Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Stranger’s Wife

anna-lou-weatherley-the-strangers-wife
Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Stranger’s Wife

You should never underestimate a woman’s revenge. When her nanny and friend vanishes, Beth decides that – since it all will finally come out anyhow – she can also make the first step herself: she tells her husband Evan that she’s going to leave him for her affair Nick. Evan seems to accept this calmly, they have lived next to each other but hardly with each other for years now, calling this a marriage was embellishing the situation. But he warns his wife that she will be sorry for this step. At that moment, Beth doesn’t have a clue what he means, how powerful her husband actually is and first of all, WHO she has been married to all these years. With her decision to leave him, she has triggered a ball that will send her directly into hell. But Beth is a fighter, much more a fighter than Evan could ever imagine.

Anna-Lou Weatherley’s novel really deserves the title “page-turner”. From the first chapter when the nanny goes missing to the very end: it is a rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs that fascinatingly and almost addictively keeps you reading on. The author has created enemies who fight on a very high level – a wonderful read that I enjoyed throughout.

“The Stranger’s Wife” is a psychological thriller combined with some serious issues that make you ponder quite some time after having finished reading it. I totally adored the idea of a woman fighting back, not accepting fate and a bullying husband who knows all the important people and thinks that life runs according to his personal laws. Having his evil character slowly unfold was exciting and frightening at the same time since you always wonder how well you actually know the people around you and how much and what they might hide. Yet, the story also showed that marital abuse and physical as well as psychological violence happens in all social classes, the rich can be affected in the same way as the poor, money does not make a difference when it comes to aggressions.

A marvellous plot with interesting and multifaceted characters, thus I can easily pardon the fact that it needed a kind of coincidence to make everything fall into place. The novel literally absorbed me and I hardly could put it down.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

jami-attenberg-all-this-could-be-yours
Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

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Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

Elwood Curtis has done everything right: he is diligent, reliable in his after school job and he eagerly follows this charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King. When his teacher recognizes his intellect and promising future, he helps him to attend college courses. Yet, fate didn’t want his life to turn out like this and being black even after the Jim Crow laws meant that there are certain roads not to be travelled. Thus, instead of learning for college, Elwood find himself in Nickel Academy, a juvenile detention centre. He doesn’t fit in the group of delinquent and illiterate boys but he has to be what the supervisors see in him and either he plays by the rules or he gets to know the other side of Nickel, the one that is hidden and buried and will only be excavated half a century later.

“The Nickel Boys” undoubtedly is one of the most awaited novels of 2019. After his tremendous success with “Underground Railroad” and winning the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, expectations ran high for his next book and there is no denying: Colson Whitehead surpassed what I had anticipated. Another tragic story that needed to be told, narrated in a gripping and heart-breaking way that leaves emotionally exhausted.

Institutions like Nickel Academy were a reality not only in the US but also in Europe. Establishment for boys whom nobody cared for or missed were the ideal place for abuse and maltreatment of every kind and where, under the disguise of pedagogy and good-will, the most horrible atrocities took place. It is not only the fact of bringing this piece of eagerly forgotten history back to our mind why Whitehead’s novel is so important and relevant, first and foremost, he masterly narrates how a young boy could become an innocent victim of the circumstances without the least hope of every getting justice or at least an apology for the wrong that has been done to him.

Apart from this, this story – even though it is fictitious – underlines that it takes people who stand up for their ideals, who endure hardship and injustice in order to make a change. We can see these people in the news every day and all of them deserve our support. Taking into consideration the current state of the world, we surely need more Elwoods who fearlessly fight for the right cause.

Lisa Stone – The Doctor

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Lisa Stone – The Doctor

When Emily and Ben move to their new home, they find their neighbours a bit strange, but that’s just how it is at times. Even though Emily tries again and again to get in contact with Alisha, the woman refuses all kind of interaction. Only when one day, Emily accidentally stands in front of their house and hears cries for help, the neighbour thaws a bit. What she has to tell is awful: not only is she seriously ill, but the couple hides a disabled child in their home. Alisha is highly scared of her husband Dr Burman, an anaesthetist and control-freak who made her cut all bonds to her family and friends. The women work out how to trick him and for the next couple of weeks, they meet regularly in secret. But what Alisha always feared one day happens: her husband finds out about their meetings and swears that Emily will have to pay for intruding his house.

Lisa Stone’s thriller is an addictive and gripping story that captivates you at once and keeps you from putting the book down. The author reduced the characters to an absolute minimum, focussing on the two couples and their complex relationships. Especially the one between Mr and Mrs Burman is not only highly interesting, but – unfortunately – authentic and more than plausible. He is the prototype of an abusive husband who egoistically puts everybody and everything after his own will.

The plot is not very surprising, since you get all characters’ perspectives, you know what they are up to and what to await. Yet, this doesn’t reduce suspense even a bit, since the story is simply terrifying and fascinating in the most awful way. Mr Burman’s medical research in his shed directly comes from a science-fiction horror show, but, and that is the creepy part of it, what he is doing has been dreamt of by medical doctors and other researchers for centuries and now we seem to be in the possession of the knowledge and the means to make it reality.

