Jo Piazza – Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

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Jo Piazza – Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

She is one of the most successful women in the Silicon Valley, but now she wants more: Charlotte Walsh is running for Senate in her home state Pennsylvania. She has got a great team, her campaign manager Josh has won several times before and is an experienced spin doctor and her assistant Laila has been with her in San Francisco before. But the most important are her husband Max and their three young daughters. So, the family leaves the bay area and moves in the house in the small town Charlotte grew up and that thirty years before she had sworn never to come back to again. Once the campaign starts, Max and Charlotte have to realise that they had no idea what these eighteen months would mean and the brittle marriage is getting closer to breaking. And their well-kept secrets suddenly threaten to come out when the fight for the win becomes ugly.

I really adored the character of Charlotte from the start. On the one hand, she is the successful businesswoman who made her way from a poor background to the top and is not afraid of taking hard decisions. On the other hand, we get her thoughts and years of success and a place at the top cannot prevent her from self-doubt and insecurity. She never really could get rid of the small town girl coming from a non-academic family.

Also the fact that she is constantly torn between having a career and being a mother seems to be quite authentic. Max takes a sabbatical to support her, but he is considered a wonderful and extraordinary husband – yet, he only does what thousands of women have done for their husbands and he still expects her to take over household duties. Even though they have quite an equal partnership, some traditional roles just cannot be abdicated that easily and more than once Charlotte wonders why this is the case and why she is treated differently from any male candidate.

Apart from those serious topics, the novel is first and foremost hilarious to read. There are so many comical situations that I several times wanted to laugh out loud, like e.g. when Charlotte picks a random pair of shoes for her first big speech since she is late and her baby daughter had “eaten” the one she wanted to wear and the media make a hype out of the question why she refuses to wear high heels and consider this an important statement – what she actually said was of only minor interest.

“Charlotte Walsh wants to win” is the perfect summer read, it gives insight in a political campaign which is fought with all means, also the very hideous ones, and adds to the discussion of gender roles and the question if women actually can achieve everything that men can.

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Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

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Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

Willa Drake is only eleven when her mother suddenly disappears and leaves her two daughters and husband to themselves. Since their father is a good man but incapable of managing the household, Willa has to take over the mother’s role. Ten years later, she has almost finished her studies and dreams of a career in linguistics when her boy-friend proposes and expects her to give up her studies. Another twenty years later, a preventable accident kills her husband and leaves her alone with their two sons. When she is already sixty, again somebody makes a decision which has a deep impact on her life. A neighbour of Denise calls her – the ex-girl-friend of her son has been shot in the leg and now her 9-year-old daughter Cheryl is left to her own devices in Baltimore. Willa decides that she is needed even though she neither knows Denise nor Cheryl and heads to Baltimore accompanied by her second husband Peter. What she finds there is what she has been longing for for years: somebody who is grateful for what she does and a group of people who are, on the one hand, lonesome, but on the other hand, take care of each other.

In the first part of Anne Tyler’s novel, we only get short episodes, decisive moments which will make a change in Willa’s life: the mother’s disappearance, the proposal and the death of her husband. What they have in common is not only the impact on Willa, but first and foremost the fact that she is on a position where she has no power over her own life, it is others who make a decision for her without consulting her and without taking her own opinion into consideration. First her parents, then her husbands and she never openly opposes them, but gives in by far too soon. The second part is quite different since here, we accompany Willa travelling to Baltimore and taking care of Cheryl and Denise. Even though she was always there for her husbands and sons, Willa does not really seem to be loved and appreciated by them. It is those strangers that give her the impression of being important and needed and what she does is not taken for granted.

Willa is not a perfect woman, she also has her flaws and seems to be rather ordinary in many ways: the life she leads is the one many thousands of women of her generation lead, her view of herself and her place in the world is also shared by millions. She regrets the weak bonds she has with her sister and also with her sons when they are grown up and hardly stay in contact with their mother. However, this does not have to be like this and there is always the chance of escape as Anne Tyler shows. It is not the big sudden decision, but a long and slow process which also has some steps backwards and isn’t easy at all. It is hard not to like the protagonist, even though at times I had the strong urge to push her a bit to stand up for herself, but this would have been completely against her character.

“Clock dance” is a novel narrated in a very lively way. The dialogues as well as Willa’s thoughts seem to be absolutely authentic and easy to imagine. The characters are realistic in the way they are modelled, none of them is really outstanding from the crowd, but this makes them this interesting: Anne Tyler captures those particular aspects, the traits easily to be overlooked that make them lovable and important to someone. Her style of writing is smooth and makes you just rush through the novel. It is one of those novel which do not need the big event or outstanding character but captivates the reader through its authenticity which shows that the average person can make a change.

