Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

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Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

Things have been getting worse for Bunny, given this name because her parents raised rabbits, and now, New Year’s Eve is approaching. Like every year, Bunny and her husband Albie will take part in the mandatory dinner with people they call their “friends” even though they don’t see them any other evening of the year due to obvious reasons. Albie would be fine to stay at home, but Bunny knows that even though she feels depressed, she needs to play along. But then, the worst case happens: she breaks down and finds herself in a psych ward.

The novel is divided into two parts: before and after, just like people who have a breakdown or have to live through a life-changing event, divide their life. For me personally, the two parts are so different that it is not easy to come to one conclusion in the end. I’d say: thumbs-up for the first half of the novel, but a strong trigger warning for the second.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressed and struggles with the smallest everyday actions, I found the beginning of the book often very funny since the author is a master of irony and a humour that I really liked. There are so many brilliant phrases, it was a great joy to read even though Bunny’s suffering is almost overwhelming. You slowly approach the climax, New Year’s Eve, and you know that something big is going to happen, thus the suspense becomes almost unbearable.

When Bunny is hospitalised, her welcome there still has some funny aspects, but only until the laughter gets stuck in your throat and Bunny’s life becomes utterly horrible. I have read several novels about psycho wards, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, interrupted”, which were not easy to support, but admittedly, more than once I was close to just stopping reading because I could hardly stand what the nurses and doctors there do to the patients. I hope that this is not reality – even though I fear that it might come much closer than anybody from the outside world would dream. No, what Bunny has to endure in hospital is not something nice and there is no need to embellish anything, but admittedly who could ever turn to such a place to find help?

Binnie Kirshenbaum surely is a remarkable and highly gifted writer, yet, this novel definitely should be accompanied by a warning.

Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

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Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

When one evening a police car stops in front of their house, Lucy immediately has a bad feeling. Her mother-in-law Diana has been found dead and the police treats it as a homicide. But why? Could there have been foul play? Well, Diana wasn’t somebody you instantly loved when you got to know her, you maybe never loved her and she, on the other hand, didn’t hide her despise for anybody outside her closest family circle. Lucy remembers how she first met the old, wealthy woman, recalls scenes of her family life when, again and again, Diana gave her the impression of being the wrong wife for her beloved son. And now, the police investigate her death.

Sally Hepworth’s novel caught me straightaway. From the first page on, I was intrigued by the story and just wanted to find out how Lucy could have killed Diana. Well, of course, there was always the possibility that somebody else also disliked Diana that much – but it took quite some time until I gave up my first suspicions and then, admittedly, looked at the plot cluelessly: but who? They all hated her more or less, but rather more.

The story is told in flashbacks what makes the actual plot advance only slowly. Yet, this does not reduce suspense since the memories of Lucy and Diana alike definitely contribute to arouse suspicion. What I enjoyed most was how you directly think you know everything, have an idea of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and how, slowly but steadily, your tower of belief crumbles and ultimately falls because the characters get more profile, other sides of their personality are shown and they become really authentic and plausible in the way they act and behave. At the same time, Sally Hepworth’s novel is often really funny and entertaining, I liked her kind of humour deeply.

The author was definitely great discovery for me and I am eager to read more from her.

Stefan Ahnhem – 18 Below

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Stefan Ahnhem – 18 Below

A curious accident turns out to be the beginning of an incredible series of murder. On a hot summer day, a car speeds through Helsingborg and is only stopped by the water front. The autopsy of the body reveals that he has been dead for at least two months, the body frozen. When Fabian Risk and his colleagues investigate the victim’s life, they come across a case of not just stolen identity, but also stolen millions from the rich man. Obviously a doppelgänger has taken over his life and transferred all his money. A great strategy and as it turns out, it has been working for quite some time already. While Fabian’s full attention is demanded at work, his marriage comes to an end. His wife seems to eventually make a big with her art work and his kids are immersed in other things. No one in the family pays attention to the other anymore which turns out to be a serious mistake, since all of them get in danger, again.

