Fredrik Backman – The Winners

Fredrik Backman – The Winners

A lot of time has passed since the tragic events of Beartown. Maya Andersson and Benji Ovich have left the village to start a new life somewhere else, the rest of the inhabitants has found a way of either forgetting or ignoring. But now they are threatened by a storm and a fateful series of events brings people home, opens up old wounds and creates new ones. Beartown as its rival village of Hed will never be the same again, they all will have changed and one person’s life especially will be determined by the events of only a very short time.

I have read almost all novels by Fredrik Backman and yet, I am overwhelmed each time and even though I am all but prone to extreme emotion, I can’t help crying while reading his stories. From the first two books settled in the Swedish village of Beartown (The Scandal/Beartown and Us against you, I knew what to expect from “The Winners” and was somehow prepared, but nevertheless, the author managed to trigger something in me.

Maybe it is the characters who are the most normal people one can imagine, who have their good and caring sides as well as the others which would much rather be hidden. Maybe it is the setting in an unknown village somewhere in the forest which nobody has ever heard of. It is the maximum of normalcy that we encounter in this trilogy and that makes you feel at home and bond with the characters immediately.

Backman’s masterful foreshadowing gives a glimpse in what is to come, it only hints at the upcoming tragedies and thus raises suspense which keeps you reading on, unable to put the book aside. You know that something really dreadful, horrible is waiting at the end and yet, just like life goes on you continue until you reach that moment where you are hit with a hammer.

I am lacking the words to adequately convey what the novel did to me, to describe the experience of reading and after the last page, of leaving this wonderful story. Backman is an exceptional author and his Beartown series is an exceptional read.

Amanda DuBois – The Complication

Amanda DuBois – The Complication

Seattle attorney Camille Delaney rushed to the hospital where her friend Dallas Jackson has to undergo an emergency operation with a fatal outcome. When the former nurse accidentally sees his folder, questions arise. What happened in the operation room? And why was nobody aware of the seemingly critical state her friend was in? As her company only represents hospitals and high profile doctors, thus she cannot pursue her inquiries. Instead this brings her to a point where she has to ask herself if she has given up her ideals for the money and status. As a consequence, she decides to run the risk and leaves the company to start her own firm with her first case. She soon realises that nobody wants to talk about Dr Willcox, responsible surgeon in the operation room, but her gut feeling tells her that something is totally going wrong in this hospital.

There are some similarities between the author and her protagonist. Amanda DuBois herself was a trained nurse before she became a lawyer and medical malpractice has been her area of specialisation. “The Complication” is her first novel which highly relies on her profession knowledge combining medical aspects with law. From a seemingly unfortunate operation, the case develops into a complicated conspiracy which brings the protagonist repeatedly into dangerous situations since she has to deal with reckless people who do not care about a single life.

What I liked about the novel was how the medical details were incorporated and explained along the way so that the reader with limited medical knowledge could smoothly follow the action. The characters are authentically drawn, especially Camille’s discussion with her mother about her ideals and principles raising the question what use she makes of her legal capacities while working for a law firm that puts more interest in the billing hours than helping to serve the law was interesting to follow.

Even though I would estimate that the case is realistically depicted with Camille again and again coming to dead ends and only advancing slowly, I would have preferred a higher pace since as a reader, you have a lead and soon know what scheme is behind it all.

Alan Parks – May God Forgive

Alan Parks – May God Forgive

Harry McCoy hasn’t really recovered after his latest case but is back to work as the whole city is mourning the loss of five women and children who were killed after somebody set fire to a hairdresser’s. The atmosphere in the city is hot when the three young men are arrested for the crime, but just outside the courthouse, the police van is attacked and the three of them are kidnapped. It does not take too long until the first shows up again: severely mutilated and killed. Police need to find the hiding place before the other two are massacred, too. Yet, this is not the only case Harry has to work on, a young unknown girl has been strangled and dumped on a cemetery. The police detective does not have the least idea where this case will lead and what it will demand of him.

The fifth instalment of Alan Parks’ series cantered around the Glasgow detective Harry McCoy again combines brilliantly the mood of the 1974 Scottish city with McCoy’s personal life. “May God Forgive” repeatedly challenges morals and ethics and raises the question if something as a fair trial and sentence can exist.

