Meg Rosoff – Friends Like These

Meg Rosoff – Friends Like These

Eighteen-year-old Beth arrives in Manhattan in June 1983 with high expectations. An investigative article for her school’s newspaper secured her a prestigious internship at a newspaper and promises to become the summer of her life. However, her welcome is rather unspectacular, the apartment she shares is shabby and she feels like an outsider. At her workplace, too, she soon feels like a stranger, her three fellow interns seem to be much more knowledgeable and move around like fish in the water. She immediately befriends Edie, an outgoing young woman of New York’s high society. Hard work, a completely new life – Beth is overwhelmed by her new life, too overwhelmed to notice that not all is what it seems and therefore, she has to learn the hard way, that New York is a shark’s pond.

Meg Rosoff has created another young adult novel that also attracts adult readers like me. “Friends Like These” tackles not only Beth’s coming-of-age but also friendship at workplaces, the precarious situation of interns and still after so many decades, women’s place when it comes to careers – it does not make much difference that the novel is set four decades in the past.

Beth is the typical bumpkin, she is inexperienced, insecure and does not know how to behave in these unknown surroundings with all the cool people. Edie quickly becomes her mentor and introduces her to the habits and lifestyles of the Big Apple. The difference between the two girls could hardly be greater, but soon, Beth comes to understand that not all is gold that glitters and that what she envies is not what it seems at first.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, funny as well as reflective it opens a whirling world that makes you question what you really want in life. A novel of first which can be exciting and hurting at the same time.

Carol Birch – Shadow Girls

Carol Birch – Shadow Girls

Sally is a typical school girl of 1960s Manchester. The 15-year-old believes herself a lot cleverer than her class mates and also her family. With her new best friend Pamela, she tries to extent the rules, takes her freedoms and over and over again gets into trouble. Most fun both have tormenting Sylvia Rose, a shyish, old-fashioned girl of their class. Even though Sally and Sylvia do have some common interests, she follows Pamela’s example and makes fun of her, some of their tricks go quite far, humiliating their class mate in front of the whole school. Common among the girls of their school is the attraction by superstition and an ouija board they secretly use during their breaks. When it predicts some bad luck, they do not want to believe it even though they are clearly warned by one of their teachers. But then, the unthinkable happens and will haunt Sally for the rest of her life.

Carol Birch’s novel is an addictive combination of school girl, coming-of-age and ghost novel. She cleverly turns the carefree, boisterous girls into fearful and edgy young women. The story is told from Sally’s point of view so we often get to know her thoughts which are convincingly portrayed: it is not easy to be a teenager, conflicting feelings, knowing what is right but doing what is wrong, making the wrong decisions and regretting them later.

The novel is divided into three chapters named “penumbra”, “umbra” and “anteumbra”. I was trying to make sense of this, but I am not sure if I really got the meaning. Maybe it reflects Sally’s mental state which deteriorates throughout the plot. Maybe this is linked to the idea of the ghosts and seeing or not seeing things, being tricked by the eye.

There is an uneasy feeling looming over the story, you know it is not going to run out well, yet, you cannot be sure what is real and what is only imagined. Is there some supernatural power making sure that there is some kind of pay back for the evil done? Or is it just all the imagination of a young woman at the edge? Captivating once you have started with some unexpected twists.

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Catherine Prasifka – None of this is Serious

Sophie has just finished her degree in political science and falls in some kind of void between being a student and the future which is totally blurred. All her friends seem to have a plan while she is still meandering and feels left behind. She is waiting for something to happen when one evening, there is a crack in the sky. Quickly the internet is full of photos and comments that she obsessively follows. While the earth does not know what to make if this and if it should be treated like a threat, Sophie’s life goes on or rather: it doesn’t. She has been in love with Finn for a long time, but he is more interested in other women and only needs her for the time between. And then there is Rory who is attentive and nice, albeit a bit boring. Even when the sky opens, Sophie is stuck and cannot advance in her life, so she escapes into the online world.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut novel “None of this is Serious” strongly reminded me of Sally Rooney’s books, not just because it is also set in Dublin and the protagonists are at a similar point in their life, also the style of writing shows a lot of parallels. Just like her sister-in-law, she portrays a generation who is lost when they should finally start their adult life and who struggles of coping with the expectations of their families and the online community which provides them with ideals they should adhere to.

