Simon Lelic – The House

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Simon Lelic – The House

Finding a house in London is more or less impossible; therefore, Sydney and Jack are happy when they finally get one. It is not what they have dreamt of, but, with the time, they became realistic about what is possible and accepted the offer. Soon after they move in, strange things start to happen and they become more and more alert: is the house haunted or is somebody playing tricks on them? Is it because they interfered with the neighbour? His daughter confided herself in Sydney and awoke bad memories in her: just like Betsi, Sydney was suffering under her father’s temper and violence throughout her childhood. Unable to find help, she ran away at the age of 14 and left her younger sister with the situation at home alone. A bad conscience makes Sydney support the young neighbour, but obviously, her father is going to stop this. Or is the threat coming from somewhere completely different? No matter what is behind, soon Sydney and Jack find themselves in danger and even start losing faith in each other.

Simon Lelic’s novel starts a bit as a surprise, it’s not the typical third person narrator we have, but a kind of diary entries or letters that the two protagonists write to each other. So we have Jack’s and Sydney’s perspective in alternation which makes it quite lively and authentic, especially since you get the impression of the highly stressful situation they are in and which has gone out of control. The way they write reflects their emotional state, it is repetitive, not well organised and thought through but rather like a stream of consciousness just coming out of their mouth.

The plot itself has many surprises to offer, at first you are with the protagonists, not knowing what is happening and always trying to make sense of what they write. Then, slowly, you realise that Sydney and Jack have hidden some useful and important information from you, too, and you start getting sceptical about actually trusting them. As the novel moves on, you have to adjust your idea of the characters and the action again and again which I liked a lot since you could never feel absolutely secure about it.

 

“The House” really deserves the label “thriller”. Quite often, you feel a cold shiver running down your spine when again something strange happens in the house. The characters’ actions are all credibly motivated and the plot itself is convincingly constructed. The strongest aspect for me was the psychological construction behind the story; knowing what Sydney went through, you can understand her reaction when she finds out about Betsi’s life at home. But also Sydney’s mother – even though she is a rather tragic figure – can be understood in her way of behaving. So, the novel is not just playing on your nerves with a thrilling plot, but also offer some insight in emotionally induced actions and decisions.

Lawrence Osborne – Beautiful Animals

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Lawrence Osborne – Beautiful Animals

Summertime, best to spend on the Greek island of Hydra where the Codringtons possess a villa up on the hill. Yet, while the art collector Jimmy and his second wife Phaine are relaxed, Jimmy’s daughter Naomi seems to have fled London where she just lost her job under mysterious circumstances. First timers on the island are the American family Haldane who enjoy themselves among other compatriots. Their daughter Samantha, slightly younger than Naomi, is soon impressed by the English young woman who not only knows every corner of the island, but who is also self-confident and slightly intimidating. One day, they meet a young man, obviously one of the refugees from the Middle East. Sam would prefer to retreat and not to make contact whereas Naomi’s interest is aroused. For days, they meet him repeatedly until Naomi, out of ennui, draws up a plan of how to support the poor refugee: her family is super-rich, so getting rid of a couple of things in their house does not harm anybody. With the help of the housekeeper, the Arab is to break in and rob the Codringtons. Yet, the scheme does not work out as planned and the girls suddenly have to think of what to do with two bodies.

Lawrence Osborne’s novel starts like the perfect summer read. He depicts the atmosphere of the island in a colourful and authentic way. How the people move around, how relaxed everybody seems to be, but also the way in which the local people slightly stay away from the holidaymakers. The girls spend their days in the water, enjoying the sun – it’s almost too perfect. With the appearance of the refugee, the tone changes and we get to see another side of Naomi. This is where the novel starts to become really interesting.

