großspurig sein Büro plant. Auch dass ihm die neue Position zu Kopf steigt, kann man eher amüsiert beobachten:

„Meiner Frau habe ich die Neuigkeit nicht einfach so an Ort und Stelle aufgetischt, sondern sie musste sich gedulden, bis ich soupiert hatte. Von nun an esse ich nämlich nicht mehr, sondern ich dejeuniere, diniere oder soupiere.“

Sein Verhalten gegenüber der Ehefrau jedoch offenbart seine menschlichen Schwächen:

„Ich muss auch zugeben, dass ich ab und zu der Versuchung nicht widerstehen kann, sie zu reizen, bis ich Tränen sehe. Diese Tränen tun mir dann gut. Ich benutze sie, um meine Anflüge von Wut über meine soziale Minderwertigkeit an ihr auszuleben.“

Frans Laarmans ist ein kleiner Mann und kann auch nicht aus sich heraus. Man ahnt, dass es kein gutes Ende mit ihm nehmen kann. Trotz seiner Verfehlungen hat man doch auch ein wenig Mitleid mit ihm, man wünscht es ihm eigentlich, dass er ein wenig Glück im Leben hat, aber vielleicht findet er dies woanders, nicht jedoch in einem Handelsunternehmen.

Eine rundherum stimmige Novelle über die großen Ambitionen, die manchmal die Fähigkeiten übersteigen.

Clarissa Goenawan – Rainbirds

Clarissa Goenawan – Rainbirds

When the news of his beloved sister’s death reaches Ren, he hurries to the small town of Akakawa where she had been worked as a teacher for the last couple of years. The police do not have many cues about the young woman’s crucial death, she fell victim to a merciless murderer and was heavily mutilated. Ren starts to ask questions himself, first the landlord where his sister had stayed and with whom she seemed to have had quite a delicate agreement. But also at her work place, there are interesting people who might know more than they would admit at first. In his dreams, Ren is haunted by a young girl with pigtails who obviously wants to tell him something, but he needs time to understand the girl’s message.

Clarissa Goenawan’s novel is set in 1990s in rural Japan and thus the atmosphere is far from the Tokyo rush that you might have in mind when thinking about young people on the Asian island. The plot moves at a moderate pace; modern media simply does not exist so people need to talk to each other to get information or to – very conventionally – send letters. Even though the motive that drives the action is an unsolved murder case, the novel is far from being a real crime novel. It is much more about the brother’s loss, a rather dysfunctional family (or rather: families since none of the families presented can be considered functional in any way) and in a way also about love or different kinds of love. It is a quite melancholy book with some rather dark and even mystical aspects.

I felt sorry for the young protagonist most of the time. He is quite lonely and now with his beloved sister gone, he got nobody to rely on anymore. His childhood memories were quite depressing and it is a wonder that from what he and his sister experienced they didn’t develop any serious mental illness. There is something intriguing about the other characters, too, albeit I assume that this is also stemming from the fact that they are portrayed in a fairly typical Japanese way, eccentric to some extent, which is rather unknown or unusual for Europeans. What I found quite interesting is the fact that the writer herself isn’t Japanese, but for me, her novel is thoroughly Japanese concerning the atmosphere and the characters.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.

Lexie Elliott – The French Girl

Lexie Elliott – The French Girl

It‘s been ten years since their legendary summer holidays in France. Now, the six friends reunite in London. They have all pursued their careers, found new partners and almost forgot what happened on their last day in France that summer. The French girl who spent a lot of time with them went missing, already back then a murder investigation was set up by the French authorities, yet, without success. But now, her body has been found, buried in a well on the premises and she obviously did not fall into it by accident. Kate does not have a clue what might have happened, she only remembers her quarrel with her then boyfriend Seb. But now things are different and soon, Kate finds herself prime suspect in a murder case.

Lexie Elliott tells the strange murder case only from one point of view, Kate’s, which adds a lot to the suspense of the novel. Kate is telling her story, we, as the reader, only know what she knows, we only get her thoughts and thus are limited in getting the whole picture. Additionally, during the course of the story, you start doubting your narrator – is Kate reliable or is she lying to us and leading us to false clues? I liked this play with uncertainty and the fact that only bits and pieces of the whole story are revealed.

The strongest aspect of the novel are the characters. First of all, Kate who is quite lively drawn, second and even more interesting is Caro whom you cannot trust which is obvious right from the start. But also the other characters are suspicious, Kate’s friend Lara and her affair with the French investigator or Tony who is making advances towards Kate. The story itself, however, does not advance at a high pace, at times you wait impatiently for something to happen. The fact of only giving one perspective, on the one hand, adds to the suspense, on the other, it temps to skip pages you to learn what actually happened because the information you get is quite limited. The end and the solution was not really convincing for me, for me, the motive was too weak to justify such an act.

