Helen Sedgwick – The Growing Season

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Helen Sedgwick – The Growing Season

With FullLife’s service, women can finally get rid of all the negative aspects of pregnancy. No more sickness, no more pain during child birth and no more abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes and all the fun. And the best: the men can play a part, too! Simply use the pouch and have your baby cuddled in the perfect environment for 9 months. It does not take too long to convince the people that this is real evolution, the next step that makes mankind throw away the ballast and dangers connected to a pregnancy and child birth. And not to forget: this is how non-traditional families can finally fulfil their dream of having a baby. That’s what science is for, to lift mankind to a higher level, isn’t it? But progress normally also demands a price to be paid, it never goes for free. Up to now, however, only few people know how high the price really is.

Helen Sedgwick’s novel which is somewhere between Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, raises a lot of questions. First of all, how far do we want to go for comfort and the fulfilment of our wishes. It only sounds too attractive to overcome all the negative side effects of being pregnant. And of course, the line of argumentation that now men and women are really equal since women cannot be reduced to reproduction anymore is also tempting at first. Second, we see scientists who – for different kinds of reason – act against their conscience and subordinate everything to alleged progress. Ethics cannot be ignored, undeniably, but sometimes there seems to be the time and space when you can sedate these thoughts and mute them in a way. Yet, quite naturally, this does not make the questions go away.

The novel tells the story from a very personal point of view which allows the severe topic to come across in a very human way with characters who have feelings and who suffer. In this way, you get involved in what they go through, the loss, the hopes, the fears. It does not provide easy answers to huge ethical dilemmas, but it adds some perspectives and reveals that quite often, there is much more than just black and white and that it is the different shades of grey which make it difficult for us to decide on the core questions of life. Lively characters portray this dilemma in a convincing way thus the novel can take it on with the great names of the genre.

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Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

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Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

Anlässlich des 200. Todestages der großen britischen Autorin war es mal wieder Zeit für einen ihrer Romane, tatsächlich der einzige von ihr, den ich bisher nicht gelesen hatte: Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price wächst in einer kinderreichen und verarmten Familie auf. Ihr Onkel Sir Thomas Bertram holt sie in jungen Jahren nach Mansfield Park, um dort mit den Cousins Tom und Edmund sowie den Cousinen Maria und Julia aufzuwachsen. Die vier Jugendlichen behandeln das Mädchen nie gleich, aber sie hat Zugang zu Bildung und lernt das gesellschaftsadäquate Verhalten ihrer Zeit. Als junge Erwachsene beginnt die Suche nach Ehemann und Gattin. Edmund, der einzige der Verwandten, der sich stets für Fanny einsetzt, plant seine Zukunft als Pfarrer und Mary Crawford hat er als seine zukünftige Braut auserkoren. Deren Bruder Henry hat offenbar Gefallen an den Bertram Schwestern gefunden. Überraschend macht er jedoch Fanny einen Heiratsantrag, den diese sehr zum Ärger ihres Onkels und Cousins Edmund zurückweist, denn Henry Crawford ist eine ausgesprochen gute Partie und weit über ihren Möglichkeiten. Um sie wieder zur Vernunft zu bringen, schickt man sie zurück zu ihren Eltern.

Über die Bedeutung Jane Austens in der britischen Literatur gibt es nicht mehr viel zu sagen. Sie porträtiert die Sitten ihrer Zeit und zeigt unverblümt ihre Absurditäten und Schwächen auf. So auch in Mansfield Park, wo der schöne Schein nach außen und die Frage des Einkommens die entscheidenden Elemente bei der Partnerwahl sind. Nur die junge Fanny hat einen Sinn und Auge dafür, welchen Charakter die Menschen um sie herum haben und kann ihrer Linie treu bleiben, auch wenn sie dafür bestraft wird. Dass sie am Ende Recht behalten sollte, war nun nicht weiter überraschend.

Interessant zum Roman ist die Diskussion, inwiefern Jane Austen als Vorreiterin der Chick-Lit zu sehen ist, hat sie doch einem der Hauptwerke des Genres (Bridget JonesDiary) die Protagonistin geliefert. Das COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary definiert das Genre wie folgt:

Chick lit is modern fiction about the lives and romantic problems of young women, usually written by young women.

Ähnlich die Definition, wie sie auf Wikipedia zu finden ist:

Chick lit or chick literature is genre fiction, which „consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists“. The genre often addresses issues of modern womanhood – from romantic relationships to female friendships to matters in the workplace – in humorous and lighthearted ways.