You-Jeong Jeong – The Good Son

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You-Jeong Jeon – The Good Son

When Yu-jin wakes up, he needs some time to orient himself. But: where does all the blood come from? He is obviously not hurt, but what happened the evening before? When he explores the home, he finds his mother stabbed. Was there some burglary he cannot remember? Yet, there are no signs of any break-in. Did he himself do it? He is confused and not a single memory of the hours before he fell asleep will come back. The body has to disappear, otherwise he would obviously be the main suspect. Nevertheless, he tries to enquire the murder and therefore searches his mother’s room where he finds her diaries – notes that will reveal a lot to him about his family, his step-brother and first of all, about himself.

At the beginning of “The good son”, the reader is as confused as the protagonist. He seems to be quite likeable, therefore you first reject the idea of him being a murderer. However, your view of Yu-jin will change a lot, the more you learn about him the more you have to adapt your opinion – not only while reading more of his thoughts on that morning when he makes a body disappear and gets himself deeper and deeper in trouble, but first and foremost when reading the mother’s diaries. That’s when the novel turns into a highly psychological analysis of a young and promising man who doesn’t know himself as good as he thought he would.

The plot develops a fascinating cruelty which completely drags you along. The emotions you feel are highly contradictory, between pity and disgust, between the hope that he will get away with it and at the same time that the police come to arrest him. Even though his action is absolutely comprehensible and logical, you reject it, too. I really like those kinds of novels which keep you oscillating emotionally.

It is absolutely a crime noir and definitely quite “Asian” in a certain way. Not only the family structures and the pressure on the members differs at lot from our western view, but also the rules according to which people act are different and make the characters sometimes act in an unexpected way. Just as the characters are finely modelled, the plot can amaze a lot and thus offers a lot of unexpected surprises.

Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

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Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

Harriet Westaway, called Hal, is broke, totally broke. When she receives a letter stating that her grandmother has died and she is to inherit a substantial sum, this seems to be the solution to all her problems. Yet: the dead woman simply cannot be her grandmother. They share the same last name, but all the dates on the birth certificates show that there must have been a mistake. Nevertheless, she travels to Cornwall to the funeral where she meets “her family”: Harding, Abel and Ezra – presumably her mother Maud’s brothers. Before Maud died three years ago, she never spoke of neither her family nor Hal’s father, she and her mother were all family she had and now, she got three uncles and their families. Hal feels uncomfortable betraying them, even though they apparently do much better in life than she herself and they easily could do without a couple of pounds. But more than the nagging bad conscience she senses that the old mansion, Trepassen, she is staying at has some secrets to hide – especially the deceased Mrs Westaway’s servant Mrs Warren seems to know something she does not want to share – and she recognises Hal. How could that be?

I have read several of Ruth Ware’s novels and I like that she always finds a completely new story and that you are not reminded of any former books – a problem of so many authors who seem to write the same novel over and over again. Even though Ware has become famous for her psychological thrillers, I wouldn’t classify “The Death of Mrs Westaway” as one, for me it is rather a suspenseful family drama without the big thrill but a lot of secrets and mysteries.

What I liked especially was the setting of the old house in which all the secrets have lain buried for two decades. The floor boards creak when you walk on them, there is an old study with masses of books and you can hear the wind howl. Plus, the secretive family who is not very open and welcoming to the stranger and who surely does not want any old stories to be uncovered.

For her protagonist, Ruth Ware has chosen a very unique character. A young orphaned woman is not that rare in those kinds of novels, however, Hal is a tarot reader and has a special capacity of reading people – in order to tell them what they want to hear. She herself does not believe in the cards as fortune-tellers, they are much more providing guidance and concentration at the facts at hand.

The story itself is captivating immediately since you anxiously wait until Hal’s deliberate deception is revealed and she is thrown-out. Then you realise that things might be a bit more complicated and the further you get, the more pieces of the puzzle appear leading to a new picture.

There are many small aspects which make the novel absolutely outstanding, first of all the title which seems so simple since you know right from the start that a certain Mrs Westaway has died. Yet, at the end, there is much more to this than you might have guessed at first. Second, Harriet has a tattoo of a magpie, a reference to her mother and closely linked to Trepassen – which is a corruption of the Cornish word for magpie farm. She calls herself “Hal” which is also the name of the goddess of death in Norse mythology and whom the magpies served.

All in all, a captivating read in which it is worth looking at the details.

Chico Buarque – My German Brother

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Chico Buarque – My German Brother

It is by coincidence that the Brazilian musician and author learns that his dad fathered a boy when he lived in Germany. Their house has always been full of books, his father a passionate historian and writer, horded them and, at times, forgot letters and other things in them. It is such a letter that Chico finds which indicates that his father had an affair with a certain Anne Ernst when he lived in Berlin as a journalist around 1930. Later, when the Nazi regime took over, he tried to bring his son to Brazil. Since father and son hardly talk to each other, it is not an option for Chico to ask him about the unknown half-brother, thus, Chico starts his research on his own.

