William Shaw – Grave’s End

william shaw graves end
William Shaw – Grave’s End

An unoccupied house which is for sale becomes a crime scene when a body is found in a freezer. This is just the first of a couple of bodies that DS Alexandra Cupidi has to deal with. They do not seem to be connected in any way, but the deeper she digs, the more apparent it becomes that all is somehow linked to the housing project September Homes which causes fierce protests among locals. One of them is the victim in the freezer, Vincent Gibbons, who had been observing badgers in the area and feared that the new houses would kill them or drive them away. Alex Cupidi’s daughter Zoë and their neighbour and ex policeman Bill South also protest against the destruction of the habitat, but quite soon, all three of them have to realise that powerful enemies are willing to do everything to stop them from interfering with the project.

The third instalment of the DS Alexandra Cupidi series so far is the best in my opinion. A single body with no obvious links to anything is the starting point of a highly complex murder investigation which expands from chapter to chapter. What I totally adored were the chapters the old badger is given a voice, thus, the topic of building houses without considering the impact on wildlife becomes a lot more important and interesting and one can only agree with the badger when it concludes, “People stink.”

The plot is perfectly crafted, first moving at a slower pace but then accelerating and also raising suspense. The connections between the different dots are all but obvious and it was a great fun puzzling over it. In the end, the case is solved without leaving any questions unanswered. What I liked most this time was how the characters developed, especially the relationship between Alexandra and her daughter. Bill also becomes more and more a close friend of the two while remaining a bit stubborn but he has the heart in the right place. Alexandra’s partner Jill also becomes more remarkable providing just glimpses of her past where a lot seems to remain to be uncovered.

A series which I absolutely adore and would like to read more of.

Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Julie Clark – The Flight

julie clark the flight
Julie Clark – The Flight

Everything had been planned meticulously for months. Taking the trip to Detroit and then vanishing somewhere in Canada. But when Claire Cook wakes up on the morning which will free her finally from her abusive husband, she learns that he has altered their plans, she is to go to Puerto Rico. All the strategy, fake passport, preparations were in vain. Eva, another woman, as desperate as Claire, runs into her at the airport and makes an offer: trade tickets. Both of then need a new start and have powerful people on their heels. None of them has anything to lose anymore and so they decide to step in each other’s shoes. When Claire lands in California, she finds out that the plane she was supposed to be on crashed which makes her a free woman with a new identity. But the new life she has hoped for for months, does not feel right somehow and one questions lingers at the back of her mind: what did Eva run from?

“The Flight” belongs to those books that you open and cannot put down anymore. It the brilliantly told story of two women who are desperate to an extent where they feel that there is nothing to left to lose anymore and who would take any risk since they know this could be their only and last chance to get their own life back. While we follow Claire’s first days in her new life, Eva’s last months before the meeting at the airport is narrated providing insight in her tragic story.

Full of suspense you simply keep on reading to find out if the women could escape. Yet, apart from this aspect, there is also some quite serious undertone since, on the one hand, we have Claire stuck in a marriage marked by psychological and physical abuse and a controlling and mighty husband who considers himself above the law. On the other hand, Eva’s life has totally derailed because of her background where there were no rich parents who could afford expensive lawyers or knew the right people and therefore she was paying for something her boyfriend actually was responsible for. This surely raises the questions to what extent women still much likelier become a victim of false accusations and endure years of assault because they do not find a way out of their lamentable situation. Additionally, can it be true that with money and power you can put yourself above the law and get away with it?

A great read that I totally enjoyed and which certainly will make me ponder a bit more after the last page.

Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

Sanaë Lemoine – The Margot Affair

sanae lemoine the margot affair
Sanaë Lemoine – The Margot Affair

It has always been like this: her father would visit them every other day, sometimes they did not hear of him for weeks. But when he opened the door, he was there completely for Margot Louve and her mother Anouk. No holidays together, no show up at school events, he only belonged to their private life and for the world outside their Paris apartment, there simply was no father. Nobody knew who he was because everybody knew him. He was a public man, a well-known politician and the husband of another woman. When Margot meets a journalist, the idea of going public with their story pops up, thus forcing him to finally decide between the two lives and families. She is sure that he loves her and her mother much more than his actual wife and therefore, she sets in motion a chain of events with an outcome she would never have imagined.

Sanaë Lemoine’s story of course immediately reminds the reader of the former French president Mitterrand’s double life which he only revealed shortly before his death thus making Mazarine Pingeot suddenly one of the most famous daughters of the country. The author does not try to hide the parallels, she even mentions and integrates the real life events in her novel thus underlining also the differences between the two. Written from the daughter’s perspective, she convincingly gives the voice to a young woman full of insecurities and marked by her quite naturally limited understanding of her parents’ affair.

I totally adored the first part of the novel which focuses on Margot and her relationship with her father. She does not question her life and the fact that she can never talk about who her father is, knowing that he loves her deeply is enough for herself and the arrangements also seems to work well for her mother. When the two of them accidentally encounter her father’s wife, something in her is set in motion and it only needs a little pushing by a journalist to develop her fatal plot. She is too young to foresee the scope of her action and what the possible outcomes are.

