Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.  

With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.

“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.

The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.

Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

The narrator leaves busy New York after her father’s death for The Hague where she is to work as an interpreter at the International Court of Justice. She befriends Jana whom she had already met in London and who has moved to the Netherlands only a short time before her and who has already made the city her home. She cannot talk about her job outside the Court, not even with Adriaan, her kind of boyfriend who is still married to another woman. Unexpectedly, two major events come together, Adriaan needs to leave for a couple of days which soon turn into weeks and the interpreter is required in a high profile case: a former president of an unnamed African state is accused of crimes against humanity and she is to become the first interpreter. She does not only meet him in court but also when he confines with his lawyers where she sits close to him and can feel the impact and power the charismatic man can have on people. As the weeks go by, she struggles more and more, not only with her absent partner but also with how close she gets to a man who can only be considered a monster.

Katie Kitamura’s novel “Intimacies” invites the reader into the thoughts of an interpreter who knows that the slightest mistake in her translation can have severe consequences. It also highlights the position of a job which is often overlooked but crucial in many ways and where people are forced to retreat behind words which is easier said than done. At times she feels depersonalised, like an instrument, but for the accused, she is the first person of communication.

Many questions are raised throughout the plot, first, the question about belonging. The narrator does not have a place she can really call home. A cosmopolite speaking several languages and having lived in diverse countries, she does not know which place she could actually associate with a feeling of home. Her apartment in The Hague perfectly reflects this: she has rented a furnished place which she never managed to give a personal note.

More importantly, however, is the place of the interpreter. Nobody prepares them for what they are going to hear at the court. The lawyers remain cool when being confronted with atrocious crimes, the interpreters react in much more humane way which can be heard in their voice immediately but which is considered unprofessional. Being often close to the accused over months, they form a very peculiar bond which makes them separate the deeds from the defendants.  

A wonderfully written homage to language and its force, even though there are a lot of things which remain unsaid in the novel.

Thora Hjorleifsdottir – Magma


Thora Hjorleifsdottir – Magma

After some time in Denmark and a long trip to South America, Lilja returns to her home town Reykjavik where she falls for a well-read student. She only works in a café and thus always feels a bit inferior to the intelligent young man. Nevertheless, she quickly moves in with him, knowing that she is not really his girlfriend but rather the person he shares the bed with. She calls him very private as he does not invite her to his family or friends and accepts his conditions in return for his love. Yet, this toxic relationship leaves its scars on her – figuratively on her soul, feeling not good enough for him and therefore accepting other women besides her, and very visibly on her skin when she discovers that cutting can release some stress.

Told by a first person narrator, the reader is quite close to Lilja and her thoughts. At first, she seems to be quite some tough and modern young woman who lives her life according to her own ideals and standards. Gradually, however, the downwards spiral is set in motion turning her into a vulnerable and dependent woman who is caught in the negative view of herself. Thora Hjorleifsdottir’s novel “Magma” tackles a complex and difficult issue but makes it easy to understand how some women end up in unhealthy relationships and do not find – or even want – a way out.

Lilja, on the one hand, can clearly name how she is being treated. How recklessly he chats with other women online while she is in the same room or even meets them the same day they have a date. She falls for him and accepts being treated like some second rate being, listens to him praising his ex-girlfriends in front of her and even gives in when he asks for things which clearly transgress her boundaries.

She believes she deserves being treated like this, she is not pretty enough, not good enough, not clever enough, too sensitive, behaving horribly – simply crazy, a failure. If only she could be the girl he expects her to be, then he could also love her. The narrator does not sound foolish or naive at all, even though it is obvious that this thinking isn’t healthy, we all know these kinds of toxic thoughts which are hard to get rid of even if you are standing with both feet on the ground and having a healthy self-image.

At the end of the day, it is simply how women end up being abused and ill-treated by men they believe – despite everything they go through – love them. It starts with small signs until the chain of events once set in motion cannot be stopped anymore and ultimately heads towards a complete disaster.

Wonderfully written in a reduced, direct style which makes it easy to follow the line of thoughts and go down with the narrator. More than once, you want to shout at her or take her in your arms, so heart-wrenching it is to see what’s happening without any possibility of interfering.

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

The annual Folk Fest is the biggest event on Bayleen Island in 1969. The atmosphere is pulsating while the audience is waiting for Jesse Reid, latest superstar with his guitar and extraordinary voice. On his way to the show, he has an accident which unexpectedly bring the local band Breakers on stage. It only takes minutes for Jane Quinn, their singer and songwriter, to win the people over with her charismatic performance. It is the birth of a star, the Breakers are invited record an album and to tour with Jesse’s band. Quite naturally, the two musicians fall for each other, but it is not an easy love, neither Jesse nor Jane is the carefree new star, they suffer from bad experiences and the demons that haunt them. Additionally, Jane fights with the music industry’s sexism and a feeling of being considered just Jesse’s accessory. For some time, they ignore all this, but closing their eyes does not prevent them forever from having to face some truths.

