Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

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Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

The narrator finds himself in a surrounding which differs a lot from his life before, he roams the streets of Sofia discovering and re-discovering old and mysterious places, being lost physically and emotionally. The political and economic situation aren’t easy either which makes it hard for him to fully enjoy his time in this country of wild nature and rich history.

Greenwell definitely has an eye for the details, e.g. the wind playing outside or hitting the windows and smoothly running over his characters’ backs and brilliantly captures his protagonist’s emotional state. Even though the chapters are often like independent episodes, together they form a complete picture. Just like them, all the narrator experiences are pieces of a mosaic that are unique when look at closely, but you have to take a step back to get the full picture.

Some very interesting observations put in a beautiful language, yet, the mass of explicit scenes annoyed me a bit, a lot of it could have been left to the readers’ imagination.

Catherine Chung – The Tenth Muse

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Catherine Chung – The Tenth Muse

“What terrible things we do in the name of love.”

Katherine grows up a very special girl. Her father introduces her to natural sciences and she is fascinated by numbers from her childhood. When her mother leaves them unexpectedly, the bond between father and daughter becomes even closer. Stubborn as she is, she wants to study mathematics knowing that the time hasn’t yet come for women to enter university and compete with men in the 1950s. But which other way could she possibly choose? She is obsessed with the Riemann hypothesis and determined to solved the greatest riddle of her time. Her stubbornness does not prevent her from being hurt, from learning the hard way that only because you are talented and eager, you do not necessarily get what you want.

Even though Catherine Chung’s novel is set in the 1950s, there is so much also today intelligent young women experience when it comes to the intellectual ivory tower. Men are still considered made in god’s image and thus by nature more capable, cleverer and more talented that any woman could ever be. Well, that’s their interpretation. I found it easy to bond with the striving protagonist and, unfortunately, only could commiserate too easily with what she feels when being deceived and her intellect ignored over and over again.

One should not shy away from the book because of the mathematics, the logical problems they are occupied with are well explained and remain quite on the surface so that the average reader can easily follow their thoughts. Apart from that, what I appreciated most is how Katherine sticks to her ideals and goals, even though this at times means that she hurts herself and gives up a lot for her professional integrity – without being rewarded for it. The second line of the plot about Katherine’s family is also quite intriguing since it is well embedded in the German history and the dangers even intellectuals ran when they had the wrong religion.

A beautifully written book about a strong woman that captivated me immediately.

Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy

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Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy

Patricia Reynolds, called Patsy, has waited for years to fulfil her dream: going to the USA and leaving Jamaica behind. Even though she only got a visitor’s visa, she plans to never come back and instead make a career in the north just like her best friend Cicely. She abandons her daughter Tru who is too young to understand what happens and now has to cope with living with a new family while her mother seemingly enjoys her life in the Big Apple. However, it does not take too long for Patsy to understand that nobody waited for illegal immigrants and that she will have to take cleaning and nursing jobs to survive. The years pass and while Patsy slowly has to accept that her dream of a better life will never come true, her daughter struggles to find her place in a world that she simply does not fit in. She wants to play football like the boys and tries to ignore all signs that make her a girl.

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel offers a broad variety of subjects ranging from the situation of undocumented immigrants and their lives in the shadows, dreams her characters have that simply do not come true, the concepts of being a man or a woman and behaving according to others’ expectations, what it means to be a mother and to stick to your ideas and goals in life nevertheless, love and abuse, unhealthy relationships and dishonest friendships.

The author wonderfully parallels the developments of mother and daughter under harsh circumstances in the two different countries. Albeit the fact that there is an age gap of 21 years, a lot of progress is analogous like adapting to a new situation, high hopes that increasingly have to be adjusted to reality and finally, finding love where they never would have expected it. Especially Patsy’s American Dream gone bad is very powerfully narrated, most of all the moments when darkness surrounds her are most compelling. While I found most of the plot very interesting and brilliantly narrated, the novel was a bit too long and thus lengthy at times for my liking.

K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

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K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

When Walter turns himself in to the police, nobody wants to hear about it. He has committed a crime that the small town ignores – but, it is a crime and he wants to be sentenced. How could it all come so far? How could he kidnap a child for three days? Flashback. Walter was a child prodigy and due to his maths skills already as a young man makes a career in the financing business. In Sterling he finds an older but loving wife and with their child Olivia their family is perfectly complete. In their community, they are a typical family, not like the one from across the street. The father has always been absent and so is the mother, leaving young Amanda alone. The two girls become close friends and Olivia’s family somehow adopts Amada. While the girls grow up, Sterling and Walter become more and more distant until they finally break apart – leaving Walter and the almost teenager Amanda in a very precarious situation.

When I read the first pages of the novel, I was like “Oh my god, not another Lolita story!”. I was afraid that the worst could happen, yet, the strange reaction of the inhabitants of the small town made me wonder: would they ever accept a man who seriously molested a child? I doubted this and luckily read on. What unfolded then was a wonderful story of love and affection of two persons being left and feeling alone and thus becoming a very unique couple.