I have been a huge fan of the series from the start and I still have the impression that it is getting better with each new novel. This time, it is several cases that drive the plot. First of all, the case of the burnt down hairdresser’s which seems to be connected to the city’s gang rivalries. McCoy wanders between the world of law and order and the illegal underworld thus getting closer to what has happened. He ignores his health which would much rather confine him to his home, but what should he do there?

His private life is also addressed in several ways thus granting more and more insight in the complex relationship he has with his father and his upbringing. Loyalties going far back in to his childhood now force him to question his very own place as a representative of the system, much more than it did before even though his friendship with Stevie Cooper put him in tricky situations before. Can you ever really overcome where you come from? Obviously not, but on the other hand: aren’t the institutions responsible for law and order sometimes as corrupt as the underworld?

A lot of suspense and food for thought as you as a reader quite naturally also ponder about the question how you would have reacted in McCoy’s place. Another great read of one of the best contemporary crime series.

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Peter Swanson – Nine Lives

Nine people, seemingly chosen at random, get the same letter: no sender or return address and in the envelope just a sheet of paper with nine names. One of them is theirs.  They have no idea what this is supposed to mean and react quite differently to it. Some of them are worried, others just throw it away. But when the first person listed is murdered, mood shifts a bit. When the second body is discovered, they get nervous as it becomes more and more obvious: this is a kill list. And the strangers will all be dead just a short time after. FBI agent Jessica is among them and she is the first to discover a possible connection: the reason for the murderer lies in the past, many decades ago, there must have been an event that links them.

“Nine Lives” is only the second novel I read by Peter Swanson after “Before She Knew Him” which I also thoroughly enjoyed. His newest novel, too, keeps you long in the dark, just like the police, you wonder what the characters might have brought on the list, how nine – why nine and not ten? – people spread all over the country might be linked. What I liked especially and what came to my mind immediately after starting to read, was Agatha Christie’s crime mystery “And Then There Were None” which is referred to several times throughout the novel. A tricky puzzle where the pieces do not seem to fit for quite a long time and while you still ponder about the reason behind it all, you can only watch how one after the other is killed.

“It wasn’t simply revenge. It felt like something much more than that. Karma, maybe. I had the money, and I had the will, to do what the natural world would never do. I could set the world to rights, in one small way.”

What I appreciated most was how the people reacted to their death announcement. Swanson created quite diverse characters who cope with this challenging situation in very different ways. Ethan and Caroline’s way of bonding over the shared fate was for me the most loveable story as I could relate to this most – just having the feeling of not being alone in it, of having somebody to share the fears and thoughts with, and somehow accepting fate or whatever it is.

There are some noteworthy minor characters – a wannabe victim, a contract killer – whose motives and points of view bring some new spin to the plot, too. However, what is most remarkable is the personality of the character who is behind it all. Normally, you come to hate a serial killer who takes himself for God, emotionally, I found it not that easy here, which alone already makes it a great read since life is never just black and white, good or bad.

A very cleverly composed plot which is not totally nerve-wrecking but full of suspense and also thought-provoking: what would you do if you were on such a list?

Erika L. Sánchez – I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Erika L. Sánchez – I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

When her older sister Olga dies in a car accident, there is only 15-year-old Julia left to be the perfect Mexican daughter her parents want to have. Olga was a role model, she always obeyed, did not go out, helped her mother with her cleaning job and even at college did not have a boyfriend. Julia, instead, wants the full life that all girls in Chicago have, she dreams of becoming a writer, likes to go out with her friends and have fun. Quite naturally, she over and over provokes conflicts with her parents. After Olga is gone, the situation worsens increasingly until it becomes unbearable and she only sees one way out of it all.

Erika L. Sánchez is a journalist and writer of Mexican decent. Her novel “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” was nominated finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She brilliantly portrays the perspective of a teenager who struggles with all the problems of a typical teenager but additionally has to live up to the expectations of her parents who have grown up in another country, with another culture and other values which they have taken with them and which they now project on their daughters. Additionally, which only becomes clear throughout the novel, the loss of her sister has left a greater scar on Julia than was obvious at the beginning.

