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.

Erin Bartels – The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water

Erin Bartels – The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water

Novelist Kendra Bennan’s first book That Summer, which was based on her childhood experiences at her grandfather’s cabin on Hidden Lake, was a great success. Yet, the writing for the second does not really advance. The reason is an anonymous letter she got accusing her of not having told the truth in her first novel. Yet, she did write what and how she remembered it all. She returns to the cabin in order to find the necessary calm. However, her plan does not really work, her thoughts centre around the anonymous writer and of course around her childhood friend Cami who has been missing for some time. Only Cami’s brother and their parents are there and Andreas, her German translator, who unexpectedly turned up and moves in with her. Weeks full of tension, of things unsaid that now come to the surface and change Kendra’s view on much more than just that summer.

It is the first book that I read by Erin Bartels, an award winning novelist whom, regrettably, I haven’t noticed before. “The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water” is a kind of coming-of-age story, it is a mystery and it is a reflection on the connection between fact and fiction, on how much of a writer’s experiences can be found in his writing and to what extent they are allowed to exploit their real life for their work – and the people around them who might recognise themselves or be recognised by others.

“I was lying to myself about why I decided to finally return to Hidden Lake. Which makes perfect sense in hindsight. After all, novelists are liars.”

After the disturbing letter which she simply cannot ignore, Kendra returns to the cabin where she spent her summers, the only time she was carefree. Finishing the novel that is due plays a role but much more importantly for her is finding out what happened that summer of which she has disturbing memories she hasn’t ever been able to overcome. By confronting Cami’s brother, she hopes to elucidate the events. Soon, she has to comprehend that reality is a lot more complex and people have much more complicated and contradictory feelings than she had anticipated. That a lot of secrets are also connected to that place does not make it easier to untangle it all.

“ ’Writing is about making sense of the human condition,’ he said. ‘It’s about communicating truth, which is useful and helpful to people on a far more elemental level than a lot of stuff we think of as necessary to life.’ ”

Apart from the questions of what happened that summer, of how different characters remember the events and of what has brought this strange character of the translator – of whose intentions I was suspicious all the time – to that place, the novel is strongest when it comes to the relationship between fact and fiction. I think it is quite natural that creativity avails itself of experiences, yet, to what extent should a writer actively make use of his or her real life? Changing names and places does not always alter people beyond recognition, so don’t they have the right of their own story? Slowly, this issue becomes more and more crucial to the plot.

Wonderfully written, suspenseful not to the extent of a mystery novel but surely to keep you reading, a great read that I thoroughly enjoyed, first and foremost because it made me ponder a lot even after closing it.

Kerri Maher – The Paris Bookseller

Kerri Maher – The Paris Bookseller

Young Sylvia Beach has always dreamt of writing books, but soon she must recognise that writing isn’t hers. When in Paris, the American meets Susanne and Adrienne who run a bookshop and she is immediately fascinated by them. She decides to open a bookshop herself to provide Paris and its masses of expatriates with English books. A risky adventure in 1919, but her small store „Shakespeare and Company“ is going to make history. Not only do the Roaring Twenties make Paris the centre of the literary world, the bookshop and Sylvia become its very own epicentre and when she comes across an extraordinary novel nobody wants to publish, she decides to do it herself thus making James Joyce and his „Ulysses“ one of the greatest novels of the century.

Kerri Maher tells the story of a young and adventurous woman who follows her instincts and is willing to risk a lot to make her dreams come true. “The Paris Bookseller” portrays an outstanding personality whose strong character can be felt in every line of the novel. On the other hand, the novel is a remarkable depiction of misogynist behaviour in the literary world and, on the other, also of strong women who can accomplish a lot when working together.

I totally adored following Sylvia’s way from naive American tourist to one of the most important characters in the literary world between the wars. Surely Paris was the place to be and she was there at the right time, but also her endeavour and spirit were decisive to make it the best known bookstore in the world.

I wasn’t aware of how hostile towards women the time and publishing industry was, quite interestingly, it wasn’t people like Hemingway of whom I could have easily expected such a behaviour, quite the opposite, the educated and seemingly decent people were the most abominable.

A great read which gives insight in a time already a century ago and most certainly a must read for all booklovers of classics and the great time a century ago.

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Samantha Raymond cannot say what it was exactly that lead her to buy a house and to move out of the suburban comfort zone with her husband Matt and their teenage daughter Ally. Maybe Trump’s election, maybe the feeling of menopause hitting her or just the fact that she spends her nights awake pondering about her life and all that is connected to it: motherhood, mortality and the country she lives in. Via the Internet, she connects with some radical women whose notions are new to her. But sorting out her new life also means getting more and more away from her old life and her daughter. Has she ever been a good mom? Didn’t she do all that was necessary to bring Ally up? And what did she use her one life for actually?

