Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.

Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.

The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.

“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.

A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.


Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

What can a daughter learn from her mother? Four generations of women of one family suffer from their respective mother’s way of life, the choices they made and the future they planned for their kids. The first generation is embodied by Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby’s wife, a young American who freed herself from Puritan Bostonian convictions and was looking for freedom and a life for the arts in Europe. Her daughter Diana grows up in Paris between all the famous people of the so called “Lost Generation” and never had to chance to just be a girl, too much was projected in her. Diana’s daughters Elena and Leonie found ways of opposing their mother by opting for very traditional models of love and life. Elena’s young children, one even unborn, are now the fourth generation who grows up with a heavy legacy.

The novel oscillates between times and places. We meet the Parisian It-crowd of the twenties when Caresse and Harry have their big time and Diana is just a girl. Then we jump to Caresse’s last days in Italy, decades after she has lost her husband and when her grand-daughters are already grown-up women. Another 20 years on, Diana’s life is coming to an end. Yet, no matter what point in time in general or in the characters’ life, the core question is always the same: what do you expect from life and how much love do you need?

Alternating the setting surely makes the novel lively, on the other hand, the development of the characters suffers from this non-linear or non-chronological arrangement. Even though you can make out especially Diana’s development, her daughters, for example, remained a bit a mystery for me. What I found intriguing, however, was the highly complex mother-daughter relationship which becomes very clear in every constellation: on the one hand, unconditional love and the hope that the daughter can break away from conventions and find love and happiness in life, on the other hand, the fact that they cannot live up to their own ideals and that wishes are not fulfilled makes them also reproachful and mean in their later life.

It is quite interesting to see that the author Tamara Colchester herself is a descendant of this family. This raises the question of how much fiction and how much reality you can find in the text. No matter the answer, it’s a novel about strong women and the choices we make in our lives.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.

Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

An awful accident brings a bunch of teenager together in the waiting area of a hospital: a Boston bridge collapsed during busy traffic and now they are waiting for news. Scott is afraid that his girlfriend Aimee might be amongst the dead. Skyler was on the telephone with her sister when Kate suddenly broke away. Jason and Alex fear the worst about their parents who were on the way to Alexa’s school. And Morgan already knows that her father is not alive anymore. While they are condemned to wait in the sterile area without any information, they all recall the last couple of months, what they went through with the loved ones, the good sides and the bad ones. But sharing this feeling of utmost anxiety also brings out things which were long buried and in the morning, they are not the same anymore.

“All we can do is wait” has the classic drama setting: all characters in one place, waiting for the moment when they are either relieved or their biggest fear is confirmed. There is nothing they can do to change the situation, they have to sit and wait for the verdict. No matter what they wish or pray for, their fate is already sealed but they do not know about it.

Richard Lawson makes his young protagonists alternate in the narration. Each chapter is dedicated to one of them and slowly their lives unfold. Thus, we are not constantly in the situation of extreme stress in the waiting room, but look back also on happy moments full of joy and love. But the sword of Damocles of looming over them all the time and inevitable we return to the hospital.

The story is full of emotion, positive and negative ones, and the author created authentic and lovable characters who are credible in their fears and hopes. They already show whom they are going to be in a couple of years and yet, they are still adolescents with great hopes and wishes. Apart from this, there is obviously a lot of suspense because you just want to know what happened to their friends, sister and parents. This just makes you read on and on and on. I really loved the novel even though it is a rather melancholy story that is told.

Chloe Benjamin – The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin – The Immortalists

In summer 1969, the four Gold kids are still young. Varya is only 13, Daniel 11, Klara 9 and Simon just 7. It is the last summer they spend together before the eldest do not want to play with younger ones anymore. But it is also the summer that will change their lives and determine their fates. Having eavesdropped a couple of boys they head to a house where a gipsy woman is telling the future. The kids all just have one question: when will I die? They each get an answer, an exact date. But instead of just laughing and forgetting about it and not taking it seriously, this information will always loom over them.

