William Boyle – City of Margins

William Boyle – City of Margins

New York in the 1990s isn’t an easy place to live. Several people’s paths cross but fate has decided not to grant them a lucky end. Ex-cop Donnie Parascandolo saves Ava Bifulco when her car breaks down. Ava’s grown-up son and teacher Nick wonders how his mother could so easily trust a stranger when he believed her still to mourn his father’s death. Donnie’s ex-wife, on the contrary, is still mourning since she didn’t get over the suicide of their son Gabe whose suicide note is found by another lost soul, Mikey, a college dropout without any plans or future. Unexpectedly, their lives are linked, yet not only by the encounters, but also by the blood that some of them have on their hands.

“City of Margins” is a perfectly pitched genre mix. On the one hand, Boyle meticulously studies and portrays the inhabitants of Brooklyn, a borough which could hardly have been in a worse state than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. On the other hand, it is a cleverly constructed crime novel which admittedly seems a bit outdated in its style but nevertheless is quite tempting. He creates a lively and gripping atmosphere which makes it easy to enter the plot.

The most fascinating was how Boyle links the different characters. Their stories are narrated alternatingly and only slowly is revealed what connects them. None of them has an easy life, nothing is granted, the need to fight every single day, but they know that this fight will not necessarily end in better times. There is a certain melancholy quite close to a depressive mood, but sometimes, this is just how the world works.

A great read with real depth in the character development.

Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

What could be a good place to hide for some time? Bangkok it is Sarah resolves after she has stolen $200.000 from her former employer in New York. In the anonymous building “The Kingdom” she hopes to spend some weeks alone to have the situation cool down. Soon, she gets to know some other tenants, Mali, a half-Thai girl whom Sarah can never fully grasp. And there is the Chilean Ximena, a chef who dreams of her own restaurant whereas Natalie lives the life of a rich wife and sees Bangkok only as a short stop before moving to a better place. Even though most of the people keep to themselves, secrets move fast within the walls of the glass skyscraper and it does not take too long for Sarah to rouse her neighbours’ suspicions and interest.

I have been a huge fan of Lawrence Osborne’s novels for some years. Not only do his settings vary enormously – Morocco, Greece, Mexico, now Thailand – but he also creates highly interesting characters whom he confronts with challenging situations they, on the one hand, provoked themselves but which, on the other, unexpectedly get highly complicated without an actual good way out. Thus, he brings out the worst of human nature.

At first, Sarah seems a bit lost and you feel sympathy for her, but just until you learn which reckless behaviour brought her to the strange house. Yet, only for a short time do those negative feelings towards the protagonist linger since you soon realise that she is too naive and trusting for the world she entered. All other characters behave highly suspiciously and it is obvious that the young American will easily fall prey to them even though they are all quite diverse and aim at different things, whom their victim will be is more than obvious.

Just as the outer world is shaken by a political turmoil, also the inner world of The Kingdom seems to crumble. Decision have to be made and options have to be weighed quickly. Cleverly, Osborne builds increasing suspense and shows those sides of human character you never wanted to see. Threats appear from all corners, even the most unexpected, all heading to a highly tragic end.

Ali Smith – Summer

Ali Smith – Summer

The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.

Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.

I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.

Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:

“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”

In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

A story about a bank robbery. Or about an apartment viewing. Or about a bridge. Or about a hostage drama. Or about a father and his son. Or about a mother and her daughters. Or people who make a poor decision. Anxious people who are not sure if they will see tomorrow and if so, what tomorrow will bring. After the bank robbery went totally wrong, the bank robber storms into an apartment viewing and takes all the prospective buyers hostage. Unsure of what to do since this wasn’t planned at all, the situation gradually gets out of control since the captives are prepared to do a lot, but not being kept hostage, at least not by a failed robber. On the opposite side, two policemen, father and son, have to cope with the situation which becomes highly complicated when they realise that the robber has obviously vanished into thin air after the captives have been freed. Some of them must have helped the robber to escape, but who and, more importantly: why?

I have totally adored all novels written by Fredrik Backman and also his latest did not disappoint: a brilliantly constructed plot with highly lovable characters and – as expected – a wonderful narrator who puts the story into the right perspective. Backman is one of those authors who creates those characters at the fringe, who are a bit different, maybe even strange, who do not easily socialise but who, if you take a closer look, are adorable and at the core, just good people.

