Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

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Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

Ivan and Prue both live for their careers, Ivan in philosophy and Prue as an ornithologist. For some time already, things have not run very smoothly between them, yet, it is not very clear why this is so. Maybe the fact that Prue is a lot more successful than Ivan and close to getting a tenure, or it is the arrival of one of Prue’s favourite authors who joins their circle of friends. When Prue is to give a public lecture which might finalise her post at the college, her father Frank joins them against his daughter’s wish. Frank has been struggling with his bipolar disorder and Prue fears the worst. Just a couple of days and nothing is like it was before anymore in their life.

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel leaves me a bit pondering. On the one hand, she addresses so many important topics that are worth mentioning and thinking about, on the other hand, when I finished it, I had to ask myself: and now? So what? It is a snap-shot of her characters’ life without a clear aim, I just didn’t get her intention for narrating this story.

As said before, there are interesting aspects such as the father’s way of coping with his mental issues, but also what the bipolar disorder does to him. I always find it worth writing and reading about these kinds of issues simply to raise awareness, but also to foster understanding and knowledge and I think literature can be a big help here. I also appreciated the way Stern shows the slight imbalances in the relationship between Ivan and Prue. They are professionals in different fields and certainly should not compete with each other, nevertheless, this is one of their main issues: how can a husband cope with a wife being more successful? In general, Ivan’s behaviour is worth taking a closer look at: he only starts to pay real attention to Prue when he becomes aware of other men’s attraction to her. The war they start is nasty, but I guess this is quite authentic in their situation.

There is a whole lot of theory about languages and especially bird communication. Even though I am a linguist, this did not really grab my attention since I already found the idea behind so strange that I didn’t want to go any deeper in this weird theory. Her style of writing though is quite promising and I surely would try another novel of the author.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin – We Cast a Shadow

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Maurice Carlos Ruffin – We Cast a Shadow

An unnamed southern city some day in the near future. Nigel’s parents want to do everything for their kid, they live in a good part of town and raise their boy with love. Especially his father wants to protect him from what he himself went through. Being black, he knows exactly what racism is like and every single day of his life, he is reminded of his skin colour. It’s the small nasty remarks of his colleagues, the fact of being identified as a danger wherever he goes and the constant reminder that he is inferior to people of white skin that almost exhaust him. Penny, his wife is white and this makes Nigel bi-racial with a much lighter skin colour. Yet, a birthmark troubles his father and therefore, he seeks help in a clinic where demelanization has become the latest trend: getting rid of the apparent sign of inferiority. He wants the best for his son but actually thus, he does the worst thing he could do to his small family.

It is easy to sympathise with the father since he is the first person narrator of the novel. At the beginning, we meet him as a junior lawyer in a high-profile company where he tries to fight his way up, yet is greeted with racism daily – some of it hidden behind nice words, some outspoken openly. It does not take too long to understand that the work environment is only a microcosm of the society he lives in and which has a clear ranking of power and prestige: male white heterosexuals rule whereas blacks, women and others have to fight to survive and will never be considered equal.

His decision to make life easier for his boy can easily be understand in this context, what it means for Nigel and for his family is a lot more complex. Maurice Carlos Ruffin succeeds in depicting the conflicting emotions and the oppositional opinions of the characters. From each respective perspective, they are right in their position which clearly outlines that there is not right or wrong and no objective correct answer to the question of what should be done.

Even though the novel is set in the future and surely the society is portrayed in an exaggerated way when it comes to racial questions, I assume there is a lot of truth in it that can be understood as a warning and gives you food for thought.

Karen Thompson Walker – The Dreamers

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Kren Thompson Walker – The Dreamers

When the first student doesn’t wake up after a long party night, nobody is really scared, it’s just something that happens. But when more and more people in the small Southern Californian college town just fall sound asleep, fear starts to grow. What is happening in town? Is this an infection and what does the sleep do to the people? Students, professors, nurses, doctors, average people – they all can catch the mysterious virus which seems to cause wild dreams and a comatose state. Public life slowly comes to a standstill and the town is put under quarantine, it has become too dangerous to go there because nobody knows what kind of new biological threat they are dealing with. Who will win: the virus or the human race?

