John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

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John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.

John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.

I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.

Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

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Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

They have the life many people dream of: Nora and Charlie Nolan live in New York city in a quiet dead-end street, their twins Rachel and Oliver have become charming and successful students and both Nora and Charlie are good at their respective jobs. In their street, they have made friends with the neighbours during annual barbecues and the like and from the outside, there is not much you could wish for. However, underneath the surface, the idyllic street has its fights, like very neighbourhood, there is the controlling neighbour whom nobody ever openly contradicts, there are rumours and the nannies also exchange the secrets and share them with their employers. Nora and Charlie have always worked well as a couple, but after almost 25 years, there is a kind of exhaustion, they do not share the same ideas of life anymore and after a major incident in their street which makes them take different sides, they too, have to confront the question if they want to and can go on like this.

Anna Quindlen has an eye for the detail. Even though her story is set in big New York City, the plot is centred around a small community that could be found almost everywhere. It is the clash between the look from the outside and the real picture that makes the novel most striking, the almost invisible fractures, the divergent views which become only detectable when something big happens.

“Alternate Sides” is the perfect summer read, on the one hand, it is a light novel, not too complicated or philosophical, but taken from life and straight-forward in the development of the plot. On the other hand, you have a sympathetic protagonist whom you can easily identify with. You follow Nora and she is immediately likeable, even though she’s got quite an exclusive job, she is like to woman from next door, ignorant of classes and anxious to raise her kids to become good people. Neither does she immediately explode when she feels provoked by her husband, nor does she take in everything without disagreeing.

Since everybody knows how well-off neighbourhoods work, you can smirk at how the inhabitants of this street react, much too predictable, but that’s just how humans work. At times, they are hilarious – Charlie’s joy when he gets a parking spot in the street! – at times, they remind you of the people from you real life that you despise. Even though there are many serious issues underneath the surface of the novel, it is a joyful and entertaining read.

Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.

Tommy Orange – There There

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Tommy Orange – There There

It is all but easy to summarise Tommy Orange’s novel. There is Dene Oxendene, a young film maker who applies for a grant to realise a dream he and his deceased uncle had: give Native Americans a voice, make them tell their stories to ensure that they are not lost. There are Opal and her sister Jacquie, first as teenagers, later as grand-parents, struggling in a world which is not made for them. Edwin who is looking for his father and thinks he just found him on the Internet whereas his colleague Blue still doesn’t know who her biological parents are. Orvil and his two younger brothers who prepare secretly for a dance. And a group of young boys who prepare a ferocious and malicious attack on the place where most of the characters will gather: the powwow.

Tommy Orange introduces his novel with a prologue which outlines the Indian history. It starts with the first encounter with the coloniser and continues as a series of loss and suppression and ends in a group of people who have lost not only their land, but also their culture, identity and pride. The author himself is of Cheyenne and Arapaho decent, so he knows what he is writing about and he thus gives the Natives an authentic voice. Yes, it is an inconvenient truth he tells, but a truth worth reading and thinking about.

The title already is quite confusing, but Orange makes one of his characters give an explanation quoting Gertrude Stein who

(…) was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore (…) The quote is important to Dene. This there there. (…) for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.

The Natives have lost much more than their land. And up to today they have been treated differently. A lot of things that happen to the characters in the novel – getting pregnant at a very young age, being addicted to alcohol etc. – also happen to people from other ethnic backgrounds, however, they then are considered the odd uncle or the eccentric aunt and the like. Looking at the Native community, those things are regarded as the normal case, it is not something that anybody would wonder about. They always live at the fringe of society, even if they complete school and get a degree, they will have to perform much better than a white competitor to get a job.

The most striking aspect of the novel for me was the trouble that all the characters experience. On the one hand, they are forced to hide their culture and traditions because they do not belong to the mainstream culture, on the other hand, this leads to a certain loss which is felt but difficult to express. They sense that they are missing something, that they need explanations which nobody will give them. Their identity is never really complete which consequently ends in serious disturbances.

Tommy Orange is a remarkable writer who gives his fellow Natives an important voice that absolutely should be heard. Certainly, he doesn’t shrink from accusing what the colonisers and the white ruling classes have done to the indigenous population, however, he provides insight in what this actually meant and thus opens ways for a hopefully better future. This will not be an easy way, but one that has to be walked together.

Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

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Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

England, 1948. When Eve Forrester is informed that a certain Guy Lester has mentioned her in his last will, she cannot make any sense of it. Her husband is not very happy about the news, especially since it means his wife will have to travel to southern France to attend the opening of the will alone since he cannot leave work. Mr Lester’s notary Bernard informs the unhappy housewife that she together with Guy’s three children is the heir of a Villa in Cap d’Antibes. None of them is very happy about this, especially since nobody understands how Eve relates to the rich and famous of the Côte d’Azur. Eve prolongs her stay there to find out what had happened and it is obvious from the start that there must be a link to her mother who refuses to talk. The longer she stays and the more she mingles with her new acquaintances, amongst them a famous film star, the farer away Eve gets from her old life. But still, what was Guy Lester’s motivation, what is the secret that had been kept hidden for so long?

Rachel Rhys’ historical novel is the absolutely perfect summer read. Escaping the heat to the south of France to a time long ago and a gorgeous place with villas and parties and people living a life which you don’t find anymore. Added to this, the story comes with a certain mystery which slowly unfolds and finally bursts with a big bang.

