Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Two sisters, September and July, just 10 months apart in age but sticking together like twins, even more, just as if they were only one person. In Oxford, where they first lived with their mother, an author of children’s books featuring two girls just like her own daughters, they were always in trouble and didn’t make friends with the other kids. By moving to the old family house, their mother hopes things will get easier. However, the spooky surroundings with walls who could tell decades of dark stories, triggers something between the girls which makes their unhealthy bond even more dangerous for the younger and weaker of the two sisters.

Daisy Johnson portrays a sisterly connection which goes far beyond what is known to link siblings. The fact that the girls are born within only a couple of months makes them grow up and experience everything together. They are like one person separated incidentally, also their character seems to have split in the two: September the wild and furious one, July, in contrast, obedient and more thoughtful. Since she is younger, she easily gives in to her sister’s will and thus follows without ever challenging her.

The atmosphere is gloomy in every line. Right from the start, you sense that some catastrophe is looming and just waiting to present itself. Even though at times, the sisterly bond also seems to be protective, the negative impact is obvious. Their mother is detached, she suffers from a depression which makes it impossible for her to see what is coming, she senses that the relationship her daughters have formed in detrimental, even harmful for July, but she is unable to do something about it.

An intense and vivid narrative with quite some eerie notes.

Emily Henry – Beach Read

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Emily Henry – Beach Read

After her father’s death and the revelation that apart from her mother, there was another woman he obviously loved, January falls into a deep hole. Hopelessly romantic as she is, she does not understand the world anymore and has to realise that her parents’ perfect marriage was far from the ideal she had always pictured it. Her mental state also keeps her from doing her job: writing romantic novels. How can you write about love when you lost all believe in it? Totally broke and to overcome her writer’s block, she moves to her father’s beach house which she plans to clear out and sell and where she hopes over summer to finish her next novel. When she arrives, another surprise is waiting for her: her neighbour Augustus Everett was at college with her and her greatest enemy. He always looked down on her Happily Ever After novels while he himself was more of the serious literary writing type. Soon, they realise that they have much more in common than they had thought and somehow they come to have a bet: swap genres and see who is the first to sell a book.

Emily Henry’s novel not only has the perfect title but it also keeps the promise that comes with it: it is a beach read just as you’d imagine: A bit of romance here, also some struggle but none too depressing there, all wonderfully narrated so that you just rush through it while enjoying the sun. It is a light-hearted escape to forget about the world and your own problems for a couple of hours and to only indulge in reading.

Even though I am not that much into com-coms, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. At times, I had to laugh out loud as the author really manages to find a carefree and relaxed tone; when in other novels you again and again read about barking dogs, in “Beach Read” you get this here: “Somewhere, a Labrador was farting. “

Even though a typical summer read which does not weigh too much on your shoulders, there are some more serious aspects one could ponder on, but clearly, the romantic fight between the protagonists is in the centre and it is clearly meant to be enjoyed.

Raven Leilani – Luster

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Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

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Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

Cari Mora is not afraid, not anymore. Having been kidnapped as a kid and trained to become a child soldier for Colombia’s FARC, she knows how to survive even the most dangerous situations. She can read people, use weapons of all kinds and she knows that in order not to be killed, she at times needs to shoot others first. She has established a quiet life in Miami, always under the radar since she does not possess the necessary papers. When Hans-Peter Schneider and his crew appear, things become complicated. A war of gangs breaks out, sadist Schneider as well as his opponent Don Ernesto want to dig out some gold barrels which are supposed to be deposited in a house which formerly belonged to Pablo Escobar, leader of the famous Medellin Cartel. Cari soon find herself between the front lines.

It took Tomas Harris thirteen years after his last instalment of the Hannibal Lecter series to come up with a new novel. Having totally adored “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and its successors, I was eager to read this novel. Even though the topic is completely different, I expected some cruel thrill and highly complex characters. Yet, my expectations were not really met and for the rating, it only ranges somewhere between three and four stars.

There were some aspects I found really interesting to read. Cari Mora’s backstory as a child soldier was exciting and appalling at the same time and Harris integrated this part quite well into the actual plot line. She certainly is some noteworthy character and the conflicting traits – on the one hand, the ruthless child who learnt how to kill, on the other hand, the caring woman and her way of treating plants and animals which shows her high capacity of empathy – make her a strong protagonist.

