Sophie Jai – Wild Fires

Sophie Jai – Wild Fires

It is the death of her cousin Chevy that brings Cassandra from London back to Toronto where her family is based after having left Trinidad. But she not only returns to the funeral but to a whole history of her family that suddenly pops up again. Stories she had forgotten but now remembers, things which have always been unsaid despite that fact that everybody knew them and secrets that now surface in the big house in Florence Street where the tension is growing day by day. The sisters and aunts find themselves in an exceptional emotional state that cracks open unhealed wounds which add to the ones that have come with the death of Chevy.

Sophie Jai was herself born in Trinidad just like her protagonist and grew up in Toronto, “Wild Fires” is her first novel and was published in 2021. It centres around a family in grief, but also a family between two countries and also between the past and the present and things that have never been addressed between the members. Having been away for some time allows Cassandra a role a bit of an outsider and she sees things of her family she has never understood.

The author wonderfully interweaves the present story of the family gathering at the Toronto home to mourn the loss and Cassandra’s childhood recollections and well-known family stories. Thus, we get to know the deceased and his role in the family web. Like Chevy’s story, also the aspects that link but also separate the generations of sisters are uncovered thus exposing long avoided conflicts.

The novel raises the questions if you can ever flee from the family bonds and how to deal with what happened in the past and has never openly be spoken out loud and discussed. Sophie Jai finds the perfect words to express the nuances in the atmosphere and paces the plot according to the characters’ increasingly conflicting mood.

I liked how the characters and their story unfolds, yet, I would have preferred a more accelerated pace and at the beginning, I struggled to understand the connection between them which was a bit confusing.

Emily Henry – Book Lovers

Emily Henry – Book Lovers

Nora Stephens, in the book industry also known as “shark”, is a successful New York agent whose life is dedicated to her job. Accordingly, relationships have not been that successful so far, but that’s ok for her. When her sister Libby asks her for a four-week stay in Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, the place where one of her best-selling books is located, Nora is reluctant, she cannot stay away from work so long; yet, Libby is pregnant and Nora does not want to refuse her sister’s greatest wish, she is the only family she has. Nora knows all the stories about New Yorkers coming to small towns and falling in love, she has read them all, even published some of them, therefore, she can only ironically comment the fact that on her first day, she runs into Charlie Lastra – her biggest nemesis.

Admittedly, I am not really a fan of rom-coms, no matter if they come in form of books or movies. However, I really enjoyed Emily Henry’s “Beach Read” and as there was so much talk about “Book Lovers”, I was looking forward to reading it. Of course, the bestselling author did not disappoint, quite the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed how she does not take the genre too seriously but lets her characters comment on it mockingly again and again throughout the novel.

“We know how this ends.”

Libby squeezes my arm. “You don’t know. You can’t until you try.”

“This isn’t a movie, Libby,” I say.

You do not need to find the typical tropes, Nora will find them for you and Emily Henry does not leave out a single one: the big city girl who looks down in small town life, the sister who mysteriously vanishes during daytime and does not tell what is doing or where she is going, the incidental meeting with the one man she does not want to see far away from home, the charming bookshop, cringeworthy small town activities, another attractive man – who does not like the first, of course – you name it. Even though there are no big surprises, I totally enjoyed diving into the story and seeing all the clichés unfold.

As a book lover, it was easy to fall for this one, a lot of references and hints to the industry offer the perfect setting for the two protagonists to fight their feelings which, needless to say, they cannot admit at first. Another perfect summer read by Emily Henry.

Louise Kennedy – Trespasses

Louise Kennedy – Trespasses

In the daytime, Cushla Lavery teaches seven-year-olds in a small town near Belfast, in the evening, she helps her brother in his pub. And in between, she makes sure that her alcohol addicted mother is still alive. There is not much happening in her life until, one evening, Michael Agnew shows up in the pub. He is a lot older than Cushla, but nevertheless, something sparks between them. Times are hard in Belfast when the war is raging in the streets and the news report deaths daily. Michael’s job as a barrister puts him at risk, yet, with Cushla, political tensions are far away. Until they aren’t anymore.

Louise Kennedy captures a life that is determined not by the person who lives it, but by outer circumstances. “Trespasses” oscillates between awful news and being alert all the time and intimacy which cannot exist openly. Her description of what people in the 1970s in Northern Ireland endured is full of brutality – but, I assume, absolutely accurate.

The most striking aspect of the novel was for me, how the characters organise their lives around the raging war around them. Cushla’s teaching that starts with a news session every morning which shows that even her 7-year-olds are familiar with the war vocabulary and for whom an assassination is just another death, just another family without a father, just another random note on the radio. The bluntness with which the author depicts these scenes is brutal and therefore gets close to the reader.

It is unimaginable how you can live and love in those circumstances, on the other hand, Cushla’s care for one of the boys whose family is seriously struggling underlines that in times like these, love and compassion is the only thing that’s left.

