Mick Herron – Slow Horses

Mick Herron – Slow Horses

Slough House, das Abschiebegleis der Geheimdienste. In diesem unscheinbaren Haus sammeln sich all diejenigen, die ihren Vorgesetzen auf die Füße getreten sind, wie der Abteilungsleiter Jackson Lamb, oder die eine Operation grandios vermasselt haben, wie River Cartwright. Wobei sich letzterer sicher ist, dass er von seinem Ex-Kollegen reingelegt wurde, damit dieser karrieretechnisch freie Fahrt hat. Als ein pakistanischer Junge entführt wird und die Geiselnehmer drohen, ihm innerhalb von 48 Stunden den Kopf abzuschneiden, um Rache an den Attentaten zu nehmen, die Islamisten im Königreich verübt haben, bleibt das Team zunächst unbeteiligt. Mit solchen Fällen haben sie nichts mehr zu tun. Jackson Lamb war immer ein unbequemer Agent, aber einer der besten und er kommt mit seinen Slow Horses, wie man seine Mitarbeiter scherzhaft wegen ihres Arbeitsplatzes und ihrer Vergangenheit getauft hat, schnell darauf, dass hinter dem inzwischen angelaufenen Medienspektakel eine unglaubliche Verschwörung steckt.

Mick Herrons Spionagethriller „Slow Horses“ ist der erste Band der Serie um Jackson Lamb, die inzwischen bereits aus sieben Bänden besteht. Sie gilt als die aktuell stärkste Agentenserie Großbritanniens und „Slow Horses“ war unter anderem für den Steel Dagger Award nominiert, den Herron dann mit dem zweiten Band „Dead Lions“ auch gewann.

Der Thriller beginnt rasant mitten in einem Einsatz, der jedoch sensationell scheitert und River Cartwright in das Slough Hosue befördert. Slough – das Sumpfloch – macht seinem Namen alle Ehre, betrachtet man die Vorgeschichten der dorthin versetzten MI5 Agenten; überhaupt sind die Namen von Herron hervorragend gewählt: Lamb, das unscheinbare Lamm, das zur Schlachtbank geführt und geopfert werden soll; James Webb, genannt Spider, der am Regent’s Park sein Netzt spinnt, um seine Karriere voranzutreiben; Standish, die keineswegs nur Garnitur ist und die zu unterschätzen ein böser Fehler wäre.

Herron gelingt es vor allem durch das Agieren seiner Figuren einen guten Eindruck nicht nur ihrer grenzwertigen psychischen Verfassung, sondern auch der Lage beim MI5 zu vermitteln. Er muss nicht langatmig beschreiben, sondern zeigt implizit, was schief läuft und wo sich der eigentliche Sumpf befindet. Seine Serie wurde schnell mit jener um George Smiley verglichen, die den Dienst auch so manches Mal eher zweifelhaft aussehen ließ. Der Fall wird sehr clever aufgebaut, man weiß schnell, was im Zentrum der Ermittlungen stehen wird, aber die Rolle, die die Slow Horses darin haben werden, bleibt zunächst unklar. Insgesamt lebt der Roman hauptsächlich von den eigenwilligen Figuren, die Herron interessant und überzeugend geschaffen hat und die mit viel Cleverness, aber ohne Zufälle, die Verschwörung aufdecken. Ein überzeugender Auftakt, der auch in den weitern Bänden viel Spannung verspricht.

Michael Donkor – Hold

Michael Donkor – Hold

Belinda knows her place in the world, when her father cannot pay for her anymore, her mother sends her away to work in the household of people she calls Aunt and Uncle in accordance with Ghanaian customs. She is not the only maid there, also 11-year-old Mary works for them and quickly becomes something like a sister Belinda never had. When Belinda is sent to England to take care of Amma, a girl her own age, the two have to part which isn’t easy for either of them. Yet, they manage to stay in contact over the thousands of kilometres that now separate them. Mary wants to know everything about Belinda’s posh life in London, but the older sister cannot tell everything that she experiences in England. Her role is different now which is hard to get used to and people behave in a different way. She misses her home town, but also sees the chance that she is given since she can go back to school and study. When a tragic incident calls her back to Africa, Belinda realises that only a couple of months were enough to change her completely.

