Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Even though the Middle Ages are over, superstition and strange beliefs are still widespread among people. Thus, in 1615, Katharina Kepler finds herself accused of witchcraft by the people of her hometown of Leonberg in southern Germany. Times are hard, the Plague is spreading the Thirty Years’ War has just begun and somebody must be blamed for all the things happening. Katharina is an elderly widow, illiterate and mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She leads a simple life, attending to her cow Chamomile. One day, however, Ursula Reinbold, accuses her of witchcraft, having offered a bitter drink which allegedly poisoned her, and surprisingly, the court not only listens but more and more people come forwards with testimonies of Katharina’s ill-doing. Only her neighbour, old Simon, who prefers to keep to himself, stands by her side.

Rivka Galchen’s story is based on a true story, Johannes Kepler’s mother was a healer and herbalist and arrested for witchcraft. The famous son stopped his research in planetary motion to defend his mother. Not only Katharina became victim of this kind of accusation, the town’s advocate Lutherus Einhorn accused 15 women in one trial and had executed eight of them in 1615.

At first, Katharina doesn’t take the accusation seriously, it is just talk for her, until she is put to prison and has to learn that more and more people come forward with other stories which seem to underline her doing black magic. She tries to counter the attack by accusing Ursula and her husband of slander, yet, her own case vanishes somewhere in the depth of local jurisprudence.

“We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always know. The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.”

The accusations brought forward rage from poisoning, causing lameness, several deaths, injuring a woman’s foot, harming numerous people and animals – a long list which is getting more and more absurd during the story. I liked the interrogations of the inhabitants since they show not only the superstition they fall prey to, but also the dynamics of a small town which turns against one woman. Everything ill that has ever happened is simply attributed to Katharina. The allegations are so ridiculous that you could laugh weren’t it for Katharina’s case and the fact that the people’s testimonies seem to be believed.

Even though the plot is based on a well-documented historical case, you can see more or less the same thing happening today. It is not the small town anymore, but the world wide web in which often just one single person brings forward an accusation – no need for proof anymore – and masses jump on the bandwagon and have their twitter trial even before the issue is sorted out. It doesn’t matter if the accused is later discharged or not, the only thing that counts is public opinion which is quick at passing a sentence.

An entertaining read which outlines the dark sides of human nature – envy, greed, malicious gossip – and the danger that might come from it.

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has achieved what she could only dream of, at 26 she is editorial assistant at one of the most prestigious publishing houses. The only thing she has been struggling with the last two years is how the idea of diversity has never entered her workplace, after the Asian girl left, she is the only person with a different background. Things change when unexpectedly Hazel is employed and gets the cubicle next to her. Nella senses immediately that with another black girl, they might finally make a change in publishing, promote more diverse authors and bring forward new topics relevant to a large audience which wasn’t addressed so far. However, it does not take too long until Nella’s work life starts to go downhill.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel has been called one of the buzz books of 2021 by several magazines. I was intrigued by the blurb immediately, a kind of horror version of “The Devil Wars Prada” sounded totally enthralling. For a long time, “The Other Black Girl” could fulfil the expectations, there is a highly uncomfortable feeling creeping around, yet, the end was a bit too much for my liking.

Nella is quite a likeable young woman, hardworking and even though not an activist she is following the Black Lives Matter movement even before this becomes a widespread phenomenon and big news. She imagines being able of making a change in the publishing industry but first needs to get at the position where she has the actual power to do so. Therefore, she is quite assimilated and she swallows comments from her colleagues even though they might be quite offensive for persons of colour. With the arrival of Hazel she seems to get an ally and befriends her immediately.

For the reader, even though there are some chapters which seems unrelated to Nella’s story but hint at some goings-ons beyond her scope, it is obvious that Hazel is not the friendly and reliable colleague Nella assumes, this was an aspect which annoyed me a bit, I didn’t get the impression of Nelly being that naive and credulous at first and would have liked her to be a bit cleverer in relation to what happens at her workplace.

The novel, however, is quite strong at portraying Nella’s feelings as being the only black girl, the role she assigned to as representative of a totally diverse group which is just too simplistic, yet, nobody really seems to care about the concept of diversity, having one black girl is enough. She has other issues than her colleagues, especially the talk about hair was quite a novelty, even though this is a huge topic if you do not have the easy-care blond hair.

Overall, I liked the writing and found Nella’s perspective and the insight in the publishing world interestingly realised.

