Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Amalia leaves her Australian home to study music in Oxford. She has only just arrived when she meets Alex, another Australia in her third year already. They befriend immediately and spend more and more time together philosophing, questioning life and sharing everything. It is an intense but perfect friendship. Yet, things become complicated when their friendship turns into love. What was easy and carefree suddenly becomes complicated, misunderstanding after misunderstanding, unexpressed and unfulfilled expectations turn the perfect friends into the worst lovers.

“(…) every so often, I come across a new piece of music and getting to know the music kind of feels like falling in love. And the idea of spending my life falling in love over and over again… who wouldn’t want that?”

The title refers to a study by psychologist Arthur Aron which postulates that a certain set of questions can lead to more intimacy and a deeper relationship between people. The protagonist of Indyana Schneider’s novel asks “28 Questions” which actually bring her closer to her first friend, then lover but they cannot help untangle the complications they have to face. It is a kind of college novel about becoming an adult, about love and about identity in an ever more complex world.

“I just don’t get how it’s possible to be such wonderful, compatible friends and so ill suited as lover.”

This is the central question. How can two people being that close, sharing the same ideas and attitudes simply be so incompatible as lovers. They are fond of each other, there are butterflies and they even match physically – but the relationship doesn’t work out. Over years, they have an on/off relationship because they can neither live with nor without each other.

Yet, the novel is not a classic heart-breaking love story. What binds Amalia and Alex is an intellectual love, they get closer over the questions which address core human topics, from social interaction over social categories of identity and the definition of themselves. They grow with each other, reflect upon their convictions and finally enter the real world of adulthood for which they are still not quite prepared.

A wonderfully written, intense novel about love which goes far beyond just being attracted by someone.

Pedro Mairal – The Woman from Uruguay

Pedro Mairal – The Woman from Uruguay

Lucas Pereyra has a plan to finally pay back all the money his family and friends lent him. The writer has asked to transfer the advance for his next book to an account in Uruguay where the exchange rate is simply better than in his home town of Buenos Aires. One morning, he takes off to Montevideo to collect fifteen thousand dollars. He knows that he is not allowed to cross the border with such an amount but he does not have any alternatives. And, spending a day in the Uruguayan capital allows him to see Guerra again, a woman he met at a conference some months before and whom he cannot forget. Yet, his idea does not materialise as planned, quite the contrary.

Pedro Mairal narrates the decisive day in the life of his protagonist, it is just a couple of hours which change everything, which turn a man on the winning track into somebody who is cruelly brought back down to earth. “The Woman from Uruguay” has quickly become a bestseller in Argentina and Spain and was awarded the Premio Tigre Juan in 20217, a prestigious Spanish literary award.

The novel is constructed like a classic tragedy respecting the three Aristotelian unities: the principal action takes place over a period of only a couple of hours in only one location. The dramatic structure also follows classic principles with the protagonist’s expectations of ultimately turning his life, then looking forward of meeting the woman he is in love with the climax of their encounter and then the tragic turning point after which Lucas has to bury all hope and realises what a fool he has been and that he has to cope somehow with the consequences of his stupid behaviour. He can be classified as some kind of tragic hero, on the one hand, he himself is the reason he is in the state he finds himself in the end, on the other, however, he became a victim of circumstances innocently at least to a certain extent.

I liked how the story unfolds even though the protagonist is not actually a sympathetic character. Not just the composition is convincing but also the author’s poetic writing is vivid giving insight in Lucas’ thinking. A compelling read which makes me want to read more of the author.

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Nurse Callie is giving up her job to be better able to care for her brother. For years now, Noah has been suffering from mental illness and apart from their father, Callie is the only one he trusts and who is able to calm him when he gets in a state of emergency. To have more time, she leaves the hospital and becomes a carer for Frey, a young man who does not talk and needs strict daily routines to cope with life. Thus, Callie spends two weeks with her father and brother and the other two together with a colleague with Frey. When she returns one night from work, she receives an awful message: both her beloved ones have died in an accident and now she has to face her mother again. The woman who left them, who always hated Callie and the single person she does not want to see. It is a confrontation which is not only hurtful but which also lets lose monsters which have been kept locked up for many years.