It is especially this character that is fascinating to observe. She can be the loving daughter – she plays this role perfectly for her father who is aware of it, but on vacation he can ignore negative thoughts and he can still see his wife in the girl. Her stepmother Phaine is less easy to impress, but here, Naomi chooses the open confrontation. Towards the islanders, she is rather cold-shouldered and arrogant. She makes use of the people just as her needs demand it, she openly exploits the housekeeper and forces her to become an accomplice. In contrast, Sam has an innocent air, she is a bit naive and quickly impressed. Thus, she easily becomes Naomi’s victim and is blackmailed by her. Only when it is too late, Sam learns that people on the island consider Naomi possessed, even demonized. Naomi herself knows exactly what she is doing and why she treats people in the way she does:

“It was just an attraction. It was a matter of gravity. It was her influence over them that was attractive too, their reluctant malleability. She couldn’t understand why people were like that.“

She makes use of them simply because she can. When the situation gets out of hand, she keeps calm and manages everything. There is no regret, not even a tear – considering the fact that she has lost her father, she seems to be really cold-blooded here. As a gifted liar, she does not mean to much effort for her to set up a story. Just like the mythological Hydra, Naomi is some kind of poisonous serpent and no loss is a real defeat. Sam, on the contrary, will be haunted her whole life.

The story around Naomi is really enthralling and her behaviour and manipulation repellent at the same time. When the focus shifted away from her to the refugee fleeing from Hydra, it therefore became a bit uninteresting for me. Even though this part is important and definitely full of suspense, it was more centred around the action and less around the character.

It is often said that the initial sentence of a novel is most decisive. Here, however, in my opinion, it’s the opposite. Lawrence Osborne find a remarkable closing of the novel which concentrates much of the story in just three sentences:

“Life was full of such people. One didn’t know anything about them, even though they occupied a position of utmost importance in one’s life for a time. They were like shooting starts, flaring up for a brilliant moment, lighting up the sky even for a few lingering seconds, then disappearing forever.“

 

Peter Høeg – The Susan Effect

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Peter Høeg – The Susan Effect

Susan Svendsen is everything but an ordinary woman. And she and her family are in danger. She is offered a bad deal by the Danish government: use her special ability to provide them with an important information to have all charges against her dropped. Thinking of her twin kids, she has to agree and thus brings herself and her family even more in danger. But what is it about her gift? In Susan’s presence, everybody feels relaxed and comfortable, people cannot keep from sharing their best concealed secrets with her and she is to exploits this for the government. But the politicians have not counted on her intelligence and survival instinct and a most unfair battle begins.

Peter Høeg has made special women his protagonist before. Individuals with a supernatural sense and an extraordinary will to survive. In his latest novel, Susan is equipped with a skill that allows her to manipulate the people unperceivably which in itself is quite remarkable. But what make the character even more interesting is the combination with a straight down-to-earth intellect which does not accept anything outside the world of natural sciences. Susan can explain anything with her knowledge of physics and chemistry or biology, other fields such as music or religion just don’t reach her. This makes her contradictory and ambiguous in a very fascinating way.

The story itself is a fast-paced thriller which combines political complotting with action-packed chases and quite high number of cruel murders. However, the author never forgets his characters and their complicated relationships. The emotional facet blends in smoothly and thus adds to the cleverly constructed plot.

Underlying the whole story is a scenario which nowadays might still be considered something of the faraway future: parts of the planet will not be inhabitable due to climate change. How will we, how will our politicians react to this? If just a limited number of persons can be saved, who will be the selected few? As in other novels before, Høeg creates an extreme setting in which his characters are brought to the edge and have to make hard decisions, decisions about life and death. It seems to be a topic he liked, to play with how human being react in extreme situations. Thus, he provides us with the opportunity the think it through ourselves. Definitely a thriller with a lot of food for thought.