The novel received a lot of attention and was highly acclaimed before being published. What starts as a story about four kids and a strange prediction, turns into one of the best novels of the last years. After the opening scene, Chloe Benjamin tells the siblings‘ stories, starting with the youngest who is predicted to die first. Each has a singular life, an interesting character and their story blends perfectly with societal developments of their times. Not only a cleverly constructed plot, but also relevant questions about what is important in life, how much do family bonds count and how free are you in shaping your life -and what is determined by fate?

You always wait in a story staring with the presentation of a group of characters for who will turn out to be the most intriguing, the most interesting and the one with the biggest crisis. Benjamin treats the four kids equally. Astonishingly, the moment when each is taking over, he or she becomes really the centre, the focus of everything. Thus, we do not get the development if the others which makes a lot of secrets revealed only later as well as many situations being judged from one perspective when there are actually several points of view which allow you to see a situation also in a completely different way.

The story is often sad, full of despair and emotion. It is hard to say how Benjamin makes you completely indulge in it, but you feel with the characters, you can sense their loss and thus get a wonderful novel to read. Exceptional writing paired with a cleverly constructed novel, carefully drawn characters and the smooth insertion of important topics – is there anything more a reader could wish for?

Jamie Quarto – Fire Sermon

Jamie Quarto – Fire Sermon

He was her first partner and is supposed to be her last. Meggie and Thomas have been married for more than 20 years, raised to nice children and, if looked at from the outside, a perfect life. When Meggie discovers the poet James and writes to him because he seems to be the one who can express what she, too, feels, she sets in motion a chain of events. Months of e-mails, James and Maggie get closer and closer on an emotional basis. Then they finally meet and the faithful believer Maggie and -especially her body – reacts in a way she has never believed to be possible. It is a short encounter, and a second, not even a real affair, but a bond has been created which threatens their lives as they have known it.

Fire Sermon – a discourse delivered by Buddha in which he describes that you need to burn to achieve liberation from suffering. Only if you detach yourself from your senses through the burning process can you reach a higher level of existence. The burning can occur through passion, aversion, delusion and suffering. Meggie, Jamie Quarto’s protagonist in whose head we find ourselves as the reader, goes through all four of them.

She feels passion, after so many years married not anymore for her husband, but for the poet with whom she feels connected immediately. Aversion is what she experiences in bed, aversion towards her husband, whom she loves but not in those moments when he is selfish and she either complies with his wishes to find peace or opposes him and risks a fight. Delusion – she is thinking of what her life could be, how it could have been and what she might get if she gives up her family. Last, suffering. She suffers a lot, from remorse and guilt, but also physically and emotionally. At times she goes through hell.

Jamie Quarto does not narrate a love story, but a story about love. Different kinds of love. Love full of passion, love full of emotion, love that goes deep, love that is stronger than anything else. And love that hurts. There are different layers of love, different types which are experienced with different people. And looming around the corner is always the question: does love require faithfulness and singularity? Or can you love different people in different ways at the same time? And how can this be reconciled with the Christian idea of marriage? The author does not provide you with answers, just with the example of one woman and how she finds answers to those questions.

I really liked the novel even though at times I found it hard to endure. But it is so easy to sympathise and identify with Meggie and her worries that you can easily immerge into it.

Richard Flanagan – First Person

Richard Flanagan – First Person

Kif Kehlmann is dreaming of being a writer. With his wife pregnant with twins and their financial situation rather critical, the offer of writing a book is welcomed. Yet, the frame conditions are hard: he will receive 10 000 dollars if he writes the autobiography of Australia’s most wanted fraudster within 6 weeks. Money is money and writing is writing, so Kif accepts the deal not knowing what lies ahead of him. His friend Ray warns him, as Siegfried Heidl’s bodyguard, he knows him quite well and he knows what Heidl is capable of. What sounded like an easy tasks reveals itself a mission impossible. First, Heidl varies the story of his life again and again, Kif does not even know the basic facts and the more he listens to him, the more confused he gets. Second, Siegfried Heidl seems to get into his head, he cannot let go of him anymore and slowly, Kif starts to question his whole life.

