Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

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

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

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

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

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

Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

Cristina Alger – The Darlings

cristina alger the darlings
Cristina Alger – The Darlings

The Darlings are one of new York’s most famous families. Carter Darling’s investment company makes tons of money, mother Ines is still the most stunning woman at all gala events and their two daughters Merrill and Lily have found perfectly fitting husbands and fulfil their roles of the clever and the beautiful also impeccably. When one of Carter’s business partners commits suicide, the family has to face a crisis they have never seen before and, first and foremost, they have to admit that some things are just not what they pretended them to be: Carter is not the honest businessman, Ines is not the wife who still loves him after all those decades together, and family does not come first, when they feel threatened. What starts with one man taking his life, ends in one of the biggest finance scandals New York has ever seen and the Darlings are at the very centre of it.

Cristina Alger’s novel is a combination of a highly complex financial fraud thriller and a very personal family drama in which almost all characters are put to a test: what are their values, how far are they willing to go to protect their loved ones, how much more important can money be than the lives of people? The mechanics of both, the financial world and a family with their closest friends, are laid open and show the darkest corners of human nature.

Admittedly, “The Darlings” is not a fast paced thriller which keeps you alert all the time. Even though the plot covers just a couple of days and actually moves quite quickly, the author chose to rather go into depths with her characters which I liked a lot since it gives a lot more insight in their thoughts and makes their decision-making a great deal more comprehensible. The sheer number of characters wasn’t easy to manage at the beginning and understanding the connection between them took some time, but in the end, it was all very cleverly connected and set up and no questions was left unanswered. This might be difficult for some readers who prefer a speedy thrill, yet, for those who like stories about human beings and their nature, it is a great read.

Sarah Vaughan – Little Disasters

sarah vaughan little disasters
Sarah Vaughan – Little Disasters

Jess is the absolute role model of a mother, her friends have always admired her diligence and devotion to care for her two sons. When she unexpectedly gets pregnant with a third kid, her husband is over the moon but she does not really share his enthusiasm, she knows how demanding kids can be even for a home-stay-mom. When Betsey indeed turns out to be a rather challenging child, Jess loses her temper, the less she can control the girl, the easier she freaks out until she even gets close to wanting her dead. Her friends Liz, a paediatrist, senses that things do not go too well, but with her own kids and her job, she does not have the time to really take look into the situation. When one evening Jess turns up in the emergency room with Betsey showing obvious signs of neglect and being severely hurt, Liz is trapped between being a friend for Jess and informing the police. How well does she actually know what is going on at her friend’s home?

Sarah Vaughan masterly plays with truths, half-truths and all the things her characters consider truths. Told from different points of view, the reader over and over again gets caught in a trap by making sense of what you know and deciding on what and how the tragic incident happened. Forget it, you are completely wrong since – just as in real life – there is so much more.

Even though the main focus is on the one big question around Betsey’s injuries, the author addresses a lot of questions going far beyond the crime plot. The struggle of women who feel pressure to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, have a successful career and who easily prepare parties with exquisite food is palpable throughout the novel. The four women at the centre all struggle with complying with expectations and their very own goals and ideals. Showing weakness does not seem to be an option, just like asking for help and thus, precarious and even dangerous circumstances are silently endured. Additionally, the question of how far a friendship should or must go is tackled. Liz’ remorse is easy to understand and certainly nobody could ever wish to get into such a situation.

I totally adored the novel, after “Anatomy of a Scandal”, another thoroughly convincing plot with authentic characters and a lot of suspense.

Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

amy engel the familiar dark
Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

Two 12-year-old girls have been murdered, but except for their parents, nobody really seems to care about it. Maybe they had it coming, that’s how it is with girls their age, they should have paid more attention to whom they mingle with. Eve Taggert is not willing to simply accept that her daughter Junie has gone and nobody is hold responsible for the senseless death. What did she and her friend Izzy do in the park at that time and bad weather? She starts to ask questions even though her brother Cal, a policeman and close to the investigation, tries to keep her away and out of trouble which her private research soon causes. The more Eve learns, the closer she also gets to her own family and especially her mother with whom she had cut all contact before Junie was born because she never wanted to be like her. But in the course of the events, Eve must realise that she shares more traits with her mother than she ever expected.

Amy Engel’s mystery novel deals with the greatest horror that parents could ever go through: learning about the death of their beloved child and having the impression that nobody bothers to find the culprit and to bring him or her to justice. However, it is also about life in small and remote community where poverty and precarious standards of living are a daily occurrence. Growing up in trailer homes or small, run-down apartments where children only get a nook for themselves and see the adults drink alcohol or being addicted to drugs of all kinds – this is not the childhood one could ever wish for. Even if some want the best for their children, just like Eve, getting out of this isn’t as easy as it seems.

The story is narrated from Eve’s point of view which gives you a deep insight in the emotions she goes through. Not just losing her daughter and thus the sense of life, but she also falls back into old patterns she had given up and totally loses her footing. Even though she could not offer Junie much, she put an effort in her daughter’s education and she lead a decent life and loved her – more than she herself had experienced as a kid. To see such a woman being hit by fate is especially bitter.

Amy Engel does a great job in showing the development of Eve, going from being totally blinded by mourning and anger to gaining strength – even if she becomes a bit too reckless and headless at times – and in the end, fearlessly doing what she needs to do.

Notwithstanding that a lot is going wrong in the small town of Barren Springs, what I liked a lot is that the author did not paint the characters in black and white. The greatest villains do also show their positive and human sides – just as the “good” ones suddenly are capable of quite some crime.  Albeit a murder investigation is at the centre of the novel, for me it was much more a psychological study of small town life and people who struggle in life. It does not lack suspense though and several unexpected twists and turns keep you reading on.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Michael Wood – The Murder House

michael-wood-the-murder-house
Michael Wood – The Murder House

It is the most disturbing crime scene Sheffield police have ever seen: three persons have literally been slaughtered at home. The morning after the wedding reception of their daughter Leah, Clive and Serena Mercer as well as their son Jeremy are attacked and brutally killed, only Jeremy’s daughter is spared, but she had to witness the crime. When DCI Matilda Darke and her team start the investigation, they soon realise that this case will not be easy to solve, apparently everybody loved the family of well-respected and highly admired doctors. There simply seems to be nobody with a motive and especially nobody to commit such a crime. Yet, forensics come up with an ID: Keith Lumb, arrested several times for petty burglary, left traces at the house, but could this man really be capable of a triple killing? And why should he do this?

Michael Wood’s thriller “The Murder House” is a real page-turner. Once you start reading, the story doesn’t let go anymore and you keep on reading. The case is quite complex and the author brilliantly laid some wrong leads to keep you in the dark for a long time. In the end, however, it all makes sense and the pieces fall perfectly into place. A second plot line about a missing boy shifts focus at times, but also provides some suspense and is quite interesting from a psychological point of view.

Apart from the murder investigation, I liked the characters in the novel who seem quite authentic in the way they are presented and how they cope with the high demand of their job. They show different facets of their personality and all of them have their very own demons they have to fight with. However, they can also laugh and support each other, what I totally adored.

An exciting thriller with a lot of suspense and a carefully crafted plot which leaves nothing else to wish for.