Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Anthony Horowitz – Moonflower Murders

Anthony Horowitz – Moonflower Murders

Former editor Susan Ryeland is running a hotel on Crete with her partner when one day she is contacted by the Trehearnes who themselves also run a hotel in England. On their premises, a dreadful murder had taken place years ago which was used by writer Alan Conway as the basis for a successful novel. Since Susan edited Conway’s novels before he died, she might help them because their daughter Cecily has vanished. Immediately before her disappearance, she had read Conway’s novel and obviously was come across some important information related to the crime. As his editor, Susan must know the novel very well so she might be the one to help solve the case. Since she is rather short of money, she consents to come to Suffolk to investigate the circumstances.

After the “Magpie Murders”, “Moonflower Murders” is the second instalment in the Susan Ryeland series featuring the literary detective Atticus Pünd invented by the deceased novelist Alan Conway. Just like in the first novel, we have a novel within a novel which helps to solve a mystery and links two lines of narration. As a reader, you really have to pay attention not to mix up everything since you have a bunch of fictional characters who are represented in the second narration.

Over the last couple of years, Anthony Horowitz has become one of my favourite authors who never disappoints me. He most certainly is a master of complex plots which pay homage to the great crime writers and the Golden Age of crime fiction by respecting Ronald Knox’ “Ten Commandments” of mysteries.

Just as expected, masterly crafted and even though I liked “Magpie Murders” a bit more, an enjoyable read I can only recommend.

William Shaw – Grave’s End

william shaw graves end
William Shaw – Grave’s End

An unoccupied house which is for sale becomes a crime scene when a body is found in a freezer. This is just the first of a couple of bodies that DS Alexandra Cupidi has to deal with. They do not seem to be connected in any way, but the deeper she digs, the more apparent it becomes that all is somehow linked to the housing project September Homes which causes fierce protests among locals. One of them is the victim in the freezer, Vincent Gibbons, who had been observing badgers in the area and feared that the new houses would kill them or drive them away. Alex Cupidi’s daughter Zoë and their neighbour and ex policeman Bill South also protest against the destruction of the habitat, but quite soon, all three of them have to realise that powerful enemies are willing to do everything to stop them from interfering with the project.

The third instalment of the DS Alexandra Cupidi series so far is the best in my opinion. A single body with no obvious links to anything is the starting point of a highly complex murder investigation which expands from chapter to chapter. What I totally adored were the chapters the old badger is given a voice, thus, the topic of building houses without considering the impact on wildlife becomes a lot more important and interesting and one can only agree with the badger when it concludes, “People stink.”

The plot is perfectly crafted, first moving at a slower pace but then accelerating and also raising suspense. The connections between the different dots are all but obvious and it was a great fun puzzling over it. In the end, the case is solved without leaving any questions unanswered. What I liked most this time was how the characters developed, especially the relationship between Alexandra and her daughter. Bill also becomes more and more a close friend of the two while remaining a bit stubborn but he has the heart in the right place. Alexandra’s partner Jill also becomes more remarkable providing just glimpses of her past where a lot seems to remain to be uncovered.

A series which I absolutely adore and would like to read more of.

Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Emily Elgar – Grace is Gone

emily.elgar-grace-is-gone
Emily Elgar – Grace is Gone

When Cara comes to her neighbours’ house, she’s got a guilty conscience, she hasn’t seen Grace as often as she could have and the girl hardly has contact to anybody apart from her mother. Suffering from multiple diseases, she is confined to the house and needs a wheelchair to move around. What Cara finds, however, is not Grace and her loving mother Meg, but a horrible crime scene: the mother has been slaughtered and the daughter is gone. Who would do such a thing to the most beloved family of the small Cornish city of Ashford? Haven’t they suffered enough with the daughter fatally ill and their son who drowned a couple of years earlier? Together with journalist Jon, who published a not so pleasing portrait of mother and daughter a couple of months before, Cara starts to investigate and soon realises that the public picture of Grace and Meg differs a lot from reality.

Emily Elgar’s novel is a real page turner which offers some unexpected twists. The author has well dosed the revelations about Grace and Megan’s past to keep the reader hooked and curious to find out who they really were. What I liked most was the fact that – set aside the murder of Meg – most of what is told about them could be true and surely happens every day. This makes the suspenseful psychological thriller also a very sad story and leads the reader to ponder about the question how such a story could take place.

It is quite difficult to talk about the characters or the plot without giving away too much of it and spoiling the fun for other readers. I liked having alternate narrators who tell the events from their respective point of view and I also rarely find crime stories where the police and their investigation only play a minor role, or rather: none at all. Even though I had the correct idea of why and how the scheme was set up, I enjoyed reading the novel thoroughly.

Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

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Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

Olivia is a typical 15-year-old girl who is fighting with her parents about going to parties, who is unsure of how to dress and how to behave in school and daydreaming about finally getting away from her family. Except she isn’t. Her life has two sides: on the outside, there is the loving mother in the caring home, on the inside, Olivia and her smaller sister Rosie grow up much more than overprotected. Their parents keep them away from the life outside their small home. They are allowed to school, but not much more. Never can they visit or invite friends, never can they really bond with anybody outside their family. When one evening Olivia sneaks out to go to a party, she sets in motion a series of events that will reveal much more about the family than just explain this very uncommon behaviour of the parents.

