Alan Parks – Bobby March Will Live Forever

alan parks bobby march will live forever
Alan Parks – Bobby March Will Live Forever

A heat wave is rolling over Glasgow in July 1973 and just so is the drug business booming. One of the victims is Bobby March, the city’s greatest rock star, found dead in a hotel. Yet, this goes more or less unnoticed since the town is holding its breath with looking for young Alice Kelly who has disappeared into thin air. Her parents are neither rich nor famous, no ransom has been demanded, so everybody fears she might have been killed by some random perpetrator. With his boss Murray away and Raeburn in charge, life at Glasgow police becomes unbearable for Detective Harry McCoy who is ordered to the most loathing jobs. With the heat not going to cool down, the atmosphere is getting more and more tense and it is just a question of time until the necessary explosion comes.

The third instalment of Alan Parks’s series set in the 1970s Glasgow is by far the best. In the first, “Bloody January”, we get an idea of the city slowly declining, in “February’s son”, we learn about the underworld and their connection with McCoy. Now, the focus is set on the police who have the hardest job imaginable to do. Apart from the very personal aspects in this novel, again Alan Parks managed to create a brilliant atmosphere which gives you a feeling of the city and the constraints the inhabitants have to live in.

The plot combines several lines all equally thrilling and suspenseful. Apart from the kidnapping story – which will have much wider repercussions than apparent at the beginning – and McCoy’s personal war with Raeburn, there is also the ominous death of rock star Bobby March which gets unexpectedly personal for McCoy, too (and serves to continue the witty naming of the series). Added to this, Harry is asked by his boss to secretly look for his niece, 15-year-old Laura has been in trouble for quite some time, but now her disappearance seems to be more serious. All this is poured over McCoy and leads to a fast-paced story which you have to follow carefully in order not to get lost. Yet, the skilful and clever detective can connect the dots and bring all cases to an end.

The character of Harry McCoy is a fantastic protagonist. On the one hand, he is totally down to earth and knows how to talk to people no matter their background. He is an excellent policeman yet blends in easily with the underworld and its shady figures. On the other hand, he is totally loyal to his colleagues and has very high standards when it comes to police work and law and order. He knows where not to look too closely, but he is also determined when it comes to crossing a red line. Thus, his pragmatic but straightforward approach to his work makes him a sympathetic and authentic character.

A superb read which combines a great protagonist with a complex plot and lives from the stunning atmosphere the author creates.

Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

juliet-escoria-juliet-the-maniac
Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

When Juliet finally comes to High School, she has high expectations. Since she is assigned to many honours classes, her talents sure will soon be seen by her teachers. However, instead of concentrating on her educational goals, Juliet is completely preoccupied with what others think of her, why she does not fit in and why she even lost the only friend she had in middle school. She struggles more and more and enters a spiral of drugs and self-harm until she, at last, cries for help and is brought to a hospital. With changing school, she hopes to find back to her old self, but the mental illness she has to recognize as a part of her personality, keeps her at the edge between life and death.

I have read several novels about teenagers developing mental illnesses and struggling to come back to something like a normal life. Thus, I was keen on reading Juliet Escoria’s novel which comes with high praise and was highly anticipated. Sadly, the protagonist didn’t really convince me and I hardly could relate with her and her fate.

The biggest problem for me was that throughout the novel I had the impression that the medicine to treat bipolar disorder or depression is somehow glorified and paralleled with “ordinary” drugs that are consumed by teenagers, such as alcohol, marihuana or any type of pills. Also the fact that having sex while being completely out of your mind was repeatedly portrayed as something you should go for left me a bit wondering. Since Juliet does not really seem to be willing to overcome her addictions or to find a way of living with her diagnosis and the side effects that come with it, I also did not find the novel helpful in any way.

Well, there were some entertaining parts in it, it was even funny at times. And surely it shows that absolutely anybody might end up with mental struggles and that you cannot really do something about it. The tone was adequate for a teenager, even though she often sounded a bit older than just the 14 she was at the beginning.

RJ Jacobs – And Then You Were Gone

RJ-jacobs-and-then-you-were-gone
RJ Jacobs – And then you were gone

Emily is looking forward to spending an entire weekend with her busy boyfriend Paolo, even though they will go sailing and sleep on a boat while she cannot swim. But Paolo will take care of her. The trip starts lightly, but she is quickly feeling sick and just after a bit of wine, she falls into a very deep sleep. When she wakes up the next morning, Paolo is gone. He could hardly be fallen overboard, and even if so, he was a coast guard and is a strong swimmer. So: where is he? The police also cannot find any trace and the longer Paolo is absent, the surer Emily gets that he has been murdered. Especially when she is contacted by one of his former colleagues who tells her about strange doings in their lab. But the investigators simply won’t believe her, understandably since in their eyes, she is acting very strangely and with a bipolar disorder, they doubt her sanity. Yet, the question remains: what happened to Paolo?

The fact that the author himself is a psychologist with practical experience can easily be seen in the novel. “And then you were gone” is playing on all facets of the human mind: Emily’s bipolar disorder and the different states she gets in when she forgets to take her pills, but also on question about what you remember and how you remember, different ways of judging a situation depending on with which eyes you look at it. This certainly keeps you alert as a reader and you never really trust any of the characters since you never know what they are up to.

Apart from the psychological aspect, it is also a very classical crime novel in which the capital vices motivate the characters’ actions. Pride and greed drive them to cross borders that are never meant to cross and that make them forget all ethics for fame and reputation. The case is actually not too complicated which makes perfectly sense since the stress is clearly on Emily and her deteriorating mind. There are many different clues to follow and since you only get the story from Emily’s perspective it is quite obvious that she is also missing some. A thriller which did not absolutely make me get goose bumps but that I enjoyed a lot.

Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

johannes-lichtman-such-good-work
Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

After losing his teaching job at a college because of his very peculiar assignments, Jonas Anderson moves to Sweden to change perspective and to have a fresh start. Even though he is some years older than the students there, he socialises with them easily and leads the life he had in his early 20s. After the break-up with his German girlfriend, he moves from Lund to Malmö, the town where 2015 masses of immigrants from the Middle East arrived. Seeing the hottest political topic in front of his own door, Jonas decides to get active and to volunteer in the work with the migrants, too. He soon realises that all that is meant to be supportive and good, doesn’t necessarily turn out to be such a good idea in the end.

Johannes Lichtman’s novel isn’t easy to sum up or to describe since his protagonist goes through tremendous changes throughout the novel which also affect the plot and the tone a lot. I really enjoyed the first part a lot when we meet Jonas trying to be a creative writing teacher. The tone here is refreshing and the character’s naiveté makes him sympathetic and likeable. With moving to Sweden and becoming a stranger and outsider, his role changes, yet, he still needs more time until he actually grows up and does something meaningful with his life.

The last part, his work with the unaccompanied minors, was for me personally the most interesting because I could empathise with him easily. Having myself worked with those youths when they came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, I went through the same emotions that Jonas went through. And I had to do exactly the same learning process: you want to help and you have good ideas, but actually they sometimes go past the needs of the refugees. The struggle between the news where all the immigrants were treated as a homogeneous mass and where the focus was put on the danger that came with them, and the everyday experiences with real people made it often hard to cope with the situation. In this respect, Lichtman did a great job because he depicted reality as it was back then.

All in all, a novel that addresses so many different topics with a lively and highly likeable style of writing, a great read not to be missed.

Roberto Saviano – The Piranhas

roberto-saviano-the-piranhas
Roberto Saviano – The Piranhas

Nicolas Fiorello is only fifteen when in Naples the forces between the clans are severely shaken. He is clever, his teachers have realized this already, and he is a naturally born leader. He sees his parents working hard every day and getting nowhere, this is not the life he dreams of. So what he does is fill the gap that has opened up. He creates his own paranza, a group of boys who are going to take over first the quarter, then the whole town. With an initiation ritual he binds them to him, he negotiates hard with the clan elders and thus the group of boys become the most feared clan in their neighbourhood.

Roberto Saviano knows the Italian mafia well, he has written several books on the clan structures of his native country and for many years now he has lived under police protection since he made himself enemy number one of the mafia. “The Piranhas” is a fictional work that nevertheless gives deep insight in how life works in those parts of Italy that are controlled my mafia clans and it is easy to imagine that something like a youth gang could actually take over and terrorize a community.

His protagonist Nicolas isn’t the classic “bad boy” as you know him. Actually, he is quite sympathetic and his cleverness speaks for him. The way he plans his next steps, how he can oversee the whole process of creating and leading a group, his ideas of creating sense of belonging by using rituals and imposing strict rules and punishments – that’s just impressive. You hardly realise that he is only a boy and supposed to go to school and just worry about his first girls friend. On the other hand, is seems to be far too easy to buy weapons, to get in the drugs business and to become the leader of the most feared pack. I cannot really say if this is authentic and credible since I do not have the least clue about these things.

The plot is cleverly constructed towards a final showdown, the characters are interestingly drawn and the topic surely is still as relevant as it has been for many years now.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

otessa-moshfegh-my-year-of-rest-and-relaxation
Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Nico Walker – Cherry

nico-walker-cherry
Nico Walker – Cherry 

2003, Cleveland. He has just arrived at uni when he meets Emily and falls for her immediately. They love each other passionately, just as they love Ecstasy. When Emily moves back home to Elba and splits up, he loses control and is expelled from college soon after. The army promises an interesting future – or better: a future at all. As a medic he is briefly trained before they send him to Iraq. A year in the Middle East, a year in the war. What he sees is unimaginable and to avoid the pictures in his head and to deal with the everyday loss of comrades, he needs more and more pills. When he returns, he cannot find a way back in life. With Emily, he’s got an on-and-off relationship which is mainly marked by their common use of heroin. A normal life seems possible, but the constant need of money for more drugs and the fact of passing out frequently hinders them from actually having it.

“Cherry” is the story of an average young man whose life spirals down into the abyss. It’s not the one big event that throws him off course, it’s a bit here and there, a relationship that breaks up, not getting enough credits at college, simply losing the aim in life. Of course, the experiences made in the war are a major event and it is hard to imagine that anybody can live through this without serious psychological disturbances or PTSD. The novel brings out the worst that drugs can do to somebody and it underlines how long this can go on without people around noticing anything, how long they can keep up appearances before wreaking havoc.

Yet, it is not only the topic, the narrator’s life that is shown bluntly by Nico Walker. What he does masterly, too, is to adapt the language to the situation:

The car bomb did what car bombs do and four were dead in the market. It would have been more but the sheep took most of the blast. So you had flesh and blood and wool on the pavement. You had bloodstains on the pavement, little lakes of blood.

There is no reason to embellish anything, it’s just the blunt reality that Walker describes in the most brutal and direct way. Most of the soldiers were “Cherries” which gives the novel its title: soldiers who have never been in a fight and whose behaviour is unpredictable and therefore a danger to the whole platoon. They were ill prepared in every possible way, but the worst is that they were ill prepared to return to a life in the civilian society. Walker doesn’t beat about the bush, his novel accuses their treatment, as well as the way drug addicts are taken care of, or rather: not taken care of. He shows a reality that nobody wants to see but which exists among us. The style of writing might not be for everybody, but it is perfect for this novel.