Even though the book is classified as fiction, it is based on Chico Buarque’s life and the facts he reports about his father and German brother are actually true. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda spent some time in Berlin where Sergio Günther was born who later became a well-known artist in the German Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, the brothers never had the chance to meet.

I really appreciate Buarque’s tone of narration, especially at the beginning, the light-heartedness with which the young men move around town is well transferred into the language the author uses. Interesting to observe are the family structures. Even though the father’s main occupation is closely linked to language in all shapes and forms, the family members hardly find a way to communicate with each other and the most important things remain unsaid. A third aspect which struck me was the part in the novel which gives insight in the time of the military regime. Hardly do I know anything about the country’s history, therefore those glimpses are most fascinating.

Sometimes life itself invents the best stories. Even though some of it is fictional, I found Chico Buarque’s story about his mysterious brother most intriguing and a perfect example of how complicated families and our lives can be.

James Wood – Upstate

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James Wood – Upstate

Alan Querry lives a modest life in Northumberland, he is moderately successful as a developer and after the hard time of the divorce and death of his first wife, he found a new love. When his daughter Helen informs him that her sister Vanessa obviously has another depressive episode, Alan makes his way from England to Saratoga Springs upstate New York where Vanessa lives with her boyfriend Josh and where she teaches philosophy. Alan has never visited her, too many things kept him from crossing the ocean.  Helen joins him and thus, the family is united in a wintry small town and faced with the uncomfortable truths they have avoided for years.

James Wood is best known for being a literary critic for The Guardian and The New Yorker Magazine and teaching literature at Harvard. “Upstate” is his latest novel which focusses on philosophical dilemmas and the bonds of a family.

Clearly, the incident that triggers the family reunion was Vanessa’s accident during which she broke her arm. Yet, this was only the sad climax of a depressive period – something she has known all her life. How come that her younger sister Helen, who had to go through the same hardships as a child and is also struggling with her career, does not know these moody periods and can embrace happiness much easier? Why are some people just stronger, more resilient than others?

It has never been easy for the family members to openly talk about their feelings. Thus, they need to find other topics to layer what they want to say and to make it expressible. For Helen it is music, for Vanessa it has always been philosophy and for Alan, nature seems to be the clue.  At the end, the wintry ice is melting, after it was a cause for a minor road accident of Alan, that also the ice between father and daughter finally melts and gives way for a new spring, a new beginning.

What I enjoyed about the novel is the gentle pace at which it moves and the tenderness with which Wood talks about his characters. The impressive American landscape contrasts with the critical look at the people and especially American politics – we are around 2007 immediately before Obama announced his candidacy. Where nature is a lot more extreme, everything created by man is poorer there than the European counterpart, which more conservative but also more reliable. Such as the people – in the end, the family bonds are stronger and more dependable than the love bonds.

Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

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Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

Matt Santos is standing in an auction hall, looking at a picture, Budapest Street Scene by Ervin Kálmán. It will be sold the next day and he is ruminating about how this picture came to let him know more about his family than he ever did before and how it changed his life completely. His father had warned him about it, told him to let go, not to pursue the case any further, but he wouldn’t listen. So he is standing there on his own, alone, with his thoughts about his ex-girl-friend Tracy, whom he still loves, his lawyer Rachel, who helped him to get hold of the picture, and about his now deceased father.

Memento Park is not easy to summarise. It’s a novel about art, Jewish art in Nazi Europe; it’s about a complicated father-son relationship; it’s a story about people leaving their past behind and burying it down in the back of their minds after emigration; it’s about love and trust, and about religion and the faith you have and to what extent this creates your identity.

Matt is the child of Jewish family who suffered in Budapest under the Nazis, yet he doesn’t know anything about it. Even though he was never told anything about his family’s history, it lives on in him and through the relationship with his father. A father who does not seem to be loving or at least a bit affectionate. He is always distant and until the very end, Matt doesn’t understand why and he never asked. To me, this is the central aspect of the novel, even though I found the Kálmán story, his life and word, even though completely fictional but close to the stories of some artists of that time, also interesting.

Mark Sarvas chose an interesting title for his novel, “Memento Park” is the name of a location in Budapest where all the statues of former communist grandees are exhibited. It’s a way of dealing with the past, neither hiding nor ignoring it, but giving it a place where you can confront it; it’s just a part of life and it helped to shape – here to town and country – but also you as a person. In this way, there are more layers to the novel which make it a great reading experience.

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

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Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

What can a daughter learn from her mother? Four generations of women of one family suffer from their respective mother’s way of life, the choices they made and the future they planned for their kids. The first generation is embodied by Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby’s wife, a young American who freed herself from Puritan Bostonian convictions and was looking for freedom and a life for the arts in Europe. Her daughter Diana grows up in Paris between all the famous people of the so called “Lost Generation” and never had to chance to just be a girl, too much was projected in her. Diana’s daughters Elena and Leonie found ways of opposing their mother by opting for very traditional models of love and life. Elena’s young children, one even unborn, are now the fourth generation who grows up with a heavy legacy.

