J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

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J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

When her mother is about to die, Joanna returns home in the US after years of living in London. What she was not prepared for are the memories that come back to her and that are closely linked to her childhood and teenage years:  the plans to run away from home together with her brother, the times when her uncle approached and molested her, her way out of middle-class life, the beginning of her academic career and the realisation that she will never fit in and that she is simply not good enough to marry a son of a well-off family even though she excels at an Ivy-League University. A week of mourning and memories that not all are welcome to Jo and her family.

What I liked about the book was how easily one could sympathise and bond with Jo and thus follow her thoughts. The springing back and forward between the events around the mother’s death and funeral and her memories helped to keep the story lively and authentic; some words or people just trigger memories that you can neither prevent from coming to the surface nor control in the extent that they hit you.

The novel addresses several interesting topics that are worth pondering about: what keeps a family together and why do some women over and over again forgive all their husbands’ wrongdoings? Is there some kind of escape from your family, can you ever really cut the links that were established by birth? Coming from a certain class, working hard and doing everything right, what keeps you still from really belonging and being considered an adequate match? A lot of food for thought, especially when you share the protagonist’s background and visions of life. A quiet novel that is perfect for calmer days.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

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Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

It’s been sixteen years since her sister Persephone was murdered. Sylvie has created herself a new life, far away from home, but now she has to return to her hometown and confront her seriously ill mother. It doesn’t take long until all that happened that winter night comes back to her, especially when she meets Ben, her sister’s boyfriend, her sister’s murderer. Yet, Ben insists in his innocence. But can she trust him? And what about her mother who always refused to tell the girls who their respective fathers are and who also refused to talk about that night. Is it time now to open Pandora’s box and let the truth out?

Megan Collins’ debut is at the first glance a typical murder case: an 18-year-old girl is strangled and the murderer has been running free for sixteen years. However, at the second glance, it is much more a story about family relationships, about secrets and about love and trust. The small family of three females lived on secrets and lies, had they ever been open and honest with each other, the death of one daughter could have been prevented. Yet, that’s how human beings are, sometimes they lack the necessary courage to do what is right and thus risk to lose all they love.

The novel is well-created, even though at a certain point it is quite obvious how all the dots are linked, I found it full of suspense. Telling the story through Sylvie’s eyes gives you a certain bias at the beginning, but the missing pieces and gaps add to the thrill and the big questions marks Sylvie herself feels can also be experienced by the reader. Collins’ biggest strength is certainly the creation of the characters who all act convincingly and appear quite authentic. I am looking forward to read more from the author.

Samuel Park – The Caregiver

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Samuel Park – The Caregiver

In the 1990s, Mara Alcenar is living in California and working as a caregiver for a woman who suffers from cancer. She has been in the US for many years, illegally like so many others and always struggling to survive and hoping not to be caught. Yet, going back to Brazil is not an option; it is just her thoughts that frequently return to her native country. She remembers the time when she was six and living with her mother Ana who worked in the film industry and dubbed foreign productions. She was also a great actor which lead her to a fatal decision: being offered a “role” by leftist rebels, Ana Alcenar couldn’t refuse. She needed the money for herself and Mara. But then, something went completely wrong at the Police Chief’s office. Years later, Mara is a teenager and gets the chance to revenge her mother – but is the episode as she remembers is actually the truth?

Samuel Park’s novel “The caregiver” focuses on two completely different aspects: on the one hand, he addresses political questions such as the military rulers of South America in the 20th century and the precarious situation of immigrants from these countries in the US. On the other hand, he has a very personal topic that the novel makes you think about: what do loving and caring mean and how far would you go for the ones you love?

For me, the parts of the novel that are set in Rio de Janeiro were the most impressive. The author really gives you a good idea of how life was like under those political circumstances and how important your personal bonds were to survive. The neighbour becomes crucial for survival, you find yourself quickly caught between the lines and even if you want to keep away from politics, this isn’t always possible. And there is not just black and white, but many shades of grey.

The question of what loving somebody means is also crucial in the novel. Not the love between lovers, but much more the compassion you feel towards family members and those close to you, how much you are willing to endure and even more importantly: how much you are willing to forgive and to forget.

A novel full of food for thought and at the same time wonderfully written.