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

It started out as a love story, but Mick Riva wasn’t made for loving only one woman, he was first of all made for a career in the music business and that’s what he did. His wife June though was made for loving but since her husband was absent, she only had to love her kids. The first born Nina, and the second, Jay, and the third who wasn’t her kid at all but she couldn’t just turn her back on Mick’s son Hud who was abandoned by his mother. And last but not least Kit, born long after her parents’ relationship had already fractured several times. While Mick was away, June took care of the kids until she couldn’t anymore, then quite naturally, Nina took over. Now, as a successful model, she is preparing for the legendary annual Riva party in her home in Malibu. Even though they have been having this party for many years, this year will be different and at the end of the night, nothing will be the same anymore for any of the Riva family.

I totally adored Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel “Daisy Jones & The Six“ which was totally lively and got be hooked from the first page. He latest book “Malibu Rising” had exactly the same effect. Her protagonist Nina, whose day of the big party is told alternatingly with the family’s story, is a strong character in a very special way. Her most striking feature surely is to take over responsibility and to do what needs to be done while totally forgetting that she, too, has the right to live. But instead of thinking about herself, she simply cares for the people around her, especially her younger siblings.

While everybody is preparing for the party, the biggest event every summer which is not to be missed by anybody important, Nina strikes a balance of her life so far. She made the maximum of the rather poor baseline. She has become one of the most demanded sports models, idolised by masses of people, her younger brothers are just starting their careers and also the baby of the family is going to fledge the family nest and to make herself noticed and a name. Their father has only ever existed at the edge of their life, it was their mother June who put herself last to make her children feel loved and have a good life despite all the adversities. Now, however, seems to be the moment for a big change.

Another set of unforgettable characters who know what is important in life and underline that there is nothing that will bring you down as long as you’ve got the ones who love you around. Even though nothing could be further from my life than surfing, I liked the passages where the author describes how the kids feel in the water and how surfing provides them with an unknown feeling of freedom.

The perfect summer read which is not at all the light feel-good novel but much rather a great story simply to indulge in.

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

It’s the middle of the 80s and San Francisco hasn’t turned into the tech/IT hotspot it is today. Teenager Eulabee grows up in a more well-off part close to the beach and attends an expensive all-girls school with her best friends Maria Fabiola. The girls are still somewhere between being kids and becoming visibly female and with this transformation also come the problems. Maria Fabiola is the first to attract attention from the opposite sex, but her radiant appearance also charms women which is why she gets away with almost everything. Eulabee is far from being that self-confident and therefore sticks to the truth what leads to her being excluded from the girl circles of her school. When Maria Fabiola vanishes, the whole community is alarmed, but Eulabee from the start does not believe in a kidnapping, she has known Maria Fabiola for too long and is well aware of her former friend’s greed for attention.

Vendela Vida still isn’t as renowned as her husband Dave Eggers even though she has published several books by now and has won the Kate Chopin Award. I found her last novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” quite exceptional in the choice of perspective and therefore was eager to read her latest novel “We Run the Tides”. This time, she goes back in time and has chosen teenage girls as protagonists. The story is told from Eulabee’s perspective and captures well the mixed emotions a girl goes through when becoming a woman. Also the ambiance of the 1980s is convincingly depicted.

The most central aspect of the novel is surely the friendship between Eulabee and Maria Fabiola and its shift when one of the girls develops a bit quicker than the other. Maria Fabiola is well aware of the effect she has on other people and uses this for her own advantage. Eulabee, in contrast, is still much more a girl, insecure in how to behave and what to do about the situation. She does not fight but accept what’s happening. Her first attempts of approaching boys seem to be successful but end up in total disappointment. She is a close observer and can well interpret the relationships she sees, between her parents, her mother and her sister and also the other girls and teachers at her school. Without any doubt she is a likeable character and treated highly unfairly. But that’s how kids behave at times.

I liked how the plot developed and how the vanishing of the girls turned out quite unexpectedly. Yet, I didn’t fully understand why the author has chosen to add another chapter set in the present. For me, the story was perfectly told at a certain point and admittedly, neither was I really interested in Eulabee’s later life nor in another encounter of the two women as grown-ups. Still, I do not really know what to make of Maria Fabiola when they meet for the first time decades later.