Michael Donkor was born in England to a Ghanaian household and trained as an English teacher and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He was selected as a “New Face in Fiction” by The Observer in January 2018. “Hold” is his debut novel in which also autobiographical elements can be found even though his protagonist is female and he has lived all his life in the UK.

What I liked about the novel were the different perspectives on life that you get and the difficulties that living between different cultures can mean for you personally but also for the people around you. First of all, I hardly know anything about Ghana so the beginning of the novel when we meet Mary and Belinda, young girls who work full time as maids, gives a short glance at what life in other parts of the world might be. They were not treated especially bad, quite the contrary, but the fact that the lack of money in their family leads to giving up education is something which is far away from our world in Europe.

Most interesting also Belinda’s arrival in London and her awareness of being different. She has brown skin, but this is different from the Asian brown of the Indians or the skin of the girls from Jamaica. It is those slight differences that are of course seen by the members of those groups at the margin but often neglected by the majority society. Even though she shares the same cultural background with Amma, the two girls could hardly be more distinct. The most obvious is their sexual orientation where Belinda sticks to a romantic understanding of love and where Amma has her coming-out as homosexual. Belinda can easily adapt to a lot of things, but this clearly transgresses a line that she will not cross. The girls’ friendship is nothing that comes easy for both of them, but it splendid how Donkor developed it throughout the novel.

Without a doubt, Michael Donkor is a great new voice among the British writers who themselves have made the experience of belonging – but not completely, of being trapped between cultures and having to find their identity while growing up.

Karen Perry – Your Closest Friend

Karen Perry – Your Closest Friend

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

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

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

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

Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

caroline-odonogue - promising-young-women
Caroline O’Donoghue – Promising Young Women

Jane Peters is a 16-year-old women working in marketing. She mainly does secretarial tasks, nothing too demanding and far from the fancy marketing stuff she had expected. It is her private website where she provides advice as agony aunt “Jolly Politely” that keeps her mood up since she spilt with her boyfriend. When she attracts the attention of her boss Clem, an unexpected chance opens up and she can win a new and important customer for her company. Yet, Clem is not only interested in her professionally and thus an uncontrollable spiral of dependence is set in motion.

Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel promised a new side of the old man-woman, power-dependence topic with a witty and strong minded female protagonist who is capable of breaking through old walls and securing herself a place in a man’s world. However, this isn’t what I found in the novel and admittedly I am a bit disappointed.

First if all, the characters are full of clichés and quite foreseeable. Jane as well as her colleagues are rather naive and slightly stupid when it comes to relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Why don’t they see the obvious thing in front of them and why are they eagerly abused? That you are not full of self-confidence when you are young and new in the job and quickly impressed by male conduct is understandable, but running into the trap in front of you isn’t necessary either. Likewise, the male characters are also rather one-dimensional and predictable in their behaviour.

Thus, the whole story becomes a bit stereotypical and lacks individuality and originality. What I could expect from a really important and ground-breaking novel would also be a completely different ending, this was a quite disappointing, the message cannot actually be to look out for a more female adequate job where you don’t meet those bullying men.

The style of writing, however, is something I really liked, it is funny and often amusing and full of puns. Caroline O’Donoghue is witty and creative and the light-heartedness with which Jane comments on the postings on her website are not just funny but also very clever and true. Sadly, she herself does not act accordingly. All in all, there was more in the story from a feminist point of view, as it is, it is somehow nice, but without the impact it might have had.

Anita Brookner – Ein Start ins Leben

Anita Brookner – Ein Start ins Leben

Wenn doch das Leben nur so einfach wäre wie die Literatur – aber so sind die Dinge nun einmal nicht für Ruth Weiss. Ihre Mutter trauert immer noch der Schauspielkarriere nach, die sie aus Altergründen unfreiwillig aufgeben musste, der Vater war Buchhändler, hat sich aber auch zurückgezogen und Ruths ehemaliges Kindermädchen lässt sich auch eher durchfüttern als im Haushalt etwas zu erledigen. Doch trotz dieser aberwitzigen Familienverhältnisse gelingt es Ruth nicht, sich freizuschwimmen, ihre Männerbekanntschaften sind alle zum Scheitern verurteilt und auch ein halbherzig versuchter Umzug in eine eigene Wohnung gibt sie bald wieder auf. Nur der bereits lange gehegte Traum sich in Paris niederzulassen und die Lebensorte ihrer literarischen Heldinnen selbst zu erleben, erscheint ihr die Möglichkeit, endlich ihr eigenes Leben in Angriff zu nehmen.