Dirk Kurbjuweit – Fear

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Dirk Kurbjuweit – Fear

Randolph Tiefenthaler is a successful Berlin based architect. With his wife Rebecca and their two kids, they just moved into the stylish old houses of the German capital where they have find the seemingly perfect home. Yet, it doesn’t take too long until the neighbour from the basement, Dieter Tiberius, becomes more and more awkward and strange. He writes love letters to Rebecca, which is just annoying, but then he accuses her of child abuse and repeatedly calls the police to check on them. Randolph gets a lawyer, he contacts the youth welfare service, but there is nothing he can do to protect his family from the crazy man in the basement. The fear that he might attack his wife or hurt the children grows and with it the marriage become increasingly fragile. There nerves are on the edge until the day they cannot support it anymore and they need to help themselves to protect the family.

Dirk Kurbjuweit plays with the family idyll which is threatened in the core: the home. The loving father who has built the perfect life for himself and his wife, becomes suddenly incapable of action. He cannot protect his beloved, there is a danger close at hand that he cannot control and sees himself exposed defencelessly. The pressure which is on Randolph and Rebecca is palpable and you as a reader also feel the growing impression of being helpless, powerless and most of all vulnerable.

Even though from the start it is clear what the outcome of all will be, the thriller is full of suspense and the development of the plot gives you the creeps. Kurbjuweit has a very lively style of writing and making Randolph the narrator underlines the feeling of being a part of the story and makes it easy to sympathise with him and to commiserate with him.

Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

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Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

Darius Kellner has never really fit in into Chapel Hill High-School, not just because he is half-Persian but also because of his depression which makes it hard for him to make friends. When is grandfather gets seriously ill, his whole family is flying to Yazd for the first time: his father, whom he considers an “Übermensch” because he is perfect in every respect, his beloved mother and his 8-year-old sister Laleh. Even though Iran is much less different from his home than expected, Darius, or Darioush as he is called there, makes masses of new experiences. He finds a good friend in Sohrab, plays football successfully and with fun, he tries out great Persian food and the family relationships somehow shift and allow him another look at how things are between himself and the rest of his family. When he returns, he is not the Darius he was before anymore, a bit of Darioush the Great has come with him to the US and he accepts that at times it is ok just not to be okay.

Adib Khoram’s novel presents a very different perspective on many things we know from novels. First of all, it is not an immigrant who comes to the US and has to adjust, but vice versa, an American boy, who even though he has a Persian mother is not speaking any Farsi, who discovers a country and its people of the Middle East. Khoram doesn’t play on clichés here, luckily, Darius does not come with too many ideas about his mother’s native country and enters it rather open-mindedly. Additionally, Darius is at the age where he could have his first girl-friend, but it is not a girl he meets and falls for, but a boy with whom he makes friends. And thirdly, the novel does not present a happy-end where everything is cured and everyone is fine. Darius still suffers from depression and has to fight for every little step in his life. Just travelling to Iran and back does not change everything.

I really enjoyed reading to book. Most of all because it gave a lot of interesting insight in the life in Iran, but also because it doesn’t pretend that life is easy and that everything can be fixed. None of the characters is perfect, they all make mistakes and they all feel awkward at times. In this respect, it is very authentic and convincing. I think it is great for teenagers who struggle with fitting in since the main message for me was that we all at times feel like outsiders and it is absolutely ok, not to fit in and to feel sad at times.

Dale Peck – Night Soil

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Dale Peck — Night Soil

Judas Stammers lives a peaceful life with his mother. He does not know anything about his father; only when he dies and leaves him masses of books and money does he actually notice this person. His mother is a potter and to their astonishment, her pots sell for an unbelievable amount of money that they actually do not need since their ancestors were coal magnates and founders of the Academy, a private school that also Judas attends. His mother often leaves him alone and the fact of being an outsider makes Judas ruminate a lot about life, his personality and also the history of the place he lives in.

I admittedly did not really get into the novel. Somehow for me, the narration did not completely make sense. I guess this was due to the fact that Judas narrates the long history of his family with masses of enumerations which made me lose the red threat. I found his personality quite interesting, but whenever I had the impression that the novel gets more fascinating and focuses on his development, the plot turned to something different. The end of the novel what highly noteworthy, the philosophical treatise about the parable – but how does this connect to the rest? To finish with something positive: I found many parts hilarious, I liked Judas style of narration, the way he puts his words, the comparisons, but this unfortunately could not counterbalance the weaknesses of the plot that I perceived.

