Journalist Kate flees New York and her job and hopes to have a new start in Callinas close to San Francisco where she is staying with her aunt while working as an archivist for Theo Brand. He is the son of the famous photographer Miranda Brand whose legacy has been stored unattended in their home for more than two decades. Even though Theo is quite reserved, Kate gets on well immediately with his kids Oscar and Jemima; the deeper she digs into Miranda’s work and story, the more fascinated she becomes. Spending hours daily at the Brand home ultimately also brings her closer to Theo and makes her challenge her luck: he explicitly prohibited her from accessing some parts of the home which he considered strictly private. Kate cannot resist and thus finds Miranda’s diary which sheds a completely new light on the artist and her mysterious death.
It only took me a couple of pages to be totally enthralled by the story. Sara Sligar’s debut is a clever combination of an extraordinary artist’s (fictitious) biography, a crime novel and also feminist psychological thriller. Miranda’s death is the central aspect which Kate investigates, but what I found much more interesting was, on the one hand, how Miranda’s relationship with her obsessive-aggressive husband develops and, on the other, how Kate, herself just having recovered from an episode of mental struggles, reacts to it and becomes increasingly fixated. A brilliant study of two female characters who try to cope with psychological issues and being misunderstood by the world around them.
“I must figure out how to be exactly the right level of insane.”
The crime part of the novel is not that obvious from the beginning, it develops slowly and is surely reinforced by Kate’s prying in Theo’s home. It does not seem to make sense why he hides important information from her while paying her to sort out his mother’s legacy. Their getting closer over the time, not surprisingly, makes things even more complicated.
Even though some serious topics are addressed, Sara Sligar keeps a light tone and works on suspense rather than having the novel turn into a too melodramatic story. Added to this, her characters are not just black or white but give an authentic representation of the complex layers of grey which exist when it comes to relationships, violence and mental issues.
When the first student doesn’t wake up after a long party night, nobody is really scared, it’s just something that happens. But when more and more people in the small Southern Californian college town just fall sound asleep, fear starts to grow. What is happening in town? Is this an infection and what does the sleep do to the people? Students, professors, nurses, doctors, average people – they all can catch the mysterious virus which seems to cause wild dreams and a comatose state. Public life slowly comes to a standstill and the town is put under quarantine, it has become too dangerous to go there because nobody knows what kind of new biological threat they are dealing with. Who will win: the virus or the human race?
Sometimes there are books that you suddenly see everywhere and everybody seems to talk about them. When I first came across “The Dreamers”, I was convinced that this was nothing for me, I prefer realistic stories and nothing too fancy and out of the ordinary. But the hype about it rose my curiosity and thus, I wanted to know what is behind it all. Well, to sum it up: a notable novel which is skilfully written and got me hooked immediately.
What I appreciated especially were two things. First of all, the dramaturgy of the plot. The mysterious virus just infects students and then slowly spreads and the number of characters that we got to know is progressively affected and falls asleep. As the number of victims rises, the life in the small town is reduced more and more to a minimum. It is obvious that there must be some kind of final fight in which either side gains the upper hand and the other succumbs – yet, Karen Thompson Walker finds a different solution which I liked a lot since it perfectly mirrors life’s ambiguity.
The second aspect was even more impressive. I fell for the author’s laconic style of writing. It is down to earth, concise and everything but playfully metaphorical. It reflects the characters’ mood of having to survive under the extreme circumstances: Just go on, do what is necessary, keep your head high and make yourself useful. That’s just how it is, so what? No need to fantasize about an alternative world, we just have this situation and need to cope with it.
To sum it up: just like the sleep overcomes the characters, this novel could spellbind me.
“A Perfect Universe“ is a collection of ten stories all set in California, yet not the Hollywood California of stars and success, but the part where life is a bit sadder and less full of hopes. It’s about a young man buried under a building which had crumbled, a business woman hated by the other clients in a coffee shop, a relationship which ended and does not provide solace anymore, a woman’s preparation for a big day which ends in a disappointment, a girl hearing voices, a class of men trying to control their emotions and others. Scott O’Connor provides a huge variety of topics, yet all taken right from life. His characters are not the rich and famous, not the especially talented or gifted. It’s the average boy and girl or their grown-up version.
As always in collections of stories, you like some more and others less. I cannot really say why this is the case, since it’s neither due to the topic nor the protagonist that I prefer some. The first one, “Hold On” got me immediately. The man waiting to be rescued, finding comfort and hope in the woman’s voice who is reading out their names, thus signalling them that they are not forgotten but searched for. His anger when the mayor decides to give up and the joy of surviving after all – you could easily feel the emotional rollercoaster Robert went through.
“Interstellar Space” also caught me, but this time there isn’t much hope, it’s a really melancholy story of schizophrenia. Her slowly deteriorating condition is sad to read. She seemed to be bright, joyful and lively and suddenly her mind decides to play tricks on her and have her finished in a hospital, locked-up in her body and the world outside shut out.
One which made me ruminate a bit was “The Plagiarist”. I often wonder if there can be indeed something completely new that can be written or if not rather all has already been said somehow. How can today’s works actually be “original”? There are some plot concepts that you can easily recognize, phrases that have been used again and again – so, what is invented and what is rather copied?
Many years ago, Robin has left her hometown of Red Bluff and cut all connections with her family. It was when her father married her then best friend and her brother’s fiancée soon after their mother had died of cancer. She simply couldn’t forgive him. In L.A. she started a new life as a therapist and was about to marry Blake. Now, she needs to go back because her father has been fatally wounded, his wife shot dead and the twelve-year-old daughter seriously injured by some gunmen who entered the house at night. Her sister Melanie isn’t very keen on welcoming her back, Robin had always been their mother’s favourite. But now the two have to get along somehow and help the police find the murderer. But they soon figure out that things aren’t that easy and when Melanie’s son and their brother Alec come under suspicion, things are complicated while the real criminal is running free…
Joy Fielding is one of the best-known contemporary thriller writers and “The Bad Daughter” can hold up to the expectations. A cleverly constructed plot, multifaceted characters who do not show their real face immediately and several leads that only lead you to dead ends make a round and sound story.
Setting the story in a dysfunctional family where there are many unsaid things buried under the surface and which can surprise you again and again with the characters’ unexpected yet credible behaviour was definitely a clever step. The fact that you do not really like all the characters just makes them more authentic and the story a lot livelier.
Even though I am not sure if I really find the solution 100 percent convincing, I liked the novel. It is not an absolutely fast-paced and nerve-wrecking thriller, but the looming danger of the perpetrator still being around surely was responsible some goose bumps.