Dominic Smith – The Electric Hotel

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Dominic Smith – The Electric Hotel

Claude Ballard is a legend in film making. Having started at the times of the brothers Lumière and the silent film, his „The Electric Hotel“ was a highly innovative masterpiece which is meant to have been lost for decades. Yet, when a student comes to interview Ballard about his life and work, he not only learns about the beginning of the moving pictures, but also makes an interesting discovery.

Dominic Smith’s novel is a must read for film lovers, at the example of Claude Ballard who wanders the streets of Paris and New York of 1910 to capture real life through the lens, the history and development of the silent film is narrated. His only film – “The Electric Hotel” – could have been a great success, but times weren’t easy and so were the women, first and foremost Sabine Montrose the actress who had the main role in his film and his life.

The cinematic background is clearly well researched and also the times that the characters remember come to life vividly. Yet, I am not enough into cinema to really enjoy this intensive read and the characters were quite hard for me to relate to. I am sure that readers with more interest I the topic will find a lot more delight in the novel than I did.

Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

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Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

“I was twelve years old. This was the morning of the last day of my childhood.”

Violet Rue has always been her father’s favourite little girl. Just like her older sisters before, but not the brothers. The seventh of the children was loved beyond belief and treated differently. Jerome Kerrigan wasn’t an easy man, expecting his family to be obedient and to follow his orders. His education was strict and very clear. But then, one event changes everything. Her older brothers commit a cruel crime, killing a boy from the neighbourhood, a black boy. Violet Rue knows about it and she knows where the murder weapon is to be found. Keeping this secret is not really an option, but positioning herself against her family means that she has to life a life as a rat, a person who betrayed their closest.

I have read several novels written by Joyce Carol Oates and thus knew that she does not make it easy for her readers and demands a lot. Here, too, the book at times is hard to tolerate, the family situation is shocking and what the girl experiences – also after leaving the family – is merciless, just like reality sometimes is. A very strong narration that especially could convince me due to the tone of the young narrator who is torn between a childish naiveté and the need to grow-up and care for herself far too early.

It’s a novel about family bonds, family secrets, punishment, and all kinds of abuse. Powerfully Oates portrays how strong the core family members are sometimes linked and how the children and partners of abusive husbands sometimes keep silent just to secure their life. Violet knows as a young girl already what is right and what is wrong and that her decision to take the side of the victim will have severe consequences. But she – just like any child in a comparable situation – underestimates the hatred that people might show and how heartlessly her family is ready to cast her out.

A book not especially pleasurable to read but surely not to miss either.

K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

kc-maher-the-best-of-crimes
K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

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

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

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

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

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

Will Wiles – Plume

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Will Wiles – Plume

A fire somewhere in London attracts the people’s attention. Where is it exactly? What is burning? Is it dangerous? But Jack Bick has other problems. His alcohol consumption is totally out of control which highly impacts his job as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. This has not gone unnoticed and his superiors virtually hold a pistol to his head: either he runs an interview with a real estate manager or he is out. Jack, instead, is highly fascinated by an author who hasn’t published anything for years. His sixth sense tells him that there is a story, but nobody wants to hear about it. Should he succumb or follow his instincts? Well, it’s not really a question for Bick and so a series of catastrophes starts-

I was totally hooked by the flap text which promised a novel about truth – personal truth, objective truth, journalistic truth and modern day London life. Well, yes, this is what it is about, but after a great start with the scene about the plume, the novel completely lost me. It had the impression that the plot did not advance but turn round itself all the time and the protagonist, whose addiction and sloppiness I highly detested, did not help either.

There were some great aspects, especially the question about creating reality and turning lies into facts. Also how real estate works in London and how ordinary tenants are treated just as objects you can make money with was certainly interesting. Yet, for me, the protagonist destroyed a lot and I had the impression that just as Jack Bick lost control of his life, the author also lost the red thread of the plot at times which made it hard to keep focused and go on reading for me.

Anthony Horowitz – The Sentence Is Death

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Anthony Horowitz – The Sentence Is Death

Why did he ever consent to write three books about Daniel Hawthorne? He can’t remember and now, there is another murder and he has to play the detective’s assistant and document to case to turn into a crime novel. Reluctantly, the narrator comes to the crime scene, but he is soon fascinated by the case. Richard Pryce, a well-known and respected lawyer, is found murdered in his house, killed by a bottle of 1982 Chateau Lafite worth thousands. On the wall, three greenish digits have been painted: 182. The number of suspects is remarkable, from the victim’s partner to his former clients – many might have wanted to see him dead. But who actually committed the crime?