To sum up, wonderfully narrated, a great coming-of-age story with a strong protagonist.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

When Dot dies from a stroke at the age of 70, she leaves her twins Jeanie and Julius behind. Even though both of them are well in their adulthood, they still behave like children and therefore are totally overstrained by finding their mother dead on the kitchen floor. The three of them have lead a decent life at the small cottage since their father and husband Frank was killed in an accident, they have never needed much and could rely on their garden and the small amount of money Julius could make in providing a helping hand with all sorts of craftsman jobs. Yet, Jeanie and Julius do not have much time to grieve before all sorts of people turn up from the village claiming money their mother allegedly had borrowed. They can hardly believe it; this does not fit to the image they had of Dot. But this is just the beginning, without the strong and determined woman in the house anymore, the twins become an easy prey and soon have to face an unexpected problem: they are being evicted from what has been their home for decades.

A couple of years ago, I already enjoyed Claire Fuller’s novel “Swimming Lessons” which presented complex characters and a challenging family structure. In “Unsettled Ground”, too, the reader is confronted with a couple of highly interesting characters and an all but usual family construct which slowly unfolds its real tragedy in the course of the novel. Neither Jeanie nor Julius or any other character is easy to sympathise with, the world they have created for themselves is undoubtedly quite unique and takes some time to understand.

The novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction which is nevertheless easy to understand. It presents two characters at the critical point in their life when all they have known is threatened, when everything is about to fall apart and when all they have taken for granted and believed to be true has to be reassessed. Jeanie and Julius have a strong bond which nevertheless does not hinder them from coping with the threats they face totally differently.  Ultimately, it is the struggle of survival in a hostile world, the attempt to build a life on the broken pieces of the truths they have held to be true but turned out to be all but that.

Admittedly, reading “Unsettled Ground” makes you feel depressed more than once, the story is hard to endure at times. Yet, this surely can be attributed to the author’s skill of transmitting atmosphere and mood in a brilliant way. It’s one of those novels one does not really want to dig deeper in while at the same time one can hardly put down once started.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Mona, a Peruvian writer who has been living in California for some years, is invited to Sweden as she has been nominated for the notable Basske-Wortz prize, one of the most renowned literary awards of Europe. Together with other authors from diverse countries, she is to spend a couple of days in a remote resort where they have talks and give presentations. Rivalry starts immediately, some of them Mona has known for years and met at literary festivals before, others she admires for their work. However, the young woman is not too much concerned with the possibility of being awarded a famous prize, it is her life that matters most at the moment. Her body is covered with bruises and she cannot recollect where they stem from. Also her abuse of diverse substances follows her to the Swedish secludedness – travelling to the end of the world does not mean you can escape your demons.

The setting the Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac has chosen for her third novel is perfect for a small community under a magnifying lens. None of them can escape and they have to face each other – as well as themselves. For the protagonist Mona, she herself comes to scrutinise her very own situation: where does she stand as a writer and why does her current novel refuse to advance; where do these bruises come from which hurt and yet do not give a clue of what might have happened; how to people perceive and classify her as a woman of colour who, as a doctoral candidate at one of the most prestigious universities, penetrated into an area which normally is closed to people with her background.

Even though I found the ending rather confusing, I totally enjoyed reading the novel which is remarkable due to its strong protagonist and quite a unique tone of narration with strong images and brilliant use of language.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

When his wife Miriam days from cancer, Wolf has to take care of their 16-year-old daughter Ruth whom he hardly knows since the couple has been separated for quite some time. Miriam had one last wish: to have her ashes scattered in the Hudson River. Thus, Wolf and Ruth leave London for New York where he also hopes his daughter can find a new home with his former wife’s Jewish family. They arrive at the holy season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Wolf has never really been religious and also their daughter has not been raised to follow religious traditions. Yet, with Miriam’s believing relatives, conflicts lie at hand. They only seem to have one mission, yet, there is something else the father has to announce to his daughter.

Austin Duffy’s novel “Ten Days” tells the story of people who have to cope with the loss of a beloved mother and wife. Even though they have not been living as a couple anymore, Wolf’s memories come back when he shows Ruth where they met, where their first kiss took place and where everything began. It seems to be quite difficult for him to deal with his intelligent and at times rebellious teenage daughter, however, the more the narration advances the more questions arise about Wolf’s behaviour which becomes not only quarrelsome but strange.

I totally enjoyed the novel since the characters are lively drawn and really appear to be authentic in the way they try to make sense of Miriam’s death. Ruth is quite independent and strong-willed, when Wolf’s secret is revealed, however, we also get to know another side of her character.

Not a totally emotional read, much more a slow novel which makes you ponder.