Sometimes there are books that you suddenly see everywhere and everybody seems to talk about them. When I first came across “The Dreamers”, I was convinced that this was nothing for me, I prefer realistic stories and nothing too fancy and out of the ordinary.  But the hype about it rose my curiosity and thus, I wanted to know what is behind it all. Well, to sum it up: a notable novel which is skilfully written and got me hooked immediately.

What I appreciated especially were two things. First of all, the dramaturgy of the plot. The mysterious virus just infects students and then slowly spreads and the number of characters that we got to know is progressively affected and falls asleep. As the number of victims rises, the life in the small town is reduced more and more to a minimum. It is obvious that there must be some kind of final fight in which either side gains the upper hand and the other succumbs – yet, Karen Thompson Walker finds a different solution which I liked a lot since it perfectly mirrors life’s ambiguity.

The second aspect was even more impressive. I fell for the author’s laconic style of writing. It is down to earth, concise and everything but playfully metaphorical. It reflects the characters’ mood of having to survive under the extreme circumstances: Just go on, do what is necessary, keep your head high and make yourself useful. That’s just how it is, so what? No need to fantasize about an alternative world, we just have this situation and need to cope with it.

To sum it up: just like the sleep overcomes the characters, this novel could spellbind me.

Alexandra Turney – In Exile

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Alexandra Turney – In Exile

Summer in Italy can be rather boring when all the friends are on holiday with their families. But Grace’s boredom finds an end when she stumbles across an ancient god, Dionysus. Quite naturally she doesn’t believe his story in the beginning, but slowly recognised who or rather: what he really is. When her friends Caroline and Sara return, she tells them about him and they are eager to meet him, too. So is the ancient god and since he has been longing for nymphs to feed him, the three teenagers are a welcome prey for his doings. Dionysus, not only the god of grapes and wine making, but also the god of ritual madness and religious ecstasy will lead the girls to somewhere they have never been before.

I am torn between finding it wonderful and shaking my head when it comes to Alexandra Turney’s second novel. On the one hand, it is beautifully written and I was captivated from the start, on the other hand, it is all a bit too much and too unrealistic. I was waiting all the time for some kind of revelation that could explain it all. Maybe it is just my being a bit too serious that keeps me from imaging an ancient god being reborn and founding a new kind of cult.

What I found quite realistic, in contrast, was how the three girls are spell-bound by the god and become addicted to his wine. It doesn’t take them too long until their whole thinking only circles around their Friday evening ecstasies. They eagerly sacrifice everything that was important to them before for their new god and the feelings that arouse when being drunk. They aren’t even scared when they realise what they are capable of doing when being drunk.

An extraordinary book that sure captures the spirit and atmosphere of Rome where you sometimes are lead to believe that all is possible and where the long history can carry away your thoughts easily.

Dov Alfon – A Long Night in Paris

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Dov Alfon – A Long Night in Paris

When an Israeli IT specialist is abducted at Charles de Gaulle airport, this is not given too much attention at first. But since it can serve as a great story to redirect public interest from the latest of the Prime Minister’s misconducts, suddenly this incident turns into the top issue. And as it turns out, the case of the abducted Israeli becomes one of the most complicated and deadly warfares on French ground. While the newly appointed head of the Israel Special Section 8200 Abadi is fighting Chinese killers with a clear and uncompromising mission in the French capital, his deputy Oriana Talmor is struggling in Tel Aviv with their own people who appear to be much more interested in their personal agendas than in the country’s security. A long day and an even longer night lies in front of this seemingly mismatched pair.

Dov Alfon certainly knows what he is writing about and there are some interesting parallels between his own life and his protagonist Abadi. Both grew up in France which their parents left when they were still school boys. He did his military service in the IDF’s technological intelligence unit before becoming an awarded journalist. To sum up, “A Long Night in Paris” is a fast-paced spy novel which is highly complex in its plot and gives a lot of insight in what is going on behind the closed doors of one of the world’s most famous and most secretive services.

The story is simply addictive. Once you’ve started you can’t put the book down since you’re hooked and you want to know how all the different dots connect. What I liked most about it was the fact that it is not by surprising coincidences that the plot advances but by the doing of very intelligent characters. They are not only well-trained soldiers, but also the elite which is demonstrated breath-takingly. Even under the highest pressure, they keep calm and can control the situation.

