Roddy Doyle – Love

Roddy Doyle – Love

A summer evening, two old friends meeting in a Dublin restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for quite some time, Joe still lives in Ireland, David and his family have moved to England. They have grown up with each other, shared all firsts of life and stayed in contact for several decades, now coming close to the age of 60. What starts as a joyful evening of old pals turns into an introspection and questioning of values, of memories which suddenly do seem to differ and of a friendship which after all those years is threatened to break up.

Roddy Doyle’s novel is really astonishing with regard to the liveliness and authenticity with which it is told. The text consists in large parts of dialogue between Joe and David which gives you really the impression of sitting at the table with them, listing to their conversation and taking part in the evening – just without all the drinking. It was all but difficult to imagine the scene and also the way they interact is totally genuine. This is only interrupted by insights in David’s thoughts, while he is talking to his friend, he is reassessing what he hears and, as a reader, you soon get aware that there are things he does not share with Joe albeit the latter is supposedly his best friend.

Even though I liked to learn about the two characters’ points of view, their pondering and wondering, the novel did not really get me hooked. First of all, I guess the imbalance between the two, getting access to one’s thoughts whereas the other is only shown from outside, did not really convince me. Quite naturally, the plot is highly repetitive which is absolutely authentic and believable, yet, not that interesting when you read it. There are funny moments as there is a very strong ending which really made up for a lot in my opinion. In the end, I remain of mixed opinion concerning the novel.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

silvia moreno garcia mexican gothic
Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

A worrisome letter from her cousin Catalina brings Noemí to a remote place called „High Place“. Only a year ago, Catalina married Virgil Doyle and moved with him in the mansion close to a former mine where the British family made a fortune. Even though it is 1950, there is still no electricity in the house and Noemí feels like being in a British novel of the 19th century. Her cousin is in an awful state, not only physically, but also mentally and she does not only rely on the medication of the family doctor but also got some tincture from a local healer. Strange rules make it difficult for Noemí to adapt to life in the house and it does not take too long until she herself feels that something strange is going on in there. She has very lively nightmares and cannot get rid of the impression that the walls are talking to her. Is she also going mad like Catalina?

Quite often you open a novel and while reading you have the impression that the title and the plot do hardly have any connection. In Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s book „Mexican Gothic“, however, the title perfectly announces what you will get: a wonderful Gothic horror story in the style of the 18th and 19th century. A spooky old mansion in a remote place without any available help close by, a mysterious cemetery whose inhabitants seem to wander about, nightmares, terror and morbidity accomplish it.

Noemí is presented as an educated yet a bit shallow young woman who cares more about partying and having fun than worrying about her family. Therefore, she only reluctantly follows her father‘s orders to put an eye on Catalina‘s situation. When she arrives at High Place, she continues her slightly contemptuous behaviour towards the Dolye family. Only after having talked to Catalina is she moved a bit and willing to help her cousin. Her stubbornness prevents her from being absorbed by the strange activities in the house.

Soon, however, the fine line between reality and insanity becomes more and more blurry, not only is neither the protagonist nor the reader sure if Noemí‘s dreams are only very vivid or if there are frightening things under way. And then, the horror show really begins.

I totally adored how the author gradually drags the young woman and the reader into this story which oscillates between fascinations and abhorrence. Even though you are well aware that most of what happens cannot be real, it is easy to imagine that in such an old house, ghosts could roam and walls could    talk. A magnificent read which transports you to a time long gone and a world where much more is possible.

Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

thomas harris cari mora
Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

Cari Mora is not afraid, not anymore. Having been kidnapped as a kid and trained to become a child soldier for Colombia’s FARC, she knows how to survive even the most dangerous situations. She can read people, use weapons of all kinds and she knows that in order not to be killed, she at times needs to shoot others first. She has established a quiet life in Miami, always under the radar since she does not possess the necessary papers. When Hans-Peter Schneider and his crew appear, things become complicated. A war of gangs breaks out, sadist Schneider as well as his opponent Don Ernesto want to dig out some gold barrels which are supposed to be deposited in a house which formerly belonged to Pablo Escobar, leader of the famous Medellin Cartel. Cari soon find herself between the front lines.

It took Tomas Harris thirteen years after his last instalment of the Hannibal Lecter series to come up with a new novel. Having totally adored “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and its successors, I was eager to read this novel. Even though the topic is completely different, I expected some cruel thrill and highly complex characters. Yet, my expectations were not really met and for the rating, it only ranges somewhere between three and four stars.

There were some aspects I found really interesting to read. Cari Mora’s backstory as a child soldier was exciting and appalling at the same time and Harris integrated this part quite well into the actual plot line. She certainly is some noteworthy character and the conflicting traits – on the one hand, the ruthless child who learnt how to kill, on the other hand, the caring woman and her way of treating plants and animals which shows her high capacity of empathy – make her a strong protagonist.

However, the main topic is the fight between the two gangs which is, unfortunately, very poorly narrated. Even though Schneider first appears to be a fascinating character with his tendency to torture, this is not really developed further. Thus, the gang fight remains on the highly superficial “we shoot some of you, then you react in the same way” level. This is a bit uninspired and maybe works better in film than in a book.

It is easy to recognise Thomas Harris’ hand in the novel, but he surely can do a lot better than that.

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.

Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

jacqueline-woodson-red-at-the-bone
Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

When Iris gets pregnant at the age of fifteen, she only takes in the fact that she and her boyfriend Aubrey are going to have a baby. What this really means for her life, she cannot assess at that moment. Sixteen years later, her daughter Melody is having her coming-of-age-party wearing the dress that was once meant for her mother. Not just Iris’s life takes another road with the unexpected kid, also her parents’ plans and of course those of Aubrey and his family change due to the new situation and all of them also have to face the world outside their family bubbly where not everybody is totally understanding. A novel about family bonds and about what influence a single human being can have on how you live your life.

