Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Wendy Clarke – The Bride

wendy clarke the bride
Wendy Clarke – The Bride

There nothing in Alice’s life that didn’t go completely wrong in the last couple of weeks: her employer laid her off, her father didn’t want to see her and now, her partner leaves her because he is having a baby with another woman. After days in bed, she gets a message from an old friend. Joanna. Her former best friend with whom she has lost contact, but now, Joanna wants to meet her to get to know the man she’s going to marry. Could there be a better excuse to leave everything behind at least for a couple of days? Obviously, Joanna must be quite successful living in one of the new posh apartment blocks which must be super expensive. However, when, Alice knocks on the door, there is just Mark, Joanna’s husband to be and he knows nothing of a visitor. Joanna is not there, also the next day, she doesn’t show up. Alice feels increasingly uncomfortable until Mark tells her that Joanna has been kidnapped and that he needs her help to get her back.

Told from Alice’s point of view, you go through a horrendous mass of emotions – emotions which could hardly be more contradictory. Wendy Clarke leads the reader through a tour de force of lies, secrets and very spooky and distressing moments that, at times, give you the creeps. Just like her protagonist, you do not know whom to believe or trust, the whole situation she is caught in feels like a big ghost train rushing towards a giant obstacle without preparing for the impact.

I totally adore plots which keep you alert throughout the whole narration. It is those seemingly insignificant side notes that reveal that there’s so much you do not know, that all characters have some blind spots you don’t see and that everything might be completely different from what you expect or believe. Even though I found Alice a bit too naïve and shallow, I liked to follow her.

The further the plot gets, the higher the pace and suspense, thus a true page-turner that entertained me well.

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.

Denise Mina – Conviction

denise mina conviction
Denise Mina – Conviction

Just like every day, Anna McDonald gets up in the morning and turns on a podcast to relax before the usual commotion of her family starts. This morning, however, will be completely different. First, she learns in a true crime podcast that her former friend Leon has been murdered on a boat off the French coast, then, her husband tells her that he’s going to run away with her best friend Estelle taking their two girls with them. When Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen, a famous musician, turns up and a photo of the two of them goes viral, her carefully built life crumbles and falls. It will not be long before someone will recognise her, before those people that she has hidden from for years will finally find her, before it all will start again. She needs to run away again, but before, together with Fin, she will find out what happened to Leon and if the person she supposes behind it all is still looking for her.

Sometimes you start a novel, expecting it to be entertaining and gripping, but then you are literally dragged into it and cannot stop reading. That’s what happened to me with “Conviction”, once I began reading, I was spellbound and fascinated and absolutely wanted to know what all this was about. Due to Denise Mina’s clever foreshadowing and the high pace of the plot, you don’t get a second to relax and breathe deeply, as the protagonist runs, you are tagged along and eagerly follow.

Denise Mina does not waste any time, the story starts like a bull at the gate and before you are even the slightest oriented, you are already in the middle of the mess that Anna is experiencing. Choosing a first person narrator was some clever decision as thus, we only get her perspective, only what she wants to share and which leaves the reader in the dark for quite some time. At first, she seems to be totally overreacting until you realise that there is much more behind it all. The good and dutiful housewife obvious is entangled in some unbelievably big conspiracy with powerful people far beyond any law enforcement.

A proper page-turner with unexpected twists and turns which also has some witty and comical bits and pieces to offer.

Claire McGowan – What You Did

claire-mcgowan-what-you-did
Claire McGowan – What You Did

It was meant to be a relaxed weekend and reunion of old friends, but then it turns into an absolute nightmare. It’s been 25 years that Ali and her husband Mike first met their friends Karen, Jodi, Bill and Callum at university, a reason to celebrate in their new home. Yet, after a lot of alcohol, a loud cry from Karen suddenly ends the joyful get together: Karen claims to have been assaulted by Mike, her bleeding and overall status seem confirm her accusation. After Mike’s arrest, Ali’s world slowly crumbles and falls, the more she learns about her husband, the more she has to ask herself if she really knew whom she has been married to for all those years. Not only did he have an affair all those years, but also are there money transfers to an unknown account and more pieces of information that are far beyond just being inconvenient: they are purely frightening. But this is just the beginning.

Claire McGowan’s thriller is absolutely breath taking. It is mainly narrated from Ali’s point of you and you constantly ask yourself: what would I do if I were in her shoes? Whom would I believe, my husband or my former best friend? Would I stick to my ideals or try to save the life I had worked for for years? How far would I be willing to go for the person I love? The story moves at a very high pace, just whenever you think the characters have found a way of coping with the catastrophe, the next follows immediately only to make the whole situation even worse. There is no moment to relax and sit down to think through the mess they are in, they are forced to react to ever more complications from one minute to the other.

The plot is very cleverly constructed, revealing its full potential only slowly. What makes it especially delicate is the fact that it plays on those core emotions in life: trust and believe in the people who are closest to you. It hurts a lot more to feel betrayed by the ones you love than coping with just with stressful situations. Additionally, I found it quite clever to put Ali in the position where she is presented as an advocate for women who have been assaulted and speak out against their perpetrators and then finding her in the position where she is inclined to take the other side and rather believe her husband than the woman – and friend! – who without any doubt is a victim.

I utterly rushed through the novel since I could hardly put it down. The short chapters even accelerated the plot and made you read on just one more chapter and another one and so on until the end. A brilliant story that I enjoyed throughout.

Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

Livia-Franchini-Shelf-Life
Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

After ten years together, Ruth finds herself suddenly alone. Neil has left and all that her life consists of now is her work as a nurse in an old people’s home and shopping groceries at the small Tesco close to her flat. How did she get here? First, the escape of her ill-willed mother, then her friend Alanna whom she met in nursery school and with whom she still works together, the different patients and their respective needs, and Neil whom she despite all the time together seems to have hardly known.

Shelf Life – a. the period during which a good remains effective and free from deterioration. B. the period for which an idea or piece of information is considered an advantage over the competitor.

Still after having finished reading the novel, I wonder about the link between the title and the plot. Yes, the groceries Ruth buys somehow play a prominent role since they provide the titles for the different chapters. But beyond this? So what else could the title refer to? The time the main character is considered young – might be, but Ruth is beyond this discussion and her age is of no importance. Even as a young girl she wasn’t actually judged pretty or attractive. An innovative idea or piece of information is also something I didn’t find.

Thus, just as the titles leaves me a bit perplex, the whole story only slightly touched me. There is some red thread, basically between Alanna and Ruth, which is a bit strange since her relationship and breakup with Neil somehow nevertheless make up the centre of the plot around which everything revolves.

I liked Livia Fanchini’s style of writing and I am sure she can tell an interesting story, but somehow “Shelf Life” confused me much more than it made sense. Her characters are definitely interesting in their very peculiar manners, but somehow it all seemed not fully developed to me.

Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

tammy-cohen-stop-at-nothing
Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

When the bell rings one evening, Tess does not know that this will change her life completely. Her 16-year-old daughter Emma was attacked on her way home from the bus stop, a man tried to abduct her but luckily, a woman came by and could save her. Tess is more than grateful for what Frances has done that night and so it is quite natural to let her into their life which has been a bit chaotic after Tess’ divorce. When Emma fails to identify the attacker with the police, Tess feels the need to do something and so does Frances who thinks she could recognize the man: James Laurence Stephens. Tess totally freaks out, such a man cannot be left running around freely and thus she starts to observe him, follow him online and gets totally worked up about him. Frances is always on her side, supporting her and Emma who does not cope too well with the situation. But then, Tess’ anger and spying fire back and now she is under threat – obviously by a man who is capable of more than just harassing girls.

Tammy Cohen’s psychological thriller got me hooked immediately. The author does not give you a chance to slowly get into the novel, she starts right in the middle of the police investigation and thus, does not leave you any time to get acquainted with the characters and situation – just like Tess was overwhelmed by the incident. Neither does suspense nor the pace slow down after this, the plot moves at a very high speed and this is how you just like Tess lose the focus and get lost in the events. Since I utterly adored the novel, I was curious to find out more about the writer and I was quite astonished that I have read and liked several of her novels published under the pseudonyms Tamar Cohen and Rachel Rhys. She surely is a gifted writer no matter what kind of genre she works on.

What I appreciated most apart from the suspense and high pace was Cohen’s protagonist Tess who is authentically depicted: a wife who has lost her husband as well as her career, who struggles with life and just wants to do the things right at a moment, when nothing seems to work out for her anymore. She is under a lot of pressure from all sides and this makes it easy for her to get immersed in this paranoia of following her daughter’s apparent attacker. From her limited point of view, it all makes totally sense. As a reader, you know that something is not quite right with her perspective, especially since there are parentheses coming obviously from some other character that are not easy to insert into the picture.

A brilliant and captivating read that I could hardly put down. Skilfully crafted with unexpected twists and turns and superbly playing on the psychological aspects of somebody being stressed out and thus prone to fall prey to evil and malevolent fellows.

Karen Perry – Your Closest Friend

karen-perry-your-closest-friend
Karen Perry – Your Closest Friend

She shouldn’t have been there in the first place, Shoreditch, the part of London where the attack took place in which Cara was almost killed. It was this young girl, Amy, who saved her by pulling her into a store and then hiding with her for hours. Cara just left her lover when she met the killer, under the pressure of the events, she told Amy about her affair and the lost love of her husband. The events bring them close together and when Cara needs somebody to babysit her daughter, Amy moves in. What seems to be a close friendship, turns out to be something completely different and it won’t take too long until Cara doesn’t recognize her own life anymore and has to realize that she is in real danger.

Karen Perry, the pseudonym of Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, has chosen two quite different main characters for her sixth thriller: on the one hand, the down-to-earth successful radio maker Cara who supports her family and has established herself a picture book life – however, only when looked at from the outside. On the other hand, it is obvious from the beginning that Amy is suffering from hearing voices and that her extreme emotion leads her much more than a rational view of reality. Alternating their points of views gives the reader an advance which does not diminish the suspense.

You know exactly what is going to happen, yet, the question remains how far Amy is ready to go to attain her goal. Would she kill for it? Whom? How destructive is she actually or does she break down before something really bad happens? Something really bad is in the air – and then it happens.

I really liked Karen Perry’s style of writing which keeps you reading on because you want to know how this mess will finally be solved. Nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed by the protagonist Cara. At first, she seems to be quite clever and everything but easy to manipulate. But the more the plot advances, the more naive and even plainly stupid she becomes. This is a bit annoying because at a certain point, it is absolutely apparent who is behind it all, but she remains stubbornly ignorant. All in all, quite some entertaining thriller.