The story is told alternately from Olivia’s and her mother Hannah’s perspective. Quite cleverly, Victoria Jenkins first makes you believe in a fairly ordinary phase of rebellion of a teenager. Olivia behaves just like any other girl her age and seems to overdramatise her family life. Yet, slowly and almost unnoticed, something else creeps in and step by step, the image and idea you formed about the family shifts until you have to throw all your assumptions over board.

“The Argument” is a cleverly constructed psychological thriller which captivates the reader with the unexpected development of the characters. Both mother and daughter are actually equal protagonists, the age difference and uneven roles do not really make a difference. You focus on their subtle fight, the bits and pieces of their lives that lie beneath the surface and one after the other come out make them turn into realistic and multifaceted characters. While being occupied with the two women, you overlook the real danger and in the end, it is not easy to come to a final verdict on wrong-doings.

A spell-binding novel which does not offer the immediate thrill but which captivates you at a certain point and in the end, does not leave you without a melancholy feeling.

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.

Nell Zink – Doxology

nell-zink-doxology
Nell Zink – Doxology

New York pre-9/11. Pam, Daniel and Joe lead the life of a more or less successful punk band. They live their dream, not much money coming in, but they can do what they like to. They are happy and luck is on their side when Pam accidentally falls pregnant and Joe has a hit single. Despite his success, Joe spends most of his time with young Flora, his simple but caring mind is the best that could happen to the girl. With the attacks on the World Trade Center, everything changes for this small community. Daniel brings his family away from the Big Apple to his wife’s parents in Washington where Flora will then grow up. She does not become a dreamer like her parents but is a strong activist for environmental matters and has the strong conviction that things can be changed.

Doxology – an expression of praise to God. There are different kinds of god in Nell Zink’s novel who are worshipped. From the punk rock gods who are idolised by their groupies to politicians who promise their voters more than the world to lovers for whom they are ready to give up their ideals. Yet, none of them can fulfil the promises made and at last, the characters have to fend for themselves.

I find it especially hard to write a review on the novel since I still don’t know what to think of it. I certainly admire her style of writing, it is lively and witty and her characters are authentic and powerful. However, it is hard to determine what the novel is about and what the author wants to point at.  There is the (not so) easy-going time of the 1990s punk rock scene in New York, where life outside the bubble can be ignored. Family strings are cut and the musicians submerge totally in their artistic bath. 9/11 not only ends carefree life in New York but also their punk rock dream and the story shifts to Flora and her growing-up in Washington. In her early 20s, she could hardly be more different from what her parents were at that age. Her focus is totally different – well, she belongs to another generation with other topics.

Flora is the product of her grandparents’ and parents’ decisions – and she herself has to make some major choices that will impact her existence. Maybe this is what the book is about after all: life as a chain of decisive moments that lead you in one or the other direction. Quite often there is no actual “right” or “wrong”, much more, the real implications only reveal themselves later. Does it help to ponder about past decisions? No, life goes on and you have to face it anyhow. A wonderfully written family history which is nevertheless not easy to grasp.

Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

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Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

When the bell rings one evening, Tess does not know that this will change her life completely. Her 16-year-old daughter Emma was attacked on her way home from the bus stop, a man tried to abduct her but luckily, a woman came by and could save her. Tess is more than grateful for what Frances has done that night and so it is quite natural to let her into their life which has been a bit chaotic after Tess’ divorce. When Emma fails to identify the attacker with the police, Tess feels the need to do something and so does Frances who thinks she could recognize the man: James Laurence Stephens. Tess totally freaks out, such a man cannot be left running around freely and thus she starts to observe him, follow him online and gets totally worked up about him. Frances is always on her side, supporting her and Emma who does not cope too well with the situation. But then, Tess’ anger and spying fire back and now she is under threat – obviously by a man who is capable of more than just harassing girls.

Tammy Cohen’s psychological thriller got me hooked immediately. The author does not give you a chance to slowly get into the novel, she starts right in the middle of the police investigation and thus, does not leave you any time to get acquainted with the characters and situation – just like Tess was overwhelmed by the incident. Neither does suspense nor the pace slow down after this, the plot moves at a very high speed and this is how you just like Tess lose the focus and get lost in the events. Since I utterly adored the novel, I was curious to find out more about the writer and I was quite astonished that I have read and liked several of her novels published under the pseudonyms Tamar Cohen and Rachel Rhys. She surely is a gifted writer no matter what kind of genre she works on.

What I appreciated most apart from the suspense and high pace was Cohen’s protagonist Tess who is authentically depicted: a wife who has lost her husband as well as her career, who struggles with life and just wants to do the things right at a moment, when nothing seems to work out for her anymore. She is under a lot of pressure from all sides and this makes it easy for her to get immersed in this paranoia of following her daughter’s apparent attacker. From her limited point of view, it all makes totally sense. As a reader, you know that something is not quite right with her perspective, especially since there are parentheses coming obviously from some other character that are not easy to insert into the picture.

A brilliant and captivating read that I could hardly put down. Skilfully crafted with unexpected twists and turns and superbly playing on the psychological aspects of somebody being stressed out and thus prone to fall prey to evil and malevolent fellows.

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.