Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

amy engel the familiar dark
Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

Two 12-year-old girls have been murdered, but except for their parents, nobody really seems to care about it. Maybe they had it coming, that’s how it is with girls their age, they should have paid more attention to whom they mingle with. Eve Taggert is not willing to simply accept that her daughter Junie has gone and nobody is hold responsible for the senseless death. What did she and her friend Izzy do in the park at that time and bad weather? She starts to ask questions even though her brother Cal, a policeman and close to the investigation, tries to keep her away and out of trouble which her private research soon causes. The more Eve learns, the closer she also gets to her own family and especially her mother with whom she had cut all contact before Junie was born because she never wanted to be like her. But in the course of the events, Eve must realise that she shares more traits with her mother than she ever expected.

Amy Engel’s mystery novel deals with the greatest horror that parents could ever go through: learning about the death of their beloved child and having the impression that nobody bothers to find the culprit and to bring him or her to justice. However, it is also about life in small and remote community where poverty and precarious standards of living are a daily occurrence. Growing up in trailer homes or small, run-down apartments where children only get a nook for themselves and see the adults drink alcohol or being addicted to drugs of all kinds – this is not the childhood one could ever wish for. Even if some want the best for their children, just like Eve, getting out of this isn’t as easy as it seems.

The story is narrated from Eve’s point of view which gives you a deep insight in the emotions she goes through. Not just losing her daughter and thus the sense of life, but she also falls back into old patterns she had given up and totally loses her footing. Even though she could not offer Junie much, she put an effort in her daughter’s education and she lead a decent life and loved her – more than she herself had experienced as a kid. To see such a woman being hit by fate is especially bitter.

Amy Engel does a great job in showing the development of Eve, going from being totally blinded by mourning and anger to gaining strength – even if she becomes a bit too reckless and headless at times – and in the end, fearlessly doing what she needs to do.

Notwithstanding that a lot is going wrong in the small town of Barren Springs, what I liked a lot is that the author did not paint the characters in black and white. The greatest villains do also show their positive and human sides – just as the “good” ones suddenly are capable of quite some crime.  Albeit a murder investigation is at the centre of the novel, for me it was much more a psychological study of small town life and people who struggle in life. It does not lack suspense though and several unexpected twists and turns keep you reading on.

Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

deepa anappara djinn patrol on the purple line
Deepa Anappara – Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

When Bahadur, one of his classmates, goes missing, nine-year-old Jai is determined to solve this case. He has watched so many episodes of Police Patrol that he knows exactly how such a problem is to be treated. Together with his friends Pari and Faiz, he starts to investigate around Purple Line and Bhoot Bazaar. Yet, more and more children and teenagers disappear from their basti and quite obviously, the police are not willing to do anything about it. The parents get either more and more afraid of their children being the next or angry as they feel helpless and powerless.

Deepa Anappara’s novel is a brilliant mixture of an oftentimes very funny plot and an absolutely serious topic. Daily, children go missing on Delhi’s streets without anybody taking notice of it. The life of a child, especially if she or he belongs to a minority, is worth next to nothing, not even the effort to take a note on it. Diverse cultures and religious racism play an important role in this, too. Boys and girls are treated differently and offered different chances in life. Born into the wrong family, you can only count on superstition for a better life since the boundaries are clearly set.

At the beginning of the novel, I totally adored Jai and his friends. They are vividly and wonderfully portrayed. Determined to find out what happened to their friend and equipped with their knowledge from true crime TV series, they start their investigation ignoring all warnings against the dangers that lurk around the bazaar. They take their job very serious and at the same time, just as kids do, ignore the facts that they live in the same slum but come from very different backgrounds.

With the number of children who disappear rising, the novel becomes increasingly serious and loses the light-heartedness of the beginning. The way a slum works becomes gradually more visible and thus, the novel grants insight in a world which is totally unknown to me.

The whole novel is sparkling with life, the characters are quite unique and lovable and it is totally understandable why the novel has been nominated on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.

Jussi Adler-Olsen – Victim 2117

Jussi adler-olsen victim 2117
Jussi Adler-Olsen – Victim 2117

This could be his last chance for a break-through as a journalist. When Barcelona based Joan Aiguader decides to write about a victim, the 2117th refugees who dies on the dangerous way across the Mediterranean Sea, he cannot anticipate that his article will shake Department Q, Copenhagen’s cold case unit, or that he himself will soon fall in the hands of reckless terrorists. The poor woman who found death on Greek shores is well known to Assad, member of the famous and most successful unit within the Danish police. Lely Kababi once saved his life when his family had fled Iraq and now, so many years without the least information about her whereabouts, he sees her on a picture and next to her is his wife Marwa whom he has neither seen nor spoken for 16 years. Assad needs to get in touch, but he knows just from looking at the picture that this will not be easy since there is another person to be seen: his worst enemy who obviously is seeking revenge.

