Alison James – The Man She Married

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Alison James – The Man She Married

It is a pure coincidence that Alice makes the acquaintance of Dominic Gill. After her former fiancé had cancelled their wedding only days before it was supposed to take place, she didn’t really expect to meet anybody else to fall for. Dominic seems to be totally crazy asking her to marry him only weeks after they got to know each other, but why wait any longer if you feel it’s the right thing to do? Yet, there are some things they should have discussed before making the big step, e.g. do they want to have a baby, and it would have made sense to meet his mother and brother, but Alice does not worry too much about these things. Then one evening the police knock at her door and inform her about her husband’s death. When she comes to identify him, Dom’s brother is there insisting that the dead body does not belong to Dominic Gill. So who was Alice married to?

“The Man She Married” is a fast-paced thriller that shows how easily even intelligent and self-confident people may fall prey to fraudsters. As a reader, you are well aware of what is going on and at times, I got really annoyed with Alice’s mindlessness and naiveté, yet, I cannot say for sure that blinded by love I would assess Dom’s behaviour differently. With the main character’s sudden death, I wondered what else there was to come, but unexpectedly, Alison James made the hunt for Dominic’s real past as interesting as his deception of Alice.

Even though I have some doubts if it really is that easy to get fake identities or to take over somebody else’s life and to manage to keep up the facade of two lives simultaneously, I found it a gripping and spell-binding read.

Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

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Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

Even though she is already 25, Emira Tucker still does not really know which career to follow. Her degree does not really lead to anything and that’s why she is currently doing two jobs: transcribing records and babysitting Briar Chamberlain. Briar’s parents are new to Philadelphia and happy to find somebody to take care of their small daughter. When one Friday evening their house is hit by eggs, Briar’s mother Alix can rely on Emira to leave a friend’s birthday party to come immediately to their home to secure little Briar. When Emira is accused of having kidnapped the girl in the middle of the night, a bystander films how the black babysitter is assaulted. After all is sorted out, Emira only wants to forget about this episode, but it will become a decisive moment in her life.

Sometimes you start a novel and get totally immersed in it and practically read it straight from the beginning to the end. Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” belongs to this type of story. I got hooked from the first page as she quite casually addresses so many topics worth pondering on while creating suspense and offering also much to laugh about. I am still not sure which perspective the novel should be read under, the feminist or the race or if little Briar with her very special way of making sense of the world is the aspect most worth looking at in depth.

What I liked most was actually to see the vulnerability and lack of confidence that both protagonists share. This is wonderfully transported by the author since she uncovers the gap between the outer image and the feelings from inside. Alix is a highly successful woman who appears to be sure of herself and knowing exactly what she wants and what she is doing. When we enter her thoughts, the picture we get of her is totally different, there is hardly any aspect of her life she doesn’t struggle with. Emira also seems to be content with her jobs, but secretly she envies her friends for their ‘real adult’ jobs and feels like the only one who never actually grew-up. Briar is too young to express true self-awareness, yet, she seems to be aware of the fact that she is different somehow and does not easily bond with others. I really adored her sensuous and intense way of approaching the world surrounding her.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, especially since it highlights the fact that you can never be too sure that what you see is really how the other person feels.

Sara Shepard – Reputation

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Sara Shepard – Reputation

When hackers enter the system of some high profile universities and publish all emails sent by staff and students, people get nervous. Which secrets will be exposed? Aldrich University in Pittsburgh is unprepared for what is to come, especially Kit Strasser-Manning who never suspected her husband Greg of any wrong-doing. But then there are the emails which insinuate he had an affair with a very young woman. Kit does not get the chance to really find out what her husband did or didn’t because she finds him stabbed in their kitchen after a charity event that she hosted only hours after the whole scandal broke lose. She has lost all her memory and cannot recollect when or how she got home or what she did then. Yet, that’s only just the beginning for the whole community.

Sara Shepard’s novel is a tour de force of characters in an extreme situation. There is nobody who can escape since all have their small or big secrets that are suddenly threatened to be exposed. And they are, one after the other, they let down their guards and reveal what they hoped to be deeply buried and forgotten. At the beginning, I had some trouble keeping track of all the characters and understanding how they link, but then suddenly, the pieces all fell into place and an incredibly brilliant picture formed.