However, the main topic is the fight between the two gangs which is, unfortunately, very poorly narrated. Even though Schneider first appears to be a fascinating character with his tendency to torture, this is not really developed further. Thus, the gang fight remains on the highly superficial “we shoot some of you, then you react in the same way” level. This is a bit uninspired and maybe works better in film than in a book.

It is easy to recognise Thomas Harris’ hand in the novel, but he surely can do a lot better than that.

Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

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Lucy Atkins – Magpie Lane

When Dee returns from an overnight trip to London, the Oxford College Master’s Lodging is a mess: Felicity, the girl she nannies and who suffers from selective mutism has vanished. Her Danish stepmother Mariah never bonded with the girl and since she has given to her own boy, she is totally exhausted and incapable of taking care of this extraordinary 8-year-old. Felicity must have sleepwalked, something she frequently does during her nightmares which have intensified since they moved to the old spooky house. For the police, Dee is one of the prime suspects because Nick Law, Felicity’s father, is convinced of her guilt. So they interview her over several days to get an understanding of the girl’s special situation and the relationship she had with her loving nanny who could never do her any harm, could she?

Lucy Atkins’s “Magpie Lane” is a very clever and creepy novel which brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of an old, dark house where you immediately believe ghosts could wander and haunt the inhabitants. Apart from this, she has created lovely characters who are not only very peculiar but with whom you bond straightaway even though some doubt about Dee’s involvement in Felicity’s vanishing is looming over the story.

I totally adored how Atkins uses the old university town in her novel. First of all, the house itself which provides a long and spine-chilling history, but also the cemeteries and walk ways which have a lot to tell. Apart from the surrounding, the people there also seem to live in the past which is especially tricky for a modern woman like Mariah. Even though she, on the one hand, is kind of “evil stepmother”, things are not that simple. I can understand how frustrating her situation is there: she is just “the wife of”, ignored for not being a real part of the Oxford community and everything with which she normally can charm people does not work here. Additionally, the situation with Felicity is undoubtedly highly challenging for her and then, things become even more dire with her own child crying day in, day out from colic.

Even though Dee is telling the story through the police interviews, Felicity is at the centre. This girl is surely a challenge for everybody but due to Dee’s sensibility you come to love and understand her increasingly. Her nightmares and obsession with death is somehow bizarre and unnerving yet understandable when you get to know her story. My personal highlight was the character of Linklater. The eccentric historian who seems to be completely unaware of the world outside his head fits perfectly in a place like Oxford and plays an important part in creating the somehow Gothic atmosphere.

Atkins’s way of foreshadowing adds to the suspenseful atmosphere and makes it a wonderful read that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

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Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

James Aylott – Tales from The Beach House

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James Aylott -Tales from The Beach House

The Beach House is a rundown motel in Delray Beach Florida where quite a unique set of inhabitants have come together. From the former and now broke tennis coach to a young forensic examiner at the local morgue, from a paparazzi fotographer to the always making trouble couple, from a Rod Steward double to an secretive business woman – you‘ll find everything life has to offer, especially when it comes to unfulfilled dreams. This strange and bizarre assortment of characters seems not to have much in common, but when their little island of happiness is threatened, they need to stand side by side to save this precious save haven.

I fell immediately for James Aylott‘s residents of The Beach House. They all had their high hopes and also seen the downs of life but nevertheless, they are loveable – maybe except for Gabriel and Bessie Garlech from apartment # 5 – and you simply have to feel pity for what is going to happen to them. Yet, not only the characters have an immediate appeal, it is much more the author‘s style of writing that got me immediately. He masterly puts his story into words and thus makes you laugh out loud more than once.

A wonderful read that is satirical and funny as well as bittersweet at the same time. The individual stories are smoothy linked to add up to a story even though I found the presentation of their backstories much more interesting and entertaining than the actual plot. I also loved the news stories at the beginning of each chapter which highlighted that Florida creates news that surely surpass any imagination.

 

Riley Sager – Lock Every Door

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Riley Sager – Lock Every Door

When Jules comes home early because she has been laid off, she finds her boyfriend with another girl. Without a job and no home anymore, she is close to giving up when she sees an ad for a house sitter. This might solve both her problems for the moment. When she enters the apartment for the first time, the interior holds up to what the outside of this old Upper West Side house promised. The Bartholomew is incredible and Jules more than happy when she is hired for the job which is paid more than generously: one thousand dollars per week. But there are some strict rules to follow. When you’ve got nowhere else to go and no money in your bank account, you agree to almost everything, but Jules has no idea what she has agreed to with moving into the Bartholomew.