Jussi Adler-Olsen continues his Department Q series with a suspenseful and highly political instalment which combines current events with the story around the very special unit of the Danish law enforcement authorities. When I read the first novel, I immediately fell for the very peculiar characters Adler-Olsen created. They seemed to be quite a unique assortment of individuals who nevertheless managed to work well together and were highly successful due to their distinctive and diverse skills. All of them had a story which only slowly has been revealed throughout the different books, now it is time for Assad’s story, the most secretive of all.

I am not quite sure if I find Assad’s backstory totally convincing, but I grant it to literature to extent the borders of plausibility at times. Additionally, I am also not in the position to judge on what can happen in Middle East countries in times of war. Setting aside this aspect, I found the characters’ motivation very convincing – Assad’s as well as his opponent’s. I was quite happy to finally get an idea of his life before joining Department! Q which has always been quite blurry. And I totally adored how Adler-Olsen managed to combine this with current affairs that have been central to European politics for quite some time now. Especially the role of journalists – unfortunately only crucial at the very beginning – has been quite authentically portrayed.

The different points of view accelerate the action and lead to a high pace. It does not take long to be totally captured by the novel and again, the author has demonstrated that among the multitude of great Scandinavian crime writers, he surely is at the very top.

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – You Are Not Alone

greer hendricks sarah pekkanen you are not alone
Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – You Are Not Alone

When one morning Shay Miller observes a woman committing suicide in the New York underground, her life, too, crumbles and falls. The shock sits so deep that she in not able to enter any underground station anymore. She starts to investigate about the woman and soon finds out her name, Amanda, and thus comes across some of her friends: Cassandra and Jane Moore, two sisters her own age who are everything Shay is not: They have a successful PR agency, know how to dress and obviously know the right places and the right people in town. Just as Shay is fascinated by them, they seem to feel pity for her and help her to find a new place to stay when she needs to move out, they help her to get a new style and also can connect her to finally find a better job. All seems to be perfect in Shay’s new life, yet some things are completely wrong and it does not take too long for her to realise that all that glitters isn’t gold, but fake and also highly dangerous.

I was already fascinated by “The Wife Between Us” which convinced me due to the very clever construction of the story. In “You Are Not Alone”, we also get the story narrated from different points of view and also different points in time which cleverly supports suspense since you already get facts which do not make too much sense until you learn the story behind them. As you are always a bit ahead of Shay, you sympathise with her and, of course, you hope that in the end, all will turn out well even though you cannot be too sure of that.

The whole plot lives on the characters. Shay as well as Cassandra and Jane are interestingly drawn and totally contrasting which makes them equally appealing for the reader. Just a simply – yet, quite important aspect – that I totally adored was Shay’s obsession with numbers and statistics. The authors have perfectly integrated this fact into the story.

Apart from the entertaining factor, in my opinion, the novel also provides insight in the psychological mechanisms that operate within people who are a bit unsecure and rather sad since their life did not turn out the way they hoped. Shay is very clever and likeable, nevertheless, in all areas of her life she more or less failed: neither does she have a flat of her own, nor a permanent job or relationship. No wonder that she immediately falls for the shiny and glamorous Moore sisters who represent everything she also wishes for. This makes it quite easy for them to manipulate her – just as they managed to take advantage of others who were in critical situations, too.

A captivating suspense novel that I did not want to put down once I had started.

Rosanna Amaka – The Book of Echoes

rosanna amaka the book of echos
Rosanna Amaka – The Book of Echoes

The new decade has just begun when life as he knows it ends for 16-year-old Michael Watson: his mother is murdered in their home and he and his little sisters find themselves alone in Brixton. The person who always told him that people of Jamaican descend have to work two times as hard as others and should keep their head down is gone and it does not take too long until his mother’s concerns are proven right. Thousands of kilometres south in a small Nigerian village, Ngozi has to say goodbye to her mother and younger sisters, she is sent to town to work as a maid and earn money for the family. Two kids who hardly have anything in common except for the very poor and hard start in life. Yet, they are born fighters and in them, they carry the echo of decades of people who had to face a similar situation and also fought for their future.

Rosanna Amaka tells the two very different stories alternatingly, you switch from Thatcher London to chaotic Nigeria and even though the surrounds could hardly differ more, there are some parallels between Michael and Ngozi. It is obvious that their lives have to collide at one point, yet, much less obvious to answer is the question if they will succeed and escape the poor life they are born in.

