J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

After becoming mother for the first time, journalist and author Elizabeth agrees with her husband’s wish to leave busy New York for a quieter place closer to his parents. Yet, the new life does not really seem to fit to Elizabeth. She feels exhausted from the baby and finds it difficult to make friends in her new community, the other women seem to be happy with dull pseudo-occupations and spend their days gossiping. When she decides to hire a babysitter to gain some tome to work on her next novel, things change finally since she immediately bonds with Sam, an art student in her final year at the local college. Sam herself comes from a decent background and is fascinated by the woman who seems to get everything done easily, who has style and taste and has made an astonishing career. Despite the age gap they become friends, but there are things they just ignore which, however, become more and more apparent the better they get to know each other and when they need each other most, a gap opens which is unsurmountable.

I totally liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel from the start. Sympathising with Elizabeth was easy since I can imagine a lot but not leaving a big town to become a full-time mother and spend my day with gossiping neighbours. Sam, too, was easy to like, still young and unsecure but with a good heart and totally in love with her British not-so-boyish-anymore boyfriend. From the start, it is a challenge between two characters who actually like each other but where there is an imbalance in power in several areas which puts at time Elizabeth, at times Sam in a better situation.

The author explores a lot of aspects in her novel which give you food for thought. First of all, Elizabeth’s move to a small town which does not offer much. Also her struggle with being a mother is something a lot of women surely can emphasize with. Quite interesting also the dynamics between her and her husband who cannot really cope with a more successful wife on the one hand, on the other he is relying on her financial situation to realize his own dream. Elizabeth looks down on him since he has never really accomplished anything in professional ways – not a good basis for a new start in a new place.

Sam lives the typical student life, yet, her fellow students all come from rich families and can afford things she can only dream of. She manages to live in both worlds, but feels often closer to the women in the cafeteria kitchen she works with than with the girls she shares the dorm. Her relationship with Clive is mysterious form the start, yet, totally in love, she forgets to question his behaviour and falls prey to him. She is still young and simply makes mistakes young people make.

Both characters as well as the plot have a lot to offer, yet, at times I found the backstories a bit too long, a bit too detailed since they always slowed down the main action. Nevertheless, a wonderful read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

When the unnamed narrator seizes the chance to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone – which he normally does not let out of his sight – she discovers that he has a large Instagram account on which he spreads conspiracy theories. She is confused but admittedly, she was already thinking about splitting up and now she’s got a good reason. However, her plan – telling him after returning from the women’s march against Trump – fails totally because when she’s still in Washington, his mother informs her of his fatal bike accident. Even though she already was detached emotionally, this hits her hard and literally throws her out of her life. She quits her job and travels to Berlin, the city where they first met and where she hopes to find out what she expects from life and what she actually wants to do professionally.

Lauren Oyler’s novel is a portrait of a somehow lost generation who lives a double life: one in the real world, where many of them are lost and orbiting around aimlessly, and one in the online world, where they can create an idea of themselves, a person they would like to be and play a role according to their likes. Yet, the more followers they generate, the more narcissistic they become and inevitably, the fake life in the world-wide web has an impact on reality, too. Slowly, they also start to create fake personalities there and increasingly lack the necessary authenticity and sincerity it needs to have serious relationship with others.

The narrator lives such a life in both spheres at the same time, her job involves roaming the net for good stories she can re-use and pimp for the magazine she works at. After leaving her old life behind and moving to Europe, she does not even start to create a new life in Berlin, neither does she try to learn German nor does she really make acquaintances. She dates people she gets to know online simply to tell each one a different story about who she is – she successfully transfers the possibility of a fake online account into real life. However, this does not make her any happier.

In a certain way, this is funny and ironic since it is so much over the top that it cannot be real. But is it really? Are people still able to make a distinction between the two? And which consequences does this have for us? We are all aware of how photos can be photoshopped, how information online can be embellished or simply wrong and we pay attention when we are approached by someone online whom we don’t know. In real life however, don’t we expect that people tell us the truth at least to a certain extent? And especially in a relationship, aren’t sincerity and truthfulness necessary foundations to build trust in each other?

An interesting study in how far our online behaviour may fire back – not something we can really wish for. Even though the tone is light and often funny, is leaves you somehow with a bad aftertaste.

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Saskia and Jenny are twins but only equal in looks, their personalities could hardly differ more. Where Saskia is diligent and studious, Jenny enjoys life at the fullest and is always looking for some more thrill. Only a car accident in which she is seriously injured can put an end to her posh and impulsive lifestyle and brings the sisters back together. Mattie and Sara are sisters, too, the first with an intellectual disability, the second striving for academic success and the life she knows from stylish magazines. The latter sister pair, too, moves apart only to be forced together by fate again. Looking for reasons behind the tragic events, Saskia and Sara recognise that there is an unexpected link between them which goes far beyond the parallels of their sisterhoods.