The motives are actually very old and well known: pride, hubris, greed, lust, wrath, envy – just consult the seven deadly sins and you’ll find them well portrayed in the novel. It is the core human faults that drive the characters. Along the way, Shepard also addresses hot topics such as the fraternity culture and spying on your beloved ones thanks to modern technology. Thus, not just the question about what each of the characters hides and the search for Greg’s murderer keep suspense high, but also current societal developments make it an entertaining and interesting read.

Due to the multiple points of view, the story is fast paced and keeps you reading that just one more chapter until you are all of a sudden through. Not just the plot, but also the author’s perfectly pitched foreshadowing make it a highly diverting novel.

Olivia Rayne – My Mother the Psychopath

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Olivia Rayne – My Mother the Psychopath

When children grow up, they do this in the believe that their parents know best and that they only want the best for their children. Since they hardly have any insight in other children’s homes, they forcibly must come to the conclusion that what they experience is how things in a family should be. Olivia has always known that her mother isn’t easy, they have changed home so many more times than any other kid she knows and even as a small child, she knew what to avoid and what to do around her mother for fear of her reaction. But it took her many years to understand the woman who gave birth to her and to find an explanation for her mother’s behaviour: she is a psychopath.

Olivia Rayne tells her experiences of growing up with a psychopathic mother. The chapters are dedicated to typical clinical features that a person diagnosed with this mental illness shows and a short explanation. Then, she outlines how this realised in her mother’s case. It is unbelievable to read what the girl had to endure and how she was left alone while her father watched and could clearly see what was happening. Not only did he not provide any help or shelter, he even supported his wife’s erratic behaviour. Outside the family, hardly anybody had the chance to do anything about the situation since the facade portrayed a totally different picture of the events that at times made people wonder.

The book is highly informative since you get a lot background information of how a psychopath operates. You can also recognise the patterns of manipulation they use and thus, at least I hope, get an idea of how they remain undiscovered for a long time. Yet, first and foremost, it is very moving and heart-breaking and should startle anybody who works with children to provide them with help and clear ideas of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable parental behaviour.

Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

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Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

Olivia is a typical 15-year-old girl who is fighting with her parents about going to parties, who is unsure of how to dress and how to behave in school and daydreaming about finally getting away from her family. Except she isn’t. Her life has two sides: on the outside, there is the loving mother in the caring home, on the inside, Olivia and her smaller sister Rosie grow up much more than overprotected. Their parents keep them away from the life outside their small home. They are allowed to school, but not much more. Never can they visit or invite friends, never can they really bond with anybody outside their family. When one evening Olivia sneaks out to go to a party, she sets in motion a series of events that will reveal much more about the family than just explain this very uncommon behaviour of the parents.

The story is told alternately from Olivia’s and her mother Hannah’s perspective. Quite cleverly, Victoria Jenkins first makes you believe in a fairly ordinary phase of rebellion of a teenager. Olivia behaves just like any other girl her age and seems to overdramatise her family life. Yet, slowly and almost unnoticed, something else creeps in and step by step, the image and idea you formed about the family shifts until you have to throw all your assumptions over board.

“The Argument” is a cleverly constructed psychological thriller which captivates the reader with the unexpected development of the characters. Both mother and daughter are actually equal protagonists, the age difference and uneven roles do not really make a difference. You focus on their subtle fight, the bits and pieces of their lives that lie beneath the surface and one after the other come out make them turn into realistic and multifaceted characters. While being occupied with the two women, you overlook the real danger and in the end, it is not easy to come to a final verdict on wrong-doings.

A spell-binding novel which does not offer the immediate thrill but which captivates you at a certain point and in the end, does not leave you without a melancholy feeling.

Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

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Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

When Natasha arrives from Russia at her new boarding school in rural England, she struggles to adapt. Not only the foreign language, but the special language all these year-11 girls from superrich families use. Yet, not only the words, but also the manners are quite unique and the one thing that they are obsessed with is how to lose weight. It is not just to get rid of some rests of baby fat or being in a better shape, the most important thing is being thinner than the others since the headmaster treats those girls differently. But then, their weight-loss competition goes totally wrong and one of the girls dies. Reaction of the school management: let’s not get any information outside and set up an anti-anorexia plan which only gives the girls even more ideas of what to do…

“Oligarchy” starts like some typical boarding school novel. 15-year-olds who do not have any serious worries, who try out the most absurd diets they can find, and modern-day obsession with pictures on the internet. Yet, it does not stop there, on the surface, of course, it is the world of adolescents we are presented with, teenagers who are reluctant to what their parents do and where the money comes from and who rebel against strict rules on their school. However, underneath, there are some much more fundamental questions addressed, first of all, how eating disorders are fired by what we are presented with every day. Secondly, the girls are rich, but most of them actually do not really have somebody to turn to, their parents are simply absent and even times of deepest distress does not seem to trigger any reaction from them.