The novel oscillates between times and places. We meet the Parisian It-crowd of the twenties when Caresse and Harry have their big time and Diana is just a girl. Then we jump to Caresse’s last days in Italy, decades after she has lost her husband and when her grand-daughters are already grown-up women. Another 20 years on, Diana’s life is coming to an end. Yet, no matter what point in time in general or in the characters’ life, the core question is always the same: what do you expect from life and how much love do you need?

Alternating the setting surely makes the novel lively, on the other hand, the development of the characters suffers from this non-linear or non-chronological arrangement. Even though you can make out especially Diana’s development, her daughters, for example, remained a bit a mystery for me. What I found intriguing, however, was the highly complex mother-daughter relationship which becomes very clear in every constellation: on the one hand, unconditional love and the hope that the daughter can break away from conventions and find love and happiness in life, on the other hand, the fact that they cannot live up to their own ideals and that wishes are not fulfilled makes them also reproachful and mean in their later life.

It is quite interesting to see that the author Tamara Colchester herself is a descendant of this family. This raises the question of how much fiction and how much reality you can find in the text. No matter the answer, it’s a novel about strong women and the choices we make in our lives.

Caron Freeborn – Presenting… the Fabulous O’Learys

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Caron Freeborn – Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys

1984, after 40 years in the show business, Kenneth O’Leary decides to retire from the stage. His daughters Delia and Raquel simply accept this, then they realise that this will also affect their lives since they both live on their father’s money even though they are both grown up. But this is not their only problem. Delia’s boyfriend Eddie suddenly falls for the older sister – and she for him. And there are people looking out for the family money – life is everything but easy for the O’Learys.

The description of the novel really made me curious about what to await. Caren Freeborn definitely created outstanding characters whom you will not easily forget. Ken, the father, who can only speak though all the lines he used on stage and constantly quotes Shakespeare. Raquel who is stuck somehow between wanting to be a successful nightclub singer and having a real career and caring for her sister. Delia who not only shows clear signs of eating disorders and at least some hints of autism. The minor characters aren’t less intriguing.

Those characters obviously lead to many funny situations and hilarious dialogues, nevertheless, the novel was lacking something on the plot level. Even though I had a lot of fun reading it and admittedly, the characters’ make-up has absolutely succeeded, it could not absolutely convince me.

“Can none of you see it? Not one of you? We can’t do it. We can’t be like other people, not any of us. The trying’s over. Finished.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ken’s conclusion that the family is quite unique and far from being average. They oscillate between being fabulous/fascinating and scary/frightening at the other end. This makes the novel outstanding in the masses of books, yet, I wold have expected a bit more.

Francesca Segal – The Awkward Age

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Francesca Segal – The Awkward Age

Since her husband died of cancer five years ago, Julia has raised her daughter Gwen alone. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with James whom she teaches to play the piano. Quickly James moves in Julia’s and Gwen’s house and also brings his son Nathan. Gwen and Nathan, both teenagers, are not happy with the new situation. Gwen misses the time when her mother was only focussed on her, Nathan still struggles with his parents‘ divorce and his sister living abroad. The unexpected happens: Nathan and Gwen find out that the other isn’t as bad as they had thought and another unexpected love starts to blossom in the household. The parents are furious when they find out, but the situation gets even worse when 16-year-old Gwen realises that she is pregnant.

Francesca Segal really achieves to make the characters of her novel seem lively and authentic. This is for me the most striking aspect of “The Awkward Age”. Julia who cannot fully immerse in her new love, since she is still close to her deceased husband’s parents and does not want to hurt their feelings even though they encourage her new love. Her own feelings towards her daughter, being caught again and again between the girl and her new partner – one can sense how complicated her emotional life is in those crucial months that the novel covers. I also liked Gwen a lot even though to some extent she is a typical hormone-driven teenager who sometimes falls back into infantile and inadequate behaviour. The grand-parents also struggle with their love life. Even though they have been separated for many years, Iris suddenly feels something like jealousy when Philip falls in love with another woman. Love can be a highly complicated matter.

The most interesting were Julia and James when their kids were fighting. Even though as a couple they are meant to stand on the same side, they frequently find themselves taking their respective children’s defence and opposing each other. It is those complex emotional states that make the novel outstanding since Francesca Segal created conflicts which are absolutely credible and authentic and in which those predicaments can show themselves – quite a crucial test for a new love.

Even though the main conflict is centred around the teenagers, I would not call it young adult novel, the other generations are as present as the youngsters and they quite well portray that love can be complicated no matter how old you are.