“I refresh the feed every minute and continue to consume, growing fat. I’m like a vampire, leeching off the content of other people’s lives. I’m not even really interested in anything I’m reading.”

Having finished college and waiting for the final results, Sophie has too much time she spends online following her friends but also the comments on the crack. The first thing she does after waking up is checking her twitter feed, the last thing she does before falling asleep is checking her feed. She is addicted and unable to live her real life. Online, she can hide behind the invisible wall, she feels secure when chatting with Rory or others, when meeting them in person, she becomes insecure, shy, and totally inhibited. Without booze, she is totally unable of having any normal conversation at all.

It is not only their struggle with romantic life, successful relationships are rare in her circle of friends, it is also professional life which stresses them out. Finding a job is hard, even harder to find one which would allow them to move out of their parents’ house. Being treated like children, they cannot actually grow up and thus find themselves stuck. They just have their polished social media lives which only make the others feel even worse as they cannot see behind the blinking facade.

I could totally relate to Sally Rooney’s protagonists even though I am a couple of years older. It was much harder for me to sympathise with Sophie as she is much too passive and has made herself comfortable in lamenting her situation without doing something against it. Her best friend accuses her of being selfish and arrogant, an opinion I would agree with. She is too self-involved to notice others and pathetically cries over and over again.

“None of this is Serious” is a perfectly contradictory title as the characters’ believe that nothing they do is of any consequence, thus they remain stuck and constantly hurt each other as they are not the superficial beings who can just put away everything they experience. I do believe the author well captured a generation and their feelings of a hopeless or rather no future.

Martin Walker – The Shooting at Château Rock

Martin Walker – The Shooting at Château Rock

The death of an old sheep farmer does not seem too suspicious, he was suffering from heart problems and scheduled for getting a pacemaker. Yet, when his son and daughter find out that they have been disinherited and that their father had planned to move into a luxurious retirement home, this raises questions. Even more so when neither the insurance nor the notaire responsible for the contract can be gotten hold of. While Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police of St. Denis, investigates, he also enjoys the Dordogne summer and especially the time with his friends, amongst them former musician Rod Macrae who lives in an old nearby castle and is waiting for his children to spend some time there. Bruno is fond of the two now grown-ups and quite surprised when gets to know Jamie’s girl-friend: Galina Stichkin, daughter of a superrich oligarch and close friend of the Russian president.

The 15th case for the amiable French policeman again offers the pleasant atmosphere of the southern French countryside with a lot of talk about the historical heritage of the region and even more about the local food and the best way to enjoy it. What starts with a suspicious case of foul play and thus seems to be quite in line with the former novels, quickly, however, turns into a highly political plot covering debatable recent affairs and bringing the big political picture to the small community. Therefore, “The Shooting at Château Rock” isn’t just a charming cosy crime novel but rather a complex political mystery.

There are several reasons why one can adore the Bruno, Chief of Police series. On the one hand, you will be never disappointed when you like to delve into the French cuisine and learn something new about the Dordogne regions rich nature and food. On the other hand, this is surely not the place for fast-paced action with a lot of shootings and deaths. The plots centre around the people and some very basic motives for their deeds – as expected, all to be uncovered by Bruno.

What I liked most this time was how Walker combined a petty crime – if one can call a cold-blooded murder a petty crime – with the global organised crime which operates in the financial sector just as in politics and is long beyond being controlled by official security agencies. He convincingly integrates real life events which shook the public and will ever remain notes in the history books of where mankind simply failed to protect civilians from underground forces with their very own agenda.

Another perfect read for some summer escape to the French countryside.

Alan Parks – The April Dead

Alan Parks – The April Dead

1974 and Glasgow is shaken by homemade bombs. What so far was only known to happen in Northern Ireland, now also seems to have reached Scotland. Detective Harry McCoy is assigned the investigation, but first, he needs to head to the prison where his oldest friends Stevie Cooper is released. Harry tells him to keep his head down for a couple of days, despite knowing Stevie’s character only too well. Thus, he starts a series of gang feuds in Glasgow’s underworld which adds to the mysterious bombings. And there is another case which Harry tries to solve: an American father is looking for his son who disappeared while being stationed with the navy in Scotland. Just like always, all things happen at the same time and McCoy has another couple of challenging days ahead.

