Mark Sarvas – Memento Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.