Part two of the Fabian Risk series is a psychological thriller that cleverly combines the detective’s police work with the developments in his private life. I liked the protagonist in this second novel a lot more than in the first since he now has become a real team player and not the single cop who can do all on his own. What I also liked is that his Danish colleague reappears and that her story, too, is continued.

At the beginning, the thriller starts with quite a strange case of murder and does not seem to turn out too complicated. Admittedly, for me having the two cases, one on the Swedish and one on the Danish side of the Øresund, seemed to be a classic setting with enough to solve for the two teams. Yet, Stefan Ahnhem could really surprise me with what a net of crime he has woven here. The more the novel advances the more you can just read and stare and admire the complexity of the plot. The action accelerates increasingly and this the further you get the harder it becomes to put it away. A great read and surely makes you eager to read more of Stefan Ahnhem.

Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

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Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

1954, the war in Korea is over but there are still some soldiers waiting to see their big star come for a short visit: Marilyn Monroe. Alice J. Kim, working as a translator for the Americans, is one of the few Koreans fluent in both languages and who could accompany the blond film star on her tour. But with the arrival of Marilyn also comes somebody else Alice had almost forgotten: Joseph, her former lover who turned out not to be a missionary but an American spy. Alice thought she could leave her past behind, like the war, just bury it all under the ruins and build a new life. But now, it all comes up again.

Other than the title suggests, the novel is not really about Marilyn Monroe and her visit to Korea. She appears as a character, yes, and I found she was nicely depicted, a sensitive woman lacking all kind of allures one might assume. However, first and foremost, it is a novel about Alice and the two loves she had: first, Min-hwan, a married man working for the government, and second, the American Joseph. None is the loves is meant to last and the political developments in the country add their part to these unfulfilled loves.

What I found interesting was the insight in the possible life of a Korean woman at the time of the war. I have never read about it and this part of history is not something I know much about. Nevertheless, the book could not really catch me. Somehow I had the impression that the two stories – Alice’s one the one hand and Marilyn’s visit on the other – did not really fit together and especially the last seemed more a feature to make the story a bit more interesting by adding a big name.

„These sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past.“

Parallels between Marilyn and Alice are evoked: a past they want to forget, well-known lovers who in the end always decide against the affair and for their wife, the change of name to start anew – but the link is too weak to work for me. Unfortunately, Alice also remains a bit too distant, too hard to grasp and to really feel sympathy for her and her fate.

Donna Leon – Unto Us a Son Is Given

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Donna Leon – Unto Us a Son Is Given

Guido Brunetti is surprised when is father-in-law Count Falier asks him to meet him privately. The Count’s best friend is going to make a big mistake and he hopes that Guido could do something about it: the Spaniard Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada wants to adopt a much younger man. Even though nobody really is upset about his openly shown homosexuality, this seems to go too far for the upper society and is considered something absolutely inappropriate. But apart from that, Gonzalo’s friends fear that the chosen man, Attilio Circetti, Marchese di Torrebardo, is more interested in Gonzalo’s wealth than in the old man. When Gonzalo suddenly dies, the case isn’t abandoned but turns out to be much more complicated than expected.

Donna Leon’s 28th case for Commissario Guido Brunetti starts in a quite unique way since this time, no murder has been committed and Brunetti is not running after some evil criminal. It is a very personal story that reveals a lot about Venice’s society, especially the rich and noble and their very special views on the world. The actual murder case only appears after about two thirds of the novel which surprisingly does not reduce any suspense in it.

As the other novels before, the Guido Brunetti series lives on the special atmosphere of the Italian water city. Again, we get a glance behind the doors of the nobilità and how they resolve their cases. Brunetti’s has to do a lot of actually illegal work this time which does not seem to bother anybody too much. On the other hand, this is a very emotional and human story, it is the characters’ weaknesses, their longing for finding love and being loved that drives the story. It is much less about solving a crime than about revealing human nature and the core things of life. For me, definitely so far the strongest of Donna Leon’s novels since it goes far beyond just solving a murder case.