After “The Word Is Murder”, this is the second instalment of this very unique crime series starring the author as narrator and the very peculiar former police detective Daniel Hawthorne who has his very own way of proceeding. Not to forget: again there are some very obvious hints to the number one crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not just Horowitz and Hawthorne as a comic version of Watson and Holmes, also the case bears close resemblance to some well-known cases of the private London detective.

The case was without any doubt cleverly constructed and is based on a very human vice. Signs everywhere lead to the murderer, yet, they have to be detected and read in the right way. The narrator is getting better in analysing crime scenes, yet this does not prevent him from coming to coherent, but unfortunately false conclusions. The character of Hawthorne has lost nothing of his peculiarity which made me enjoy reading about him and hating him at the same time. He strongly seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum with his massive lack of social competence. Most of all, however, I really relished Horowitz’s humour which accounts for most of the fun of the read.

A wonderful series with certainly a highly unique style of narration.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

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Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

A typical patchwork family: mother with daughter and father with son form a new unit after the parents got to know each other through work. For a new professional project of the father, they leave New York and their cosy home for the southern states close to the Mexican border. A very unique road trip of a family which is educating for their young children, but also brings them closer to the hot political topic: thousands of children are on their way to the border to come to the USA. As the family gets closer, the radio news become more and more a part of their life, too.

Valeria Luiselli’s novel was nominated on the long list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and you can quickly understand why it definitely earned a place there: the author masterly combines fact and fiction, mixes different types of materials to for something new and she has an outstanding capacity of using language.

There is so much one could say about the novel which makes it difficult to make a selection for a short review. The largest part is narrated from the mother’s point of view, a character who is highly poetic in describing especially her family relationships and who thoroughly analyses not only how the dynamics within the family shift but also how they interact with the outside world. I also liked this idea of having boxes in which each of the characters collects things with a certain meaning for them. Then, you have the American history – the past with the stories of the Native Americans which is contrasted with the present and its train of children moving towards the country.

The characters are not given any names, they are just mother and father, son and daughter. They could be anybody. They are you and me confronted with the real world and forced to understand that we live in a kind of multi-layered reality in which you repeatedly have to adjust yourself and your opinion depending on your current point of view and knowledge and experiences. The novel does not provide definitive answers, but it provides you with masses of questions to ponder about.

Renée Rosen – Park Avenue Summer

renee-rosen-park-avenue-summer
Renée Rosen – Park Avenue Summer

When Alice Weiss left her small town in Ohio for New York, she only had one aim: becoming a photographer. Yet, live wasn’t easy for an inexperienced young woman with high ambitions. A friend of her deceased mother arranged her an interview for the job of a secretary. Not exactly what Alice was looking for, but, well, she needed money and working for Helen Gurley Brown who had just taken over the Cosmo magazine seemed as good as any other job. What she didn’t expect was that her time as Helen’s right hand would bring her much more than just the money to survive: she learned to be ambitious, not to see marriage as the only goal for a woman and to stand up for herself. 1965 wasn’t quite ready for feminism and so wasn’t Alice. But things had to start finally.

Renée Rosen tells the story of Helen Gurley Brown who published the bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl” before becoming editor-in-chief of “Cosmopolitan” and transforming the magazine from a housewife read to the most widely sold independent women’s magazine. Talking openly about sex was simply scandalous in 1965 and showing sexy pictures of women was also new in the magazine world, but it was especially her attitude that made a big change. The character of Alice Weiss, the protagonist of the novel, is yet just an invention, but one I highly adored while reading.

Apart from all that is connected to Brown’s difficult start at the magazine, which I found quite interesting from today’s perspective, I liked Alice from the start. She is not the typical naive country girl coming to the big city. However, things are very different from what she was used to and she had to find her place in the Big Apple. Rosen portrays her in a very authentic way: she is sometimes insecure but ventures to overcome this and dares to speak for her own, she is working hard for her dream and does not give up even after horrendous experiences, she is at times torn between wanting to be independent and looking for a husband to marry. Also the way she describes New York of 1965 was wonderful, you are conquering the city together with Alice.

A brilliant behind-the-scenes novel which skilfully combines fact and fiction and offers a girl’s story without being a kitschy love story, quite the contrary: it shows our mothers in fighting for female independence.

Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

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Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

When Juliet finally comes to High School, she has high expectations. Since she is assigned to many honours classes, her talents sure will soon be seen by her teachers. However, instead of concentrating on her educational goals, Juliet is completely preoccupied with what others think of her, why she does not fit in and why she even lost the only friend she had in middle school. She struggles more and more and enters a spiral of drugs and self-harm until she, at last, cries for help and is brought to a hospital. With changing school, she hopes to find back to her old self, but the mental illness she has to recognize as a part of her personality, keeps her at the edge between life and death.

I have read several novels about teenagers developing mental illnesses and struggling to come back to something like a normal life. Thus, I was keen on reading Juliet Escoria’s novel which comes with high praise and was highly anticipated. Sadly, the protagonist didn’t really convince me and I hardly could relate with her and her fate.

The biggest problem for me was that throughout the novel I had the impression that the medicine to treat bipolar disorder or depression is somehow glorified and paralleled with “ordinary” drugs that are consumed by teenagers, such as alcohol, marihuana or any type of pills. Also the fact that having sex while being completely out of your mind was repeatedly portrayed as something you should go for left me a bit wondering. Since Juliet does not really seem to be willing to overcome her addictions or to find a way of living with her diagnosis and the side effects that come with it, I also did not find the novel helpful in any way.

Well, there were some entertaining parts in it, it was even funny at times. And surely it shows that absolutely anybody might end up with mental struggles and that you cannot really do something about it. The tone was adequate for a teenager, even though she often sounded a bit older than just the 14 she was at the beginning.

Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

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Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

Things have been getting worse for Bunny, given this name because her parents raised rabbits, and now, New Year’s Eve is approaching. Like every year, Bunny and her husband Albie will take part in the mandatory dinner with people they call their “friends” even though they don’t see them any other evening of the year due to obvious reasons. Albie would be fine to stay at home, but Bunny knows that even though she feels depressed, she needs to play along. But then, the worst case happens: she breaks down and finds herself in a psych ward.

The novel is divided into two parts: before and after, just like people who have a breakdown or have to live through a life-changing event, divide their life. For me personally, the two parts are so different that it is not easy to come to one conclusion in the end. I’d say: thumbs-up for the first half of the novel, but a strong trigger warning for the second.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressed and struggles with the smallest everyday actions, I found the beginning of the book often very funny since the author is a master of irony and a humour that I really liked. There are so many brilliant phrases, it was a great joy to read even though Bunny’s suffering is almost overwhelming. You slowly approach the climax, New Year’s Eve, and you know that something big is going to happen, thus the suspense becomes almost unbearable.

When Bunny is hospitalised, her welcome there still has some funny aspects, but only until the laughter gets stuck in your throat and Bunny’s life becomes utterly horrible. I have read several novels about psycho wards, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, interrupted”, which were not easy to support, but admittedly, more than once I was close to just stopping reading because I could hardly stand what the nurses and doctors there do to the patients. I hope that this is not reality – even though I fear that it might come much closer than anybody from the outside world would dream. No, what Bunny has to endure in hospital is not something nice and there is no need to embellish anything, but admittedly who could ever turn to such a place to find help?

Binnie Kirshenbaum surely is a remarkable and highly gifted writer, yet, this novel definitely should be accompanied by a warning.

Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

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Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

When one evening a police car stops in front of their house, Lucy immediately has a bad feeling. Her mother-in-law Diana has been found dead and the police treats it as a homicide. But why? Could there have been foul play? Well, Diana wasn’t somebody you instantly loved when you got to know her, you maybe never loved her and she, on the other hand, didn’t hide her despise for anybody outside her closest family circle. Lucy remembers how she first met the old, wealthy woman, recalls scenes of her family life when, again and again, Diana gave her the impression of being the wrong wife for her beloved son. And now, the police investigate her death.

Sally Hepworth’s novel caught me straightaway. From the first page on, I was intrigued by the story and just wanted to find out how Lucy could have killed Diana. Well, of course, there was always the possibility that somebody else also disliked Diana that much – but it took quite some time until I gave up my first suspicions and then, admittedly, looked at the plot cluelessly: but who? They all hated her more or less, but rather more.

The story is told in flashbacks what makes the actual plot advance only slowly. Yet, this does not reduce suspense since the memories of Lucy and Diana alike definitely contribute to arouse suspicion. What I enjoyed most was how you directly think you know everything, have an idea of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and how, slowly but steadily, your tower of belief crumbles and ultimately falls because the characters get more profile, other sides of their personality are shown and they become really authentic and plausible in the way they act and behave. At the same time, Sally Hepworth’s novel is often really funny and entertaining, I liked her kind of humour deeply.

The author was definitely great discovery for me and I am eager to read more from her.