I totally adored how Erika L. Sánchez found the tone of a teenager who is emotional and only wants to be free, free in her very own understanding. Julia is a sympathetic and adorable girl and it is not difficult to follow her line of thoughts. She wants to be a good daughter, she hates the fights with parents, but she is also stubborn and demands to be treated like the others, the American girls, and not to live up to the old, overcome Mexican values.

Living between two cultures means much more than just growing up, fulfilling the expectations of the peer group and the parents is impossible but nevertheless expected from teenagers in a time of rebellion. They all have to find their individual way of coping with this, Olga found hers and Julia only bit by bit uncovers that her sister wasn’t necessarily the girl she thought she was.

A great read in many respects, full of life, emotional, funny but also reflective and dark at times, it captures the full range of teenage life and takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

First, their pathologist is killed, then another attack is clearly aimed at police and paramedics. Edinburgh has to face a brutal serial killer who is not targeting the public to cause general panic but only aims at the forces. DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach are confronted with death every day – but not the death of their colleagues and friends. It is obvious that the cases are linked, but they simply cannot find the thread that holds them all together, they only know that it is just a question of time until the bomber hits again, taking more lives of those who help others every day.

Helen Field’s latest case for her Edinburgh team is full of twists and demands everything from her protagonists. This time, it is personal, Ava is affected directly by the death of her friend and still grieving when she needs all her wits to hunt down the serial killer. “One for Sorrow” is already the seventh novel in the series and in my opinion definitely the best. It had me gripped immediately and I kept speculating about the identity of the killer, following wrong leads cleverly laid out again and again.

There are two time levels in the novel. On the one hand, we follow the police investigation which is always several steps behind their enemy. The killer is knowledgeable and perfectly follows his plan. What I liked especially was the scene where they ask a profiler to help them to identify the person behind it all. It made absolutely sense and was highly informative and interesting to follow the line of argumentation.

On the other hand, there is a kind of totally gone wrong love story about a young woman named Quinn and her boyfriend who, instead of accepting the breakup, turns into a freaking stalker. It is obvious that this is the missing link to the bombings, yet, you need to see the whole picture of Quinn’s story to understand the motive behind it all.

A suspenseful and highly emotional mystery I hardly could put down.

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Nurse Callie is giving up her job to be better able to care for her brother. For years now, Noah has been suffering from mental illness and apart from their father, Callie is the only one he trusts and who is able to calm him when he gets in a state of emergency. To have more time, she leaves the hospital and becomes a carer for Frey, a young man who does not talk and needs strict daily routines to cope with life. Thus, Callie spends two weeks with her father and brother and the other two together with a colleague with Frey. When she returns one night from work, she receives an awful message: both her beloved ones have died in an accident and now she has to face her mother again. The woman who left them, who always hated Callie and the single person she does not want to see. It is a confrontation which is not only hurtful but which also lets lose monsters which have been kept locked up for many years.

Cassandra Parkin’s novel is a dark tale which play with the big question if the narrator is reliable or not and if what we remember is actually how things really happened or if our brain might play tricks on us. “The Leftovers” is great in making you high alert for the half-sentences, the things implied, all that is not said and questions all characters. Whom can you trust? Who is willingly misleading? Who is misled by their brains? From a point where all is clear, you enter an abyss where everything is possible.

Callie appears to be a selfless young woman who has destined her life to care for others. She is great with Frey as she has a long history of living with her brother and noticing nuances, slight changes which might be signs for dramatic events. She can well adapt to Frey’s needs and sync herself with his life which makes her perfect for the job. Yet, after some time, things slightly change and it takes some time for the reader to figure out why that is.

In the confrontation with her cool and repellent mother, childhood memories come up. Not only did her mother not show any affection towards her and clearly preferred her brother, she definitely neglected the girl. In Callie’s recollections, it all makes sense and fits together perfectly, yet, the more you get to know, the more you start to wonder if she, too, might see things that are not there just like her brother. Even though from what she tells, it all seems right and yet, doesn’t the understanding from the world of somebody suffering from paranoia normally form a consistent picture?

A great read I can only recommend but you should be aware that some contents might feel like triggers for a highly sensitive reader.