Nimmt man diese als Basis und dazu das Wissen, dass Jane Austens Roman eine Zeitlang im englischsprachigen Raum gezielt mit Covern der typischen modernen Chick-Lit Büchern ausgestattet und in den Buchhandlungen gezielt neben diesen platziert wurden, liegt der Verdacht nahe. Inhaltlich bewegt sich Austen auch in Mansfield Park in ziemlich genau diesem Rahmen, so dass der Verdacht durchaus naheliegt. Dies lässt jedoch die sprachliche Leistung der Autorin und Intention der Gesellschaftskritik ihrer Zeit außer Acht, die beide in modernen Werken des Genres eine untergeordnete bis keine Rolle spielen.

Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

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Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

A short message Isa Wilde had hoped would never come. „I need you “, is all it says. The young mother knows exactly who sent it, even without giving a name. It comes from the past, from the time, 15 years ago, when she was at Salton House, a boarding house for girls. Isa, Kate, Thea and Fatima were best friends in their short time together and an incident has bond them for life. Even if they haven’t seen each other since then, they know they cannot escape it. Isa has to go back, she cannot tell her husband the truth, because this would mean risking their life. She only takes her six-months-old daughter Freya with her and heads to confront the past. When the now women are reunited, Kate tells the others what has happened: bones have been found and their well-kept secret is threatened to surface after all these years.

“The Lying Game” is a game the four girls played when they were at school. They had five rules which function as titles for the chapters:

1) Tell a lie;

2) Stick to your story;

3) Don’t get caught;

4) Never lie to each other;

5) Know when to stop.

So it is quite obvious that many lies have been told and that this is where the key to the story lies. The scenes of the past are only told from Isa’s memories, so the reader only gets fragments, the things she remembers at that moment, and she obviously cannot tell what she does not know, what she has buried deep in her brain and what she refuses to think of. Therefore, you as a reader can only speculate about what the girls have done. When it comes out, I was about disappointed at first because I ranked the deed as not that grave considering their age. Yet, since I was only halfway through the novel, I was sure that more would be coming and I was not disappointed. Until the end, new facts were added to the story and I had to readjust my idea of what had happened several times.

Just like Ruth Ware’s novel “The woman in cabin 10”, I enjoyed reading this one. It is not a suspenseful thriller form the start which gives you the creeps throughout the whole story. It is much more a cleverly built psychological novel which makes you think about what you would do in the characters’ place. You can definitely feel the stress that especially Isa is exposed to, torn between her life in the present and a guilt from the past. There are scary situations, but luckily they do not come from bloody murders described in detail. It is playing on your nerves, the fact of keeping you in the dark about many things clearly supports this.

All in all, I like this kind of thrillers and relished reading it.

Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

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Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

Ravine and Marianne are best friends. Friends 4ever, the two 8-year-olds believe. Ten years later, Ravine is suffering from chronic pain syndrome and can hardly leave her bed. However, it is not only the illness that makes her suffer, but also her memories and now that her 18th birthday has come, she seems to be ready to confront the past. She is writing to Marianne, narrating what she recollects about their time together and with Marianne’s brother Jonathan, about both their dysfunctional families – Ravine’s father who ran away before she was even born and Marianne and Jonathan’s mother who was an alcoholic and didn’t really care for them – about Marianne’s uncle Walter coming to live with them and disappearing again and about that one evening which changed the lives of all the three of them.

“The Things We Thought We Knew” is an unusual coming-of-age novel. First of all because the protagonist who narrates the story is seriously ill and bedridden – how can a major event happen to such a character and change her life? Well, this happened already years before and thus we get a teenager’s view on the things which happened when she was a child. This is quite uncommon since we do not encounter the grown-up, rationally thinking adult who analyses what happened and has reflected on everything. Ravine is still in this process of becoming an adult, unsure of how to proceed and where her life will lead her. She is struggling with her mother and you can still at times see the child she once was in her.

The flashbacks, her memories of the past, the childhood which should have been carefree and was everything but are narrated in a child-suitable tone somehow as if Ravine could really slip in her former self and tell her story from the 8-year-old’s point of view.

The plot, alternating between the present and the past, has some suspense to offer. You surely want to know about the whereabouts of Marianne and about her family’s story developed. And there are secrets of the past to be revealed by Ravine. Yet, also the 18-year-old Ravine is at a crossroad of her life and it is not obvious which way she will decide for and is she is ready to make a decision at all, apparently, something needs to trigger her so move on, so what could this momentum be for a girl lying in bed?

What I appreciated most was the tone of the novel which made the characters come alive and which was well adapted to their age. All in all, a noteworthy debut novel.

