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.

Bethany Ball – What to do about the Solomons

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Bethany Ball – What to do about the Solomons

Yakov Solomon and his wife Vivienne could despair of their children. Their son Marc has left Israel and is a successful manager in L.A. now, but has to face some accusation of laundering. Their daughter Keren lives in a kibbutz where her husband Guy Gever slowly seems to lose his brains. Liv, another son, has long fled to Singapore to live with another man. Shira, a former TV star and actress, has divorced and raises her son alone but at the moment she has run out of money and hopes for support of her brother Marc. All members of the family eye each other from near and far, always suspicious of each other, yet, if necessary, they are one family. But now, Yakov is dead and his fortune needs to be split.

There were moments while I was reading I thought: “What a luck these characters are only real in the novel and do not actually exist”. Take Shira. She wants to revive her career and flies to the USA. This isn’t something to blame a person for. But: she leaves her 11-year-old son alone at home. He not only has nobody to take care of him, but he does not have anything to eat either. Or Marc and his wife Carolyn. Her first reaction to the police searching their home is to roll a joint and to sink down into oblivion. Guy Gever who suddenly finds his creative vein after many years in the kibbutz – they are all quite strange and singular characters.

Reading this very meticulous drawing of characters was something I really liked about the novel. None of them is flat or stereotypical. Added to this comes a very poignant language which makes you laugh at times and stop breathing at others. There is some typical Jewish absurdity in the characters and in the novel which make it a great entertainment. We do not have the world on black and white, neither are the characters just heroes or losers.

Emily Ruskovich – Idaho

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Emily Ruskovich – Idaho

When Ann first meets Wade, the situation is not easy: his daughter has brought a knife to school and he is fascinated by the music teacher. He starts exercising, learning to play the piano with her. But after a tragic incident in which one of his daughters is killed, the other lost and his wife Jenny sentenced to prison, they lose track of each other. Years later, they are married and Wade is suffering from dementia. Ann tries to put together the pieces of Wade’s life and to understand what happened to May, June and Jenny on that day in 1995. Wild rural Idaho gives them the setting for an emotionally conflict-ridden family affair.

Emily Ruskovich’s novel has been welcomed with much praise which is completely justified. The structure of the novel demands of the reader a lot of attention: we have episodes set in 2004, others go back to the 80s or repeatedly to 1995 – the year of the central incident – but we also spring forward in time and finish in August 2025. But it is not only the chronologically interrupted timeline which requests concentration, the story is also told from multiple perspectives with different foci. The kaleidoscopic pieces have to be put together to form a complete whole and to understand – or at least get an idea – of what happened.

Apart from the construction of the plot, the most impressive aspect of the novel is Ruskovich’s ability of creating an atmosphere. The fact that she places the story in Idaho is not a coincidence, the specific makeup of the landscape is decisive for the action which could not happen anywhere. The characters are formed by nature in a certain way and reunite with it albeit all the technological advancement.  The relationships are as complicated as nature is demanding, especially in winter time. Yet, the novel also illustrates what human beings are capable of, how forgiving they can be and how cruel.

Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

Flora is called to her hometown by her sister Nan when their father Gil had an accident after presumably having seen Ingrid – his wife who went missing, maybe drowned, twelve years ago. The girls try to reconstruct what happened on that day, Flora was only ten and Nan, five years older, had to take over the responsibility since Gil Coleman, the renowned writer, was simply not capable of family life and suffered from his wife’s lost. Slowly Flora has to adapt the conception of her family to an alternative reality which the small girl from then could not fully grasp. The relationship between father and mother was not full of love as the mother’s letters to her husband, written shortly before she disappeared, reveal and the father’s most successful novel might also contain a key to still unanswered questions.

Claire Fuller lets us immerse in a family story told from different points in time. First, we learn what Flora and Nan undergo in the present and how they explain the events from the past. Then, the mother’s letters give insight into an absent character’s point of view who has a completely different focus. On the one hand, the girls view on the parent’s relationship, on the other hand, the young student who loves her lecturer who is a lot older and seduces her and for whom she actually gives up the life she dreamt of. Only when put together do those two perspectives form a complete and complex picture of a family structure and the psychological impact of family life and loss of a parent.

Apart from the spotlight on the multifaceted relationships affected and strongly influenced by the experiences the characters undergo, the author has a second theme to offer: the relevance of literature for life. Apparently, the writer Gil Coleman used events from their real life for his work of art which did not remain without consequences. Apart from that, his life is centred around books and here, he has an extraordinary and interesting leisure activity: Gil is collecting novels with margin notes from the readers. At one point in the novel, his conception is explained:


Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. (pos. 1287 in the e-book).

I like this idea a lot and think it is an interesting approach not only to concentrate on the writer’s process in producing the novel, but also to explore what happens in a reader in the process of reading. Moreover, Ingrid’s letters are hidden in novels. I would have liked to know more of these books since I believe that the specific one chosen for a particular letter might have another sub-message which might be lost on me.

All in all, a wonderful piece of art which I enjoyed a lot.

Carys Bray – The Museum of You

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Carys Bray – The Museum of You

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

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

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

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

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