Claire Douglas – Do not Disturb

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Claire Douglas – Do Not Disturb

After her husband’s breakdown, Kirsty and her family move from London to Hywelphilly, a small village in Wales where they buy a guesthouse. After weeks of refurbishing, they look forward to welcoming the first guests, among them to Kirsty’s dislike her cousin Selena whom she hasn’t seen for more than sixteen years. They had been like sisters, but Selena’s constant lying lead to the inevitable break. Kirsty’s two daughters Evie and Amelia struggle with the move at first, but when Selena and her daughter Ruby arrive, the house awakes. The cousins manage to sort out their quarrels; yet, Kirsty cannot get rid of the feeling that Selena still does not tell her the complete truth. When Selena’s former boyfriend shows up to rent a room, the atmosphere gets tense and with the arrival of Kirsty’s brother and his wife, trouble is in the air. And then, the worst fears come true: Selena gets murdered.

I really liked the novel because Claire Douglas has well dosed the revelation of secrets the characters keep – and there are many of them. Everybody has something to hide, buried down in his or her mind, even the nice ones are not what they seem at the first glance. There is something mysterious about the house, the whispers of the village inhabitants add to this and many of the incidents are hard to make sense of.

The novel is told from Kirsty’s perspective, quite normally, you are biased in what she tells as you only get her limited point of view. On the other hand, this adds to the suspense and you can easily share her feeling of unease. To me, Kirsty is authentic in her action and in the way she tries to protect her family. Since it is not clear where the threat comes from, you suspiciously eye all the other characters simply to learn in the end that you were completely wrong. I absolutely liked that especially since the whole mystery is solved convincingly.

“Do not disturb” triggers the biggest fear: having evil in your own home, the place where you want to feel safe and secure and where you assume that also your children are protected. Many twists and turns and unexpected revelations keep suspense high throughout the novel, a mystery thriller just as it should be.

Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

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Anna Quindlen – Alternate Side

They have the life many people dream of: Nora and Charlie Nolan live in New York city in a quiet dead-end street, their twins Rachel and Oliver have become charming and successful students and both Nora and Charlie are good at their respective jobs. In their street, they have made friends with the neighbours during annual barbecues and the like and from the outside, there is not much you could wish for. However, underneath the surface, the idyllic street has its fights, like very neighbourhood, there is the controlling neighbour whom nobody ever openly contradicts, there are rumours and the nannies also exchange the secrets and share them with their employers. Nora and Charlie have always worked well as a couple, but after almost 25 years, there is a kind of exhaustion, they do not share the same ideas of life anymore and after a major incident in their street which makes them take different sides, they too, have to confront the question if they want to and can go on like this.

Anna Quindlen has an eye for the detail. Even though her story is set in big New York City, the plot is centred around a small community that could be found almost everywhere. It is the clash between the look from the outside and the real picture that makes the novel most striking, the almost invisible fractures, the divergent views which become only detectable when something big happens.

“Alternate Sides” is the perfect summer read, on the one hand, it is a light novel, not too complicated or philosophical, but taken from life and straight-forward in the development of the plot. On the other hand, you have a sympathetic protagonist whom you can easily identify with. You follow Nora and she is immediately likeable, even though she’s got quite an exclusive job, she is like to woman from next door, ignorant of classes and anxious to raise her kids to become good people. Neither does she immediately explode when she feels provoked by her husband, nor does she take in everything without disagreeing.

Since everybody knows how well-off neighbourhoods work, you can smirk at how the inhabitants of this street react, much too predictable, but that’s just how humans work. At times, they are hilarious – Charlie’s joy when he gets a parking spot in the street! – at times, they remind you of the people from you real life that you despise. Even though there are many serious issues underneath the surface of the novel, it is a joyful and entertaining read.

Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

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Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

England, 1948. When Eve Forrester is informed that a certain Guy Lester has mentioned her in his last will, she cannot make any sense of it. Her husband is not very happy about the news, especially since it means his wife will have to travel to southern France to attend the opening of the will alone since he cannot leave work. Mr Lester’s notary Bernard informs the unhappy housewife that she together with Guy’s three children is the heir of a Villa in Cap d’Antibes. None of them is very happy about this, especially since nobody understands how Eve relates to the rich and famous of the Côte d’Azur. Eve prolongs her stay there to find out what had happened and it is obvious from the start that there must be a link to her mother who refuses to talk. The longer she stays and the more she mingles with her new acquaintances, amongst them a famous film star, the farer away Eve gets from her old life. But still, what was Guy Lester’s motivation, what is the secret that had been kept hidden for so long?

Rachel Rhys’ historical novel is the absolutely perfect summer read. Escaping the heat to the south of France to a time long ago and a gorgeous place with villas and parties and people living a life which you don’t find anymore. Added to this, the story comes with a certain mystery which slowly unfolds and finally bursts with a big bang.

First of all, I really liked the protagonist Eve. She is quite a lovable, modest young woman who is fascinated and appalled by what she sees at the Riviera at the same time. The peoples’ lifestyle is so far from her own life that she never really adapts and sticks to her own values and convictions. Even though she is greeted with a lot of hostility and rejection, she doesn’t forget her upbringing and manners. Just like at home, she feels a bit lonely and forlorn which make the reader stay on her side and support her against all the rest. The longer she is away from her husband, the more confident and independent she grows and I really appreciated the woman we see at the end of the novel.

The mystery was also very well played. It is all but obvious what had happened in England long time ago and the small pieces of information you get, just refuse to fall into place. It’s a riddle which takes the complete novel to be solved but when all is finally revealed, it makes perfectly sense and puts everything in a completely new picture.

All in all, an absolute joy to read and to indulge in on a hot summer day.

Fatima Farheen Mirza – A Place For Us

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Fatima Farheen Mirza  – A Place For Us

It’s Hadia’s wedding day and more than anything else she has wished for her brother Amar to show up and take part in it. She hasn’t seen him for quite some time and then he is there. However, things do not turn out so well, but they never have with Amar. Flashback to the times when the kids were still young and all five of them a family: Rafiq who left his home country in the Middle East when he was still a teenager to make a career in the US, mother Layla who came to the country when she married Rafiq, the two daughters Hadia and Huda and their younger brother Amar. Raising three kids in Muslim believe in a foreign country, handing on your convictions and traditions when they are daily endangered by a different set of believes and culture is never easy. Conflicts must arise and so they do until Amar leaves the family. But there are still things none of them knows and Hadia’s wedding might be the day to reveal some secrets.

There is no single word to describe Fatima Farheen Mirza’s novel. I was stunned, excited, angry, understanding, I felt pity for the characters, I loathed them, I could understand them and I just wondered about them. I guess there are few emotions that did not come up when reading it and certainly it never left me cold. Is there more you can expect when reading a book? I don’t think so.

There is so much in it that I hardly know where to begin: there are typical family relationships that are questioned when children grow up. We have the problem of immigrant parents who do not fully assimilate with the welcoming culture but want to hand on something from their native background which necessarily collides within the children. There is love, forbidden love and rules of how a partner is to be found. There are differences made between the daughters and the son, rivalry between the siblings and we have parents who have to question the way they interact with their children and sometimes do not know what to do at all.

It might stem from the fact that I am female, but I liked Hadia best and felt most sympathetic with her. Even though Rafiq explains that he only wanted to protect his daughters, the fact that he limited her in all respects: friends, personal freedom as a child or teenager, even her academic success wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm because the father wanted his daughter to become a mother a take care of a future husband. She had to fight so many wars and was always treated inferior solely because she was a girl, I absolutely fest sorry for her.

Rafiq never reaches the point where he can fully accept his daughters as equals and this is the point where I most detested him. He understood what he did wrong with his son, but he makes masses of excuses and justifies his parenting with his own experiences and upbringing. This is just pitiable because he is stuck in a view of the world which he could have overcome in all the years in a western society. I can follow his thoughts at the end of the novel and surely this is quite authentic, I know people in reality whose world view shares a lot of similarities and I surely would like to know how one can open their eyes and make them overcome the stubborn ideas of women being inferior and parents knowing everything best. I was actually pretty angry at the end when Rafiq finally gets a voice and can ultimately share his thoughts since there isn’t much I could agree with.

 All in all, an outstanding novel which addresses so many of today’s issues and surely shouldn’t be missed.