C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

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C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

The saga of a family. A family whose life is linked to the soil on which they live and to the horses they breed. John Henry Forge raises his son Henry in the tradition of the white settlers of Kentucky. The supremacy of the white race is never questioned and on the family farm, the roles are clearly ascribed. Young Henry has a dream, already when he is just a small boy, he sees their land as the perfect place for breeding horses, but his father will hear nothing of this. When he takes over the farm, his chance arises and he becomes one of the best in the business. Yet, not only in horses is it important to take care of the blood line, he also chooses his wife with care and thus can produce the perfect white child: Henrietta. Like father like daughter does she grow up learning about the white race’s authority and rule. But times are a changing in the 20th century and creating the perfect race horse and the perfect daughter might not be enough anymore.

C.E. Morgan’s novel has been nominated for most of the important prizes for literature in 2016 and 2017: It has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017, for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize 2016; it was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 and won the Kirkus fiction prize 2017 and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize 2016. It made the second place on the BBC books of the year 2016 list. Coming with so much glory, the expectations were high and the author easily matched them.

To say what the novel is actually about, is not that easy. Quite logically considering its length, there is a lot in it. First of all, the Forge family. The way the children are raised, the relationships between the generations but also between the spouses are interesting to observe in the way not only they are at a fixed moment in time – I really pitied young Henry when he wanted to share his dreams and visions with his stubborn father – but also how they develop over the time, here Henrietta plays the most important role. Even though she is a woman and as such by nature inferior to men, she can take over the male role and successfully lead the dynasty. But there is not much affection between the characters. It is especially Henrietta who realizes that she is lacking love and warmth and since she has never learnt how to express her feelings, she seriously struggles in getting involved with somebody. It is the women who struggle most with society’s expectations and their inner feelings – not only at the beginning, but also after the year 2000:

“The irony was bare and bitter and unavoidable: she was a woman, so she was a slave to life. Never before had she understood the brutal actuality of life in a body she didn’t choose. (…) Women invited death when they let men inside their bodies! Why did they do it? Love couldn’t possibly be worth it.”

Apart from the humans, the breeding of the horses plays a major role in the plot. I am not into horses at all and know almost nothing about these animals. But it is fascinating to see how close the characters get with them, how they observe details and can communicate with and understand them Also the idea of breeding the perfect race horse is quite appealing and interesting. Admittedly, would I have been asked before if I was interested in the description of a horse race, I certainly would have disagreed, but I was wrong.

Last but not least, a major topic is also slavery, resp. the formal abolition of it but the remaining prejudices in the heads – of the whites as well as the blacks. Even in the year 2006, equally has not been established. There have been improvements, but due to inheritance, a family name and the like – unfortunately not only in literature.

Apart from the plot, it is also C. E. Morgan’s masterly writing which makes reading the novel a pleasure. To tell the stories of the different family members, she finds an individual tone for them. John Henry is reserved, unkind and rather factual. Young Henry is full of childish amazement and effervescent until he becomes the head of the family. Strongest are the women, first of all Henrietta, but also her mother Judith and the housekeeper Maryleen and Allmon’s mother. She gives them a voice and especially thoughts they share with the readers which make them really come to life. She finds metaphors as well as comments by the narrator which sometimes even addresses you directly. The tone is serious at times, funny at others, sometimes sad, rarely joyful – just as life can be.

Joshua Cohen – Moving Kings

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Joshua Cohen – Moving Kings

David King is the head of “King’s Moving“, a New York based family business specialised in moving homes. Couples moving in together, couples going separate ways. David and his wife Bonnie also separated, their daughter Tammy wastes his father’s money and his secretary Ruth now manages not only the office but all of David’s life. There is just one thing she cannot help him with: David’s cousin from Israel asked him to welcome her son Yoav for some time. He just came out of the IDF and like all the others, needs some travelling to forget the years in the army. David has only met Yoav once many years ago when he spent a couple of hours with his family in Jerusalem. But he is sure to offer the young man exactly what he needs, not taking into account what serving in one of the world’s toughest armies means.

