Samuel Park – The Caregiver

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Samuel Park – The Caregiver

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Torday – Boomer1

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Daniel Torday – Boomer1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirk Kurbjuweit – Fear

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Dirk Kurbjuweit – Fear

Randolph Tiefenthaler is a successful Berlin based architect. With his wife Rebecca and their two kids, they just moved into the stylish old houses of the German capital where they have find the seemingly perfect home. Yet, it doesn’t take too long until the neighbour from the basement, Dieter Tiberius, becomes more and more awkward and strange. He writes love letters to Rebecca, which is just annoying, but then he accuses her of child abuse and repeatedly calls the police to check on them. Randolph gets a lawyer, he contacts the youth welfare service, but there is nothing he can do to protect his family from the crazy man in the basement. The fear that he might attack his wife or hurt the children grows and with it the marriage become increasingly fragile. There nerves are on the edge until the day they cannot support it anymore and they need to help themselves to protect the family.

Dirk Kurbjuweit plays with the family idyll which is threatened in the core: the home. The loving father who has built the perfect life for himself and his wife, becomes suddenly incapable of action. He cannot protect his beloved, there is a danger close at hand that he cannot control and sees himself exposed defencelessly. The pressure which is on Randolph and Rebecca is palpable and you as a reader also feel the growing impression of being helpless, powerless and most of all vulnerable.

Even though from the start it is clear what the outcome of all will be, the thriller is full of suspense and the development of the plot gives you the creeps. Kurbjuweit has a very lively style of writing and making Randolph the narrator underlines the feeling of being a part of the story and makes it easy to sympathise with him and to commiserate with him.

Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

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Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

Darius Kellner has never really fit in into Chapel Hill High-School, not just because he is half-Persian but also because of his depression which makes it hard for him to make friends. When is grandfather gets seriously ill, his whole family is flying to Yazd for the first time: his father, whom he considers an “Übermensch” because he is perfect in every respect, his beloved mother and his 8-year-old sister Laleh. Even though Iran is much less different from his home than expected, Darius, or Darioush as he is called there, makes masses of new experiences. He finds a good friend in Sohrab, plays football successfully and with fun, he tries out great Persian food and the family relationships somehow shift and allow him another look at how things are between himself and the rest of his family. When he returns, he is not the Darius he was before anymore, a bit of Darioush the Great has come with him to the US and he accepts that at times it is ok just not to be okay.

Adib Khoram’s novel presents a very different perspective on many things we know from novels. First of all, it is not an immigrant who comes to the US and has to adjust, but vice versa, an American boy, who even though he has a Persian mother is not speaking any Farsi, who discovers a country and its people of the Middle East. Khoram doesn’t play on clichés here, luckily, Darius does not come with too many ideas about his mother’s native country and enters it rather open-mindedly. Additionally, Darius is at the age where he could have his first girl-friend, but it is not a girl he meets and falls for, but a boy with whom he makes friends. And thirdly, the novel does not present a happy-end where everything is cured and everyone is fine. Darius still suffers from depression and has to fight for every little step in his life. Just travelling to Iran and back does not change everything.

I really enjoyed reading to book. Most of all because it gave a lot of interesting insight in the life in Iran, but also because it doesn’t pretend that life is easy and that everything can be fixed. None of the characters is perfect, they all make mistakes and they all feel awkward at times. In this respect, it is very authentic and convincing. I think it is great for teenagers who struggle with fitting in since the main message for me was that we all at times feel like outsiders and it is absolutely ok, not to fit in and to feel sad at times.

Christina Dalcher – Vox

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Christina Dalcher – Vox

Woman – the root of all evil. Therefore, under the new POTUS, women are confined to the house, forbidden to work, thy only have to care for their husbands and children, and most importantly, they aren’t allowed to speak more than one hundred words a day. “Bracelet” is what they call the device which counts their words and sends electronic shocks in case they exceed the set number. Dr. Jean McClelland, once a successful and renowned scientist, sees her life limited in a major way and she regrets all the marches she hasn’t taken part in, the petitions she hasn’t signed and the signs she has misinterpreted. When the president’s brother has an almost fatal accident, the most capable doctor is needed, thus Jean unexpectedly comes into the position of possibly setting conditions and finding a way out of her once beloved home country.

