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.

Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

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Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

Catherine Simpson’s memoir is not a book easy to review. First of all, it is of course non-fictional, second, it is a very personal report on a sister’s emotions and thoughts after her younger sibling committed suicide. This makes it difficult to use phrases like “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” since they simply don’t work here. It is also somehow out of question to discuss the tone of writing as while reading it, I had the impression that it was much more written for Simpson herself than necessarily for a reader. It seemed to me to be her way of coping with the situation and sorting out her thoughts and feelings.

I appreciated her openness in sharing her sometimes contradictory emotions, in not embellishing her own role in her sister’s life. She presents episodes where she was nasty as a kid or where she simply did not pay enough attention to Tricia’s needs. This surely is not easy to talk about. But this is exactly the point she is making: in their family, they never talked. The girls were taught to be silent, not to ask too many questions and best not to be seen at all. They did not have a poor childhood, they had good times and fun on the farm, too, but the family’s way of coping with emotions certainly played a role in the development of Tricia’s illness and final suicide.

The book definitely gives a good insight in living with depression and how the loved ones who are left behind after someone chose to end his or her life feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more. I don’t think there is much you can actually do to protect and help people with serious mental health issues, but you can certainly work on talking more with the people around you.

Jane Harper – Lost Man

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Jane Harper – Lost Man

Since they have not heard from their brother Cameron who was due to meet them, Nathan and Bub set out for the remote border of their land in the Australian outback. They find Cameron dead, obviously from dehydration and close to the grave of the legendary stockman. His car about 9 miles away. The whole scene doesn’t make sense to them, yet, there must be a reason. When they return home, the news is greeted with silence, nobody really seems to be too sad, but nobody wants to tell Nathan what had happened the weeks before, obviously, there was something that had troubled Cameron. The deeper Nathan digs, the more secrets he uncovers that had been buried for a long time.

I have read novels from Jane Harper before and had certain expectations. “The Lost Man” however, did not make it easy for me. I expected some crime novel with a lot of suspense, but it took more than two thirds into the novel until I finally found it interesting and at least a bit exciting.

What made it most difficult was the fact that I hated all the characters. None of them was sympathetic and I was always fighting internally whom to hate most. We mainly meet elderly men, frustrated, eaten away by hatred and therefore harassing the people around them. It was just awful to follow them when they recklessly and egoistically do their own thing. More than once was I close to giving up because I didn’t see any progress in the plot and hardly could stand the characters’ lamentations.

Looking at it from the end, there is a clever crime plot that I could really appreciate, but it is a very long and hard way to get there. The novel certainly transports the hardship of farmers in the far away outback.

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.

David Owen – All The Lonely People

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David Owen  – All The Lonely People

The last strike by the anonymous bullying group really hit Kat hard. She was never the popular girl with many friends, but at least online she could be the person she saw in herself, but now, that is taken away from her and she just wants to vanish, fade away. Her wish is granted, slowly her body becomes translucent, only Safa, sharing the same fate can see her. She quickly finds out that there are others, not just people who would like to be someone different and forget their old life and be forgotten, but people who actually faded away. However, there is still one thing she needs to do on earth: the bullies have found another target and she must stop them and therefore collaborate with one of them.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really thinking that the act of vanishing in the novel was meant “real”, yet, this unrealistic aspect is the only thing I wasn’t completely happy with. Apart from this, David Owen has really captured the emotions of teenager who feel like they don’t fit in, that they cannot lead the life they would like to have and the hardship of going to school and being exposed to the attacks of bullies.

I found both protagonists – Kat as the good, pitiable girl and Wesley who first seems to be her enemy but then turns out to be in a comparable situation – strong characters for the novel. They are easy to relate to and the problems they face are things most pupils might know from their everyday life. The novel also had some suspense that kept you read on and it surely made you think of how you treat your family members and how attentive you are concerning the people around you that you never really see.

All in all, I liked it and would surely recommend it to young people who are searching for their identity and place in the world.

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.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

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Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

It’s been sixteen years since her sister Persephone was murdered. Sylvie has created herself a new life, far away from home, but now she has to return to her hometown and confront her seriously ill mother. It doesn’t take long until all that happened that winter night comes back to her, especially when she meets Ben, her sister’s boyfriend, her sister’s murderer. Yet, Ben insists in his innocence. But can she trust him? And what about her mother who always refused to tell the girls who their respective fathers are and who also refused to talk about that night. Is it time now to open Pandora’s box and let the truth out?

Megan Collins’ debut is at the first glance a typical murder case: an 18-year-old girl is strangled and the murderer has been running free for sixteen years. However, at the second glance, it is much more a story about family relationships, about secrets and about love and trust. The small family of three females lived on secrets and lies, had they ever been open and honest with each other, the death of one daughter could have been prevented. Yet, that’s how human beings are, sometimes they lack the necessary courage to do what is right and thus risk to lose all they love.

The novel is well-created, even though at a certain point it is quite obvious how all the dots are linked, I found it full of suspense. Telling the story through Sylvie’s eyes gives you a certain bias at the beginning, but the missing pieces and gaps add to the thrill and the big questions marks Sylvie herself feels can also be experienced by the reader. Collins’ biggest strength is certainly the creation of the characters who all act convincingly and appear quite authentic. I am looking forward to read more from the author.