Joshua Cohen’s novel appears in the beginning to be some lightweight and funny story about making business in New York and knowing (or rather: not knowing) the rules of conduct among the super-rich. David is not the classic businessman who knows his way around the upper class, he disposes of some cleverness which helped him to set up his business, but he is not really familiar with the codes. The same applies to his visit in Israel a couple of years earlier. As a Jew, he feels like having to know the historic sites in Israel but cannot connect anything with the places – just like his cousin who shows him around. When family duty calls, in form of accommodating young Yoav, he does not hesitate to fulfil the wish.

However, with the appearance of Yoav, the novel changes its tone. It is not the humorous atmosphere which prevails now, but a rather despairing and depressive mood that comes from Yoav and takes over. Having served three years in the IDF did not go without scars for him. He was in a special unit which was of no special use in peaceful times but well equipped for the emergency. Now as a civilian, he has serious problems integrating into normal life. He can only accomplish small tasks every day and spends most of his time on the couch doing nothing. He can hardly cope with being alive, not speaking of building friendships and a new life in a foreign country.

The novel takes another turn when Yoav’s fried Uri makes his appearance. Being allocated the same unit should have created a lifelong bond, but the young men are very different and their diverting points of view create more and more tension between them. Yoav is reflecting on his place in the world and what he has seen and done in the army:

“you can’t stop being a soldier, just like you can’t stop being a Jew […] You were born a soldier, because you were born a Jew. “ (pos. 1392)

By birth he is denied the chance of making a choice in his life. And as an Israeli, people will never be impartial when they meet him. Everybody has an opinion, either on Jews, or in Israelis, or on both. They are held responsible for things they are neither responsible for nor had a chance to do something about it.

A third party is contrasted with them. A black veteran who fought in Vietnam and has lost in belief in the Christian God as well as the American state who should take care of those who have served the country abroad. His only way out is converting to Islam and seeking refuge in addiction. So, who of them is worse off? The forgotten veteran, the black American, the American Jew or the Israeli Jew?

How defining is religion after all? For most of the characters it does not provide help or relief from everyday burdens. It also does not seem to provide a framework to organise their life around. So, build your life without it, but what are the rules then? It seems to be a minefield and you can only survive of you are stronger and live at the expenses of the others it seems.

Paula Cocozza – How To Be Human

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Paula Cocozza – How to be Human

 

Five months after Mark has left her, Mary still lives in a kind of bubble disconnected from the world around her. She goes to work and returns home, but somehow she is numb and dehumanized. When one evening a fox appears in her garden, she is mesmerized. The animal returns regularly and a bond between the two lonely beings slowly forms. The more Mary feels connected with the wild animal, the more hysterical her neighbours become. They want to kill the foxes, they feel threatened in their own homes and their nerves are on edge. When suddenly Mark shows up again to rescue Mary and to save their relationship, she has to make a decision.

„How to be human“ – it seems to be contradictory to use the contact with a wild animal to illustrate what represents a human being. However, in Mary’s case, the beast helps her to overcome her numbness, to rediscover feelings she once had and the innocence and unassuming attitude of the fox make her become a human again. She feels sympathy with the animal, especially when the whole world seems to be against it. Just like baby Flora she can approach the fox without hesitation and reservation.

The humans apart from Mary do not really make a good impression in the novel. Her neighbours Michelle and Eric are quite egoistic and only think about their habitat and needs. I am not sure if Michelle actually suffers from postpartum depression as mentioned in the novel, to me, she is rather a neurotic egoist. Eric in contrast, is weak, servant and obeys his wife without questioning her decisions. Mark does not play a major role, but the fact that after half a year he realises that life with his wife was better, does not really speak in his favour.

What I liked most were the fox’s thoughts. The author got in his mind convincingly and portrayed his simple and natural character quite well. Considering all the beings, he is the human one, unobtrusive, decent and not demanding anything. Thus, he can help the lonesome and forlorn protagonist to find herself and her strengths again.