Oriana Talmor is certainly a very interesting character. It is rare to have a female protagonist in a spy novel (who is not just the seductive sidekick of the big enemy), and in my impression she is well-balanced between the intelligent soldier and the human being who is sensitive and to whom also self-doubts aren’t unknown. This was especially shown in the scene where she motivates her female duty sergeant Rachel to continue her career as an officer.

The 2017 book sensation from Israel luckily now also available in other languages and without a doubt a novel that can compete with John Le Carré’s or Daniel Silva’s novels.

J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

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J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

When her mother is about to die, Joanna returns home in the US after years of living in London. What she was not prepared for are the memories that come back to her and that are closely linked to her childhood and teenage years:  the plans to run away from home together with her brother, the times when her uncle approached and molested her, her way out of middle-class life, the beginning of her academic career and the realisation that she will never fit in and that she is simply not good enough to marry a son of a well-off family even though she excels at an Ivy-League University. A week of mourning and memories that not all are welcome to Jo and her family.

What I liked about the book was how easily one could sympathise and bond with Jo and thus follow her thoughts. The springing back and forward between the events around the mother’s death and funeral and her memories helped to keep the story lively and authentic; some words or people just trigger memories that you can neither prevent from coming to the surface nor control in the extent that they hit you.

The novel addresses several interesting topics that are worth pondering about: what keeps a family together and why do some women over and over again forgive all their husbands’ wrongdoings? Is there some kind of escape from your family, can you ever really cut the links that were established by birth? Coming from a certain class, working hard and doing everything right, what keeps you still from really belonging and being considered an adequate match? A lot of food for thought, especially when you share the protagonist’s background and visions of life. A quiet novel that is perfect for calmer days.

Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer

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Oyinkan Braithwaite  – My Sister, the Serial Killer

Korede and her sister Ayoola live in Lagos together with their mother since their father dies. Korede, who works at a hospital as a nurse, is a decent, but rather plain young woman whereas Ayoola always has all the looks on her. Even though the sisters couldn’t hardly be more different, they are sister after all so when Ayoola calls her, it is without any question that Korede shows up with some bleach to wipe away the mess of another murder. They have done it before and will also succeed this time. Why does she have to kill all her boyfriends? Korede wonders but since none of the was really important to her, she remains secret and the sister she is supposed to be. But when Ayoola starts dating to one man Korede really likes, things become a bit more complicated.

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel is a hilarious read full of absurd situations and fantastic characters. The author, who graduated in Creative Writing and was a 2016 finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, surely knows how to create outstanding characters and how to combine humour with an actually very serious topic. What I appreciated most is how she, on the surface, wrote a funny story that, beneath, offers so much crucial and grave issues. What it all comes down to after all is the well-known fact that blood is thicker than water and that without any question, you know which side you have to be on.

Ayoola is a serial killer – absurd as it may sound, the title is absolutely clear about it and after the opening scene, you know all about her killings. Yet, this is one of the least interesting aspects, much more remarkable is the sisters’ relationship: jealousy, love, anger, hatred, support – the full spectrum of emotions. Of course, it is Korede that the reader commiserates, she is obviously the good girls that nobody notices, neither their parents nor the men. I wondered if Ayoola suffered from some kind of mental illness, she somehow does not really seem to realise what she does, but she definitely is rather egocentric and not very considerate when it comes to other people’s feelings.

“My sister, the Serial Killer” is a black comedy that should not be taken too seriously I guess. It is a great read that I utterly enjoyed. I am absolutely looking forward to reading more from the author.

Samuel Park – The Caregiver

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Samuel Park – The Caregiver

In the 1990s, Mara Alcenar is living in California and working as a caregiver for a woman who suffers from cancer. She has been in the US for many years, illegally like so many others and always struggling to survive and hoping not to be caught. Yet, going back to Brazil is not an option; it is just her thoughts that frequently return to her native country. She remembers the time when she was six and living with her mother Ana who worked in the film industry and dubbed foreign productions. She was also a great actor which lead her to a fatal decision: being offered a “role” by leftist rebels, Ana Alcenar couldn’t refuse. She needed the money for herself and Mara. But then, something went completely wrong at the Police Chief’s office. Years later, Mara is a teenager and gets the chance to revenge her mother – but is the episode as she remembers is actually the truth?

