Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Rivka Galchen – Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

Even though the Middle Ages are over, superstition and strange beliefs are still widespread among people. Thus, in 1615, Katharina Kepler finds herself accused of witchcraft by the people of her hometown of Leonberg in southern Germany. Times are hard, the Plague is spreading the Thirty Years’ War has just begun and somebody must be blamed for all the things happening. Katharina is an elderly widow, illiterate and mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. She leads a simple life, attending to her cow Chamomile. One day, however, Ursula Reinbold, accuses her of witchcraft, having offered a bitter drink which allegedly poisoned her, and surprisingly, the court not only listens but more and more people come forwards with testimonies of Katharina’s ill-doing. Only her neighbour, old Simon, who prefers to keep to himself, stands by her side.

Rivka Galchen’s story is based on a true story, Johannes Kepler’s mother was a healer and herbalist and arrested for witchcraft. The famous son stopped his research in planetary motion to defend his mother. Not only Katharina became victim of this kind of accusation, the town’s advocate Lutherus Einhorn accused 15 women in one trial and had executed eight of them in 1615.

At first, Katharina doesn’t take the accusation seriously, it is just talk for her, until she is put to prison and has to learn that more and more people come forward with other stories which seem to underline her doing black magic. She tries to counter the attack by accusing Ursula and her husband of slander, yet, her own case vanishes somewhere in the depth of local jurisprudence.

“We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always know. The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.”

The accusations brought forward rage from poisoning, causing lameness, several deaths, injuring a woman’s foot, harming numerous people and animals – a long list which is getting more and more absurd during the story. I liked the interrogations of the inhabitants since they show not only the superstition they fall prey to, but also the dynamics of a small town which turns against one woman. Everything ill that has ever happened is simply attributed to Katharina. The allegations are so ridiculous that you could laugh weren’t it for Katharina’s case and the fact that the people’s testimonies seem to be believed.

Even though the plot is based on a well-documented historical case, you can see more or less the same thing happening today. It is not the small town anymore, but the world wide web in which often just one single person brings forward an accusation – no need for proof anymore – and masses jump on the bandwagon and have their twitter trial even before the issue is sorted out. It doesn’t matter if the accused is later discharged or not, the only thing that counts is public opinion which is quick at passing a sentence.

An entertaining read which outlines the dark sides of human nature – envy, greed, malicious gossip – and the danger that might come from it.

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Sisters Ida and Marthe have planned to spend some days together at their cabin close to the sea where they will be joined by their mother and her partner. Ida is reluctant to go there, with her 40th birthday only a couple of weeks ago and still no father for prospective children in view, she knows that her window of becoming a mother is getting closer and closer. This is why she decided to freeze some of her eggs. Yet, it does not hinder her from negative feelings towards Marthe who, now pregnant and stepmother of beautiful 6-year-old Olea, seems – as always – to get everything she wants. Hard feelings accompany Ida and slowly turn their holiday together into a catastrophe.

I totally enjoyed Marie Aubert’s novel as I could easily sympathise with her narrator and protagonist. Additionally, there is some fine irony and humour in the text which make it a great read. The relationship between sisters quite often is all but easy and even as grown-ups, hard feelings and emotional injuries from the childhood can sit deep and hinder them from ever having a healthy bond.

Ida obviously is envious, her sister not only has a living husband but also a lovely stepdaughter and she’s pregnant. Even though Ida is a successful architect, she has never managed to establish a functioning relationship with a partner and feels lonely and somehow failed in life. Always being second, this is how she has grown up, no matter which achievements she reached, there was always Marthe who was ill and thus spoilt those rare moments of joy for Ida. Their mother does not seem to be aware of the difference she makes between the girls – yet, one has also to take into account that we only get Ida’s point of view which quite naturally is not only limited but highly biased.

“It’s not right That it should be so easy for others and so hard for me, I don’t get it, if there’s some sort of formula, a code that others know about, one they’ve known since they were young but which I’ve never quite grasped.”

Ida gets worked up about her sister and is willing to destroy her sister’s life when she is drunk one evening. This is rather tragic to observe and Ida turns into a pitiable character who does not realise that she will be even lonelier if she loses these last persons around her. She is aware of this but cannot act differently.

Marie Aubert’s debut is elegantly narrated, yet, the story leaves you with mixed feelings. It is joyful at times but the dysfunctional family is also an emotional challenge.

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has achieved what she could only dream of, at 26 she is editorial assistant at one of the most prestigious publishing houses. The only thing she has been struggling with the last two years is how the idea of diversity has never entered her workplace, after the Asian girl left, she is the only person with a different background. Things change when unexpectedly Hazel is employed and gets the cubicle next to her. Nella senses immediately that with another black girl, they might finally make a change in publishing, promote more diverse authors and bring forward new topics relevant to a large audience which wasn’t addressed so far. However, it does not take too long until Nella’s work life starts to go downhill.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel has been called one of the buzz books of 2021 by several magazines. I was intrigued by the blurb immediately, a kind of horror version of “The Devil Wars Prada” sounded totally enthralling. For a long time, “The Other Black Girl” could fulfil the expectations, there is a highly uncomfortable feeling creeping around, yet, the end was a bit too much for my liking.

Nella is quite a likeable young woman, hardworking and even though not an activist she is following the Black Lives Matter movement even before this becomes a widespread phenomenon and big news. She imagines being able of making a change in the publishing industry but first needs to get at the position where she has the actual power to do so. Therefore, she is quite assimilated and she swallows comments from her colleagues even though they might be quite offensive for persons of colour. With the arrival of Hazel she seems to get an ally and befriends her immediately.