Anita Brookners Roman ist bereits 1981 erschienen und gilt als eines der Hauptwerke der 2016 verstorbenen Autorin. Sie war die erste Frau, die die Position des Slade Professor of Fine Art an der Universität von Cambridge innehatte. Schon ihr Debut behandelt die zentralen Themen der Autorin: die emotionalen Schwierigkeiten von intellektuellen Frauen den gesellschaftlichen Erwartungen zu entsprechen und mit den Enttäuschungen im Liebesleben zurechtzukommen.

Genau hierunter leidet auch die Protagonistin Ruth. Letztlich akademisch erfolgreich bleibt ihr Privatleben doch eine Art offene Wunde, die völlige Zufriedenheit verhindert und sie immer wieder schmerzlich an ihr Versagen erinnert. Sie denkt zurück an ihre Kindheit und Jugend, das prägende Elternhaus und die ersten Liebesbeziehungen, die allesamt im Desaster endeten.

Ruth wird dabei immer wieder an ihrer literarischen Lieblingsfigur Eugénie Grandet gespiegelt, die ebenfalls in einem lieblosen Elternhaus aufwächst und die Erfahrung macht als Tochter nur Mittel zum Zweck zu sein und die Erwartungen der Eltern erfüllen zu müssen. Zwar erkennt Ruth irgendwann, dass die Tugendhaftigkeit der Balzac’chen Frauen sie im Leben auch nicht weiterbringt und dennoch endet sie sehr vergleichbar mit Eugénie in einer lieblosen Ehe, die noch dazu von kurzer Dauer ist.

Es ist faszinierend zu sehen, wie die Autorin einerseits eine klassische Geschichte einer jungen Frau erzählt, die in ähnlicher Weise auch im 18. oder 19. Jahrhundert hätte stattfinden können, und zugleich eine Frau mit modernen Ansprüchen zeigt, die 1981 ihrer Zeit schon voraus war. Dabei verleiht die ausdrucksstarke Sprache der Geschichte ein besonderes Gewicht; der bisweilen lakonische Stil, der wiederum auf den Punkt sitzt und Mitten ins Schwarze trifft, zeigt sich schon im ersten Satz, dem literarisch bekanntermaßen eine Schlüsselrolle zukommt und der bei großen Werken schon die ganze Dramatik des im folgenden dargebotenen Dramas in sich konzentriert:

„Im Alter von vierzig Jahren wurde Dr. Weiss klar, dass die Literatur ihr Leben ruiniert hatte.“

Dass dieser Roman erst jetzt in deutscher Übersetzung erscheint, ist eigentlich nicht zu glauben, ebenso, dass diese wunderbare Autorin fast in Vergessenheit geraten ist, der mit unglaublicher Leichtigkeit eine tragische und zugleich komische Geschichte gelungen ist.

Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

Rachel and Nathaniel were still teenagers when immediately after WW II their parents packed to leave the country. The kids were supposed to attend boarding school after summer break, but only a few days after the school had begun again, they left and went completely to live with a man they named „The Moth“ who was supposed to be their caretaker while the parents were away. Even though they at first felt left behind, it was a time of freedom and carelessness, the house often full of interesting and mysterious people and both, Nathaniel and Rachel, became somehow used to the situation. When their mother suddenly showed up again, they understood that things were not what they had thought them to be. It was only after their mother’s death, when Nathaniel is approached by special operations, that he gains insight in who his mother had actually been.

“Warlight” – during the time of the second world war, when there were frequent blackouts in London, there was only the so called “Warlight”, dimmed lights to guide emergency traffic, the rest was covered in black and you could only sense movements in the shadow but not see them. This is the perfect title for Michael Ondaatje’s novel: a lot of what happens remains somewhere in the dark for the protagonist to see. He can only assume things from the quick glances he is granted, but he cannot be sure if his hypotheses are correct. It also represents quite well the atmosphere which is always a bit gloomy and melancholy and certainly never joyful.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader just as the protagonist and narrator is quite irritated by the parents’ behaviour. They leave the country, neither telling their children where exactly they are headed too or why after all they have to leave. The teenagers stay with people they hardly know and not to forget: the war has just ended and the memories of the bombings are still fresh. How could ever parents do such a thing? It becomes even more infuriating when they find their mother’s luggage which she obviously didn’t take with her. It takes some time to figure out the mother’s real role and thus to understand her behaviour. This is also when the novel becomes the most interesting.