Anstey Harris – The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton

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Anstey Harris – The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton

Grace Atherton’s life is in full tune: in London, she is running a violin shop and in Paris she meets her partner David. She had wanted to become a professional musician but due to lack of talent, she had to leave college and has to be content now with making the string instruments and playing them without any audience. When David rescues a young woman in the Paris metro, their whole life is turned upside down. Even though David’s wife knows about their affair, it has always been a delicate topic with their kids and David’s profession also requires discretion, but now the whole of France is searching for the hero of the underground and his obvious company. Yet, this is only the start of a series of events that will shake Grace’s life deeply.

“The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton” is a novel hard to describe in only a couple of words. It’s a love story, a story of a break-up, about the love of music and about family and especially parents’ role in the life of their children, it’s about friendship and quarrels and first and foremost about forgiving and going on in life. What I really adored is how the author manages to convey the love of music into words, the compassion for the elegant and fragile instruments can be felt throughout the novel.

All characters in the book are very well thought out, they have strengths and weaknesses which make them authentic and lovable, but most of all they are compassionate and kind-hearted and have their hearts in the right place. Even though not all that happens gives them (or you as a reader) pleasure, I’d call it a feel-good novel nevertheless and perfect for those autumns days where you long for something cosy and comfy.

Alan Parks – Bloody January

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Alan Parks – Bloody January

‚It can‘t have been that bad.‘ But it was.

January 1973 first brought a promotion to Detective Harry McCoy of Glasgow police, but then things wrecked havoc. When Howie Nairn, a prisoner in the Special Unit of Barlinnie wants to see him, he is a bit irritated. Why especially him? And what does he have to say? Nairn tells him to take care of a certain Lorna who works in a posh restaurant and is likely to be killed the next day. McCoy doesn’t really believe him but nevertheless sets out to search for her. In vain. He can only watch how the young woman is shot in central Glasgow by a man who then commits suicide. Quite a strange thing, but things are going to get a lot more complicated and soon McCoy has to realize that the laws aren’t made for everybody.

Alan Park‘s first novel of the McCoy series lives on the atmosphere of 1970s Glasgow. The city hasn’t turned into the town it is today but resembles a rather run down place where police and gangland work hand in hand – have to work hand in hand if they want to solve any case at all. McCoy is rather unconventional in his work, but he certainly has the heart in the right place and fights for justice.

There are two things I really liked about the story: on the one hand, it is quite complicated and all but foreseeable, on the other hand, Alan Parks‘s has chosen inconvenient aspects which he puts in a different light which shows the complexity of reality and that live is not only black and white but full of shades of grey. McCoy can work for the police but maintain good relationships with old friends who control the criminal world. The recognized upper class are not the good-doers but also have their dark sides. And many people struggle to make a living, wanting to be good but at times have to ignore their own values simply to survive.

A novel which is full of suspense, with a convincing protagonist and perfectly crafted atmosphere of a dark Glasgow.

Daniel Torday – Boomer1

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Daniel Torday – Boomer1

It’s music that makes Cassie Black and Mark Brumfeld fall in love in New York. Together they play in a band and also share their lives, but somehow it doesn’t really fit. It is especially their professional situation that creates a lot of tension, Mark dreams of writing a novel or at least getting a lecturing position at university. When he proposes to Cassie, this is the necessary point of no return for her and they split up. Cassie is offered a job in a somehow strange start-up media company where she fact checks articles but is always unsure of what she really does. After some more failures, Mark returns to his parents’ home in Baltimore. One day, Cassie comes across a video online: her ex published a series of statements against the Baby Boomers who occupy all the good jobs and make life hard for his generation. What was initially meant as a rant due to his personal situation, ends in a violent revolution.

Daniel Torday narrates the novel “Boomer1” through the three perspectives of Cassie, Mark and Julia, Mark’s mother. This gives him the possibility to show the same scenes from different angels which sometimes also spins the way we as a reader perceive it. Even though there are many humorous and highly comical scenes, there are some underlying truths in the story which give it a lot more depth than it might seem to have on the surface.

First of all, I could highly sympathise with Cassie’s job at the media company RazorWire. She always wonders what she is doing – and actually many of her colleagues spend their working time playing computer games and watching YouTube videos. It may seem a common prejudice but reality has shown that many of those start-ups have disappeared more quickly than they were founded since they didn’t create anything at all.

