Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

It’s the middle of the 80s and San Francisco hasn’t turned into the tech/IT hotspot it is today. Teenager Eulabee grows up in a more well-off part close to the beach and attends an expensive all-girls school with her best friends Maria Fabiola. The girls are still somewhere between being kids and becoming visibly female and with this transformation also come the problems. Maria Fabiola is the first to attract attention from the opposite sex, but her radiant appearance also charms women which is why she gets away with almost everything. Eulabee is far from being that self-confident and therefore sticks to the truth what leads to her being excluded from the girl circles of her school. When Maria Fabiola vanishes, the whole community is alarmed, but Eulabee from the start does not believe in a kidnapping, she has known Maria Fabiola for too long and is well aware of her former friend’s greed for attention.

Vendela Vida still isn’t as renowned as her husband Dave Eggers even though she has published several books by now and has won the Kate Chopin Award. I found her last novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” quite exceptional in the choice of perspective and therefore was eager to read her latest novel “We Run the Tides”. This time, she goes back in time and has chosen teenage girls as protagonists. The story is told from Eulabee’s perspective and captures well the mixed emotions a girl goes through when becoming a woman. Also the ambiance of the 1980s is convincingly depicted.

The most central aspect of the novel is surely the friendship between Eulabee and Maria Fabiola and its shift when one of the girls develops a bit quicker than the other. Maria Fabiola is well aware of the effect she has on other people and uses this for her own advantage. Eulabee, in contrast, is still much more a girl, insecure in how to behave and what to do about the situation. She does not fight but accept what’s happening. Her first attempts of approaching boys seem to be successful but end up in total disappointment. She is a close observer and can well interpret the relationships she sees, between her parents, her mother and her sister and also the other girls and teachers at her school. Without any doubt she is a likeable character and treated highly unfairly. But that’s how kids behave at times.

I liked how the plot developed and how the vanishing of the girls turned out quite unexpectedly. Yet, I didn’t fully understand why the author has chosen to add another chapter set in the present. For me, the story was perfectly told at a certain point and admittedly, neither was I really interested in Eulabee’s later life nor in another encounter of the two women as grown-ups. Still, I do not really know what to make of Maria Fabiola when they meet for the first time decades later.

To sum up, wonderfully narrated, a great coming-of-age story with a strong protagonist.

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Padma and Lalli, inseparable cousins and friends, were only 16 and 14 when they were killed. As their small village in Uttar Pradesh was rather underdeveloped in hygienic and housing terms, the girls needed to go to the nearby fields to relieve themselves. One night in 2014, they went missing and were found hanging in the orchard a couple of hours later. Rumours spread fast about what might have happened and who could be responsible for their deaths, however, even though national media became interested in the case, investigations took their time and the police only reluctantly tried to solve the case. Girls from lower classes have never been high priority and their death seemed to cause more nuisance than alarm.

“This negligence contributed to an epidemic of missing and exploited children, many of them trafficked within and outside the country.”

Sonia Faleiro’s book is a true crime account of how the girls’ lives might have looked like in their last hours, the immediate reaction of the families and villagers and also a lot of facts which help to understand the circumstances in which this crime could take place. The subheading “An Ordinary Killing” already gives away a lot: the murder of girls and women had become to ordinary in India that people didn’t bat an eyelid anymore. However, the events of 2012, when a student was violated in a bus, made worldwide headlines and stirred protests which finally made people aware of the hostile and misogynist climate they were living in.

“Although Delhi was notoriously unsafe, stories about sexual assault didn’t often make the news.”