It is all but easy to tell a story full of human drama with a light-hearted tone which makes you laugh out loud and keeps your spirit high even though the characters’ lives are actually a sequence of disappointments and failures. Their ways cross several times, not too unexpectedly in a small Swedish town, and with each encounter, if they are aware of it or not, trigger a slight change. The exceptional circumstances provide them with a chance of opening up, of telling their story and secrets and realising that they are actually not alone with the ghosts who haunt them.

Fredrik Backman surely is an outstanding writer with not only an eye for the fascinating detail which is easily overlooked but, first and foremost, an advocate for the seeming odd characters who deserve a closer inspection because they actually have great stories to tell.

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.

What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.

The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.

I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.

Rosie Price – What Red Was

Rosie Price – What Red Was

It is their first week at university when Max and Kate realise not only that they live on the same floor but that they are soul mates. They can hardly be separated anymore, they are friends, not lovers, but closer than you could ever be. They share the love for film and any secret. Even though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, Kate from the countryside modestly raised by her mother whereas Max’ parents are successful and quite rich. Yet, one evening changes everything when Max’ cousin Lewis, who has eyed their friendship jealously for years, thinks he can take whatever he wants: Kate. The young woman falls into a deep hole. Afterwards, there is not much left of the creative and lively art student; suffering from a severe depression and increasingly self-harming herself, she does not find a way to confide in somebody. She has always been more insecure than others but now, she has lost her footing.

Rosie Price’s book starts out like a wonderful college novel. The immediate friendship between Kate and Max is mesmerising, it is really enchanting to see how two strangers can get along so well and form mutual trust without hesitation. But then the tide turns and so does the atmosphere. What I liked about it was the fact that the author does not use any direct brutal violence to describe what happens to Kate but focuses much more on the effect this traumatic experience has on her.

“And so instead she said nothing, hoping that if she chose not to voice whatever it was that lodged in her chest, somewhere between her lungs and her heart, it would diminish; that its toxicity might find its own means of excreting itself from her body”

The protagonist does not break down immediately, she keeps on going and to a certain extent is capable of deceiving the people around her and pretending everything is fine. I guess this is the trickiest part of such an experience that you cannot see what is going on inside somebody’s head and if you are not really closely observing, the actual emotional state might go unnoticed. A positive aspect, on the other hand, is that help comes from an unexpected person and that ultimately, Kate finds a way of opening up and talking to somebody about what is going on with her. In my opinion, the representation of Kate’s state of mind is quite accurate and also how she tries to hint at what happens but is not understood.

The story might trigger destructive memories in some readers, nevertheless I would definitely recommend reading the novel since it provides insight how a woman might become a victim in a supposedly safe environment and how these assaults might go unnoticed and the perpetrators get away with it.

Zoe Lea – The Secretary

zoe lea the secretary
Zoe Lea – The Secretary

As a single mother with a highly sensitive 8-year-old son and a very tight financial situation, Ruth already has a lot to carry. When one morning she comes across Rob in front of the school where she works as a secretary, she cannot believe what she sees: the man who pretended to be single when she spent a night with him obviously is happily married with kids. Ruth is furious and so is Janine, Rob’s wife, when she realises what she is witnessing. Ruth made her biggest enemy with Janine, the one woman in the community who is great at networking and friends with everybody. The same day, the school gets a letter demanding Ruth’s lay-off because of how she behaved in front of children. But this is only the beginning of a totally nasty fight.

Zoe Lea’s novel is a real page turner. It is unbelievable what happens to Ruth who seems to be a caring mother who’d do anything for her boy and who only tries to live a decent life after the divorce. Nobody wants to believe her and everything is simply turned around making her appear to be to aggressor. The most awful thing is that you get the impression that money and power are more important than the truth and that those who are already at the end of the food chain hardly have a chance to be heard and taken seriously.

A fast paced novel that was hard to put down. I was hooked immediately and liked the development of the events, a downward spiral which once set in motion couldn’t be stopped anymore. With each chapter, Ruth’s actions became more drastic since she was pushed more and more in a corner and like a threatened animal, did not see another way out of the menacing situation. Yet, her character is not too obvious, I started questioning her more and more towards the end which, actually, I totally liked since I couldn’t be too sure about what to believe anymore.