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Even though the Middle Ages are over, superstition and strange beliefs are still widespread among people. Thus, in 1615, Katharina Kepler finds herself accused of witchcraft by the people of her hometown of Leonberg in southern Germany. Times are hard, the Plague is spreading the Thirty Years’ War has just begun and somebody must be blamed for all the things happening. Katharina is an elderly widow, illiterate and mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She leads a simple life, attending to her cow Chamomile. One day, however, Ursula Reinbold, accuses her of witchcraft, having offered a bitter drink which allegedly poisoned her, and surprisingly, the court not only listens but more and more people come forwards with testimonies of Katharina’s ill-doing. Only her neighbour, old Simon, who prefers to keep to himself, stands by her side.

Rivka Galchen’s story is based on a true story, Johannes Kepler’s mother was a healer and herbalist and arrested for witchcraft. The famous son stopped his research in planetary motion to defend his mother. Not only Katharina became victim of this kind of accusation, the town’s advocate Lutherus Einhorn accused 15 women in one trial and had executed eight of them in 1615.

At first, Katharina doesn’t take the accusation seriously, it is just talk for her, until she is put to prison and has to learn that more and more people come forward with other stories which seem to underline her doing black magic. She tries to counter the attack by accusing Ursula and her husband of slander, yet, her own case vanishes somewhere in the depth of local jurisprudence.

“We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always know. The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.”

The accusations brought forward rage from poisoning, causing lameness, several deaths, injuring a woman’s foot, harming numerous people and animals – a long list which is getting more and more absurd during the story. I liked the interrogations of the inhabitants since they show not only the superstition they fall prey to, but also the dynamics of a small town which turns against one woman. Everything ill that has ever happened is simply attributed to Katharina. The allegations are so ridiculous that you could laugh weren’t it for Katharina’s case and the fact that the people’s testimonies seem to be believed.

Even though the plot is based on a well-documented historical case, you can see more or less the same thing happening today. It is not the small town anymore, but the world wide web in which often just one single person brings forward an accusation – no need for proof anymore – and masses jump on the bandwagon and have their twitter trial even before the issue is sorted out. It doesn’t matter if the accused is later discharged or not, the only thing that counts is public opinion which is quick at passing a sentence.

An entertaining read which outlines the dark sides of human nature – envy, greed, malicious gossip – and the danger that might come from it.

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

When Dot dies from a stroke at the age of 70, she leaves her twins Jeanie and Julius behind. Even though both of them are well in their adulthood, they still behave like children and therefore are totally overstrained by finding their mother dead on the kitchen floor. The three of them have lead a decent life at the small cottage since their father and husband Frank was killed in an accident, they have never needed much and could rely on their garden and the small amount of money Julius could make in providing a helping hand with all sorts of craftsman jobs. Yet, Jeanie and Julius do not have much time to grieve before all sorts of people turn up from the village claiming money their mother allegedly had borrowed. They can hardly believe it; this does not fit to the image they had of Dot. But this is just the beginning, without the strong and determined woman in the house anymore, the twins become an easy prey and soon have to face an unexpected problem: they are being evicted from what has been their home for decades.

A couple of years ago, I already enjoyed Claire Fuller’s novel “Swimming Lessons” which presented complex characters and a challenging family structure. In “Unsettled Ground”, too, the reader is confronted with a couple of highly interesting characters and an all but usual family construct which slowly unfolds its real tragedy in the course of the novel. Neither Jeanie nor Julius or any other character is easy to sympathise with, the world they have created for themselves is undoubtedly quite unique and takes some time to understand.

The novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction which is nevertheless easy to understand. It presents two characters at the critical point in their life when all they have known is threatened, when everything is about to fall apart and when all they have taken for granted and believed to be true has to be reassessed. Jeanie and Julius have a strong bond which nevertheless does not hinder them from coping with the threats they face totally differently.  Ultimately, it is the struggle of survival in a hostile world, the attempt to build a life on the broken pieces of the truths they have held to be true but turned out to be all but that.

Admittedly, reading “Unsettled Ground” makes you feel depressed more than once, the story is hard to endure at times. Yet, this surely can be attributed to the author’s skill of transmitting atmosphere and mood in a brilliant way. It’s one of those novels one does not really want to dig deeper in while at the same time one can hardly put down once started.