There are a lot of factors which enabled the murder of Padma and Lalli, their status as girls, their belonging to an inferior class, the remoteness and backwardness of their village – many standards and rights we in the western world take for granted simply do not apply there. But it is not only the crime itself which is abhorrent, also the situation of the police – understaffed, ill-equipped, prone to bribery – and even more of the medical examiner – without any training, just doing the job because nobody else would do it with the logical result of a post-mortem which is simply absurd – are just incredible. What I found most interesting was actually not the girls’ story and the dynamics in the village afterwards but the background information. Sonia Faleiro convincingly integrates them into the narrative which thus becomes informative while being appealing to read. I’d rather call it a journalistic piece of work than  fiction and it is surely a noteworthy contribution to the global discussion on women’s rights.

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

brit bennett the vanishing half
Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Everybody in the small Louisiana town of Mallard has always just called them the twins. That’s what Desiree and Stella Vignes are, just like some inseparable unit. Together they grow up, together they ran away to find a better life. A big dream for two black girls in the middle of the 20th century when segregation is a fact and opportunities for girls are limited. But then, Stella finds a job as a secretary, due to her relatively fair skin, they mistake her for white and with her diligence, she suddenly sees the chance to reinvent herself. After years of playing the role of the white secretary, she is ready to turn the role into her new self, but this requires leaving everything behind, also her twin sister. The girls take different roads, but they can never forget each other completely. It will take years until their paths will cross again and until they will need to ask themselves who they are and who they only pretend to be.

Brit Bennett’s novel covers the time span from the 1950s when the twins are only teenagers until the end of the 20th century when they have grown-up daughters. It is a tale of two young girls who are connected by their looks but quite different in character, girls with hopes and dreams living in a time when chances in life are determined by the skin colour. One of them accepts things as they are, the other decides to make the best for herself of it, but the price she has to pay is high and it is also a price her daughter will have to pay, ignorant of her mother’s story. Beautifully written the author not only follows the fate of the two individuals, but she also mirrors in their fate a society in which some alleged truths are deeply rooted.

When starting reading, you have the impression of being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow, you are in the middle of the story and first need to sort out the characters and circumstances. The author sticks to the backwards and forwards kind of narration which only little by little reveals what happened to the sisters. Just as both of them are ill-informed about the other’s fate, you as a reader, too, have to put the bits and pieces together to make it a complete story. I totally adored that way of gradually revealing what happened to them.

The narrative also quite convincingly shows that you can never just make a decision for your own life, it will always have an impact on other people, too, and even if you imagine having left all behind you and buried it deep inside your head, one day, the truth will come out and you’ll have to explain yourself. Brit Bennett similarly demonstrates how fragile our concepts of race, gender, class and even identity can be. We might easily be misled because quite often we only see what we want to see and prefer looking away over confronting our stereotypical thinking.

A must read drama with strong characters but also a lot of food for thought.

Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

frances macken you have to make your own fun around here
Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

Since their childhood, Katie, Maeve and Evelyn have been friends and it was never a question who was the leader of their gang. Admired by the other two girls, Evelyn decided on what and who to like or dislike. When a new girl moves to their small Irish community, she immediately knows that Pamela is arrogant and stupid. Due to her mother’s interference, Katie is prone to become Pamela’s friend, but before they could really get to know each other, the girl vanishes and is never to be seen again. Rumours go from her being killed by one of the trio’s friends, over being abducted to her having run away. When school is over, Katie and Evelyn plan to move to Dublin together, but when her friend is not accepted at university, Katie for the first time is on her own and cannot rely on her friend anymore.

What a great beginning of a novel. I totally adored to careless and adventurous kids who then developed into typical teenagers. Unfortunately, the novel lost a bit of its spirit when the three separate. Even though this is necessary for Katie’s development, from this point on I struggled a bit with the reading, first and foremost because I found it hard to endure Katie’s naivety and her inability to become an independent person, to develop her own ideas and tastes, she is totally dependent on others and their opinion, thus just bounces somehow in her life without goal. Her return to her small hometown is a logic consequence which even makes things worse for her.