Jacqueline Woodson has chosen a discontinuous mode of narration. Not only does she spring back and forward chronologically, but she also gives different characters a voice and also has a 3rd person narrator tell parts of the plot. This makes the whole story quite lively and often unexpected because at the beginning of each chapter you do not know where you are starting from and who is addressing you.

There are some central topics focussed on, first of all, of course, the teenager falling pregnant. The family manages the situation perfectly, no major fight or disruption arises from Iris’s decision to keep the baby, but it is hard to read about the reactions of her friends and school, even though I would classify it as highly authentic. The only person really struggling with the new-born, yet, is Iris who can never really bond with her daughter. She puts some effort in their relationship, but it is simply never enough and she most certainly suffers from the chances that she in her own perception never had in her life due to becoming a mother that early – admittedly, I had the impression that life could be much worse under these circumstances and Iris had a lot of opportunities to fulfil her dreams.

Another aspect are the class-related and skin-colour attributed options in life. These do not determine the characters’ fate, yet provide some food for thought as do family relations in general in the novel.

The novel offers a lot of blind spots, leaves gaps that you have to fill on your own due to the structure of the narration. I actually liked it because it makes you think on after reading and sticking with the book much longer. I also enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s style e of writing which is well adapted to the different characters and authentic.

Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

barbara-bourland-fake-like-me
Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

When the young aspiring painter arrives in New York to become a real artist, she encounters the already famous quintet that calls itself “Pine City“ after the place they work. Jes, Marlin, Jack, Tyler and especially Carey are the up-coming big names in the art world and all that the unnamed narrator dreams of: self-confident, relaxed, comfortable in themselves. A couple of years later, she is at the threshold of making herself a name when her apartment burns down and with it several pieces of work that were meant to be shown just a couple of weeks later. She had stored them at home, not at safe place as she tells her curator, thus, she has to act quickly and rebuild them. An impossible task, even more so if you do not even have a work place anymore. She luckily finds an interim solution: a friend brings her at the heart of the circle she once admired and which has been reduced to a quartet after Carey’s suicide. It was her especially that she looked up to and felt connected with. Maybe staying there might give her some insight in why she decided to end her life.

I really dived into the novel and was immediately hooked by Barbara Bourland’s novel. The young artist who is insecure and admires those who already succeeded. I also appreciated the insight in a painter’s work, how her emotions lead to results when she manages to channel them into the art. Interestingly also to glance behind the façade of the art and culture circus – you get the impression that it is just this: a façade, a cover-up to please, a pretence – without any solid foundation or walls. However, I got a bit lost when the plot developed too much into a love story.

I enjoyed the author’s style of writing and the combination of the art world with a touch of mystery. Yet, apart from the protagonist, it was hard to support the characters who were nor only shallow but pretentious and affected, and who took themselves and their work by far too serious. Just like the characters, the overall plot was also a bit trivial and lacked the depth and analysis or insight in the art work I had expected. The mystery surrounding the suicide of Carey, too, did not really show any suspense. An interesting read with a very strong beginning but a bit lengthy from the middle on.

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

colson-whitehead-the-nickel-boys
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.

Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

fiona-neill-beneath-the-surface
Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

One second, Lilly Vermuyden is sitting in her English class, the next she is lying on the floor convulsing uncontrollably. What’s wrong with the 17-year-old teenager? The doctors take test after test but do not seem to come closer to the cause for her seizure. Rumours start spreading and Lilly’s mother Grace totally freaks out. How could she not protect her daughter? Only Lilly’s younger sister Mia seems to know what is going on: archaeological excavations close to their home must have evoked evil spirits who now haunt the living. Mia gets totally worked up in her theory and behaves even stranger than normal calling her teachers into action. Life in the well-ordered Vermuyden household is close to collapsing and thus, well-hidden secrets threaten to be uncovered.

Fiona Neill’s novel sounded intriguing and actually it mixes quite some enthralling aspects: a family in which everybody seems to be on the watch in order to keep their secrets, a young girl totally immersed in Anglo-Saxon history and fascinated by spooky tales, and a medical incident that seems to be too complicated to find an easy explanation. Yet, somehow I couldn’t really connect to the story.

The story mainly lives on the characters who were multi-faceted and interestingly drawn. First and foremost, Lilly who is a typical teenager who hides her private life from her parents since she does not want to destroy the picture they have of her. She tries to please her mother und fulfil the expectations but can only fail here. There is some mystery about what happened that made her collapse that keeps suspense high throughout the plot. Her mother, on the other hand, is quite unsympathetic since she is a total control freak who does not grant her golden girl one millimetre of free space. There is a reason for her behaviour, yet, this is only inserted in a very brief excursus and thus remains too superficial to make her a really remarkable and complex character. Admittedly, I soon got totally annoyed with Mia. For quite some time I was wondering if she is somehow autistic since she doesn’t seem to understand how she tramples on the other characters’ feelings. Then, I thought she was rather precocious before I came to the conclusion that she is simply an entirely malignant egoistic young person.  The father, Patrick, ended up deeply in debt and so weak that the story could have been told without him.

There are some major questions raised about family life, parenting, growing-up and how much privacy is healthy for people close to each other. It all adds up in the end, yet, somehow, I had the impression that a bit more focus on one or a maximum of two characters would have been better.