Definitely not an easy read but without a doubt one I can highly recommend.

Anne Tyler – French Braid

Anne Tyler – French Braid

It is coincidental encounter at a station: Serena sees a young man and is not sure if he’s her cousin. Her boyfriend cannot believe this, how can she not know her own cousin? Well, family matters have never been easy with the Garretts. Robin and Mercy have married at a young age, their two daughters Alice and Lily could hardly be more different from each other and their son David, a couple of years younger than the girls, even as a boy, was rather withdrawn. As the years pass by, the kids get older and independent, have their own families, make mistakes, Mercy follows her artistic works and drifts apart from Robin. It is only rare events that bring the whole family together for brief moments, but then, they remain on the surface and the important things are left unsaid.

Anne Tyler has been writing books for almost six decades, but I have only come to detect her work a couple of years ago. What I liked from the start was her relaxed tone which takes life just as it is, acknowledging the ups and downs, knowing that the show has to go on. Her latest novel, too, “French Braid” is wonderfully narrated capturing the small but decisive moments. It is the portrait of a family, not the totally average one but nevertheless one that could just live next door to you. Again, Tyler finds the interesting points in those at the first glance totally average lives.

“What’s the name of that braid that starts high up on little girls’ heads?” David asked Greta one night (…) “Oh a French braid,” Greta said. “That’s it. And then when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterwards. “ “Yes…” “Well,” David said, “That’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

None of the Garretts have ever been close, not even the married couples, but nevertheless, they are family and therefore gather from time to time. They may not even like each other, but they like to stay informed. Some of them try to break out, especially the women, but just like the French braid, they cannot really free themselves, some things just stick.

Anne Tyler surely is a most accomplished writer, how else would it be possible to totally enjoy a novel and at the same time feel a little bit uncomfortable due to the extent you can recognise yourself in her writing. She does not focus on the exceptional, the outstanding, but finds the aspects worth mentioning in the ordinary, in the well-known and hardly ever actually noticed. It is with her soft voice and quite narration that she hints at what you should look at and think about. Another though-provoking, simply marvellous novel.  

Donna Leon – Give unto Others

Donna Leon – Give unto Others

When Commissario Guido Brunetti is contacted by his childhood neighbour, he is a bit perplexed and does not know what to do. Elisabetta Foscarini is worried about her daughter Flora. She does not provide any real details but Flora’s husband Enrico Fenzo makes her feel uncomfortable. The accountant has helped her husband Bruno to set up a charity but then suddenly left the project to take care of other clients. Her feeling might stem from Fenzo’s business contacts but she cannot really nail it down. Brunetti promises to look into the matter even though he is not convinced of any threat. Since life has become slow in Venice due to the pandemic, he and his team have got the time to investigate the matter. Just when the start digging, Flora’s veterinary clinic is vandalised and some animals are seriously harmed. Soon after, clever Signorina Elettra finds some remarkable facts about „Belize nel Cuore“, Bruno del Balzo’s charity.

Not a classic murder investigation for the Venetian Commissario. However, Donna Leon cleverly integrated the pandemic into the plot which slowed down life in the Italian city due to the lack of tourists. Thus „Give Unto Others“ differs quite from the other crime mysteries in the series but in my opinion, it is a lot more complex and interesting since it is not that obvious where the investigation will lead to and the characters, too, have a lot more depth.

What brings Elisabetta to Brunetti is quite vague at the beginning, neither does she really know where her uneasy feeling comes from nor does the detective know where exactly to start and to look. As it turns out, things are not what they seem and people have motives they successfully hide for a long time thus exploiting others reach their questionable aims.

Rapidly, the story develops into a financial crime novel which is complicated on the one hand, and, on the other, tells you a great deal not only about people but also about legislation. At the end, you have learnt a lot of things you actually did not really want to know and again, the thin line between legal and illegal reveals itself to be quite flexible depending on the point of view: what is morally questionable might be perfectly legal.

A thought provoking crime mystery that, again, I thoroughly enjoyed.

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – The Golden Couple

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – The Golden Couple

When Marissa and Matthew Bishop contact Avery Chambers for counselling, she senses immediately that they are hiding something but believes that the couple is perfect for her ten-step-therapy programme. First, it all goes according to plan. Marissa confesses her affair with somebody from her gym and Matthew reacts as one would suppose. But then, the picture blurs and Marissa’s employee Polly appears on the scene, as well as Matthew’s ex, and the couple is more and more under stress. Avery gets stressed, too, since she has her own battles to fight while caring for her clients. When Avery’s private life suddenly mixes with the Bishop’s, it becomes obvious that there are a lot more secrets than you would ever have expected.