Following the Harry McCoy series from the first instalment, I have since been a huge fan of Alan Park’s novels. The first two, “Bloody January” and “February’s Son” presented us the protagonist of the series and his family background and link to the underworld, “Bobby March Will Live Forever” focussed a bit more on the police world in 1970s Glasgow, the latest book is again brilliant in creating a special atmosphere and gives insight in how, at times, the truth needs to be adapted to the needs while not losing sight of rightfulness and justice.

The bombings plot is quickly linked to a paramilitary army which, of course, strongly reminds of the IRA. A charismatic leader who abuses his followers to accomplish his mission in a complex political environment is perfectly chosen for a crime novel. The missing son is an interesting addition since this illustrates the family pressure which was much stronger five decades ago than today.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect was this time how McCoy is torn between his conviction as a member of the police and his bond with Cooper, himself the number one of Glasgow’s underworld. McCoy is not actually afraid of what Cooper might be willing to do to him, but he shows respect while making his point as a detective, at the same time. Even though he follows his instinct, which is often totally right, he is also at fault at times and has to cope with the consequences and challenge his sense of justice.

Another enjoyable and suspenseful novel which is not only highly complex but cleverly made-up with a careful rhythm and thus, for me, one of the best crime series at the moment.

Jane Harper – The Survivors

Jane Harper – The Survivors

It’s been twelve years since that one day which changed Kieran’s life. Now, with his wife Mia and their three-month-old daughter Audrey, they come back to Evelyn Bay to visit his parents. His father’s dementia has been deteriorating more quickly recently and thus they are moving house and sorting out stuff. Only shortly after they have arrived do they also meet their old friends: Olivia and Ash, now a couple, then also victims of that fierce storm which not only took Kieran’s brother’s life but also Olivia’s sister. And they meet Sean and his nephew Liam who lost his father and who still holds Kieran responsible for that. When the young waitress Bronte is found murdered on the beach, the memories of that unforgettable day resurface and all the emotions, too. Will twelve years after the disaster, which brought so much suffering and pain, the same happen again to that small community?

I liked Janes Harper’s novels “The Dry” and “Lost Man” since she is brilliant at catching the atmosphere and transferring this in her novels. “The Survivors”, too, has a special ambiance which defines the novel. The small circle of characters who all share the memories of that disastrous day and who all, in their own way, still can feel the pain that is connected to the storm and its outcome. Thus, the murder case at hand quickly becomes much less interesting than the question if people are hiding something, if the narrative of the events has to be re-written.

At first, I was misled by the title which I thought referred to the people who had survived the aforementioned storm, however, it is something completely different yet decisive for the plot. Even though the investigation on Bronte’s murderer seems not really to advance, the novel gets increasingly thrilling with more aspects of the storm day being evoked. Many characters act highly suspiciously which I totally adored since it made me spin one theory after another about the events. In the end, Harper provides a credible solution and no questions remains unanswered.

It is the landscape and the people formed by it who move at their own pace and who make “The Survivors” a wonderful read. It is a novel about how you can survive when others have died and especially how you can live with the guilt of being a survivor. For some however, being alive does not mean having survived, it is a daily fight against death. For me, the strongest novel by the author so far.

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Tully Dawson is the best friend one could ever wish for. When James’ struggles with his parents become unsupportable, he takes him to his home. Their friendship is based on music and the bands they admire and what both of them are sure of: they never want to become like their fathers. Ayrshire sooner or later becomes too enclosed, simply too small for them, so together with some friends they plan a weekend in Manchester, one of 1980s hot spots of music. And they do have the time of their life in only a couple of hours. Even though they all move on afterwards, the friendship between Tully and James goes deeper and even though they live on different ends of the island, thirty years on, James is the person Tully calls first when he has bad news.

“I suppose we could have (…) asked his opinion, but being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.”

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel oscillates between celebrating youth and the time of total light-footedness and the darkest side of human life. In the first part, we meet a bunch of youngsters for whom the Tenth Summer festival at the G-Mex centre in Manchester is the biggest event in their life so far. In 2017, they have not only aged but also acquired another attitude to life. Both have their time and place, it is the privilege of the teenage years to be carefree and live for the moment, harsh reality will come later, and it does.