Even though at the beginning, the relationship between Walter and Amanda is perfectly innocent, at a certain point there is a thin line which somehow is crossed. You feel uncomfortable about how close they are, and even though Walter tries to set up clear boundaries to prevent anything from happening, there is an underlying feeling of an edgy uneasiness. The author plays with a taboo without transgression, but it makes clear that when it comes to affection between an adult and a child, there is some grey area. On the one hand, Walter is the best that could ever happen to Amanda. There is no doubt about his positive influence on her education and personal development. On the other hand, he is much more than a father figure which clearly is a no go considering her age.

Interestingly, both mothers fail in their role as educator and carer, something which you rarely encounter. They do not mistreat their daughters but definitely neglect them. Thus, the novel has a lot to offer from a psychological point of view. Not only the parents’ roles, but also the fact that Walter as a child prodigy never really had a childhood or normal adolescence and now with Amanda somehow lives through a time that he missed out at that age.

A wonderfully written novel that certainly could surprise me several times and which offers much to ponder about.

Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

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Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

When the police is called to a crime scene, they are prepared for the worst: a child’s voice could be heard during the 911 call. Flashback to a time fifteen years before. Maddie works as a teacher in Bulgaria while her best friend Jo is based with a NGO in Macedonia. During one of her visits, Maddie gets to know Jo’s British friends, among them Ian to whom she feels immediately attracted. Times are hard for the two young women abroad and not everything runs smoothly, misunderstandings, too much alcohol and words that better had not been said. Their friendship does not last in contrast to Maddie’s love for Ian, but their love was not meant to be immediately and now the big question if it ever was meant to be looms over them.

Annie Ward’s is a psychological thriller in which nothing is what it seems, in which you have to re-assess all relationships, all events narrated and all characters again and again to get a complete picture which differs a lot from the first impression you had. The fact that different characters’ perspectives are given alternately and that the story is told at different points in time, all mixed up so that you spring forward and backward and sometimes get the same event two times, does not make it always easy to keep an overview. Even though this to a certain extent supports the suspense that is created, for me it also contributed to some lengthiness.

There are two strong aspects in the novel that I found quite remarkable and authentic. First of all, it clearly shows how detrimental bad relationships can be. Being literally addicted to a person never is a good basis for a partnership since it easy opens the door for abuse and oppression. Second, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder should never be underestimated. There are experiences that you will never forget and you never really come to terms with. They shape your personality if you want or not and have an impact on your behaviour, relationships and whole life.

“Beautiful Bad” could certainly surprise me with all the twists and turns and was cleverly crafted to lead you in a lot of wrong directions.

Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

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Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

“How did we end up here? My key works, but you won’t let me in.”

Celestial and Roy are made for each other, even though their relationship is not without fights. But they always manage to get together again. Some issues are hot topics – their different backgrounds, their families, having a child – so they try to avoid them. But sometimes these things come up nevertheless and one evening, their quarrel escalates. Fifteen minutes should be enough to cool down. But these fifteen minutes will change their lives, their fates and all the dreams they had for their future together. Nothing will be anymore as it was the next morning.

Tayari Jones’ novel hits you like a hammer. You cannot read it without getting involved deeply and asking yourself the question: how would I react in their place? What I loved utterly was the author’s way of foreshadowing: telling you that a meteor was to crash their lives or that this was their last happy evening for a long time; this creates an almost unbearable suspense, you absolutely want to know what is going to happen and thus, you surely cannot put down the book.

All in all, the story is a quite unique ménage à trois. On the one hand, Celestial and Roy, wed for some months and still somehow at the beginning of their common life. On the other hand, there is Andre who has been a friend of Celestial since their days in kindergarten, who befriended Roy in college and who actually made them acquainted with each other. Long hidden feelings for Celestial can no longer kept buried when she is in need of a shoulder to lie on. Reading the story as it is, you cannot really blame anyone for what they do. It just happens, but it doesn’t make you really happy either. Especially when compared to their parents’ marriages: a deep affection that lasts over decades and that survives even the biggest crises.

Apart from this, the novel is also highly critical in several respects: the American legal system, the way blacks are still treated today and have to fight harder than others and also the question of what makes a man a man and a father a father. A lot of food for thought written in a light style which is full of splendid metaphors that I absolutely adored.

Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

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Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

1954, the war in Korea is over but there are still some soldiers waiting to see their big star come for a short visit: Marilyn Monroe. Alice J. Kim, working as a translator for the Americans, is one of the few Koreans fluent in both languages and who could accompany the blond film star on her tour. But with the arrival of Marilyn also comes somebody else Alice had almost forgotten: Joseph, her former lover who turned out not to be a missionary but an American spy. Alice thought she could leave her past behind, like the war, just bury it all under the ruins and build a new life. But now, it all comes up again.