Riley Sager’s thriller got me hooked from the very beginning. I like those stories with old houses in which there are strange sounds you cannot identify and that have secrets behind every door and residents who are suspicious in every imaginable and unimaginable way. The setting is just perfectly chosen for a spine-tingling story and the way the author composed the story, with foreshadowings which give you some idea of what might come without telling too much, keeps you alert and thrilled all the time.

I liked the protagonist Jules immediately, she seems to be a clever young woman, with her family background not an easy prey for wrongdoers. You sympathise with her due to her very poor situation and the luck that seems to have come to her life unexpectedly. The inhabitants of the house are intriguingly drawn, quite eccentric but well-fitting to the surrounding.

Yet, what I liked best was that fact that when I was sure to have sorted out everything, I had to learn that I was downright wrong with my assumptions. Really some unexpected turns and connections – masterly done! Nevertheless, it all adds up and makes completely sense, looking at the plot again from the end, you see how you misinterpreted signs and easily were deceived by the author. Brilliantly done and well written, one of those books that you hate to finish.

Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

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Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

Catherine Simpson’s memoir is not a book easy to review. First of all, it is of course non-fictional, second, it is a very personal report on a sister’s emotions and thoughts after her younger sibling committed suicide. This makes it difficult to use phrases like “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” since they simply don’t work here. It is also somehow out of question to discuss the tone of writing as while reading it, I had the impression that it was much more written for Simpson herself than necessarily for a reader. It seemed to me to be her way of coping with the situation and sorting out her thoughts and feelings.

I appreciated her openness in sharing her sometimes contradictory emotions, in not embellishing her own role in her sister’s life. She presents episodes where she was nasty as a kid or where she simply did not pay enough attention to Tricia’s needs. This surely is not easy to talk about. But this is exactly the point she is making: in their family, they never talked. The girls were taught to be silent, not to ask too many questions and best not to be seen at all. They did not have a poor childhood, they had good times and fun on the farm, too, but the family’s way of coping with emotions certainly played a role in the development of Tricia’s illness and final suicide.

The book definitely gives a good insight in living with depression and how the loved ones who are left behind after someone chose to end his or her life feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more. I don’t think there is much you can actually do to protect and help people with serious mental health issues, but you can certainly work on talking more with the people around you.

Simon Lelic – The House

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Simon Lelic – The House

Finding a house in London is more or less impossible; therefore, Sydney and Jack are happy when they finally get one. It is not what they have dreamt of, but, with the time, they became realistic about what is possible and accepted the offer. Soon after they move in, strange things start to happen and they become more and more alert: is the house haunted or is somebody playing tricks on them? Is it because they interfered with the neighbour? His daughter confided herself in Sydney and awoke bad memories in her: just like Betsi, Sydney was suffering under her father’s temper and violence throughout her childhood. Unable to find help, she ran away at the age of 14 and left her younger sister with the situation at home alone. A bad conscience makes Sydney support the young neighbour, but obviously, her father is going to stop this. Or is the threat coming from somewhere completely different? No matter what is behind, soon Sydney and Jack find themselves in danger and even start losing faith in each other.

Simon Lelic’s novel starts a bit as a surprise, it’s not the typical third person narrator we have, but a kind of diary entries or letters that the two protagonists write to each other. So we have Jack’s and Sydney’s perspective in alternation which makes it quite lively and authentic, especially since you get the impression of the highly stressful situation they are in and which has gone out of control. The way they write reflects their emotional state, it is repetitive, not well organised and thought through but rather like a stream of consciousness just coming out of their mouth.

The plot itself has many surprises to offer, at first you are with the protagonists, not knowing what is happening and always trying to make sense of what they write. Then, slowly, you realise that Sydney and Jack have hidden some useful and important information from you, too, and you start getting sceptical about actually trusting them. As the novel moves on, you have to adjust your idea of the characters and the action again and again which I liked a lot since you could never feel absolutely secure about it.

 

“The House” really deserves the label “thriller”. Quite often, you feel a cold shiver running down your spine when again something strange happens in the house. The characters’ actions are all credibly motivated and the plot itself is convincingly constructed. The strongest aspect for me was the psychological construction behind the story; knowing what Sydney went through, you can understand her reaction when she finds out about Betsi’s life at home. But also Sydney’s mother – even though she is a rather tragic figure – can be understood in her way of behaving. So, the novel is not just playing on your nerves with a thrilling plot, but also offer some insight in emotionally induced actions and decisions.