“ ’It’s like an explosion of life happening and then it’s gone,’ he said. ‘We had our time, buddy. I’ve come to terms with it (…)’”

What I enjoyed most was to see how James and Tully had formed a bond for life. They shared the good times and also the bad ones. Nothing, not even their wives, could come between them since only with each other they could talk openly. Tully is a truly charismatic character which you come to like immediately which makes it even sadder to see how fate does not grant him more time on earth. The end is deeply moving, but seeing how full of emotion and life the first part war, you can accept it even if you don’t like it. It raises some very core questions each reader has to answer for himself, the way O’Hagan confronts us with them, however, is brilliant.

Roddy Doyle – Love

Roddy Doyle – Love

A summer evening, two old friends meeting in a Dublin restaurant. They haven’t seen each other for quite some time, Joe still lives in Ireland, David and his family have moved to England. They have grown up with each other, shared all firsts of life and stayed in contact for several decades, now coming close to the age of 60. What starts as a joyful evening of old pals turns into an introspection and questioning of values, of memories which suddenly do seem to differ and of a friendship which after all those years is threatened to break up.

Roddy Doyle’s novel is really astonishing with regard to the liveliness and authenticity with which it is told. The text consists in large parts of dialogue between Joe and David which gives you really the impression of sitting at the table with them, listing to their conversation and taking part in the evening – just without all the drinking. It was all but difficult to imagine the scene and also the way they interact is totally genuine. This is only interrupted by insights in David’s thoughts, while he is talking to his friend, he is reassessing what he hears and, as a reader, you soon get aware that there are things he does not share with Joe albeit the latter is supposedly his best friend.

Even though I liked to learn about the two characters’ points of view, their pondering and wondering, the novel did not really get me hooked. First of all, I guess the imbalance between the two, getting access to one’s thoughts whereas the other is only shown from outside, did not really convince me. Quite naturally, the plot is highly repetitive which is absolutely authentic and believable, yet, not that interesting when you read it. There are funny moments as there is a very strong ending which really made up for a lot in my opinion. In the end, I remain of mixed opinion concerning the novel.

Kate Reed Petty – True Story

kate reed petty true story
Kate Reed Petty – True Story

Nick, Max and Richard are the members of the promising lacrosse team of their college. Apart from doing sports, partying is what they like most, getting drunk and making out with girls. After one especially wild party, rumours spread, but the versions of what happened vary. Richard and Max claim their innocence while Alice cannot really remember, but she is sure that her best friend Haley tells the truth when she asserts that immediately after the deed, the boys boasted about what they had done to her. Years go by, Richard turns into a rich businessman, also Haley made a career in the film industry. Things didn’t turn out that well for the others, Nick is closer to death by drinking or simply being stupid and Alice struggles forever with psychological problems stemming from the assumed assault. It will take years until the four of them confront again and the truth about what happened comes to the light.

One thing is absolutely sure: this novel was different from what I have read before. Normally, it is quite easy to put a plot into a genre or at the maximum having two combined, but here, it is a genre mix in which you never know where it will lead you and what the end might be. There is quite some suspense since the whole plot is moving towards the final confrontation – even though this is not really obvious for quite some time – but it is also really tragic when Alice’s part is told. It did not have that much sympathy for Nick admittedly, a character I more or less despised from the beginning. You make assumptions about what happened but you have to correct them repeatedly, which I liked a lot since this cleverly shows you based how a limited point of view one’s verdict quite often is.

There are several novels, apart from all the psychological books, which give some insight in how much impact an assault can have on a victim’s life. Here, too, Alice is completely thrown off the track after that night, the lively and joyful girl turns into a nervous and easy to exploit, insecure young woman. Richard, on the other hand, seems unaffected by the accusations, he goes to Princeton and makes a career to become the hottest bachelor of the country. Nick is not immediately affected, he is a friend confronted with the question if he should or could believe the boys’, whom he has known forever, version. Yet, he is an example of someone who was gifted and had a promising future but threw it all away with being lazy and preferring partying over working hard for his success.  In the end, you might even see him as a tragic character, but I wouldn’t say so, he had his chances but didn’t take them.

A novel I simply rushed through as I couldn’t put it down anymore once I had started. Quite an interesting approach and a very cleverly crafted plot made it a great read.

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.