 

Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

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Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

A short message Isa Wilde had hoped would never come. „I need you “, is all it says. The young mother knows exactly who sent it, even without giving a name. It comes from the past, from the time, 15 years ago, when she was at Salton House, a boarding house for girls. Isa, Kate, Thea and Fatima were best friends in their short time together and an incident has bond them for life. Even if they haven’t seen each other since then, they know they cannot escape it. Isa has to go back, she cannot tell her husband the truth, because this would mean risking their life. She only takes her six-months-old daughter Freya with her and heads to confront the past. When the now women are reunited, Kate tells the others what has happened: bones have been found and their well-kept secret is threatened to surface after all these years.

“The Lying Game” is a game the four girls played when they were at school. They had five rules which function as titles for the chapters:

1) Tell a lie;

2) Stick to your story;

3) Don’t get caught;

4) Never lie to each other;

5) Know when to stop.

So it is quite obvious that many lies have been told and that this is where the key to the story lies. The scenes of the past are only told from Isa’s memories, so the reader only gets fragments, the things she remembers at that moment, and she obviously cannot tell what she does not know, what she has buried deep in her brain and what she refuses to think of. Therefore, you as a reader can only speculate about what the girls have done. When it comes out, I was about disappointed at first because I ranked the deed as not that grave considering their age. Yet, since I was only halfway through the novel, I was sure that more would be coming and I was not disappointed. Until the end, new facts were added to the story and I had to readjust my idea of what had happened several times.

Just like Ruth Ware’s novel “The woman in cabin 10”, I enjoyed reading this one. It is not a suspenseful thriller form the start which gives you the creeps throughout the whole story. It is much more a cleverly built psychological novel which makes you think about what you would do in the characters’ place. You can definitely feel the stress that especially Isa is exposed to, torn between her life in the present and a guilt from the past. There are scary situations, but luckily they do not come from bloody murders described in detail. It is playing on your nerves, the fact of keeping you in the dark about many things clearly supports this.

All in all, I like this kind of thrillers and relished reading it.

Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

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Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

Two young women in their twenties, two dreams. Emma dreams of working as a writer, she blogs about her life with quite a remarkable success, but actually she is stuck in an advertising company where she has to be creative in the dullest of imaginable ways. Her best friend Clementine Twist has just returned to London from a Year in New York where she attended Columbia film school to become a screenwriter. The feedback to her work is throughout positive, but back home she has to secure her living and moves back in with her parents and accepts a job as a receptionist of a club. Only their friend Yasmin seems to get it all right: she’s got a fancy job that she exerts successfully and the wedding with Mr Right is just around the corner. The more goes right with Yasmin the more seems to go wrong for Emma and Clementine. When does the adult life they always dreamt of finally start?

Lauren Berry really managed to catch the mood of women at the end of their twenties. Emma and Clementine are full of energy and passionate about what they love, but somehow life is in their way and they are stuck between mundane everyday-life problems. Reality and dreams seem to be many miles away from each other. Even though they are good at what they want to do, the chances just do not come to really show the world what they are capable of. The necessities of the world keep them from just indulging in their creativity, bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, so the need to earn some money is overwhelming and paralysing.

What I liked about the novel is the fact that even though the girls could easily give up and despair, they somehow stick to their dream and they have a certain sense of humour not to take themselves and their lives too seriously. Many scenes are quite funny – as long as you just read them and do not have to live them through. Even though it is at times quite close to being chick lit, the author can keep some seriousness in the story and the fact that her protagonists find themselves in the same situation as masses of young women who can surely identify with them, gives the novel an actual relevance.

Fiona Barton – The Child

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Fiona Barton – The Child

During construction works in London, a builder comes across the dead body of a baby. Angela and Nick hope that they will be finally relieved. For almost 40 years now, they have waited for a sign of their daughter Alice back then abducted from the maternity ward. The police investigate all options while journalist Kate Waters is looking for a story to get her career back on track. She quickly uncovers people who lived around the building site area decades before and who might have witnessed something; yet quickly she has to realize that there is much more behind the story than she initially thought. When another woman claims to baby to be hers, Kate and the police do not know whom to believe and that they are about to uncover much more than they suspected.