Cassandra Parkin’s novel is a dark tale which play with the big question if the narrator is reliable or not and if what we remember is actually how things really happened or if our brain might play tricks on us. “The Leftovers” is great in making you high alert for the half-sentences, the things implied, all that is not said and questions all characters. Whom can you trust? Who is willingly misleading? Who is misled by their brains? From a point where all is clear, you enter an abyss where everything is possible.

Callie appears to be a selfless young woman who has destined her life to care for others. She is great with Frey as she has a long history of living with her brother and noticing nuances, slight changes which might be signs for dramatic events. She can well adapt to Frey’s needs and sync herself with his life which makes her perfect for the job. Yet, after some time, things slightly change and it takes some time for the reader to figure out why that is.

In the confrontation with her cool and repellent mother, childhood memories come up. Not only did her mother not show any affection towards her and clearly preferred her brother, she definitely neglected the girl. In Callie’s recollections, it all makes sense and fits together perfectly, yet, the more you get to know, the more you start to wonder if she, too, might see things that are not there just like her brother. Even though from what she tells, it all seems right and yet, doesn’t the understanding from the world of somebody suffering from paranoia normally form a consistent picture?

A great read I can only recommend but you should be aware that some contents might feel like triggers for a highly sensitive reader.

Julia Dahl – The Missing Hours

When Claudia wakes up, she cannot remember the past hours. When she looks in the mirror, she hardly can recognise the girl she sees. Obviously, something really bad has happened, her body can tell it, she, however, does not know what it is. She is afraid that somebody at her dorm might see her in that state, luckily it is spring break and most of her fellow students at NYU are gone, just one boy seems to be there. When Trevor sees her, he knows that the girl needs help, yet, the girl is Claudia Castro, super rich and an Instagram famous artist. But that doesn’t count, when somebody is in need, you help. And that’s what Trevor does – not knowing in what a mess all this is going to end.

“The Missing Hours” is a dark novel about the one of the nastiest crimes imaginable. Julia Dahl opens the plot with the big question about what might have happened, once this is answered, the next question follows: why? But then it becomes much more interesting to observe what the experience does to Claudia. She has been assaulted, that much is obvious, and quite often, there are only two options: either the victim withdraws completely blaming herself for what has been done to her or she fights her assailant. The author interestingly chooses to go both ways turning the novel into an intense and gripping read.

The plot is mainly driven by emotion – (unrequited) love, hatred, vindictiveness, but also despair and loneliness. The characters go through challenging times and emotions that they are unable to control, too young and unexperienced they make choices which turn out to be totally wrong, but in their state of being blinded by their feelings, the cannot respond in any other way. It is easy to understand what they do and why they do it, even if you know that nothing good can come from it.

On the other hand, the novel also raises the question about who is there when you are in need. Quite normally, it should be your family, but things are complicated with Claudia’s parents and her sister is about to give birth and surely has other things to care about. Sometimes a stranger can be your saviour, not being too close might be the best for a complicated situation.

What I really liked about the novel is how the protagonist’s conflicting thoughts are conveyed. She feels ashamed, blamed herself, is worried about what might people think of her even though she obviously is the victim. She is educated, knows exactly what to do in such a case and yet, decides not to do what is recommended. As a reader, you can see why she acts in that way and is nevertheless struggling with her choice.

A fast paced thriller which has a lot more depth than one might have expected.

Nick Spalding – You Again?

Nick Spalding – You Again?

It was an offer they could not let go by: one week on the Maldives for an unbeatable price, the perfect island for a couple. Joel has been there before, for the honeymoon with his ex-wife Amy, but now he is with Cara and wants to relive the happy time on the sandy beach. Yet, when they arrive at the airport, he spots Amy with her new boyfriend Ray. This can only be a coincidence. But it isn’t. Amy, too, has seen the offer and wanted to go there again. Thus, the two of them find each other on the same plane heading to the same destination after two years of hateful ignorance. Trapped on a small island, they cannot get out of each other’s way and therefore, quite some complicated days lie ahead of the former couple.

Nick Spalding’s novel fulfilled all my expectations of a hilariously funny summer read: a great surrounding with beautiful nature, characters who easy fall prey to their own shortcomings and over and over again find themselves victim of their own doings – but in a comical and not too hurtful way.