Alex Garland – The Coma

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Alex Garland – The Coma

Auf dem Weg von der Arbeit nach Haus beobachtet Carl in der U-Bahn wie mehrere junge Männer eine Frau belästigen. Diese sucht Hilfe bei ihm mit der Folge, dass die Männer ihn attackieren und schwer verletzen. Als er im Krankenhaus dem Koma erwacht, erscheint vieles seltsam. Zu Hause brechen seine Wunden wieder auf, sein bester Freund Verhältnis völlig unerklärlich und Carl kann sich an vieles aus seiner Kindheit nicht mehr erinnern. Aber auch was sein eigentlicher Beruf ist, will ihm, nicht mehr einfallen. Immer wieder hat er auch komplette Ausfälle und findet sich plötzlich an anderen Orten wieder. Er glaubt an posttraumatischem Stress zu leiden – doch irgendwann wird ihm klar, wo das eigentliche Problem liegt: das Koma.

Alex Garland lässt den Leser langsam in die Geschichte einsteigen. Der Vorfall in der U-Bahn, dann die Verletzungen im Krankenhaus und der langsame Weg zurück ins Leben. Mehr und mehr zweifelt man aber auch als Leser an den Dingen, die Carl berichtet und erlebt. Vieles ist nicht erklärbar, man legt sich Theorien zurecht, was der Protagonist möglicherweise falsch deutet, wie sich die seltsamen Vorkommnisse erklären könnten und doch werden die Fragen immer mehr und die Antworten immer weniger. Ein interessantes psychologisches Spiel mit der Situation und eine unerwartete Erklärung, die jedoch in sich stimmig ist und überzeugt.

 

Pearl S. Buck – Death in the Castle

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Pearl S. Buck – Death in the Castle

Sir Richard Sedgeley and Lady Mary have lived in Starborough Castle for many decades. Yet, no heir has ever arrived and the couple has problems of maintaining the castle. They even have to admit tourists to the old building to get along. An American investor seems to be the solution; he wants to buy the castle to transform it into a museum. However, only when John Blayne arrives do they understand that his plan is to dismantle everything to transport it to Connecticut. Kate Wells, the maid, is strongly against it and begs her master to think it all over. Lady Mary quickly brings forward that this idea must be strongly against their will, leaving it to John Blayne to understand who “they” are. In the night, strange things happen at the castle and the next morning, people are not the same anymore.

Pearl S. Buck is mainly known for her novels set in China which also awarded her the Nobel prize for literature in 1938. This novel here, however, is quite different form the writings you’d expect from such a laureate. “Death in the Castle” is much more in the tradition of classic ghost stories of the 19th century. It provides all the ingredients necessary: an old spooky castle, an elderly couple, a young woman open for paranatural doings, the butler who seems to hide something and the outsiders who come to spend a night in the old walls. We have some peculiar and inexplicable things happening in the small hours giving the characters the creeps.

Despite all this, I did not really find the story that thrilling. Most of it seems to be too much of a construction to flow smoothly. The characters are too flat to really raise any interest and there is not development at all. Even the love story between Kate and John Blayne is not convincing, he is immediately attracted by her, but she seems to be either stupid or too distracted to really understand what is happening. All in all, most of the novel is oversubscribed to my taste and thus too stereotypical, especially for an author of Pearl S. Buck’s reputation.

Carys Bray – The Museum of You

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Carys Bray – The Museum of You

The summer she is 12 years old will change a lot for Clover Quinn. She has been living alone with her father all her life, her mother died only six weeks after her birth. There is still a room in their house where her father keeps all the belongings of his beloved wife he never could get rid of. Now, Clover ventures into the room and inspects the items. After having visited a museum with her school, she decides to become a curator herself and to set up an exhibition about her mother. She carefully selects the items and – just like in any other museum – writes accompanying notes for them. The more she advances with her work, the more she knows about her mother, or invents when she does not have any information. Yet, there are blanks which will only be filled when her father sees the museum fir the first time – but this moment ends not as planned.

“The Museum of You” is a really heart-breaking novel about – well, that’s the question. It is about love in different shapes, about friendship and family relationships. But it is also about death and loss and how to cope with it. This extreme combination makes it an emotionally loaded novel which oscillates between the exuberant love the characters sometimes feel, especially Darren for his daughter, and the emptiness because all of them suffer from the loss they have never overcome.

The story line is marked by flashbacks, Darren recollects the time with Becky, thus only slowly the whole picture unfolds and the reader learns how and especially why she died. This is definitely the hardest part of the story. Becky is never a real character in the story but the scenes after Clover’s birth are striking.