All in all, very entertaining and enjoyable.

Emily Henry – Beach Read

emily henry beach read
Emily Henry – Beach Read

After her father’s death and the revelation that apart from her mother, there was another woman he obviously loved, January falls into a deep hole. Hopelessly romantic as she is, she does not understand the world anymore and has to realise that her parents’ perfect marriage was far from the ideal she had always pictured it. Her mental state also keeps her from doing her job: writing romantic novels. How can you write about love when you lost all believe in it? Totally broke and to overcome her writer’s block, she moves to her father’s beach house which she plans to clear out and sell and where she hopes over summer to finish her next novel. When she arrives, another surprise is waiting for her: her neighbour Augustus Everett was at college with her and her greatest enemy. He always looked down on her Happily Ever After novels while he himself was more of the serious literary writing type. Soon, they realise that they have much more in common than they had thought and somehow they come to have a bet: swap genres and see who is the first to sell a book.

Emily Henry’s novel not only has the perfect title but it also keeps the promise that comes with it: it is a beach read just as you’d imagine: A bit of romance here, also some struggle but none too depressing there, all wonderfully narrated so that you just rush through it while enjoying the sun. It is a light-hearted escape to forget about the world and your own problems for a couple of hours and to only indulge in reading.

Even though I am not that much into com-coms, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. At times, I had to laugh out loud as the author really manages to find a carefree and relaxed tone; when in other novels you again and again read about barking dogs, in “Beach Read” you get this here: “Somewhere, a Labrador was farting. “

Even though a typical summer read which does not weigh too much on your shoulders, there are some more serious aspects one could ponder on, but clearly, the romantic fight between the protagonists is in the centre and it is clearly meant to be enjoyed.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

JP Delaney – Playing Nice

jp delaney - playing nice
JP Delaney – Playing Nice

Theo’s birth is highly dramatic, much too early, the young boy has to be taken to intensive care while his mother Maddie is still weakened by the C-section. So, it’s Pete’s task to get familiar with all the machines and to take care of his little son. Despite the turbulent start, Theo develops much better than expected and Pete turns out to be the perfect father while Maddie struggles with her new role. Quite naturally, they decide to have Pete stay at home since his job is less well paid and he totally likes taking care of the boy. When one day Miles and his wife Lucy are in front of their door, they only have faint memories of the couple whose boy was born on the same day as Theo and who was also taken to an incubator. The reason for their visit will shake their lives: the boys were swapped and Theo actually is their biological son. What starts as a friendly encounter, since they all sit in the same boat, quickly turns into the most evil fight no parent would ever like to be in. And just like in war, Miles is willing to use any weapon available to get his boy.

A novel like a roller coaster ride, emotionally challenging and breath-taking, reading it caused me almost a night without sleep since I couldn’t put it away. It is a conflict which is unsolvable, yet, the way it all turns out is unbearable to read and makes you wonder the whole time: could this happen to me, too? What incriminating material would police find if they checked on my computer and mobile phone? And at the same time: this is so absolutely unfair, this cannot be true, but how often do you hear of those stories where institutions are simply wrong and easily fooled?

At the beginning, I was wondering if Maddie’s difficulties of bonding with her son would become the major focus of the novel, quite soon, this shifted when the core problem became known. You cannot say what to do in such a case and just like the protagonists, I would never have expected it all to turn out that way. It is sheer unbelievable how everything that happens is turned against Pete and Maddie, even the most harmless incidents become major reproaches and raise questions about their parenting. It isn’t illogical at all, that is the terrible realisation, from the characters’ point of view, they hardly have any other option than interpreting the signs in this way. It hurts reading it, it really hurts, first and foremost when you look at what the situation does to Pete and Maddie. I guess, at some point, I might have given up had I been in their shoes.

To call it a wonderful read would somehow be awkward, yet, it is a brilliantly crafted novel with a very interesting conflict and, above all, authentic and lively characters who could just be you or me. Even though it is fiction and as a thriller mainly aims at making you feel a cold shiver running down your spine, it is also a novel that makes you ponder a lot.