Even though it is clear from the start what is going to happen, I enjoyed following the alternating accounts of Joel and Amy offering their respective views which are filled with unattended to emotions. Underneath the hatred, you sense that there is still something that binds them and that makes them matter to each other. If it wasn’t, they could easily ignore the ex-partner. Both of them are totally predictable and too much caught in their maelstrom of negative emotions to stand above what happened in the past. Yet, just the fact that they know each other so well allows them to play really foul tricks.

It is totally hilarious to see how they get worked up in trying to outplay each other. A light and entertaining read, perfect for the summer holiday on the beach.

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

The annual Folk Fest is the biggest event on Bayleen Island in 1969. The atmosphere is pulsating while the audience is waiting for Jesse Reid, latest superstar with his guitar and extraordinary voice. On his way to the show, he has an accident which unexpectedly bring the local band Breakers on stage. It only takes minutes for Jane Quinn, their singer and songwriter, to win the people over with her charismatic performance. It is the birth of a star, the Breakers are invited record an album and to tour with Jesse’s band. Quite naturally, the two musicians fall for each other, but it is not an easy love, neither Jesse nor Jane is the carefree new star, they suffer from bad experiences and the demons that haunt them. Additionally, Jane fights with the music industry’s sexism and a feeling of being considered just Jesse’s accessory. For some time, they ignore all this, but closing their eyes does not prevent them forever from having to face some truths.

Emma Brodie’s novel perfectly captures the vibes of the time. Her protagonists are highly gifted musicians who live for the music and the moment. “Songs in Ursa Major” is an emotionally overwhelming novel which draws you in its world immediately. Especially Jane is a vividly drawn character whom you come to love immediately despite the stubbornness which comes with her musical genius and perfectionism. She is a role model of a strong-minded feminist who sticks to her ideals and is even willing to sacrifice her career and love in order not to give in to the industry’s conception of a female singer.

The thin line between genius and madness had often been mentioned in connection with creative artists. This also holds true for both, Jesse and Jane, who are far from being mentally stable. Together, they can push each other even further in their genius while heading at the abyss at the same time. Following their creative process translating into songs is a wonderful journey which triggers the emotions in the same way listening to music would.

The villains of the music industry with their unconcealed misogyny make you angry at times but seeing how cleverly Jane can also win some fights can make some amends here. As authentic as this aspect is Jane’s emotional state and the way she tries to cope with her family’s situation and her very personal heritage of creativity and madness alike.

A brilliantly written, intense novel perfect for the summer festival season which brings you back to the time of iconic musicians.

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Joan flees New York to California after he lover Victor shot himself publicly in front of her. With little money left, she finds a small place to stay and she also finds the woman she was looking for. Alice, whom she had tracked online over all those years. She thinks back to what her life had to offer so far, her mother who was unable to love her, her father whom she admired childishly. Both have long been gone. Joan can run, but somehow her bad luck follows her, she seems prone to attracting all kind of evil and so it does not take too long until it comes back to her.

Lisa Taddeo made her debut with “Three women“ which I already liked a lot. In her latest novel, too, complicated relationships between men and women are central to the story’s development. The narrator herself is unable to love unconditionally, she needs to have the upper hand over her lovers, yet, this presumed precaution measure fires back and somehow she is stuck in the role of the kid who is longing for being loved. She is addressing her account of the events to somebody, yet it takes until the end for the reader to understand whom she tells about her life.

From a psychological point of view, Taddeo has created quite interesting characters. Violence and love are constantly opposed and they seem not to able to exist without each other. Joan’s grandmother has been raped, a dramatic experience of violence, yet, we do never learn about what this did to the woman. On the other hand, Joan’s mother does not seem to be a direct victim, yet, she reacts quite strongly and refuses her daughter the love she craves for. The women in her family are no good role models, yet, her father, too, does not provide a good example of how to behave, especially at critical moments in his life. As a consequence, Joan is unable to lead a relationship at eye level and feels the need to protect herself from the things that might happen.

Thus, as a grown up, Joan replicates what she has seen as a kid and ignores the effect this might have on others, only when she is confronted with a kind of mirror, her genuine feelings offer her another way.