I highly enjoyed reading this psychological thriller for its captivating and spine-tingling plot.

Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

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Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

“I was twelve years old. This was the morning of the last day of my childhood.”

Violet Rue has always been her father’s favourite little girl. Just like her older sisters before, but not the brothers. The seventh of the children was loved beyond belief and treated differently. Jerome Kerrigan wasn’t an easy man, expecting his family to be obedient and to follow his orders. His education was strict and very clear. But then, one event changes everything. Her older brothers commit a cruel crime, killing a boy from the neighbourhood, a black boy. Violet Rue knows about it and she knows where the murder weapon is to be found. Keeping this secret is not really an option, but positioning herself against her family means that she has to life a life as a rat, a person who betrayed their closest.

I have read several novels written by Joyce Carol Oates and thus knew that she does not make it easy for her readers and demands a lot. Here, too, the book at times is hard to tolerate, the family situation is shocking and what the girl experiences – also after leaving the family – is merciless, just like reality sometimes is. A very strong narration that especially could convince me due to the tone of the young narrator who is torn between a childish naiveté and the need to grow-up and care for herself far too early.

It’s a novel about family bonds, family secrets, punishment, and all kinds of abuse. Powerfully Oates portrays how strong the core family members are sometimes linked and how the children and partners of abusive husbands sometimes keep silent just to secure their life. Violet knows as a young girl already what is right and what is wrong and that her decision to take the side of the victim will have severe consequences. But she – just like any child in a comparable situation – underestimates the hatred that people might show and how heartlessly her family is ready to cast her out.

A book not especially pleasurable to read but surely not to miss either.

R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

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R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.

Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

caroline-odonogue - promising-young-women
Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

Jane Peters is a 16-year-old women working in marketing. She mainly does secretarial tasks, nothing too demanding and far from the fancy marketing stuff she had expected. It is her private website where she provides advice as agony aunt “Jolly Politely” that keeps her mood up since she spilt with her boyfriend. When she attracts the attention of her boss Clem, an unexpected chance opens up and she can win a new and important customer for her company. Yet, Clem is not only interested in her professionally and thus an uncontrollable spiral of dependence is set in motion.

Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel promised a new side of the old man-woman, power-dependence topic with a witty and strong minded female protagonist who is capable of breaking through old walls and securing herself a place in a man’s world. However, this isn’t what I found in the novel and admittedly I am a bit disappointed.

First if all, the characters are full of clichés and quite foreseeable. Jane as well as her colleagues are rather naive and slightly stupid when it comes to relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Why don’t they see the obvious thing in front of them and why are they eagerly abused? That you are not full of self-confidence when you are young and new in the job and quickly impressed by male conduct is understandable, but running into the trap in front of you isn’t necessary either. Likewise, the male characters are also rather one-dimensional and predictable in their behaviour.

Thus, the whole story becomes a bit stereotypical and lacks individuality and originality. What I could expect from a really important and ground-breaking novel would also be a completely different ending, this was a quite disappointing, the message cannot actually be to look out for a more female adequate job where you don’t meet those bullying men.

The style of writing, however, is something I really liked, it is funny and often amusing and full of puns. Caroline O’Donoghue is witty and creative and the light-heartedness with which Jane comments on the postings on her website are not just funny but also very clever and true. Sadly, she herself does not act accordingly. All in all, there was more in the story from a feminist point of view, as it is, it is somehow nice, but without the impact it might have had.

Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

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Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.

Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.

The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.

“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.

A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.

Gabriel Tallent – My Absolute Darling

gabriel-tallent-my-absolute-darling
Gabriel Tallent – My Absolute Darling

It’s just the two of them, 14-year old Julia, called Turtle, and her father Martin. Her mother ran away a long time ago. And there’s her grandfather living close to them, but staying mainly apart. Her father loves her, more than anything else in the world, she can feel it, despite his strange way of showing his affection. He hurts her sometimes, but only because she has not been nice and provoked him. And he loves her, like a man loves a woman. She likes being close to him, that’s normal, isn’t it? But as Turtle is getting older, somewhere deep inside her doubts start to grow. Is all this correct? When she meets Jacob and gets to like him more and more, suddenly the fragile family construction of Martin and Turtle is threatened, even more when Martin brings the small girl Cayenne to their home. Turtle finally realised that she has to do something because nothing is right in their home.

Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel has a weird fascination just like accidents have. On the one hand, you do not want to look (or in this case: read on), because it is all to awful and you know that you had better not read this. On the other hand, you want to see what’s happening and this drags you back to the novel again and again.

Surely, this is nothing to read for highly sensitive readers. It is about child abuse, violence and psychological pressure of the worst kind. However, even though from an outsider’s point of view, this is horrible and unbearable, Gabriel Tallent manages also to convey another perspective which, it remains to be feared, is only too real and can be found in many victims. Julia loves her father, she loves his tenderness and warmth and even the physical contact isn’t something she loathes, quite the contrary. If she did something against it, she’d lose him and thus she has to calculate very accurately what she is doing. This is not easy to understand and even worse to support in a novel, but at a realistic view, this might be a quite common interpretation of the situation.

All in all, not a novel you enjoy to read, but one that takes an interesting perspective and might add something to our understanding.