Other than the title suggests, the novel is not really about Marilyn Monroe and her visit to Korea. She appears as a character, yes, and I found she was nicely depicted, a sensitive woman lacking all kind of allures one might assume. However, first and foremost, it is a novel about Alice and the two loves she had: first, Min-hwan, a married man working for the government, and second, the American Joseph. None is the loves is meant to last and the political developments in the country add their part to these unfulfilled loves.

What I found interesting was the insight in the possible life of a Korean woman at the time of the war. I have never read about it and this part of history is not something I know much about. Nevertheless, the book could not really catch me. Somehow I had the impression that the two stories – Alice’s one the one hand and Marilyn’s visit on the other – did not really fit together and especially the last seemed more a feature to make the story a bit more interesting by adding a big name.

„These sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past.“

Parallels between Marilyn and Alice are evoked: a past they want to forget, well-known lovers who in the end always decide against the affair and for their wife, the change of name to start anew – but the link is too weak to work for me. Unfortunately, Alice also remains a bit too distant, too hard to grasp and to really feel sympathy for her and her fate.

Louise O’Neill – Almost Love

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Louise O’Neill – Almost Love

Things are not going too well between Sarah and her partner. Is it just because her job as a teacher exhausts and frustrates her? She is an artist, but has never been good enough to really succeed with her paintings, not like her mother-in-law to be or her best friend. When she flees their home one afternoon, she by coincidence meets Matthew and all comes up again. The man she loved like never before, the man she would have given up everything for – the man she has given up everything for and destroyed so much. But he is still Matthew and there is something in her that makes the old feeling, she thought she had overcome, show up again.

After reading the blurb, I expected a story with an unhealthy love addiction and intense feelings on the part of the female protagonist. I was quite sure to feel compassion for her obsessive love and what it makes with her, yet, I mainly hated Sarah, even more than Matthew, which made it a bit difficult to really enjoy the novel.

So, why didn’t I feel pity for her? First of all, she is incredibly arrogant. When still young, her best friend from university gets the big chance of an exhibition, but instead of being happy for him, she envies him and is convinced that it should have been her. Second, her father obviously is quite lonely in their remote village and he always tries not to put her under pressure and to tolerate her awful behaviour, but she treats him like an old imbecile. Yes, he might not have been the perfect dad when her mother died – yet, he also lost his beloved wife and needed time for himself and his grief. Her school friends are just places she can dump her personal dramas, she doesn’t care about their problems and feelings and even doesn’t realise when she spoils her former best friend’s wedding. The current relationship is marked by her evil behaviour towards her boyfriend. No, he cannot do anything right, she only snaps at him and looks down on him. All of this is not necessarily linked to her obsessive love, not, she is just a very mean person.

When it comes to her flashbacks and memories of the time with Matthew, well, it is the classic constellation: a successful man in the middle of his life meets the naive girl who falls for him and somehow she succumbs to the illusion that he might also fall in love with her. Her whole behaviour – bombarding him with text messages, dropping everything when he calls, accepting all his wishes in their shabby hotel room, being subservient in any imaginable way – well, that’s something that might happen, but over months without understanding what is going on? That she is never at his side in public, but hidden in a hotel room where he doesn’t even have the time for a proper conversation with her? At least, she can serve as a cautionary tale.

I am not sure if I find Sarah’s character authentic and thus could really believe the story. Nevertheless, it captivated me somehow and I almost read it in just one sitting which definitely speaks for Louise O’Neill.

David Owen – All The Lonely People

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David Owen  – All The Lonely People

The last strike by the anonymous bullying group really hit Kat hard. She was never the popular girl with many friends, but at least online she could be the person she saw in herself, but now, that is taken away from her and she just wants to vanish, fade away. Her wish is granted, slowly her body becomes translucent, only Safa, sharing the same fate can see her. She quickly finds out that there are others, not just people who would like to be someone different and forget their old life and be forgotten, but people who actually faded away. However, there is still one thing she needs to do on earth: the bullies have found another target and she must stop them and therefore collaborate with one of them.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really thinking that the act of vanishing in the novel was meant “real”, yet, this unrealistic aspect is the only thing I wasn’t completely happy with. Apart from this, David Owen has really captured the emotions of teenager who feel like they don’t fit in, that they cannot lead the life they would like to have and the hardship of going to school and being exposed to the attacks of bullies.

I found both protagonists – Kat as the good, pitiable girl and Wesley who first seems to be her enemy but then turns out to be in a comparable situation – strong characters for the novel. They are easy to relate to and the problems they face are things most pupils might know from their everyday life. The novel also had some suspense that kept you read on and it surely made you think of how you treat your family members and how attentive you are concerning the people around you that you never really see.

All in all, I liked it and would surely recommend it to young people who are searching for their identity and place in the world.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

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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.