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.

Anstey Harris – The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton

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Anstey Harris – The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton

Grace Atherton’s life is in full tune: in London, she is running a violin shop and in Paris she meets her partner David. She had wanted to become a professional musician but due to lack of talent, she had to leave college and has to be content now with making the string instruments and playing them without any audience. When David rescues a young woman in the Paris metro, their whole life is turned upside down. Even though David’s wife knows about their affair, it has always been a delicate topic with their kids and David’s profession also requires discretion, but now the whole of France is searching for the hero of the underground and his obvious company. Yet, this is only the start of a series of events that will shake Grace’s life deeply.

“The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton” is a novel hard to describe in only a couple of words. It’s a love story, a story of a break-up, about the love of music and about family and especially parents’ role in the life of their children, it’s about friendship and quarrels and first and foremost about forgiving and going on in life. What I really adored is how the author manages to convey the love of music into words, the compassion for the elegant and fragile instruments can be felt throughout the novel.

All characters in the book are very well thought out, they have strengths and weaknesses which make them authentic and lovable, but most of all they are compassionate and kind-hearted and have their hearts in the right place. Even though not all that happens gives them (or you as a reader) pleasure, I’d call it a feel-good novel nevertheless and perfect for those autumns days where you long for something cosy and comfy.

R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

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R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.

Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

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Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

The revolution and following turmoil made an orphan of Zoya Andropova. Therefore, she like so many other kids comes to the USA as an orphan and is welcomed in a New Jersey boarding school. She never belongs even though she quickly acquires the language and gets good marks. After her schooling, she can stay on the premises and work in the newly built greenhouse where she fully immerses in her work with the plants. Neither does she have friends, nor a lover. It is just her work and the love for literature that keep her going. There is one author she has worshipped for years, Leo Orlov, another Russian émigré whose works she devours. When Leo comes to teach at the boarding school, Zoya seems close to happiness, but even though Leo returns her love, there is one person in the way of their luck: Vera, his wife.

Adrienne Celt’s second novel “Invitation to a Bonfire” is set in a complicated time and therefore offers several layers of narration. The book can be read against the background of Russian-American confrontation and distrust. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a girl who struggles in her new surroundings. The story provides a good example of group dynamics, of exclusion and bullying, of rich vs. poor. It clearly also broaches the issue of being forced to leave your country, forced to leave behind everything from your family, to your belongings and even your language. And, after all, it is a story about love and being loved and about what people are willing to do for the one they have fallen for.

With such an abundance of topics, it is hard to find a beginning. Let’s start with the protagonist. It really liked Zoya, she is a decent and modest character, she humbly accepts her status in the new school and avoids attracting attention. Even though the other girls play tricks on her, she remains loyal and keeps quiet. She can endure a lot and does not expect life to be fair. After what happened to her family, she knows that justice is not something you can rely on in this world. This is a truth she has accepted and thus, she can follow her ideals.

When she falls under the spell of Leo, you want to shout at her to run, far far away from this man and his wife. You can see that nothing good can come from this relationship – but: what else could she do than immediately fall in love? He is the first to see her, to show her affection and to love her. Her free will is gone and the is easy to manipulate.

The story is not fast paced, actually the love story comes at quite a late point in the novel considering its relevance. What made the narration really lively was the fact that Leo’s letters to his wife and other documents were integrated which allowed you a glimpse at a later point and thus added to the underlying suspense. The author has cleverly constructed the novel and her writing is adorably poetic and multi-layered, is starts with the first sentences which immediately drag you into the novel and don’t let you out before the finishing dot:

“Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. No—let me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly.”

Frederik Backman – Us Against You

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Frederik Backman – Us Against You

Is there a future for the small community of Beartown in northern Sweden after all that happened last season? Summer is almost over, but how should life go on without a hockey team? The best players have left and taken the coach with them. Peter Anderson, the ice hockey club’s GM, is left behind with a mess; when the club presents the new coach – a woman – this seems to be the last nail in his coffin. But Beartown is not a place where people give up, they all fight, for different goals, with different motives. And slowly a new team forms and life comes back to the community. Hockey is not all there, hockey is everything and for the sake of the game, you sometimes have to cut back your own interests.

I have read several novels written by Frederik Backman, also the first of the Beartown series which I find absolutely necessary to understand this one, and I still do not know how he manages to drag you so completely into the novel and to make you want to cry several times.

Even though in this instalment, there is not the big culminating point to which the plot inevitably heads like in the first one, you can feel the suspense throughout the whole novel. After what had happened before – the rape, the hatred, the taking sides – the characters now need to adjust their lives, somehow get back to a kind of normal which isn’t the normal they had known before. This is where the greatest strength of the author lies: he manages like hardly any other to portray the nuances in the feelings, contradicting emotions and strong convictions which cannot be explained since they have always been there and are true therefore.

His characters walk on brittle ground, any second, it all could explode and the whole community could end in total chaos. They move carefully, but sometimes also like a bull in a china shop, but they are aware of each other and especially of the other’s needs. What is so special about Beartown is the strength of the people when they are needed. They all have a good heart, the fight hard, but they also know that as humans they have to take care of each other and that life is not always fair but that they can balance the unfairness with their actions.

No, life is never easy in Beartown, many suffer a lot and you wouldn’t want to change places with them. Yet, on the other hand, what more could you hope for than a place like this small town and its inhabitants?

Again, it is a novel about hockey. But also about love and hate. Life and death. Violence and peace. Just about everything that matters. And above, wonderfully written so that you can hardly put it away once you’ve started reading.