For the reader, even though there are some chapters which seems unrelated to Nella’s story but hint at some goings-ons beyond her scope, it is obvious that Hazel is not the friendly and reliable colleague Nella assumes, this was an aspect which annoyed me a bit, I didn’t get the impression of Nelly being that naive and credulous at first and would have liked her to be a bit cleverer in relation to what happens at her workplace.

The novel, however, is quite strong at portraying Nella’s feelings as being the only black girl, the role she assigned to as representative of a totally diverse group which is just too simplistic, yet, nobody really seems to care about the concept of diversity, having one black girl is enough. She has other issues than her colleagues, especially the talk about hair was quite a novelty, even though this is a huge topic if you do not have the easy-care blond hair.

Overall, I liked the writing and found Nella’s perspective and the insight in the publishing world interestingly realised.

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels:  Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.

“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”

Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.

The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.

A classic whodunnit I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

Vendela Vida – We Run the Tides

It’s the middle of the 80s and San Francisco hasn’t turned into the tech/IT hotspot it is today. Teenager Eulabee grows up in a more well-off part close to the beach and attends an expensive all-girls school with her best friends Maria Fabiola. The girls are still somewhere between being kids and becoming visibly female and with this transformation also come the problems. Maria Fabiola is the first to attract attention from the opposite sex, but her radiant appearance also charms women which is why she gets away with almost everything. Eulabee is far from being that self-confident and therefore sticks to the truth what leads to her being excluded from the girl circles of her school. When Maria Fabiola vanishes, the whole community is alarmed, but Eulabee from the start does not believe in a kidnapping, she has known Maria Fabiola for too long and is well aware of her former friend’s greed for attention.

Vendela Vida still isn’t as renowned as her husband Dave Eggers even though she has published several books by now and has won the Kate Chopin Award. I found her last novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” quite exceptional in the choice of perspective and therefore was eager to read her latest novel “We Run the Tides”. This time, she goes back in time and has chosen teenage girls as protagonists. The story is told from Eulabee’s perspective and captures well the mixed emotions a girl goes through when becoming a woman. Also the ambiance of the 1980s is convincingly depicted.

The most central aspect of the novel is surely the friendship between Eulabee and Maria Fabiola and its shift when one of the girls develops a bit quicker than the other. Maria Fabiola is well aware of the effect she has on other people and uses this for her own advantage. Eulabee, in contrast, is still much more a girl, insecure in how to behave and what to do about the situation. She does not fight but accept what’s happening. Her first attempts of approaching boys seem to be successful but end up in total disappointment. She is a close observer and can well interpret the relationships she sees, between her parents, her mother and her sister and also the other girls and teachers at her school. Without any doubt she is a likeable character and treated highly unfairly. But that’s how kids behave at times.

I liked how the plot developed and how the vanishing of the girls turned out quite unexpectedly. Yet, I didn’t fully understand why the author has chosen to add another chapter set in the present. For me, the story was perfectly told at a certain point and admittedly, neither was I really interested in Eulabee’s later life nor in another encounter of the two women as grown-ups. Still, I do not really know what to make of Maria Fabiola when they meet for the first time decades later.

To sum up, wonderfully narrated, a great coming-of-age story with a strong protagonist.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

After becoming mother for the first time, journalist and author Elizabeth agrees with her husband’s wish to leave busy New York for a quieter place closer to his parents. Yet, the new life does not really seem to fit to Elizabeth. She feels exhausted from the baby and finds it difficult to make friends in her new community, the other women seem to be happy with dull pseudo-occupations and spend their days gossiping. When she decides to hire a babysitter to gain some tome to work on her next novel, things change finally since she immediately bonds with Sam, an art student in her final year at the local college. Sam herself comes from a decent background and is fascinated by the woman who seems to get everything done easily, who has style and taste and has made an astonishing career. Despite the age gap they become friends, but there are things they just ignore which, however, become more and more apparent the better they get to know each other and when they need each other most, a gap opens which is unsurmountable.

I totally liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel from the start. Sympathising with Elizabeth was easy since I can imagine a lot but not leaving a big town to become a full-time mother and spend my day with gossiping neighbours. Sam, too, was easy to like, still young and unsecure but with a good heart and totally in love with her British not-so-boyish-anymore boyfriend. From the start, it is a challenge between two characters who actually like each other but where there is an imbalance in power in several areas which puts at time Elizabeth, at times Sam in a better situation.

The author explores a lot of aspects in her novel which give you food for thought. First of all, Elizabeth’s move to a small town which does not offer much. Also her struggle with being a mother is something a lot of women surely can emphasize with. Quite interesting also the dynamics between her and her husband who cannot really cope with a more successful wife on the one hand, on the other he is relying on her financial situation to realize his own dream. Elizabeth looks down on him since he has never really accomplished anything in professional ways – not a good basis for a new start in a new place.

Sam lives the typical student life, yet, her fellow students all come from rich families and can afford things she can only dream of. She manages to live in both worlds, but feels often closer to the women in the cafeteria kitchen she works with than with the girls she shares the dorm. Her relationship with Clive is mysterious form the start, yet, totally in love, she forgets to question his behaviour and falls prey to him. She is still young and simply makes mistakes young people make.

Both characters as well as the plot have a lot to offer, yet, at times I found the backstories a bit too long, a bit too detailed since they always slowed down the main action. Nevertheless, a wonderful read I thoroughly enjoyed.