Even though the novel is a bit stereotypical when it comes to the characters, I think the author did well in combining relevant topics in an enjoyable read. First and foremost, she has found the perfect tone with does neither ridicule the teenagers with their absurd ideas of how to diet and their supposedly secret cheating, nor does she take the serious consequences of their action too lightly. It is a novel that can educate, but fortunately, you do not feel like being educated.

Mads Peder Nordbo – Cold Fear

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Mads Peder Nordbo – Cold Fear

After his first investigation in Greenland, Matthew Cave has remained on the Danish island. There are still a lot of questions around his family he would like to have answered. Now, the story goes back to the year 1990 when Matt’s father Tom was stationed at an American military base on Greenland to carry out revolutionary medical tests. They managed to develop a pill which could make the body support cold temperatures much longer – a definite advantage in the cold north. Yet, this did not come without side effects and then something went totally wrong. Matt thought his father had died in that spring but he has already figured out that he must have survived somehow since Matt unexpectedly has found out that he has a younger sister. When he starts to investigate what happened on that military base almost 25 years before, he suddenly hits a hornet’s nest and puts himself and his sister in danger.

I already liked the first book in the series about the Danish journalist where the basis for this second novel was laid. Where I found “The Girl Without Skin” a bit creepier and more spine-chilling, “Cold Fear” is much more a spy novel which convinced me with a complex plot and repeated moments of highest suspense. Additionally, again, Nordbo provides insight in the Greenland culture and traditions of which I hardly know anything and which I found as disturbing as interesting.

It is not easy to sum up or briefly retell what “Cold Fear” is all about, there simply is too much and this really demands all your attention while reading. The plot certainly is strongest when political and societal aspects are touched – not just since we have seen the USA repeat their claims of the island this year. As Greenland is located so far away, we are highly ignorant about the different people who settled there and especially their mutual regard or rather disregard which becomes a lot clearer while reading.

However, what enchanted me most were the characters. From a psychological point of view, it is easy to comprehend why they act the way they do and how they developed into the person we meet in the novel. Most powerful are the female characters for me since all of them grow-up under the harshest circumstances and what they have to go through does not remain without trace.

Among the masses of Scandinavian crime novel, undoubtedly one that stands out.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

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Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.

“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”

What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.

What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.

The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

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Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.

Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

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Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

When Iris gets pregnant at the age of fifteen, she only takes in the fact that she and her boyfriend Aubrey are going to have a baby. What this really means for her life, she cannot assess at that moment. Sixteen years later, her daughter Melody is having her coming-of-age-party wearing the dress that was once meant for her mother. Not just Iris’s life takes another road with the unexpected kid, also her parents’ plans and of course those of Aubrey and his family change due to the new situation and all of them also have to face the world outside their family bubbly where not everybody is totally understanding. A novel about family bonds and about what influence a single human being can have on how you live your life.

Jacqueline Woodson has chosen a discontinuous mode of narration. Not only does she spring back and forward chronologically, but she also gives different characters a voice and also has a 3rd person narrator tell parts of the plot. This makes the whole story quite lively and often unexpected because at the beginning of each chapter you do not know where you are starting from and who is addressing you.

There are some central topics focussed on, first of all, of course, the teenager falling pregnant. The family manages the situation perfectly, no major fight or disruption arises from Iris’s decision to keep the baby, but it is hard to read about the reactions of her friends and school, even though I would classify it as highly authentic. The only person really struggling with the new-born, yet, is Iris who can never really bond with her daughter. She puts some effort in their relationship, but it is simply never enough and she most certainly suffers from the chances that she in her own perception never had in her life due to becoming a mother that early – admittedly, I had the impression that life could be much worse under these circumstances and Iris had a lot of opportunities to fulfil her dreams.

Another aspect are the class-related and skin-colour attributed options in life. These do not determine the characters’ fate, yet provide some food for thought as do family relations in general in the novel.

The novel offers a lot of blind spots, leaves gaps that you have to fill on your own due to the structure of the narration. I actually liked it because it makes you think on after reading and sticking with the book much longer. I also enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s style e of writing which is well adapted to the different characters and authentic.