I have already enjoyed “The Wife between Us” and “You Are Not Alone” by the writing duo Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen and quite naturally was curious to see what their latest mystery “The Golden Couple” would come up with. I was not disappointed, a complex story which only slowly unfolds it whole potential and develops into a web of lies and secrets not easy to untangle.

The protagonist Avery is an interesting character. Admittedly, I’d say her professional approach might be questionable, but she is really concerned about the people she works with and puts a lot of effort in the counselling. Why she herself is always close to freaking out and on high alert only becomes obvious after some time, adding another aspect to her personality.

The couple at first seems to be rather average but then develops into a fascinating pair which oscillates between fighting together and fighting each other. The other characters at some point become highly suspect in the way they act, what they obviously hide and the links they have which are not apparent at first.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and I am eager to any further read of the duo.

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

Helen Fields – One for Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Dahl – The Missing Hours

When Claudia wakes up, she cannot remember the past hours. When she looks in the mirror, she hardly can recognise the girl she sees. Obviously, something really bad has happened, her body can tell it, she, however, does not know what it is. She is afraid that somebody at her dorm might see her in that state, luckily it is spring break and most of her fellow students at NYU are gone, just one boy seems to be there. When Trevor sees her, he knows that the girl needs help, yet, the girl is Claudia Castro, super rich and an Instagram famous artist. But that doesn’t count, when somebody is in need, you help. And that’s what Trevor does – not knowing in what a mess all this is going to end.

“The Missing Hours” is a dark novel about the one of the nastiest crimes imaginable. Julia Dahl opens the plot with the big question about what might have happened, once this is answered, the next question follows: why? But then it becomes much more interesting to observe what the experience does to Claudia. She has been assaulted, that much is obvious, and quite often, there are only two options: either the victim withdraws completely blaming herself for what has been done to her or she fights her assailant. The author interestingly chooses to go both ways turning the novel into an intense and gripping read.

The plot is mainly driven by emotion – (unrequited) love, hatred, vindictiveness, but also despair and loneliness. The characters go through challenging times and emotions that they are unable to control, too young and unexperienced they make choices which turn out to be totally wrong, but in their state of being blinded by their feelings, the cannot respond in any other way. It is easy to understand what they do and why they do it, even if you know that nothing good can come from it.

On the other hand, the novel also raises the question about who is there when you are in need. Quite normally, it should be your family, but things are complicated with Claudia’s parents and her sister is about to give birth and surely has other things to care about. Sometimes a stranger can be your saviour, not being too close might be the best for a complicated situation.

What I really liked about the novel is how the protagonist’s conflicting thoughts are conveyed. She feels ashamed, blamed herself, is worried about what might people think of her even though she obviously is the victim. She is educated, knows exactly what to do in such a case and yet, decides not to do what is recommended. As a reader, you can see why she acts in that way and is nevertheless struggling with her choice.

A fast paced thriller which has a lot more depth than one might have expected.

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

A small community in Connecticut. Three couples of middle age all have their respective struggles: Margot has never gotten over the loss of her baby girl, their three sons can only make up so much for this; while she is grieving, her husband Richard is having extramarital affairs to forget about his homely negative mood. Gunter and Rachel are new to the small place, the Swede has serious problems of adaptation and can only wonder about the small town Americans, whereas his wife Rachel tries to be supermom and get her children into the prestigious Petra school. Virginia’s daughter already attends this institution but the mother is starting to wonder if the place is actually a good choice while her husband Trip has developed an end of time fear and wants his family to be prepared for the worst case which is sure to come soon. While the parents are occupied with themselves, their kids are educated in a quite unique institution with very special educational views.

Bethany Ball paints a rather gloomy picture of three middle-aged families. The love at first sight and life on cloud number nine is only a faint memory, if they are still interested in their partner, this is more out of convenience than out of love. Their children are strange creatures with which they have rather complicated relationships and whom they do not seem to understand at all. Life does not have much to offer outside the big city and so, consequently, the turn into “The Pessimists”.

It is upper class white suburbia life that the novel ridicules: the invite the “right” people to dibber parties even though they hate barbecuing and do not even like their guests. The women are reduced to being housewives even though they had successful careers in the city, yet, these are not compatible with life in a small town. They are not even aware of how privileged they are, they feel depressed and deceived by life, seemingly none of them got what they expected from life. Apart from being miserable, they pretend that all is best in their life to keep up the picture they want the others to see. Only brief glances behind the facade allow the truth to show.

This rather dark atmosphere is broken up repeatedly by episodes of Petra school. It is the absolutely exaggerated picture of an alternative institution which actually does not take education too seriously, but is highly occupied with spiritual well-being and a lifestyle nobody can ever stick too. The information mails they send out to the parents are simply hilarious and made me laugh out loud more than once – however, I don’t doubt that such places might actually exist.

A satire of small town America which is funny on the one hand but quite serious regarding the message behind the superficial storyline.