I can also understand Mark’s deception and despair. Being highly qualified but having the impression of being of no use on the labour market because all positions are taken by some old people who could easily retire is just frustrating. Waiting for the life to begin is hard to endure.

Also their struggle with relationships is something that is well-known in the generation of millennials. Heterosexual as well as homosexual experiences, splitting up getting back together – they dream of their childhood when life was easy and families followed traditional patterns. They know that this is not something they will not get as easily as their parents got it. Somehow their whole life is fragile and nothing is sure anymore. What else could be the logical consequence other than a revolution? Starting it online is simply logical for them.

I really liked the novel, it is entertaining and well-written and has a noteworthy message, too.

B.A. Paris – Bring Me Back

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B.A. Paris – Bring Me Back

Twelve years ago, a stop on a highway changes the life of Finn and Layla. While he is going to the toilet, she disappears. They had been in love, he had asked her to marry him during their holidays in France, now he is desperate to find her. That’s what he tells the police, but it is only part of the story. After some time of mourning, Finn gets closer to Layla’s sister Ellen, strange at first, but it feels right, even though he could never love her in the same way he loved Layla. Shortly after Finn asks Ellen to marry him, strange things start to happen. Ellen believes to have seen Layla, Finn is receiving e-mails seemingly coming from her and they find Russian dolls – something only Ellen and Layla know the significance of. It is impossible that somebody else is playing tricks on them. It must be Layla. But what does she want and is Ellen or Finn actually in danger?

Since I enjoyed “Behind Closed Doors” from B.A. Paris a lot, I was eager to read her latest thriller and again, she did not disappoint me. “Bring me back” is a classic thriller, right from the start you know that you cannot fully trust the characters, they have lied to others before and so they might not tell you the truth either. It keeps you alert, and since you don’t know where the discernible danger is actually coming from, the suspense is slowly rising.

What I liked especially was the construction of the novel. On the one hand, you have the story in the present told by Finn. On the other hand, you have something like secret diary entries which shed a slightly different light on the story told. After some time, Finn is replaced by Layla which gives you another perspective and adds to the suspense. The author deliberately leads to clues which turn out wrong, provides different explanations which cannot stand the tests they are put at, so you wonder throughout the novel what all this is about. It is not easy to find a good solution out of the plot, but for me, it absolutely worked and all was explained in a convincing way.

Carrie Blake – The Woman Before You

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Carrie Blake – The Woman Before You

Isabel Archer is the typical girl from the Midwest. Having grown up only with her mother, she has high hopes and big plans for the time after school. She dreams of a career as an actress in New York, but soon finds herself rejected in every audition and due to lack of money selling mattresses. The only moment when she can still take over a role is when she dates men she finds on Tinder. When she meets Matthew, things change, she is immediately attracted by him and definitely wants more. Matthew, too, has some kind of liking for her, but first of all, his boss needs a woman to support him in the little jobs he does for him. Isabel could be the perfect partner for these strange little games. But soon not only Isabel has to asks herself who is playing games with whom.

Carrie Blake’s debut novel starts quite interestingly and I immediately could indulge in it. However, I quickly had the impression to find some kind of prop and cliché I had read many times before. Even though Isabel was described in the first chapters as a young, intelligent and aspiring woman, she then is reduced to the dumb girl waiting for the boy to call her. She loses all her independence and there is a huge lack of motivation for whatever. From the attractive woman she turns into a pretty facade with nothing behind it. Matthew however, is simply a handsome and ruthless man who is the marionette of his boss without any will of his own.

Thus, I was a bit disappointed in the two protagonists who tell the story alternatingly. The plot itself has variations of “How do I seduce her without having actual intercourse” which was a bit too much for my liking of a thriller. I missed the real thrill and suspense since most of what happens is quite foreseeable as it is based on just a few pieces of information.

All in all, I was quite deceived by it, since most of the plot seems to be a pretext for having the characters go to bed and it strongly reminded me of “50 Shades of Grey” in the setting and character make-up.