In my opinion, the protagonist is well developed and throughout her life, the decisions made are well motivated by her personality and point of view, yet, she is certainly not a character to sympathise with or to take as a role model. In spite of that, I found it quite realistic to see how she struggles with her future, not having really developed but play but only a mere vague dream, she cannot succeed and must end up being totally disappointed. Similarly, her blindness when it comes to her friend Evelyn is well portrayed, she ignores all warnings and other views and is thus left to learn it the hard way.

A wonderful first part and some great aspects, nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed in the end, as I think the author could have made more of her plot and character.

Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

amy engel the familiar dark
Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

Two 12-year-old girls have been murdered, but except for their parents, nobody really seems to care about it. Maybe they had it coming, that’s how it is with girls their age, they should have paid more attention to whom they mingle with. Eve Taggert is not willing to simply accept that her daughter Junie has gone and nobody is hold responsible for the senseless death. What did she and her friend Izzy do in the park at that time and bad weather? She starts to ask questions even though her brother Cal, a policeman and close to the investigation, tries to keep her away and out of trouble which her private research soon causes. The more Eve learns, the closer she also gets to her own family and especially her mother with whom she had cut all contact before Junie was born because she never wanted to be like her. But in the course of the events, Eve must realise that she shares more traits with her mother than she ever expected.

Amy Engel’s mystery novel deals with the greatest horror that parents could ever go through: learning about the death of their beloved child and having the impression that nobody bothers to find the culprit and to bring him or her to justice. However, it is also about life in small and remote community where poverty and precarious standards of living are a daily occurrence. Growing up in trailer homes or small, run-down apartments where children only get a nook for themselves and see the adults drink alcohol or being addicted to drugs of all kinds – this is not the childhood one could ever wish for. Even if some want the best for their children, just like Eve, getting out of this isn’t as easy as it seems.

The story is narrated from Eve’s point of view which gives you a deep insight in the emotions she goes through. Not just losing her daughter and thus the sense of life, but she also falls back into old patterns she had given up and totally loses her footing. Even though she could not offer Junie much, she put an effort in her daughter’s education and she lead a decent life and loved her – more than she herself had experienced as a kid. To see such a woman being hit by fate is especially bitter.

Amy Engel does a great job in showing the development of Eve, going from being totally blinded by mourning and anger to gaining strength – even if she becomes a bit too reckless and headless at times – and in the end, fearlessly doing what she needs to do.

Notwithstanding that a lot is going wrong in the small town of Barren Springs, what I liked a lot is that the author did not paint the characters in black and white. The greatest villains do also show their positive and human sides – just as the “good” ones suddenly are capable of quite some crime.  Albeit a murder investigation is at the centre of the novel, for me it was much more a psychological study of small town life and people who struggle in life. It does not lack suspense though and several unexpected twists and turns keep you reading on.

Magda Szabó – Abigail

magda-szabo-abigail
Magda Szabó – Abigail

WW2 is raging across Europe and has also reached Hungary. Gina Vitay’s father is a general and as such well aware of the dangers that come with Hitler’s advance. He decides to hide his daughter in Matula Institute, a boarding school on the eastern border. Gina is all but used to strict policies as she finds in the closed Puritan world and it does not take too long until she has set the other girls against her. There are rules and there are other rules, breaking the official ones is not a problem, but undermining the secret laws of the girls is punished with exclusion and contempt. It will take Gina a lot of effort to win back the girls’ confidence which she will desperately need since there are dangers looming over her that she is not at all aware of.

Magda Szabó was a Hungarian writer who was forbidden to publish by the Communist Party after being labelled an enemy of the state. “Abigail” is one of her best-known novels which was first published in 1970 and has since then been translated into numerous languages, however, this is the first time it is available in English. In 1993, Szabó was nominated member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and she is one of the most widely translated and read female Hungarian writers.

