Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Even though the Middle Ages are over, superstition and strange beliefs are still widespread among people. Thus, in 1615, Katharina Kepler finds herself accused of witchcraft by the people of her hometown of Leonberg in southern Germany. Times are hard, the Plague is spreading the Thirty Years’ War has just begun and somebody must be blamed for all the things happening. Katharina is an elderly widow, illiterate and mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She leads a simple life, attending to her cow Chamomile. One day, however, Ursula Reinbold, accuses her of witchcraft, having offered a bitter drink which allegedly poisoned her, and surprisingly, the court not only listens but more and more people come forwards with testimonies of Katharina’s ill-doing. Only her neighbour, old Simon, who prefers to keep to himself, stands by her side.

Rivka Galchen’s story is based on a true story, Johannes Kepler’s mother was a healer and herbalist and arrested for witchcraft. The famous son stopped his research in planetary motion to defend his mother. Not only Katharina became victim of this kind of accusation, the town’s advocate Lutherus Einhorn accused 15 women in one trial and had executed eight of them in 1615.

At first, Katharina doesn’t take the accusation seriously, it is just talk for her, until she is put to prison and has to learn that more and more people come forward with other stories which seem to underline her doing black magic. She tries to counter the attack by accusing Ursula and her husband of slander, yet, her own case vanishes somewhere in the depth of local jurisprudence.

“We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always know. The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.”

The accusations brought forward rage from poisoning, causing lameness, several deaths, injuring a woman’s foot, harming numerous people and animals – a long list which is getting more and more absurd during the story. I liked the interrogations of the inhabitants since they show not only the superstition they fall prey to, but also the dynamics of a small town which turns against one woman. Everything ill that has ever happened is simply attributed to Katharina. The allegations are so ridiculous that you could laugh weren’t it for Katharina’s case and the fact that the people’s testimonies seem to be believed.

Even though the plot is based on a well-documented historical case, you can see more or less the same thing happening today. It is not the small town anymore, but the world wide web in which often just one single person brings forward an accusation – no need for proof anymore – and masses jump on the bandwagon and have their twitter trial even before the issue is sorted out. It doesn’t matter if the accused is later discharged or not, the only thing that counts is public opinion which is quick at passing a sentence.

An entertaining read which outlines the dark sides of human nature – envy, greed, malicious gossip – and the danger that might come from it.

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Sisters Ida and Marthe have planned to spend some days together at their cabin close to the sea where they will be joined by their mother and her partner. Ida is reluctant to go there, with her 40th birthday only a couple of weeks ago and still no father for prospective children in view, she knows that her window of becoming a mother is getting closer and closer. This is why she decided to freeze some of her eggs. Yet, it does not hinder her from negative feelings towards Marthe who, now pregnant and stepmother of beautiful 6-year-old Olea, seems – as always – to get everything she wants. Hard feelings accompany Ida and slowly turn their holiday together into a catastrophe.

I totally enjoyed Marie Aubert’s novel as I could easily sympathise with her narrator and protagonist. Additionally, there is some fine irony and humour in the text which make it a great read. The relationship between sisters quite often is all but easy and even as grown-ups, hard feelings and emotional injuries from the childhood can sit deep and hinder them from ever having a healthy bond.

Ida obviously is envious, her sister not only has a living husband but also a lovely stepdaughter and she’s pregnant. Even though Ida is a successful architect, she has never managed to establish a functioning relationship with a partner and feels lonely and somehow failed in life. Always being second, this is how she has grown up, no matter which achievements she reached, there was always Marthe who was ill and thus spoilt those rare moments of joy for Ida. Their mother does not seem to be aware of the difference she makes between the girls – yet, one has also to take into account that we only get Ida’s point of view which quite naturally is not only limited but highly biased.

“It’s not right That it should be so easy for others and so hard for me, I don’t get it, if there’s some sort of formula, a code that others know about, one they’ve known since they were young but which I’ve never quite grasped.”

Ida gets worked up about her sister and is willing to destroy her sister’s life when she is drunk one evening. This is rather tragic to observe and Ida turns into a pitiable character who does not realise that she will be even lonelier if she loses these last persons around her. She is aware of this but cannot act differently.

Marie Aubert’s debut is elegantly narrated, yet, the story leaves you with mixed feelings. It is joyful at times but the dysfunctional family is also an emotional challenge.