This is also where Michael Ondaatje’s virtuosity becomes evident: none of the characters, no matter how random he or she seemed, was introduced without a reason and they all have their specific role in the novel. It all makes sense and culminates in much greater questions than the nucleus of a single family we are presented with at first can ever offer: how far would you go for your country? What are you willing to sacrifice? And it clearly shows that the two categories of “good” and “bad” are simply inadequate for the world we are living in.

Ruth Rendell – Dark Corners

Ruth Rendell – Dark Corners

Nachdem Carl Martin, ein junger Autor, von seinem Vater ein Haus in London geerbt hat, findet er in dessen Nachlass eine Reihe von mysteriösen homöopathischen Pillen und Tinkturen. Er will sie entsorgen, aber wie das Leben so spielt, vergisst er sie. Aus Geldnot und weil der Wohnungsmarkt lukrativ ist, vermietet Carl die Räume im Obergeschoss. Da er keine Lust auf lange Interviews hat, erhält der erste Interessent den Zuschlag: Dermot McKinnon. Als eine Freundin ihn zufällig um Rat bzgl. einer Diät bittet, fallen Carl die Pillen wieder ein, eine Sorte war seiner Erinnerung nach auch zur Gewichtsreduktion geeignet. Das Angebot, ihm diese abzukaufen, nimmt Carl gerne an. Am nächsten Morgen wird die Freundin jedoch tot in ihrer Wohnung aufgefunden, offenbar sind die Tabletten Schuld an ihrem Ableben. Carl macht sich Vorwürfe, doch damit nicht genug: sein Untermieter hatte den Deal zufällig belauscht und droht nun zur Polizei und zur Presse zu gehen und Carl als Mörder zu entlarven. Die grausame Spirale ist in Gang gesetzt und Carl sieht sich gefangen in einer Situation, aus der es scheinbar keinen Ausweg gibt.

Ruth Rendell, die auch unter dem Pseudonym Barbara Vine schrieb, hat die Veröffentlichung ihres letzten Romans „Dark Corners“ nicht mehr miterlebt. Mit weit über 60 Romanen zählt sie nicht nur zu einer der eifrigsten, sondern auch der erfolgreichsten Krimi- und Thrillerautoren Großbritanniens. Mehrfach erhielt sie den Gold Dagger Award für den besten Krimi des Jahres.

Ihr letztes Werk bleibt jedoch weit hinter den zugegebenermaßen hohen Erwartungen zurück. Was ihr sehr gut gelungen ist, ist die psychische Anspannung, unter der Carl durch die Drohungen seines Untermieters steht, zu transportieren. Das ungute Gefühl, die unmittelbare Bedrohung sind durch die ganze Geschichte hindurch zu spüren. Es kriecht unter die Haut und setzt sich dort fest, sehnsüchtig wartet man auf die Erlösung. Bevor diese jedoch endlich kommt, muss man es mit den leider sehr eindimensionalen Charakteren aushalten. Weder Carl noch sein Untermieter oder ihre jeweiligen Lebensgefährtinnen können überzeugen, von dümmlich bis einfältig, von passiv bis einfallslos – sie sind einfach sehr schwer zu ertragen und wirken unausgereift. Auch die Lösung seiner Probleme, die Carl findet, scheinen mir zu konstruiert, um sie wirklich als authentisch anzusehen und sie passen in keiner Weise zu der Anlage der Figur.

Alles in allem hat der Roman durchaus Potenzial, das er jedoch leider nicht ausschöpft.