Clover of course is the most lovable protagonist you can imagine. She is clever and meticulous when it comes to her museum. Her friendship with Dagmar takes some time to develop, but she is sympathetic and open-minded which allows her so bond with the young Hungarian. Concerning her grandfather and her uncle, two men with severe problems, her carefreeness permits her to interact with them, ignore what has to be ignored and find the right words to talk to them. With her father things are more complicated, the one thing she need she cannot articulate. But this does not reduce her love for him and the way he is – even though he is different from all other dads she knows. Darren, the male protagonist, could be seen as somebody who never achieved something in his life. He always postpones things, lives in a mess and has some difficulties in showing affection. On the other hand, he does what has to be done, he is what you could call a “good person”, he puts himself last and his love for Becky and Clover seems to be limitless. He would do everything for them – isn’t that all that counts in life, to love somebody?

The novel really surprised me, I did not expect so much depth in. Additionally, Carys Bray found their perfect words in describing the characters with so much love and never judging them even if some character traits are not that favourable.

Angela Marsons – Lost Girls

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Angela Marsons – Lost Girls

Two girls are missing, abducted while waiting for their mother to collect them. The kidnappers immediately make contact and have a tasteless demand: the family who is willing to pay more gets the daughter back. D.I. Kim Stone has to investigate the case which is not completely new: a couple of months before, the same happened and only one girl returned to her family. The atmosphere gets more and more dense around the nervous parents when the first victims of the killer becomes is found, and then a second. The chances of seeing their daughters again alive are getting smaller day by day. And the pressure on the police is increasing.

Angela Marsons’ novel moves at a very fast pace. The chapters are short, the closer we get to the climax, the more the plot accelerates. The different locations alternate at a high speed and you get the impression that everything is happening at the same time. The story itself is interestingly constructed, I liked the idea not only of putting parents of a kidnapped child under hard pressure but playing with their friendship and increasing the pressure by the competition between the couples. This is really mean, but opens the chances for enthralling studies of the different characters. If the focus had been more on the parents and less on the police this could have been quite fascinating to read. I could not really bond with the protagonist, she is a bit antisocial which makes it difficult to feel some kind of compassion for her and her situation. I often rather pitied the parents who had to cope with somebody with only very few social skills.

The solution of the crime case could also not completely convince me. Quite early I had the impression that there must be some foul play, the question “who is the big boss?” was looming over the story and it made sense that this character is somewhere close to the investigation. I had other suspects and the motivation of this one, was, in my personal opinion, not strong enough to justify or rather explain such an evil crime.

Ali Smith – The Accidental

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Ali Smith – The Accidental

A hot summer in England. The Smart family have rented a house where one day beautiful Amber turns up. Father Michael sees in her first one of the students with whom he regularly has affairs. His wife Eve seems to know about his infidelities but she does not comment on it. In Amber, she sees the woman she is not and she re-assesses the decisions she has made in her life. The daughter Astrid is intrigued by this young woman from whom she can learn so much, especially things like shoplifting, something she has never dreamt of before. Teenager Magnus is somewhere between being a child and an adult – Amber agilely introduces him to the later. They all bond with this fascinating girl, not foreboding what she will do to them.

Ali Smith’s novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2005. I can see why, she has a capacity of using and playing with language which you can rarely find. The different styles she can offer in only one single book is just incredible, especially her sonnet interlude is remarkable. Apart from the stylistic aspects, she also very cleverly portrays how a person can capture the others’ trust, approaching them in very different ways to seduce them in different kinds. The way Amber plays with the Smart family is almost unbelievable. She can even insult them and is still loved and admired.

Nevertheless, for me the novel was a bit too experimental. Some parts rather confused me than push forward the plot. I would have preferred a story which is a bit more straightforward, even though I really liked those small episodes, memories of a time long gone and breaks from the present reality.

Matthew Costello – Cherringham 15: The Last Puzzle

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Matthew Costello – The Last Puzzle

Quentin Andrews is dead. As a surprise to many not only in Cherringham, he was quite wealthy and has left a large fortune. Sarah’s father is astonished, obviously he hardly knew anything about his chess mate who pretended to work as an inventor of crossword puzzles. When the deceased’s will is read, the very last puzzle is opened: whoever of the four potential heirs – his brother, his ex-lover, his carer and an old friend – can solve it, will get all the money. Since Quentin Andrews was already 89 years old and suffered from heart weakness, the attack does not raise suspicion first, but when Sarah and Jack dig a bit deeper into Quentin’s life and the four heirs, the death becomes more and more suspicious.

The 15th episode of the cosy crime series can come up with a good story and a surprisingly exciting plot. I have read the previous episodes but after some time, they became more and more repetitive and could not really entertain me anymore. Yet, I had some waiting time today and picked another one which could fulfil what I expect from such a quick cosy crime novel: some twists and turns in the plot, yet a straightforward solution which does not leave any questions unanswered and some typical English-village-ingredients. All in all, I could cover the waiting time in quite a pleasurable way.