If have read other books by Richard Flanagan which could really thrill me, unfortunately, “First Person” does not belong to those. It took almost a third of the book to really get into the novel. Admittedly, it is getting better and better in the course of the time, but I am sure many readers will never reach this point.

Flanagan presents two strong protagonists who are quite appealing and interesting. Kif with his dream of writing a novel sold thousands of times and at the same time struggling with his private life. His head is full with other things, diving into a task such as the ghostwriter’s job seems rather impossible at this moment of his life. And both, his life and the writing, turn out to be incompatible.

Siegfried on the other hand is fascinating because we can never really make up a picture of him. Is he a con man or is he actually super-clever? Which pieces of the story he tells are true (in as much as fiction can be true), which are just narrative? Or as Kif puts it:

“For Heidl wasn’t so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making.” (pos. 3055)

It is his strange charisma that makes him enthralling and captivating. Kif, too, in his description is oscillating between adoration and disdain:

“I couldn’t decide whether I hated Heidl or admired him, if I was his friend or his enemy, if I wanted to save him or kill him.” (pos. 2877) and yet, “He was the closest thing to a man of genius I ever met.” (Po. 3747)

The dance they do is shows that Flanagan is one of the best writers of our time, but nevertheless, this story just was not one that could capture me completely.

Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

Henry Dunbar has lead his whole life a successful businessman whose orders are carried out immediately and who is not only in charge but in control. But now he finds himself in a sanatorium somewhere in the British countryside, locked away and sedated by his doctors. His eldest daughters Abby and Megan and the family doctor Bob have complotted against him to take over the Dunbar imperium. With his roommate Dunbar decides to flee and to get his life back. His youngest daughter Florence has also gotten wind of the other daughters’ doings and is rushing for help. While the old man is roaming the unknown country in a fierce storm, the sisters and their accomplices are plotting how to get out of the mess best, each one is fighting the others with insidious plans and tricks. But the old man is stronger than anyone would have thought.

“Dunbar” is part of the Shakespeare Hogarth project in which famous authors have transferred the bard’s stories into our modern time in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death. One of the four major tragedies provides the basis for this modern madness: King Lear.

Edward St Aubyn clearly is one of the most gifted authors of our time. He masterly managed to create a gripping story in which the core conflict of Shakespeare’s play can clearly be seen, but which speaks for itself and is a great pleasure to read from the very first to the last page. First of all, the setting. Transferring the king’s household to a media mogul’s family is absolutely adequate for today, it’s not only about power, but much more about the stock market and money. That’s what drives many people nowadays and for which they are willing to sell their own grandmother – or their father as it is here.

Strongest are the characters in the novel. The stubborn old head of the family who cannot be broken by medication and a remote clinic, who develops superhuman survival forces if needed but who finally finds the wisdom of the elderly and can see when in his life he was wrong – that’s one side of the story. Yet, I had a lot more fun with the beastly sisters Abby and Megan, they both are that sly and cunning – it was just a great fun to read (“Oh, God, it was so unfair! That selfish old man was spoiling everything”, Megan complains about her father when she learns that he has fled and her carefully designed plot is about to crumble down). Admittedly, I did not feel too much compassion for their Victim Dr. Bob, who, he himself, also was not the philantropic doctor whom you wish for but much more a turncoat seeking for his own benefit.

A lively family vendetta which completely gets out of control perfectly framed by Edward St Aubyn’s gifted writing. Great dialogues alternate with extraordinary inner monologues – for me so far one of the best works of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.


Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

Taro lives alone in one of Tokyo’s anonymous block of flats. His family is far away and they are hardly in contact, his father died already ten years ago, yet the memories of him are still alive. His neighbours, he only knows the names that were given to the flats they inhabit, but not who is living close to him. Since the flats are going to be destroyed soon, they will have to leave anyway.  One day, he observes a woman walking around the sky-blue house neighbouring their block. She seems to try to look into it through the window. When she realises that she is spotted, they make contact and Nishi explains Taro why she is behaving this strangely: the house is actually quite famous, she even possesses a book about its interior and her greatest wish is to enter and have a look herself. A singular friendship forms between the two neighbours, centred around a building close but far away for them.

Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Spring Garden” has many typical features of what I expect from Japanese literature. First of all, the characters. We have two protagonists who seem to live a life without close connection to other people, loneliness and isolation are reoccurring themes in Japan’s novels and from the news I read about the country this really seems to be a major topic. Yet, it is not the suffering from being alone that is central, they seem to have accepted that this is just how it is for them. When they finally bond with somebody – even if it is just a weak connection like the one of neighbours – there are many societal rules which prevent an honest friendship in my opinion. E.g. when Taro is given a present he does not like, it is not easy for him and he nevertheless feels obliged to behave in a certain manner. Even to eat things he doesn’t like in order not to appear impolite.

Some aspects I found really strange and I do not know if this is the case because the character of Taro is a bit bizarre or if this is just a cultural matter which is quite far from the world I life in. Taro keeps the mortar and pestle in his kitchen cupboard with which he turned the remains of his father’s bones into powder to distribute them. They remind him of the father and he frequently thinks about him when he comes across the two utensils. Both, first the idea of working on a deceased’s bones and keeping the utensils close to pots and pans is very astonishing to me to put it politely.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the house that Taro and Nishi go to explore, first through the book and the outside, later also from the inside. It is not only the poetical language, especially about the lighting of the colourful windows, which makes it quite impressive, but also how human boing have an impact on the outer world. Even though the walls and windows are the same, with the change of the inhabitants, the whole ambiance can change and everybody leaves his mark on his surroundings.

Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

Summertime in the early 1950s. Willa and her older sister Joan would like to have a relaxing time at their summer home together with their mom. But the mother has a new lover, Eugene, and to the girls‘ surprise, Eugene has invited his two sons to spend the summer with them. Kenneth and Patrick are slightly older than the girls immediately attract their attention. No, they definitely are not like brothers and sisters, Joan and Kenneth quickly fall for each other. For Willa and Patrick things are not that easy. Over the next years, they regularly meet and between Willa and Patrick a strange connection is formed. On the one hand, the boy can arouse feelings in her, but on the other, what he is doing to her repels her and she senses that his behaviour is far from being normal and acceptable. But what is there she can to about it? It will take years until she can free herself.

“Demi-God” – according to the Merriam-Webster definition, it is a mythological being with more power than a mortal but less than a god or a person so outstanding as to seem to approach the divine. For all female members of the family, the male counterparts are somehow demi-gods, at least in so far as they cannot refrain from their attraction. The mother is charmed by Eugene, Joan falls for Kenneth and also Willa has a special liking for Patrick. It is not quite clear what makes those three that outstanding, but their appeal is obvious. They can exert power over the women in different ways, but it is only Patrick how openly abuses this.

Before coming to this, what I liked especially about the novel was the atmosphere. You can sense immediately that Eliza Robertson is great at creating certain moods and you actually can feel this carefree time of being young during summer holidays when the days seem endless, when the sun is shining and when there are no worries and fears. I also appreciated her characters, first of all the mother who is neither completely stereotypical but nevertheless clearly represents a certain kind of woman of her time. In the focus of the novel are the girls and their relationship. It is not always easy to be sisters, at times they can confide in each other, at others they can’t. Yet, there is something like unconditional love between them, if one needs the other, she can surely count on her.

In this nice and loving ambiance now enters the evil that can be found in human beings. To name it openly, the novel is about sexual abuse, about menacing and exerting power over a weaker person. Willa is first too young, then unsure of how to react and how to qualify what happens to her. It is not the all bad and awful situation – this is what makes the novel especially impressive. It only happens at single instances, partly, she isn’t even sure if she did actually refuse it or even contributed to it happening. This makes it even more awful, because the girl is left alone with her feelings and worries. She plays normal and hides what has happened. It does not take much to imagine that there might be millions of girls out there suffering from the same abuse and feeling helpless and powerless.

Thus, the novel takes up a very serious topic and hopefully some readers might recognize that what Willa is going through is far from acceptable and can find a way of seeking help if they are in need.