I totally adored the first half on Annabel Lyon’s novel. Showing four young women emancipating themselves, developing personalities and ideas of who they want to be and how they want to live their life was wonderful to read. Even though the parallels show quite from the start, they are two quite unique sets of siblings which do have complicated but nevertheless deep bonds. Especially when Saskia and Sara come to the critical points in their sisters’ lives, they themselves are hit to the core, too, and have to make far-going decisions which also deeply impact their own lives. Throughout the novel, we see a great elaboration of characters with very authentic nuances and facets.

The second half did not convince me that much which, I assume, was mainly due to the fact that the central aspect of the relationships between the sisters was lost by then. Even though here the link between the two pairs was established and some secrets revealed, I found it lacked a bit of depths.

I found the title quite interestingly chosen, very often, “consent” is immediately associated with relationships and intercourse, but in the novel, however, also other aspects, e.g. to what extent the sisters approve of each other’s choices and decisions is explored. Especially Saskia investigates her sister’s life and by walking in her shoes, detects new sides of herself.

Emily Houghton – Before I Saw You

Emily Houghton – Before I Saw You

After a fire at her work place seriously injured her, Alice finds herself in St Francis’s Hospital in a very poor state. She does not even want to look in the mirror for fear of what she might see, and she definitely does not want others to see the monster she has become. Thus, the patients in her ward have to live with the voice coming from behind the drawn curtains. At first, she refuses contact but over the time she realises that old Mr Petersen and especially Alfie Mack next to her are likable people who make staying in hospital a lot more acceptable. Alfie is the good soul of their small community, always funny and entertaining, spreading warmth and hope. At night, however, he is haunted by the accident which made him lose his leg and all the negative emotions he pushes back during daylight. Slowly, the two of them bond, yet, without ever seeing each other.

Emily Houghton tells the story of two people who have to go through a very hard time: the lives they had have ceased to exist from one second to the next and now, they find themselves in a kind of void between before and after. Quite naturally, sharing the similar experiences makes them bond easily, on the other hand, how can you open up to another person and make new friends or even more when you haven’t come to grips with your own situation, yet? The author gives her characters the time they need to adjust and to stretch out a hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Even though there is a lot of sadness due to the accidents the characters had to go through and the hardship they have to endure while healing, the plot is full of love and care which makes you believe in the good in mankind and – of course – in love. Beautifully narrated by highlighting the anxieties and thoughts Alice and Alfie go through which again and again keep them from doing what should be done but which is simply a hurdle too high to take at that moment. What I liked most was the fact that Alice and Alfie fell in love other without seeing each other, they can surely say that it is the character that counts and which attracted them.

A heart-warming story providing hope and confidence when life seems to be too hard to endure.

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.

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.

What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.

The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.

I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.

Ali Smith – Spring

ali smith spring
Ali Smith – Spring

Just as the years moves on so does Ali Smith with the third volume of her seasonal quartet. Now, its spring time, the time of the year between death and re-birth, between the end and a new beginning. A promising time, but also a time which can surprise and is hard to foresee. This time, we meet Richard, an elderly filmmaker who is still shaken by his former colleague and friend Patricia Heal’s death. He remembers his last visits when she was already between here and there. Richard is standing on a train platform with clearly suicidal intentions when a girl and a custody officer rush by. Florence and Brittany are headed for a place which they assume somewhere in Scotland, on their journey this unusual couple also addresses the big questions of life and humanity which Brittany can hardly find in the prison she works where the detainees are dehumanised and not even granted the least bit of privacy.

Just like the two novels before in this quartet, Ali Smith captures the mood of the country at a very critical point. In my opinion, “Spring” is absolutely outstanding since it has several layers of narrative, it is philosophical, literary, sociological, psychological, political – an eclectic mix of thoughts and notions that come together or rather have to be put together by the reader. While, on the one hand, being were close to an archaic understanding of the concept of time and the natural course of a year, there are many references to artists and the imaginary world.

Underlying the whole novel is a certain despair – Richard’s grieve, Britt’s disillusion with her job, Florence’s detachedness from humans which makes her almost invisible – in a time of political shaky times: Brexit, migration crisis, an overall suspicion in society about what (social) media and politics tell them and more importantly what they do not tell. Will there come a summer?  And if so, what will it be like? As spring always is a new beginning, something might be overcome or left behind and something has the chance to flourish, at least the hope remains.

I found it a bit harder this time to find my way in the novel, therefore, “Autumn” remains my favourite so far and I am quite impatient to see, what “Summer” will bring.

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.

Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

anne tyler redhead by the side of the road
Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

Everything in Micah Mortimer’s life is in the best order imaginable. He has developed his routines of the house chores, of running every morning at exactly the same time before having a shower and eating breakfast. His company “Tech Hermit” provides enough for himself to survive and he is independent in every way. But then one day, his life somehow runs out of control. First, an 18-year-old boy shows up at his door claiming to be his son and then, his girlfriend Cass leaves him unexpectedly. He is not well equipped to deal with this interruption of his routines and certainly not when everybody suddenly seems to be meddling with his love life.

Anne Tyler is a wonderful narrator and thus, also in her most recent novel I got exactly what I had expected. “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is the story of a very peculiar man who seems somehow to go unnoticed when you cross him in the street, who is totally reliable, but also quite predictable. In his Baltimore apartment block, he takes care of everything that needs to be tended to and he seems to be totally ok with his life as he has established it. He shows little interest in matters outside his cocoon and would go on in this way forever if he weren’t interrupted. The author shows that crucial moment, when suddenly everything is put to a test, is questioned and what seems to be perfectly fine turns out to be quite the opposite. He is confronted with the decisions he has made, has to take others’ perspectives and question himself and his habits.

Micah’s obsession with tidiness and order is well explained by the contrast with his chaotic sisters. What the reader sees immediately is that not only are they quite messy and tumultuous in certain ways, but they also seem to be alive. In comparison, Micah is well organised but somehow also lifeless. Nevertheless, they love and support him and would like him to have a fulfilled partnership, their teasing is their way of showing fondness, however, he is not yet at the point of recognising this. It needs another confrontation with his past to fully understand what goes wrong.

He is not a character you immediately sympathise with, but I adored his direct and somehow naive way of addressing people, especially when Brink appears and maybe it is exactly this somehow innocent straightforwardness that makes the boy open up to him.

It is not a novel that goes totally deep with hidden meanings and messages, but without any doubt, it advocates for those nondescript, unimposing characters who have to say much more than you’d expect and it also holds the mirror up to the reader to question what is important in life, where to set the priorities and most of all, to ask yourself if you’re really happy. A moving story that I totally adored to read.

John Marrs – The Passengers

john-marrs-the-passengers
John Marrs – The Passengers

“Who in their right mind would want to send someone to their death?”

Cadman read the tablet he held

“Approximately two hundred thousand people so far – and that’s based only on what’s trending on Twitter.”

When mental nurse Libby is called into a jury to decide on accidents caused by self-drive cars, she is astonished since she never kept her position on those a secret. Having witnessed an evil crash, she is absolutely against handing over control to AI. But she never expected the outcome of her jury session, nobody in there would ever have expected this. Soon after they started, the system is taken over by a Hacker claiming to have taken over eight self-drive cars and threatening to have them collide in two and a half hours. The jury has the chance to save one of them, should they not comply with his rules, he would immediately kill one after the other. But not only the jury would be there to judge, also the world outside could be part of the show and have their vote via social media. It’s the show of the year and the prize is high: it’s your life and you aren’t even asked if you want to take part in it.

John Marrs’ thriller really caught me by surprise and left a deep impression. Not only is the story masterly crafted with many unexpected twists and turns, no, it also mirrors our own behaviour in many different ways thus making you flinch at times because you recognise yourself and feel ashamed soon after. It surely is an absolute must-read for everybody using any kind of technology.

I hardly know where to begin with this novel. There are so many topics and layers that don’t make it easy to find a beginning. First of all, the setting of this evil game. Forcing people to make a decision over life and death is not just unfair, it is impossible. Yet, given no other way out, the jury has to come to a decision based on the information they have and only later do they find out that core aspects have been omitted which cast a completely different light on the person they have just sentenced to death. As a reader, you follow their verdict and often agree – running into the open knife just like they did. All passengers have something evil they hide, but the world isn’t simply black and white and only the whole picture provides you with what you would have needed to know before coming to a final decision. Too often we come to a conclusion fat too soon before we know all we should.

Second, the role of technology in our life surely should be questioned a lot more. The self-drive cars could definitely help to ease the situation in frequently gridlocked cities, on the other hand: what’s the price we pay for this? Providing more from the novel would spoil the fun, but as could be assumed, there is much more behind that we undeniably should think about before welcoming all technological advances. Also the role of social media should be seen a lot more critical than we do at the moment. Marrs goes so far as to give Twitter a vote – without anybody knowing who or what is behind it.

The protagonists also are very interesting in their own ways. Not just Libby, but also the passengers and of course Jack Larsson, the minister, are carefully drawn and offer a lot questionable traits of character.

I am totally flashed by this ambitious novel for which I am actually lacking the words to honour it.