Fiona Barton tells her story from different perspectives: first of all, we have Kate the journalist who is looking for some kind of heart-breaking story to report and thus to escape being fired like many others from her team. We only get bits and bobs from her private life, a son who refuses to pursue his studies any further, but that’s it. Thus, this character is mainly illustrated through her actions as a journalist. I quite liked her, she not the hard-boiled reporter who doesn’t care about the people she writes about, but tries find a way between securing a good story and not exposing the people involved. On the other hand, we have Angela the mother who has been suffering for 40 years and who is not willing to give up hope to find her daughter. I am not sure if this character is really authentic, that a family and a marriage can survive such a stroke of fate is rather seldom. Emma, the last of the three protagonists remains incomprehensible for a long time and thus keeps suspense of the novel high. Much of what she says does not make sense and her role in the whole story is rather mysterious.

Even though the end is quite foreseeable, it liked the story. It is fast paced and the different perspectives keep you alert on who says what and who knows what. The mystery around the buried baby is solved convincingly even though I wonder of the subplot about the rapists was really required.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a crime novel or even thriller. It is rather a psychological drama with a lot of suspense to me. And compared to Fiona Barton’s first novel “The Widow”, this is much stronger both in the plot and the characters’ design.

Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

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Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

Reza Courdee is living the typical teenage life in California. He has got his friends with whom he likes to spend time surfing in the ocean and haging around at the beach and he also has his first crush and makes first sexual experiences. He plays soccer and he is highly achieving in school. Yet, with his new bunch of friends, he neglects his former interests and spends more time consuming drugs and doing nothing which does not really agree with his parents’ – immigrants from Iran – expectations for their son. However, one day, his life starts to change: Reza, born in the USA, is suddenly the immigrant, a terrorist and his friends start to question their friendship. He becomes more and more isolated and thus joins a group of Muslims who find relief and support in the local mosque. Most of all Fatima is attracted by the strong believers and the hip American girl, who easily shared her bed with Reza, starts not only wearing a hijab but also following the strict rules of Koran.

I really liked how Laleh Khadivi elaborates the topic of finding your identity on different levels. In the beginning, we seem to encounter the average teenager who does not share his parents’ beliefs and finds his ideas much more mirrored in his peer group. A slight disdain for the elder generation is not uncommon at this age. The fact that his Americanizes his name “Reza” into “Rez” also shows that it is this culture and not his familial background that he identifies with. I also found quite remarkable how the parents cope with their own immigration history and their culture. They eat in the old Iranian style, but try to integrate into the American culture since they are grateful for the lives they can lead there. They do not seem to convey that much of their past to their son. This only happens after Rez is identified as an immigrant, which he apparently is not since he was born in California. His interest in his family life is only born at the moment when he is excluded from the culture he always considered to be his own. His drifting away from the parents now leads to a new rapprochement in order to create the new self and to identify who he is and where he comes from. The most thought-provoking step in this development is definitely the encounter with Islam. As a reader you can effortlessly understand why this is attractive and how and why radicals do not have any problems winning over second or third generation immigrants for their ideas. It is absolutely convincing why Fatima and the others are magnetized and easy comply with the codes.

Yet, it is not only the immigrants’ perspective which is worth scrutinizing in this novel, it is also the behaviour of the “native” population which should be taken into account. When did we start seeing our friends and acquaintances not anymore as whom they are but as “Muslims” or “immigrants”? Which effects do global and local acts of terrorism have on our own life? And to what extent to be transfer personal pain due to the loss of a beloved person onto others who are not at all connected with the incident which caused our grief?

If you are open, as a reader, to question yourself, you will surely find food for thought in this novel.