First of all, I really liked the protagonist Eve. She is quite a lovable, modest young woman who is fascinated and appalled by what she sees at the Riviera at the same time. The peoples’ lifestyle is so far from her own life that she never really adapts and sticks to her own values and convictions. Even though she is greeted with a lot of hostility and rejection, she doesn’t forget her upbringing and manners. Just like at home, she feels a bit lonely and forlorn which make the reader stay on her side and support her against all the rest. The longer she is away from her husband, the more confident and independent she grows and I really appreciated the woman we see at the end of the novel.

The mystery was also very well played. It is all but obvious what had happened in England long time ago and the small pieces of information you get, just refuse to fall into place. It’s a riddle which takes the complete novel to be solved but when all is finally revealed, it makes perfectly sense and puts everything in a completely new picture.

All in all, an absolute joy to read and to indulge in on a hot summer day.

Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

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Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

A virus has seriously affected human population. Even though men and women get infected equally, it is only deadly for the later with the consequence that the number of female citizens has drastically been diminished. Thus, in Green City, women are assigned several husbands and closely monitored to keep the number of children born as high as possible. This is the single task for them and there is no alternative to functioning as a kind of human breeder. But some women just don’t want to comply with the assigned role and a kind of secret underground community has been formed known as the Panah. To keep their group alive, the women offer a service which is not provided by the wives anymore: non-sexual companionship. Sabine is one of the women living underground, but when she collapses on the street after visiting a client, the whole community is threatened to be revealed.

Bina Shah, a Pakistani writer, columnist and blogger who has published several novels and short story collections has created quite an interesting feminist dystopian novel with “Before She Sleeps”. Since Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been talked about a lot in the last couple of months, it is quite natural to compare the two pieces of work since they belong to the same genre. In my opinion, Shah does not have to hide from the great Mrs Atwood.

What I found the strongest in the novel was the picture of the society highly affected by a drastically decreased number of women. On the one hand, they are worshipped since they are the only ones who can cater for an increase in population, on the other, they easily become the victims of rape and male outrage due to the non-fulfilled sexual needs. They are regarded not as equal human beings but in terms of their functionality and thus severely reduced in their significance as humans. Both, men and women, have no say when it comes to the choice of a partner. From a political point of view, this makes sense, but it is obvious that it doesn’t actually support social rest and satisfaction or content. What the new society lacks most seems to be compassion and emotion, this is only visible in the women living underground.

I also liked the protagonist Sabine. Her motivation for fleeing for her duty as a woman is well motivated and her family story comprehensibly portrayed. Also her state of mind and how she is betrayed by a man whom she trusted to a certain extent and the effect the abuse has on her psychologically seemed to me quite authentic and believable.

All in all, an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about women’s rights and the way they are treated by men.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex Two

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Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex Two

Vernon Subutex is living in the streets of Paris now; he found a quite comfortable place in the parc des Buttes Chaumont and doesn’t really care about his old acquaintances. But they show up one after the other since there are still things going on all connected to him. First of all, Emilie’s apartment was broken into and Vernon’s rucksack has been stolen. He didn’t really care about it, but he had something that many people were keen on seeing destroyed: tapes with recordings of Vernon’s and Alex Bleach’s discussions in which the later and now dead musician reveals that Vodka Satana hasn’t died from an overdose but was killed. A whole bunch of people gathers on the Parisian hill, all grieving their own kind of loss, searching for meaning in their life and finding in Vernon the piece that holds them all together.

I liked the second instalment of the Vernon Subutex series a lot more than the first. I had the impression that the different stories which are told somehow better fit together and they are a lot more interesting than in the first. Even though Vernon Subutex still gives the novel the title and he is definitely the linking item between all of the characters, he just plays a minor role here.

It is not obvious from the beginning how all the characters relate, sometimes it needs a longer explanation to reveal the missing link. But Virginie Despentes has equipped them all with stunning lives that are not only interesting to read but also very diverse and each offer something completely new. What she manages in this way is to offer a broad picture of the French society, especially since her characters come from all kinds of classes and normally they wouldn’t really interact. But here, it does not only work, but it is convincing and great to read.

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

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Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

Being invited to a birthday party isn‘t something that comes easy for Ben. Too many things can happen, all is so unpredictable with other boys, but his mother can convince him to go nevertheless. And then, the most unexpected happens: a murderer comes to the party and kills the two mothers in the house as well as all of the kids, except for Ben. In hospital, Lucy can only determine that he hasn’t been hurt physically, but there seems to be a kind of trauma since Ben wants to be called Leo and remembers life with a certain Clare. At an elderly home somewhere in town, Clare is fighting again against having to socialise. Her life alone in a recluse hut and later with her foster child Leo has simply been perfect. How come Ben remembers being Clare’s son Leo?

Liese O‘Halloran Schwarz‘ novel is one of the rare books that you just open and then get completely lost in. I read it in just one sitting because I simply did not want to get away from her characters. It is bittersweet, often melancholic, but you see the good heart the characters have and you are convinced that there must be something good coming from them. It is a perfect feel-good book, even though it tells harsh reality in an emergency room and the story of a child given away by his mother.

I liked the alternate narration of the three protagonists, even though it did not completely make sense at the beginning, you slowly manage to put together the puzzle pieces that form a new and complete picture. All three are very sensitive characters, misunderstood by the people around them and therefore lonely. I guess these kind of people recognize each other what helps them to find each other. What also links them is the fact that they are highly intelligent and question the world: why do the things have to be the way they are and why don’t people change something about it?

A beautifully written story about non-mainstream characters who can easily be overlooked.