In her novel “Wayward”, Dana Spiotta portrays a woman at a crucial point of her life. She made some decisions that now come under scrutiny. It is not only the outer, visible elements of her life but much more her inner convictions that have to stand the test. Her first move sets in motion a chain of events that bring her further away from all she has known for so many years and it remains to be seen where this will lead her.

What I liked most was the combination of metaphors the author uses. The old house that Sam finds and is attracted to immediately mirrors her body. Just like the cosy new home, life also has left traces on her body. Just like she renovates the house, she starts to train to get stronger. However, all the renovation cannot hide that the years have left their marks on it and some things simply cannot be redone.

Just as she analyses her complicated relationship with her own mother and also with her daughter, she analyses the state the country is in. The opposing parts become obvious through the segregation between the white and better-off parts of town and her new place which is quite the opposite. Coming from a protected life, she is now confronted with crime which has always been a reality for other parts of society, but not the suburban housewives she has known for so long.

The novel has a clear feminist perspective. Sam volunteers at a small museum that was the home of a 19th century feminist who ignored societal constraints and followed her ideals, also Sam’s mother is an independent woman, whereas she herself had given in to a life that she now is running from. Her daughter also tries to rebel against Sam’s life choices and wants to free herself –  in her very own way. All women make choices that have consequences, all woman have to decide between conformity and rebellion, they want their life to be meaningful – but what does that mean and what is the price for it?

An interesting read from a point of view that is slowly expanded to show the bigger picture.

Claire Vaye Watkins – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness

Claire Vaye Watkins – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness

When does a postpartum depression end and a real depression begin? The narrator – coincidentally with the same name and profession as the writer – is exhausted after giving birth. Flying to Reno for a book reading and leaving everything and everybody behind seems to be a good way out of the daily chores for a couple of days. Yet, she decides not to return but to reconnect with her hometown in the Nevada desert. Many people she had forgotten turn up and bring back memories and she questions the road she has taken since she could have chosen a completely different one.

Admittedly, the blurb sounded intriguing and I have read several reviews praising Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness”. However, for me, it didn’t really work. It is experimental in form and quite often there are lengthy quotations I had difficulties linking to the plot. The narration is strongest when we learn about the new mother’s struggles with her role, the new situation and the feeling of being fatigued. The rest seemed to be a bit messy which might well reflect the narrator’s – any maybe author’s – state of mind.

The book might best be described as an odyssey in which the narrator sails through time and space, searching for her identity which seems to have gone lost with childbirth. She could stop her journey at any moment and go back to her husband and daughter, but she doesn’t. She knows that there will be some nasty encounters and she will see places she only wanted to forget, but something drives her to continue.

Neither could I sympathise with the narrator nor could I really make sense of her adventure. It might be a question of hormones that you can only really understand if you have been in a comparable situation.

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

It is just a favour that Tookie wants to do for her grieving friend, admittedly, a well-paid favour since stealing the body of the lately deceased boyfriend can solve all of Tookie’s financial problems. Of course, things turn out as they always do and the young woman is sentenced to sixty years of prison. A good lawyer can bring her out after only a couple of them and as she spent most of her time reading, she starts to work in a bookshop. With her partner Pollox, she seems to be back on the good track of life, but sorting out her personal life does not sort out the world around her. And when simultaneously the pandemic hits, when police violence against people of colour escalates and becomes a public issue and, additionally, when the bookshop is haunted by the ghost of a former customer, Tookie has to handle a lot which threatens to bring back the angry young woman she once was.

Louise Erdrich has written maybe THE novel of the moment. „The Sentence“ not only integrates several current events such as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s fragile state before the 2020 election, or questions of identity, but also mythological aspects, old stories told over generations and over continents, stories which have been around as long a mankind itself. It is also the account of one woman, a woman who made mistakes, who has not always been fair since she is strong-minded, but a woman who has the heart on the right side.

It is not easy to determine where to put the focus on when talking about the novel. It seems to be eclectic, yet, this is just like life itself. It feels overwhelming at times with all the things happening at the same time, conflicting narratives which make it hard to make sense of all around you.

What I liked best was how the pandemic was integrated into the story. The author well incorporated everyday questions – why are people bulk buying? how dangerous will the virus be? what will happen to the bookstore? – into the plot, not giving it too much room but authentically showing how it affected life. This is also where we see Tookie’s good heart when she worries about her customers and tries to find ways of providing them with further reading material.