I totally adored the story around Ngozi even though there is not much to adore in her life. The hardship of her family who does not know how to make ends meet, a father who ignores his kids and later the families who employ and exploit her. Born and raised in Europe, one cannot really imagine the life of a girl of her background:

“’Ngozi, as a woman there are some things we have no choice in,’ she says and gets up from her chair. (…) She goes to sleep and to cry over the innocence her daughter will lose.”

Young girls are the most vulnerable and those who can just take advantage of it. Her employer, the employer’s wife, white men coming to Africa who believe to be superior and to have the right to treat people there like goods – it is not just what they have to endure but also how they seem to accept this as a fact of life, just as Ngozi’s mother put it.

For me, it took a bit too long to bring the two parts together, admittedly, the end was also a bit too foreseeable and sweet. Each on its own works perfectly well and could have done without the other actually. Nevertheless, the novel is beautifully written and I totally enjoyed reading it.

Lily King – Writers & Lovers

lily king writers & lovers
Lily King – Writers & Lovers

Casey Peabody has always wanted to be a writer. At 31, she finds herself waiting tables, living in a run-down garage and with several debt collectors on her heels. For six years she has worked on her novel but somehow it does not work out, too high the pressure from real life. When her mother died a couple of months before, she not only lost her confidant, but constantly feels the big hole this loss left behind in her. Then she meets Oscar, a successful writer and widowed father of two, who seems to be the way out of her misery: a lovely home, stable relationship, two adorable boys, a life without worries. But it does not feel right, especially since there is Silas, too, quite the opposite of Oscar. When Casey is fired from the restaurant and her landlord tells her that the house is to be sold, the anxiety that has accompanied her for years becomes unbearable.

Raise your hand is you never dreamt of writing a novel. Isn’t that what we as avid readers long for? To intrigue others with what is lurking within ourselves and, of course, to be praised and complimented for our artistic capacities. Well, that’s just one side of being a writer, many more authors will actually have to face a life just like Casey: never to know if you can make the ends meet, frustrated because the writing does not move on, the words do not come, taking on any job just to survive and organising the writing around working hours. Lily King has painted quite a realistic picture of a novelist’s situation in “Writers & Lovers”. Yet, that’s by far not all the novel has to offer.

Her protagonist belongs to the generation who struggles to grow-up. They have been promised so much, they were full of energy in their twenties, but now, hitting 30, they have to make a decision: giving up their dreams for a conservative and boring but secure life just like the one their parents lead or going on with a precarious living that feels totally inadequate. No matter how they decide, it could be the wrong choice and the fear of not picking the right thing paralyses them, an overwhelming anxiety takes over control making them incapable of moving on or doing anything at all. They are stuck in a never-ending rat race which covers all areas of their life. Casey is the perfect example of her generation, highly educated, intelligent, good at dealing with people but nevertheless full of doubts about herself and frustrated by the constant setbacks.

I totally adored the novel, it is somehow a coming-of-age at a later age novel. The characters are authentically represented, the emotional states are wonderfully conveyed and thus easy to follow. Even though there is quite some melancholy in it, I did not feel saddened since it also provides a lot of hope just never to give up since all could turn out well in the end.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Paul Vidich – The Coldest Warrior

paul-vidich-the-coldest-warrior
Paul Vidich – The Coldest Warrior

1953 – the Korean War has ended, but the Cold War emerges and the intelligence services’ nerves are frayed. When CIA officer Dr Charles Wilson dies under blurry circumstances, all information is closed down immediately. It will take twenty-two years until his death gets the attention it deserves. He “jumped or fell” from the ninth floor of a Washington hotel and his family is now demanding answers. Jack Gabriel, an old friend of Wilson’s, also an agent himself, starts digging and the deeper he gets, the more coincidental deaths among key witnesses this cases produces. Somebody tries to hide something and Gabriel soon has to ask himself how much he is willing to risk for the truth.

Paul Vidich narrates a fictional story based on the real events of the mysterious death of Frank Olson, CIA employee and biological warfare expert. The author has seen himself what the agency’s policy of secretiveness can do to a family: Olson was his uncle and he could witness the family’s grief at close range.

 “That was the story of the Agency then. We could do whatever we wanted because we were fighting the Soviet Union.”

The CIA killed its own men if need be. What sounds like the plot of a superb spy novel today, was a reality back then. As Vidich recalls, raising the subject at family reunions was a taboo, even though somebody suffered a terrible injustice, everybody remained silent and thus approved of the methods. Reading about the disclosure of Wilson’s/ Olson’s murder makes you oscillate between fascination and abhorrence. A lot has been revealed about the dark sides of espionage and spying, nevertheless, I am still stunned each time I read about how ruthless the business can be and how little a human life counts.

It is remarkable how Vidich manages to transport the story in an entertaining way even though he is that close to the case. A fast paced read that gives much more insight than you could ever wish for.