“Animal” is all but an easy read, yet, it offers a lot of food for thought and raises important questions concerning central human emotions and behaviour. I am not an expert, however, I would classify Joan’s thinking with all those flashbacks as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which is highly likely from her family’s history. In this respect, the author very successfully displays the impact of traumatic events on untreated children.

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

It’s the middle of the 80s and San Francisco hasn’t turned into the tech/IT hotspot it is today. Teenager Eulabee grows up in a more well-off part close to the beach and attends an expensive all-girls school with her best friends Maria Fabiola. The girls are still somewhere between being kids and becoming visibly female and with this transformation also come the problems. Maria Fabiola is the first to attract attention from the opposite sex, but her radiant appearance also charms women which is why she gets away with almost everything. Eulabee is far from being that self-confident and therefore sticks to the truth what leads to her being excluded from the girl circles of her school. When Maria Fabiola vanishes, the whole community is alarmed, but Eulabee from the start does not believe in a kidnapping, she has known Maria Fabiola for too long and is well aware of her former friend’s greed for attention.

Vendela Vida still isn’t as renowned as her husband Dave Eggers even though she has published several books by now and has won the Kate Chopin Award. I found her last novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” quite exceptional in the choice of perspective and therefore was eager to read her latest novel “We Run the Tides”. This time, she goes back in time and has chosen teenage girls as protagonists. The story is told from Eulabee’s perspective and captures well the mixed emotions a girl goes through when becoming a woman. Also the ambiance of the 1980s is convincingly depicted.

The most central aspect of the novel is surely the friendship between Eulabee and Maria Fabiola and its shift when one of the girls develops a bit quicker than the other. Maria Fabiola is well aware of the effect she has on other people and uses this for her own advantage. Eulabee, in contrast, is still much more a girl, insecure in how to behave and what to do about the situation. She does not fight but accept what’s happening. Her first attempts of approaching boys seem to be successful but end up in total disappointment. She is a close observer and can well interpret the relationships she sees, between her parents, her mother and her sister and also the other girls and teachers at her school. Without any doubt she is a likeable character and treated highly unfairly. But that’s how kids behave at times.

I liked how the plot developed and how the vanishing of the girls turned out quite unexpectedly. Yet, I didn’t fully understand why the author has chosen to add another chapter set in the present. For me, the story was perfectly told at a certain point and admittedly, neither was I really interested in Eulabee’s later life nor in another encounter of the two women as grown-ups. Still, I do not really know what to make of Maria Fabiola when they meet for the first time decades later.

To sum up, wonderfully narrated, a great coming-of-age story with a strong protagonist.

Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom

Gifty has always been second, her brother Nana was the beloved child of the parents, as a sports prodigy all eyes of their Alabama hometown have been on him until an injury and later a drug addiction took his life. Gifty’s mother has never recovered from the loss, her father had left the family even before to turn back to his home country Ghana. Even as an adult and highly successful scientist, Gifty longs for the mother’s recognition which she never gets. Also religion, with which she grew up does not really offer any condolence. How should she ever be able to love when she herself has never experienced being loved?

Yaa Gyasi‘s “Homegoing“ was already a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, “Transcendent Kingdom“, however, is much stronger in the way the protagonist is portrayed and in conveying this fragmented family‘s critical emotional state. The mother struggling to make a life in a foreign country and thus enduring open racism from the people she works for; Gifty being raised to be silent with a strange idea of how to be a good girl and to follow ideals marked by a religious understanding which limits her in every respect.

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

Gifty loves her brother, admires him and even though, as a child, she cannot understand what happens to him after his injury, he is the one who drives her to work her way up in the scientific community, to go into one of the hardest disciplines in order to understand the human brain and to contribute to scientific finding and development.

“Like my mother, I had a locked box where I kept all my tears. My mother had only opened hers the day that Nana died and she had locked it again soon.”

Gifty’s mother suffers from depression which makes her unable to care or love her daughter. She does not see what the girl achieves, how hard she works and how much she suffers from the lack of emotional care. It is a pity to see how she neglects the girl who retreats into her own world and which makes her unable of bonding with others, no matter if on a friendships or a romantic basis.

A wonderfully written novel, highly emotional and going to the heart.

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.