The side line of the ghost was first a kind of gothic element but it ultimately triggers the question of identity. Tookie belongs to the indigenous population, which is simply a fact, yet, one that has a huge impact on the way her life went. With it comes the big question of racial appropriation which seems so easy to answer but actually isn’t always.

The protagonist craves normal in a time when nothing is normal. It is a year of a chain of nightmares that finally closes. “The Sentence” is also a book about how literature can provide an escape and possibly also answers when reality does not anymore.

Towards the end of a year, an absolute literary gem with a wonderful annexe.

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.

Claire McGowan – I Know You

Claire McGowan – I Know You

When teenager Casey Adams leaves for Los Angeles, she hopes that her job as a nanny with a Hollywood film maker will be the first step in a career. Yet, David is hardly at home and his wife Abby is not only frustrated as she does not get any acting offers anymore but also totally unable to cope with her two kids, 5-year-old Madison and baby Carson. All is left to Casey who herself struggles with the tasks being young and unexperienced with kids. Things develop in the worst imaginable way ending in a family drama. Twenty years later in England, Rachel finds herself accused of the murder of her boy-friend’s wife. All evidence is against her, why did she run when she accidentally stumbled over the body in the woods and not call the police? Rachel has a reason to stay away from murder as she knows how death row feels.

Claire McGowan has created another highly suspenseful and complex psychological thriller. Casey’s and Rachel’s story alternate, it only takes a couple of pages to realise how they are linked and why the two plot lines are connected over such a long time and two quite unalike places. Both murder cases are interesting to follow even though they could hardly be more different and the fact that there is a common ground gives it a little extra of suspense.

It is easy to comprehend Casey’s feeling of exhaustion as she is not really prepared for her job as a nanny. Working for a glamorous family sounded great only on paper, reality hits her hard, but she has a good heart and tries to do what is best for the kids. It takes some time for her to understand the underlying mechanics of the family, that David and Abby’s relationship is going down the plughole and that all she can do is make sure the kids are all right. Until they aren’t anymore. Being accused of multiple murder, nobody wants to believe her, that is the hardest part of the story because you can easily empathise with her despair in telling them about her innocence without being heard. Yet, there are some gaps in her story and the question is looming if she can actually be believed.

Rachel on the other hand, is a lot stronger but nevertheless also a prime suspect whom everybody turns their back to when the police start to question her. She is also alone and tries to prove her innocence. It is obvious that somebody tries to frame her, the big question is just: who would want to do such a thing and why?

A great read that I totally adored. Two wonderful protagonists who are multifaceted in their character traits and a suspenseful plot which brilliantly links the two stories.

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Kristina is waiting to die, finally. She does not live anymore, she has been murdered and dismembered in the woods outside Stockholm, but she only really dies forever when her name will be spoken for the last time. So she floats in between the world and eternity, sees how her parents bury what has been found of her. She also visits her kids in their dreams, kids for whom she so hard wanted to be a good mother but unfortunately couldn’t be. Her life with Shane has always been a struggle and she somehow has always known that growing old wasn’t meant for her.

Sara Stridsberg’s novel is – despite the cruelty of the topic – wonderfully written and a poetic masterpiece. It opens with a description of what Kristina feels last, how she perceives nature during her last minutes when she is to become a part of the lake and the earth. It is also the story of a drug addict, a young woman who comes from a struggling family and does not find herself a place in the world and quickly relies on diverse substances to help her forget the darkness she finds outside and inside herself. It is a life lost, a life which could have become so much but didn’t.

It is heart-breaking to read the young woman’s account. How casually she tells the reader that at first, nobody misses her, neither her mother, nor her father who hasn’t seen her for years, nor her children. Yet, the later live a new life and her daughter might hardly remember her, too early in her life was she taken away and put into a foster family. Yet, this was the best Kristina could do for her, at least once in her life she did something right despite the feeling of loss.

When she was pregnant, she wanted to get clean, to be a good mother, to care for Valle and Solveig. However, the craving was always too strong, harshness of life always brought her back to the drugs. She feels ashamed for not having been able to care for the kids. But she has always lived in the darkness and the rare rays of light couldn’t lead her to another life.

A life not lived and yet, as humans, we are just a blink in eternity. In 2019, “The Antarctica of Love” was awarded Sveriges Radios Romanpris, a Swedish literary prize for the best novel of the year. It wasn’t the first time Stridsberg’s work was highly appreciated. She uses language in a unique way which does not only touch you profoundly but goes deep down into you and reaches you at your core having the novel make a deep impression that stings.