Amy Bloom – White Houses

Amy Bloom – White Houses

Life does not endow much to young Lorena Alice Hickok. When her mother dies, her father sends her away and she has to make her way on her own. Thanks to her stubbornness and perseverance, Lorena becomes one of the first woman journalists of the United States. In 1932, she works for Associated Press and reports on Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s electoral campaign. This is when she meets Eleanor for the first time. They women fall for each other immediately and this, Lorena gets closer to the famous couple and finally becomes Eleanor‘s lover.

Based on the known facts, Amy Bloom tells the story of two unorthodox and progressive women of the 1930s. It is especially Lorena who is an extraordinary character. She is not particularly charming, nor very attractive at the first glance, nevertheless, there is something fascinating about her, her independence makes her stand out and her courage and self-confidence irritate the men around her.

On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt is an outstanding first lady. Educated in the best boarding schools and acquainted with the manners of the high society, she moves smoothly around the rich and famous. When she entered a room, all eyes were on her. Yet, this did not prevent her husband from betraying her and obviously, she was aware of this. His lovers lived under their roof and Eleanor could watch them closely. But, had Franklin and Eleanor lost interest, they could be awful, nasty people.

Amy Bloom unveils a scandalous affair and tells the story of a woman, or rather two women, who followed their instincts and thus were quite ahead of their time.


Akwaeke Emezi – Freshwater

Akwaeke Emezi – Freshwater


Their prayers have been heard and the god Ala sent them a baby girl: Ada, named in honour of the generous goddess. Yet, it comes with a plus, Ada is not alone, she has got some characters living in her mind, still asleep, but eager to wake up and take over the body given to them. The first two to arrive and take care of Ada and her siblings in their Nigerian village. Later, in America, when another of the voices awakes and takes over control over Ada‘s body, things turn out differently. For the world outside, it is hidden what is going on inside Ada‘s head, once she tries to tell a therapist, however, the voices that possess her are stronger and find a way out of this dangerous situation.

Akwaeke Emezi‘s novel „Freshwater“ was all but easy to read for me. First of all, I had some difficulty understanding who is telling the story, it took me some time to figure out that the voices in Ada‘s head are the narrators. So, we are mostly inside her mind, but sometimes we get what happens outside, too.

You cannot really say that Ada is mad even though she hears voices and follows their command. It was especially when she hurt herself to calm down the first two voices, Smoke and Shadow, that was hard to endure. The third who made her act promiscuously wasn‘t much better. They are evil, after all, misusing an innocent human to fulfil their wishes and greed. I am not sure if it works like this with people hearing voices, even if it is somewhat different, this seems to be horrible. On the other hand, Ada obviously experienced some very bad incidents and the voices were somehow able to split those memories from her normal memory thus making her forget these experiences. Maybe this is the cause why the voices could develop after all.

It is always hard to like a novel if you detest the protagonist or narrator. Thus, „Freshwater“ is not a novel I could fall for easily. Still, I consider the topic highly interesting and, ultimately, the author found a convincing way of making the voices heard for us.

Heather Morris – The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Heather Morris – The Tattooist of Auschwitz

When times become hard for Jews in 1942 Slovakia, Ludwig Eisenberg, named Lale, decides to save his family and to present himself to the enemy. After some days waiting he is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, today the synonym with Nazi cruelty. He soon attracts attention due to his knowledge of several languages and his ability to cope with people. He becomes the tattooist of Auschwitz, the person who replaces the peoples’ names with a number on their wrist. Lale’s extraordinary capabilities make him wander between the lines, on the one hand, he serves the Nazis, on the other, he supports the Jews and gypsies in the camp. When He first sees Gita, he completely falls for her. But a concentration camp is not the best scenery for a love story, especially since you never know if you will die tomorrow.

Heather Morris has written a compelling story in one of the most awful places the Nazi regime has created. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration camp where more than one million persons found death during the second world war and where Josef Mengele carried out is gruesome experiments, is today a museum and remembrance site which aims at preventing such a thing from happening ever again.

The story is based on the narration of the real Lale Eisenberg who later called himself Sokolov when he, after surviving the Holocaust, started a new life first in Slovakia and then Australia. It is incredible to read about his life in the camp, especially considering the fact that he as a kind of collaborator was relatively well off. Those who are burnt in the gas chambers, those who fell prey to Menegle’s experiments and all the ones who died from hunger or illness are only on the fringes of the story. So after all, we actually get one of the happier sides of being held prisoner under unimaginable conditions even though this one isn’t free of tragedy either.

But it is not only the story itself which is moving, it is also the author’s style which makes the book stand out. Most of the narration is in chronological order, only towards the end Lale has some kind of flashbacks of the time before he came to the camp. He never would have guessed that they were in real danger, that Hitler would invade Slovakia and certainly not all that he sees in Auschwitz. Morris makes the reader actually feel what Lale feels, quite often his emotions are palpable which makes the story go deep inside you. Especially in the moments when he is separated from Gita or close to death.

Since it is based on a true story, this is certainly a life which needed to be told and which should be read about widely.