Rebecca Fleet – The House Swap

Rebecca Fleet – The House Swap

After the hard time they have gone through in their relationship, Caroline and Francis need a vacation, best without their son Eddie. A house swap seems to be a good idea so they leave Leeds for a week in the suburbs of London. Somehow the house is strange, it looks like nobody actually lives in there, it is absolutely impersonal, almost clinical. But the woman seemed to be nice enough to let her into their own apartment. When Caroline receives a strange message on her cell phone, she is alarmed: did something awake the ghosts of the past? Did her ex affair Carl get in contact again? And who is this strange neighbour Amber who seems to observe them and behaves in a very strange way when she comes to visit them late in the evening. Caroline can sense the danger but she doesn’t know where it is really coming from…

The novel starts at quite some low pace and admittedly I was a bit annoyed because I couldn’t make sense of a lot of things at the beginning. It was obvious that Francis and Caroline had some problems in the past, she had an affair with a colleague, he was addicted to pills, but since this had happened obviously two years before, I didn’t quite understand the relevance of all this for the house swap. And there was this voice talking to Caroline, but it was not clear where it was coming from. I do not really like to be in the dark and not understanding anything.

However, the further you get in the novel and the more you understand, the more thrill you feel and the better the plot gets. Of course you are supposed to run in the completely wrong direction with the assumptions of what is behind all this – eagerly I did – just to learn then that it is not only much more complicated, very cleverly constructed, and also a lot more dangerous for the characters than you would have assumed.

“The House Swap” is a fantastic thriller as soon as you get over the first few pages. It can surprise and offers an especially interesting psychological aspect which is only revealed towards the end.

Heather Child – Everything about you

Heather Child – Everything about you

21-year-old Freya is not very happy with her life as it is: she is still living together with her ex-boyfriend Julian, her job just serves to earn money but is not actually promising a career and she still misses Judy who first was a friend and then moved in with Freya and her mother and became something like a real sister. When Julian is not interested in the latest technological device from his father, Freya accepts to use the high-tech personal assistant. Since she is still longing for Ruby who went missing without any trace, the assistant is modelled according to the young woman’s features: it can copy her voice, react just like Judy reacted and knows everything about Freya and Ruby. Can this virtual version of her sister also lead to the one in flesh and bone?

Since technology becomes more and more present in our everyday life and since we rely increasingly on our smart phones to do the thinking for us, the idea of this futuristic personal assistant was quite intriguing. Especially since we tend to ignore the negative side effects of handing over more and more data to these uncontrollable technical devices.

However, the novel did not hold up to the high expectations. I liked Freya’s first steps with her new assistant; her incredulously questioning where this machine got all the information from and how she slowly loses control over her life were portrayed in a really authentic way that is easy to imagine in the very near future. Then, however, the more the plot progresses and the more the whole story becomes a kind of computer game in a virtual reality environment, it was a bit too much for me. I am all but into computer games and not at all interested in any virtual realities where completely different rules apply and the unthinkable is possible.  Thus, the moment we lost the track of reality I was more or less out. This might work better for those readers who are really into VR.

All in all, an interesting concept, yet a bit too unrealistic for my liking.

Aminatta Forna – Happiness

Aminatta Forna – Happiness

They meet by accident, but somehow they have known each other forever. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, has come to London to give a speech at a conference. He is a specialist in post-traumatic stress and has seen the worst the world has to offer. But this is not the only thing he has to do there. First of all, he has to find the daughter of some of his friends who hasn’t called for a couple of days and who, together with her son, seems to be missing. Another thing task waiting for him is to visit Rosie, his former colleague and lover. She is in a home, not aware of the world anymore, waiting for her life to come to an end. While Attila is occupied with the humans around him, the American biologist Jean cares a lot more for the animals. Especially foxes around town. She is fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to kill them all and do not understand that this is not how things work with wild animals.

Aminatta Forna’s novel has a title which could hardly fit better: “Happiness”. The whole story is about happiness and the question what you need in life to be happy and what happiness means after all. But maybe it is not happiness that we are looking for, but rather – as one of the characters puts it – hope. Without hope, there is not future, but you can have a whole lot of future without happiness.

Both Jean and Attila are most interesting characters in their very own ways. The author has done a great job in creating them and in opposing them, their view of the world and the way they approach life. They have some similarities, too, their principles and beliefs and the fight for what they believe is the right thing – it is not easily nowadays to find people with such strong convictions.

Yet, what I loved most about the novel were the really poetic ways of unobtrusively talking about life and love in a philosophical way. She captures the fragility of love and our existence in a way that is hard to excel. I really fell for the language in this novel and was waiting eagerly to find more of those passing comments that capture so much truth in this unassuming, shy way:

The reckless open their arms and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.

It is a bittersweet story, full of love and loss, life and death. And certainly one of the most remarkable novels of this spring.