Samuel Park’s novel “The caregiver” focuses on two completely different aspects: on the one hand, he addresses political questions such as the military rulers of South America in the 20th century and the precarious situation of immigrants from these countries in the US. On the other hand, he has a very personal topic that the novel makes you think about: what do loving and caring mean and how far would you go for the ones you love?

For me, the parts of the novel that are set in Rio de Janeiro were the most impressive. The author really gives you a good idea of how life was like under those political circumstances and how important your personal bonds were to survive. The neighbour becomes crucial for survival, you find yourself quickly caught between the lines and even if you want to keep away from politics, this isn’t always possible. And there is not just black and white, but many shades of grey.

The question of what loving somebody means is also crucial in the novel. Not the love between lovers, but much more the compassion you feel towards family members and those close to you, how much you are willing to endure and even more importantly: how much you are willing to forgive and to forget.

A novel full of food for thought and at the same time wonderfully written.

Daniel Torday – Boomer1

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Daniel Torday – Boomer1

It’s music that makes Cassie Black and Mark Brumfeld fall in love in New York. Together they play in a band and also share their lives, but somehow it doesn’t really fit. It is especially their professional situation that creates a lot of tension, Mark dreams of writing a novel or at least getting a lecturing position at university. When he proposes to Cassie, this is the necessary point of no return for her and they split up. Cassie is offered a job in a somehow strange start-up media company where she fact checks articles but is always unsure of what she really does. After some more failures, Mark returns to his parents’ home in Baltimore. One day, Cassie comes across a video online: her ex published a series of statements against the Baby Boomers who occupy all the good jobs and make life hard for his generation. What was initially meant as a rant due to his personal situation, ends in a violent revolution.

Daniel Torday narrates the novel “Boomer1” through the three perspectives of Cassie, Mark and Julia, Mark’s mother. This gives him the possibility to show the same scenes from different angels which sometimes also spins the way we as a reader perceive it. Even though there are many humorous and highly comical scenes, there are some underlying truths in the story which give it a lot more depth than it might seem to have on the surface.

First of all, I could highly sympathise with Cassie’s job at the media company RazorWire. She always wonders what she is doing – and actually many of her colleagues spend their working time playing computer games and watching YouTube videos. It may seem a common prejudice but reality has shown that many of those start-ups have disappeared more quickly than they were founded since they didn’t create anything at all.

I can also understand Mark’s deception and despair. Being highly qualified but having the impression of being of no use on the labour market because all positions are taken by some old people who could easily retire is just frustrating. Waiting for the life to begin is hard to endure.

Also their struggle with relationships is something that is well-known in the generation of millennials. Heterosexual as well as homosexual experiences, splitting up getting back together – they dream of their childhood when life was easy and families followed traditional patterns. They know that this is not something they will not get as easily as their parents got it. Somehow their whole life is fragile and nothing is sure anymore. What else could be the logical consequence other than a revolution? Starting it online is simply logical for them.

I really liked the novel, it is entertaining and well-written and has a noteworthy message, too.

Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

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Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

Mischa Abramavicious is the perfect student: she has all the grades it needs to get into the best colleges, her list of extracurricular activities is impressive and her single-parent mom will be proud of her. But on Admission Day, she only gets rejections. None of the schools has admitted her, not even the local safety college. But how come? Mischa doesn’t dare to tell her mother but starts investigating instead. Together of the Ophelia Club, a bunch of tech-wise girls of her school, and her friend Nate, they discover that marks and letter of recommendation have been changed – but why, and especially: be whom?

“We Regret to Inform You” is a well-written novel about today’s teenagers and the pressure they are under. Only when the whole world falls apart for Mischa does she realize that she actually has no hobbies, not even an interest but that she has spent the last for years only working for her résumé and to fulfil her mother’s expectations. The later, too, also put much in her daughter’s future, invested money she didn’t have to get her into an expensive private school which promised the best starting point for an Ivy League University.

I really liked Ariel Kaplan’s style of writing. Even though a major catastrophe is happening to the protagonist, the novel is not really depressing but quite entertaining since there are many comic situations and ironic dialogues. The novel concentrates on the positive side which I liked a lot, Mischa doesn’t give up, but her focus shifts and she finally gets to understand herself better. She makes the best of it and fights for her rights – but not at the expense of everything else. So, it still is a young adult novel even though there are some underlying very serious issues.