In many respects, this dystopia is highly disturbing. Not just because of what is narrated and imagining what happens there, but because you can easily reckon how such a situation might become a reality. Even though we believe to live in a world where men and women are equal and where women have gained their place in work and society, a group of men feeling deprived of their rights of superiority and therefore doing everything to turn back the time, is simple to picture.

I had heard a lot about Christina Dalcher’s novel and quite often, if too many people praise a book I become increasingly reluctant of agreeing. Yet, in this case, I totally consent to the majority of readers. The plot is very well developed, the characters seem absolutely authentic to me and the author’s style of writing is captivating. I especially appreciated how Jean’s eldest son is brainwashed, not for the fact itself, but as a convincing illustration of how easily people can fall prey to false prophets and walk right in the trap. Dalcher gets to the core with her protagonist, she has to make decisions that nobody wants to make and each reader has to answer for him- or herself which side they would be on and, first and foremost, what they do in reality to prevent such developments from happening.

Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

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Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

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

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

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

John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

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John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.

John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.

I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.

Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.

Dale Peck – Night Soil

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Dale Peck — Night Soil

Judas Stammers lives a peaceful life with his mother. He does not know anything about his father; only when he dies and leaves him masses of books and money does he actually notice this person. His mother is a potter and to their astonishment, her pots sell for an unbelievable amount of money that they actually do not need since their ancestors were coal magnates and founders of the Academy, a private school that also Judas attends. His mother often leaves him alone and the fact of being an outsider makes Judas ruminate a lot about life, his personality and also the history of the place he lives in.

I admittedly did not really get into the novel. Somehow for me, the narration did not completely make sense. I guess this was due to the fact that Judas narrates the long history of his family with masses of enumerations which made me lose the red threat. I found his personality quite interesting, but whenever I had the impression that the novel gets more fascinating and focuses on his development, the plot turned to something different. The end of the novel what highly noteworthy, the philosophical treatise about the parable – but how does this connect to the rest? To finish with something positive: I found many parts hilarious, I liked Judas style of narration, the way he puts his words, the comparisons, but this unfortunately could not counterbalance the weaknesses of the plot that I perceived.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Claire Douglas – Do not Disturb

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Claire Douglas – Do Not Disturb

After her husband’s breakdown, Kirsty and her family move from London to Hywelphilly, a small village in Wales where they buy a guesthouse. After weeks of refurbishing, they look forward to welcoming the first guests, among them to Kirsty’s dislike her cousin Selena whom she hasn’t seen for more than sixteen years. They had been like sisters, but Selena’s constant lying lead to the inevitable break. Kirsty’s two daughters Evie and Amelia struggle with the move at first, but when Selena and her daughter Ruby arrive, the house awakes. The cousins manage to sort out their quarrels; yet, Kirsty cannot get rid of the feeling that Selena still does not tell her the complete truth. When Selena’s former boyfriend shows up to rent a room, the atmosphere gets tense and with the arrival of Kirsty’s brother and his wife, trouble is in the air. And then, the worst fears come true: Selena gets murdered.

I really liked the novel because Claire Douglas has well dosed the revelation of secrets the characters keep – and there are many of them. Everybody has something to hide, buried down in his or her mind, even the nice ones are not what they seem at the first glance. There is something mysterious about the house, the whispers of the village inhabitants add to this and many of the incidents are hard to make sense of.

The novel is told from Kirsty’s perspective, quite normally, you are biased in what she tells as you only get her limited point of view. On the other hand, this adds to the suspense and you can easily share her feeling of unease. To me, Kirsty is authentic in her action and in the way she tries to protect her family. Since it is not clear where the threat comes from, you suspiciously eye all the other characters simply to learn in the end that you were completely wrong. I absolutely liked that especially since the whole mystery is solved convincingly.

“Do not disturb” triggers the biggest fear: having evil in your own home, the place where you want to feel safe and secure and where you assume that also your children are protected. Many twists and turns and unexpected revelations keep suspense high throughout the novel, a mystery thriller just as it should be.