The novel cleverly interweaves friendship with the events of the Second World War. The notion of a world of black and white does not hold out against reality anymore and telling a friend from an enemy has become a difficult task. The world of the boarding school is walled off from the outside, the approaching war does not play a role, yet, for Gina, she has to fight her own battles within the old walls of the institution. The dynamics of a group of girls enclosed is very well portrayed in the novel, they develop their own set of order and exercise law if necessary. An interesting aspect is the character of “Abigail”, a statue which come to help if addressed by one of the girls. Until the very end, the readers can only speculate who is behind it and supports the girls against the strict direction of the school.

The spirit of the time of its origin can be read in every line, “Abigail” is far from today’s Young Adult or coming-of-age novels. The beautiful language and lovely details of the characters make it an outstanding document of its time and still worth reading fifty years after it has been written.

Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

scarlett-thomas-oligarchy
Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

When Natasha arrives from Russia at her new boarding school in rural England, she struggles to adapt. Not only the foreign language, but the special language all these year-11 girls from superrich families use. Yet, not only the words, but also the manners are quite unique and the one thing that they are obsessed with is how to lose weight. It is not just to get rid of some rests of baby fat or being in a better shape, the most important thing is being thinner than the others since the headmaster treats those girls differently. But then, their weight-loss competition goes totally wrong and one of the girls dies. Reaction of the school management: let’s not get any information outside and set up an anti-anorexia plan which only gives the girls even more ideas of what to do…

“Oligarchy” starts like some typical boarding school novel. 15-year-olds who do not have any serious worries, who try out the most absurd diets they can find, and modern-day obsession with pictures on the internet. Yet, it does not stop there, on the surface, of course, it is the world of adolescents we are presented with, teenagers who are reluctant to what their parents do and where the money comes from and who rebel against strict rules on their school. However, underneath, there are some much more fundamental questions addressed, first of all, how eating disorders are fired by what we are presented with every day. Secondly, the girls are rich, but most of them actually do not really have somebody to turn to, their parents are simply absent and even times of deepest distress does not seem to trigger any reaction from them.

Even though the novel is a bit stereotypical when it comes to the characters, I think the author did well in combining relevant topics in an enjoyable read. First and foremost, she has found the perfect tone with does neither ridicule the teenagers with their absurd ideas of how to diet and their supposedly secret cheating, nor does she take the serious consequences of their action too lightly. It is a novel that can educate, but fortunately, you do not feel like being educated.

Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar

dervla-mcttiernan-the-scholar
Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar

When on a late evening scientist Emma finds a young woman dead on the university premises, it looks like a hit and run without any connection to the place. But then, the police find out that she had the ID of another student with her and also wore her clothes. Carline Darcy, first presumed the victim, reacts very harshly to the police showing up at her apartment, but her behaviour makes her even more suspicious, especially since Carline comes from a very rich family owning the institute close to which the body of the still unidentified woman was found. As Cormac Reilly and his team investigate, more and more evidence pops up linking the rich girl to the murder. But also the scientist who found the victim is doubtful – wasn’t she connected to another murder just a couple of months before? And what about the fact that Emma is the leading sergeant’s partner?

Dervla McTiernan’s thriller is a highly complex police investigation that I thoroughly enjoyed to read. It moves at a high pace and on every new page, new evidence appears that leads to another thread that you could follow. To fully understand to extent of the case, it takes some time and you as a reader investigate along the police all the time. The fact that sergeant Reilly himself is personally involved gives it all a bit of an extra that made the whole story even more interesting.

There are two aspects in the novel that I found wonderfully elaborated. First of all, the ways dysfunctional families find their own modus operandi in which they proceed and which can never be penetrated by somebody from outside. It was mainly in a side plot that this a deeply developed, but it was also true for the protagonist’s family, just with a slight shift of interest. The second was the question of how far people are willing to go for success and recognition. These are highly valued in our times and often the main feature to define a person. If you cannot compete, you are nothing. With this attitude, to we dig our own graves in putting people under so much pressure that they cannot see a way out?

All in all, very gripping and real page-turner.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

megan-collins-the-winter-sister
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.