Emma Brodie’s novel perfectly captures the vibes of the time. Her protagonists are highly gifted musicians who live for the music and the moment. “Songs in Ursa Major” is an emotionally overwhelming novel which draws you in its world immediately. Especially Jane is a vividly drawn character whom you come to love immediately despite the stubbornness which comes with her musical genius and perfectionism. She is a role model of a strong-minded feminist who sticks to her ideals and is even willing to sacrifice her career and love in order not to give in to the industry’s conception of a female singer.

The thin line between genius and madness had often been mentioned in connection with creative artists. This also holds true for both, Jesse and Jane, who are far from being mentally stable. Together, they can push each other even further in their genius while heading at the abyss at the same time. Following their creative process translating into songs is a wonderful journey which triggers the emotions in the same way listening to music would.

The villains of the music industry with their unconcealed misogyny make you angry at times but seeing how cleverly Jane can also win some fights can make some amends here. As authentic as this aspect is Jane’s emotional state and the way she tries to cope with her family’s situation and her very personal heritage of creativity and madness alike.

A brilliantly written, intense novel perfect for the summer festival season which brings you back to the time of iconic musicians.

Carlos Montero – Après toi le chaos

Carlos Montero – Après toi le chaos

La jeune professeure de littérature Raquel accepte un poste à Novariz, ville natale de son mari en région de Galicie au nord de l’Espagne. La collègue qu’elle remplace s’est suicidée, au moins c’est ce que tout le monde croit, sauf son mari, lui aussi prof du même lycée, qui est convaincu que sa femme a été tuée. Raquel n’a pas l’impression d’être bienvenue, dès le premier jour, les élèves se montrent hostiles et peu après, elle aussi est menacée directement. Elle commence à douter, est-ce que Viruca, sa prédécesseuse, a vraiment décidé de mettre fin à sa vie ou est-ce que son mari a raison et c’était un crime parfait ? Plus elle est menacée, plus elle cherche des réponses ne sachant qu’elle est en train d’ouvrir la boîte de Pandore.

« Après toi le chaos » est le deuxième roman de l’auteur et scénariste espagnol Carlos Montero pour lequel le prix Premio Primavera de Novela 2016 lui a été attribué. En 2020, Netflix a adapté le thriller psychologique. Une fois commencé, on ne peut plus arrêter la lecture, le roman capture immédiatement et il est remplis de suspense du début jusqu’á la fin.

La protagoniste raconte les événements de son point de vue, parfois, sa narration est interrompue par des récits au troisième personnage ce qui ajoute au suspense comme le lecteur est un peu avancé par rapport à Raquel.

« Toutes les pires horreurs que tu peux imaginer, quelqu’un les a déjà commises. »

J’ai aimé le double crime, d’un côté, il y a la question de ce qui s’est passé avec Viruca, de l’autre, Raquel, elle aussi, est sous menace et on ne sait ni de quel côté ni où cela mènera. Parfois, j’avais envie de lui crier d’arrêter et de s’enfuir le plus vite possible, mais, c’est grâce à son courage que, peu à peu, un réseau incroyable est découvert et c’est seulement sur les dernières pages que l’ampleur se révèle totalement et fait preuve de la citation.

Exactement ce qu’on attend d’un thriller psychologique.

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Joan flees New York to California after he lover Victor shot himself publicly in front of her. With little money left, she finds a small place to stay and she also finds the woman she was looking for. Alice, whom she had tracked online over all those years. She thinks back to what her life had to offer so far, her mother who was unable to love her, her father whom she admired childishly. Both have long been gone. Joan can run, but somehow her bad luck follows her, she seems prone to attracting all kind of evil and so it does not take too long until it comes back to her.

Lisa Taddeo made her debut with “Three women“ which I already liked a lot. In her latest novel, too, complicated relationships between men and women are central to the story’s development. The narrator herself is unable to love unconditionally, she needs to have the upper hand over her lovers, yet, this presumed precaution measure fires back and somehow she is stuck in the role of the kid who is longing for being loved. She is addressing her account of the events to somebody, yet it takes until the end for the reader to understand whom she tells about her life.

From a psychological point of view, Taddeo has created quite interesting characters. Violence and love are constantly opposed and they seem not to able to exist without each other. Joan’s grandmother has been raped, a dramatic experience of violence, yet, we do never learn about what this did to the woman. On the other hand, Joan’s mother does not seem to be a direct victim, yet, she reacts quite strongly and refuses her daughter the love she craves for. The women in her family are no good role models, yet, her father, too, does not provide a good example of how to behave, especially at critical moments in his life. As a consequence, Joan is unable to lead a relationship at eye level and feels the need to protect herself from the things that might happen.

Thus, as a grown up, Joan replicates what she has seen as a kid and ignores the effect this might have on others, only when she is confronted with a kind of mirror, her genuine feelings offer her another way.

“Animal” is all but an easy read, yet, it offers a lot of food for thought and raises important questions concerning central human emotions and behaviour. I am not an expert, however, I would classify Joan’s thinking with all those flashbacks as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which is highly likely from her family’s history. In this respect, the author very successfully displays the impact of traumatic events on untreated children.

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.