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has achieved what she could only dream of, at 26 she is editorial assistant at one of the most prestigious publishing houses. The only thing she has been struggling with the last two years is how the idea of diversity has never entered her workplace, after the Asian girl left, she is the only person with a different background. Things change when unexpectedly Hazel is employed and gets the cubicle next to her. Nella senses immediately that with another black girl, they might finally make a change in publishing, promote more diverse authors and bring forward new topics relevant to a large audience which wasn’t addressed so far. However, it does not take too long until Nella’s work life starts to go downhill.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel has been called one of the buzz books of 2021 by several magazines. I was intrigued by the blurb immediately, a kind of horror version of “The Devil Wars Prada” sounded totally enthralling. For a long time, “The Other Black Girl” could fulfil the expectations, there is a highly uncomfortable feeling creeping around, yet, the end was a bit too much for my liking.

Nella is quite a likeable young woman, hardworking and even though not an activist she is following the Black Lives Matter movement even before this becomes a widespread phenomenon and big news. She imagines being able of making a change in the publishing industry but first needs to get at the position where she has the actual power to do so. Therefore, she is quite assimilated and she swallows comments from her colleagues even though they might be quite offensive for persons of colour. With the arrival of Hazel she seems to get an ally and befriends her immediately.

For the reader, even though there are some chapters which seems unrelated to Nella’s story but hint at some goings-ons beyond her scope, it is obvious that Hazel is not the friendly and reliable colleague Nella assumes, this was an aspect which annoyed me a bit, I didn’t get the impression of Nelly being that naive and credulous at first and would have liked her to be a bit cleverer in relation to what happens at her workplace.

The novel, however, is quite strong at portraying Nella’s feelings as being the only black girl, the role she assigned to as representative of a totally diverse group which is just too simplistic, yet, nobody really seems to care about the concept of diversity, having one black girl is enough. She has other issues than her colleagues, especially the talk about hair was quite a novelty, even though this is a huge topic if you do not have the easy-care blond hair.

Overall, I liked the writing and found Nella’s perspective and the insight in the publishing world interestingly realised.

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Lucy Harper has achieved what many writers dream of: her detective novels about Eliza Grey have become highly successful and she built up a huge fan base. Her husband Dan supports her and takes care of their finances and everyday life. When he, without asking her first, decides to buy a house, she gets angry, even more so when she learns where exactly the house is located: close to where she grew up, next to the woods where her younger brother once disappeared and which she connects with her most dreadful nightmares. How could he do something like this, knowing about her childhood? Quite obviously, he is gaslighting her – that’s what Eliza tells her. Eliza, not only the protagonist of her novels but also the voice that has been in her head as long as she can remember. What has been useful for her writing now becomes complicated when Lucy struggles to distinguish between what is real, what is fiction and what is only in her head and when her husband is found murdered, the writer finds herself the main suspect of a story just like her novels.

I have several of Gilly Macmillan’s novels, always liking how she plays with the reader’s sympathies for the characters and the unexpected twists which keep suspense high. “To Tell You the Truth” is also masterfully crafted in terms of being vague and keeping you in the dark about what is real within fiction and what is only imagined by Lucy. Just like the protagonist, it takes a long time to figure out where the actual threat comes from, many different leads offer options for speculation which makes reading totally enjoyable.

Having a crime writer who finds herself suddenly suspect in a crime in which the police use her own writing against her, is a setting which has been used before. Yet, Gilly Macmillan added a lot of aspects to make the case much more complicated. On the one hand, the voice in Lucy’s head is quite strong and surely a negative character whom you shouldn’t trust. Again and again, Lucy also seems to suffer from blackouts thus opening the possibility of actions she simply cannot recollect and which therefore remain blank spaces also for the reader. The backstory of her vanished brother and the big question looming over all if she herself might be responsible for his likely death – maybe even willingly – also add to the unpleasant feeling that she might not be a victim in this story at all.

Her husband, too, raises many questions. He is, quite obviously, envious of his wife’s success since he also dreams of a career in writing but lacks talent. The bits and pieces of information one gets directly lead to the assumption of him gaslighting her. However, the possibility of Lucy getting it all wrong due to her hallucinations and the Eliza-voice is also in the air.

A creepy thriller which keeps you alert at all times. Even though I found the end a bit too simply for the plot, a fantastic read I totally enjoyed.

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

It’s the middle of the 80s and San Francisco hasn’t turned into the tech/IT hotspot it is today. Teenager Eulabee grows up in a more well-off part close to the beach and attends an expensive all-girls school with her best friends Maria Fabiola. The girls are still somewhere between being kids and becoming visibly female and with this transformation also come the problems. Maria Fabiola is the first to attract attention from the opposite sex, but her radiant appearance also charms women which is why she gets away with almost everything. Eulabee is far from being that self-confident and therefore sticks to the truth what leads to her being excluded from the girl circles of her school. When Maria Fabiola vanishes, the whole community is alarmed, but Eulabee from the start does not believe in a kidnapping, she has known Maria Fabiola for too long and is well aware of her former friend’s greed for attention.

Vendela Vida still isn’t as renowned as her husband Dave Eggers even though she has published several books by now and has won the Kate Chopin Award. I found her last novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” quite exceptional in the choice of perspective and therefore was eager to read her latest novel “We Run the Tides”. This time, she goes back in time and has chosen teenage girls as protagonists. The story is told from Eulabee’s perspective and captures well the mixed emotions a girl goes through when becoming a woman. Also the ambiance of the 1980s is convincingly depicted.

The most central aspect of the novel is surely the friendship between Eulabee and Maria Fabiola and its shift when one of the girls develops a bit quicker than the other. Maria Fabiola is well aware of the effect she has on other people and uses this for her own advantage. Eulabee, in contrast, is still much more a girl, insecure in how to behave and what to do about the situation. She does not fight but accept what’s happening. Her first attempts of approaching boys seem to be successful but end up in total disappointment. She is a close observer and can well interpret the relationships she sees, between her parents, her mother and her sister and also the other girls and teachers at her school. Without any doubt she is a likeable character and treated highly unfairly. But that’s how kids behave at times.

I liked how the plot developed and how the vanishing of the girls turned out quite unexpectedly. Yet, I didn’t fully understand why the author has chosen to add another chapter set in the present. For me, the story was perfectly told at a certain point and admittedly, neither was I really interested in Eulabee’s later life nor in another encounter of the two women as grown-ups. Still, I do not really know what to make of Maria Fabiola when they meet for the first time decades later.

To sum up, wonderfully narrated, a great coming-of-age story with a strong protagonist.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

After becoming mother for the first time, journalist and author Elizabeth agrees with her husband’s wish to leave busy New York for a quieter place closer to his parents. Yet, the new life does not really seem to fit to Elizabeth. She feels exhausted from the baby and finds it difficult to make friends in her new community, the other women seem to be happy with dull pseudo-occupations and spend their days gossiping. When she decides to hire a babysitter to gain some tome to work on her next novel, things change finally since she immediately bonds with Sam, an art student in her final year at the local college. Sam herself comes from a decent background and is fascinated by the woman who seems to get everything done easily, who has style and taste and has made an astonishing career. Despite the age gap they become friends, but there are things they just ignore which, however, become more and more apparent the better they get to know each other and when they need each other most, a gap opens which is unsurmountable.

I totally liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel from the start. Sympathising with Elizabeth was easy since I can imagine a lot but not leaving a big town to become a full-time mother and spend my day with gossiping neighbours. Sam, too, was easy to like, still young and unsecure but with a good heart and totally in love with her British not-so-boyish-anymore boyfriend. From the start, it is a challenge between two characters who actually like each other but where there is an imbalance in power in several areas which puts at time Elizabeth, at times Sam in a better situation.

The author explores a lot of aspects in her novel which give you food for thought. First of all, Elizabeth’s move to a small town which does not offer much. Also her struggle with being a mother is something a lot of women surely can emphasize with. Quite interesting also the dynamics between her and her husband who cannot really cope with a more successful wife on the one hand, on the other he is relying on her financial situation to realize his own dream. Elizabeth looks down on him since he has never really accomplished anything in professional ways – not a good basis for a new start in a new place.

Sam lives the typical student life, yet, her fellow students all come from rich families and can afford things she can only dream of. She manages to live in both worlds, but feels often closer to the women in the cafeteria kitchen she works with than with the girls she shares the dorm. Her relationship with Clive is mysterious form the start, yet, totally in love, she forgets to question his behaviour and falls prey to him. She is still young and simply makes mistakes young people make.

Both characters as well as the plot have a lot to offer, yet, at times I found the backstories a bit too long, a bit too detailed since they always slowed down the main action. Nevertheless, a wonderful read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.