In the second part, unfortunately, the author lost me a bit with the shift of the focus. Margot is fascinated by a woman a couple of years her senior and the journalist’s wife. Brigitte is a strong contrast to her always distanced and rather cold and controlled mother and fills some kind of emotional gap that opened in her life. For the reader it is quite obvious that she is to a certain extent lured on to destruction and falls prey to the reckless woman. Even though the development between them is well portrayed and slowly moves towards the final blow, Margot lost a bit of her charming personality for me and the reflective and thoughtful young woman turns into a naïve and emotionally dependent girl which I did not really like to follow anymore that much.

A psychologically interesting novel about relationships and emotional needs of children and their parents, but also a study of how the choices of life you make always will have an impact on other people, too.

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

brit bennett the vanishing half
Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Everybody in the small Louisiana town of Mallard has always just called them the twins. That’s what Desiree and Stella Vignes are, just like some inseparable unit. Together they grow up, together they ran away to find a better life. A big dream for two black girls in the middle of the 20th century when segregation is a fact and opportunities for girls are limited. But then, Stella finds a job as a secretary, due to her relatively fair skin, they mistake her for white and with her diligence, she suddenly sees the chance to reinvent herself. After years of playing the role of the white secretary, she is ready to turn the role into her new self, but this requires leaving everything behind, also her twin sister. The girls take different roads, but they can never forget each other completely. It will take years until their paths will cross again and until they will need to ask themselves who they are and who they only pretend to be.

Brit Bennett’s novel covers the time span from the 1950s when the twins are only teenagers until the end of the 20th century when they have grown-up daughters. It is a tale of two young girls who are connected by their looks but quite different in character, girls with hopes and dreams living in a time when chances in life are determined by the skin colour. One of them accepts things as they are, the other decides to make the best for herself of it, but the price she has to pay is high and it is also a price her daughter will have to pay, ignorant of her mother’s story. Beautifully written the author not only follows the fate of the two individuals, but she also mirrors in their fate a society in which some alleged truths are deeply rooted.

When starting reading, you have the impression of being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow, you are in the middle of the story and first need to sort out the characters and circumstances. The author sticks to the backwards and forwards kind of narration which only little by little reveals what happened to the sisters. Just as both of them are ill-informed about the other’s fate, you as a reader, too, have to put the bits and pieces together to make it a complete story. I totally adored that way of gradually revealing what happened to them.

The narrative also quite convincingly shows that you can never just make a decision for your own life, it will always have an impact on other people, too, and even if you imagine having left all behind you and buried it deep inside your head, one day, the truth will come out and you’ll have to explain yourself. Brit Bennett similarly demonstrates how fragile our concepts of race, gender, class and even identity can be. We might easily be misled because quite often we only see what we want to see and prefer looking away over confronting our stereotypical thinking.

A must read drama with strong characters but also a lot of food for thought.

Cristina Alger – The Darlings

cristina alger the darlings
Cristina Alger – The Darlings

The Darlings are one of new York’s most famous families. Carter Darling’s investment company makes tons of money, mother Ines is still the most stunning woman at all gala events and their two daughters Merrill and Lily have found perfectly fitting husbands and fulfil their roles of the clever and the beautiful also impeccably. When one of Carter’s business partners commits suicide, the family has to face a crisis they have never seen before and, first and foremost, they have to admit that some things are just not what they pretended them to be: Carter is not the honest businessman, Ines is not the wife who still loves him after all those decades together, and family does not come first, when they feel threatened. What starts with one man taking his life, ends in one of the biggest finance scandals New York has ever seen and the Darlings are at the very centre of it.

Cristina Alger’s novel is a combination of a highly complex financial fraud thriller and a very personal family drama in which almost all characters are put to a test: what are their values, how far are they willing to go to protect their loved ones, how much more important can money be than the lives of people? The mechanics of both, the financial world and a family with their closest friends, are laid open and show the darkest corners of human nature.

Admittedly, “The Darlings” is not a fast paced thriller which keeps you alert all the time. Even though the plot covers just a couple of days and actually moves quite quickly, the author chose to rather go into depths with her characters which I liked a lot since it gives a lot more insight in their thoughts and makes their decision-making a great deal more comprehensible. The sheer number of characters wasn’t easy to manage at the beginning and understanding the connection between them took some time, but in the end, it was all very cleverly connected and set up and no questions was left unanswered. This might be difficult for some readers who prefer a speedy thrill, yet, for those who like stories about human beings and their nature, it is a great read.

Salman Rushdie – Quichotte

salman rushdie quichotte
Salman Rushdie – Quichotte

Sam DuChamp, author of spy novels still waiting for any to succeed, attempts to write the book that has never been written before and which centres around Ismail Smile, sales executive with Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc. When Smile discovers Salma R, a highly popular TV show host – surely some pun must be intended here -, he immediately falls for her and decides to make her fall in love with him, too. First, he writes letters, then, he goes on the long journey to New York, accompanied by his teenage son Sancho, whom he only imagines. Just like Cervantes’ Quichotte, he has a quest in front of him that he is willing to complete. Sam DuChamp also has to travel, however, not to find love but to find answers for questions concerning his very own family.

“Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional (…)”

In his 14th novel, Salman Rushdie is playing with fact and fiction within a fictional novel and cleverly demonstrates what we do in our so called real life to re-narrate reality, to shape it according to our needs and longings to make it take the form we would like it to have. Especially when it comes to the author’s family, we get a typical example of a family history which is told in a certain way and shaped by omission and half-truths, something that is all but unusual. Pop-culture in the form of TV has for many years created another variety of reality, everybody knows how easy it is to edit film material to get a certain message across and how easily nowadays pictures can be photoshoped to have somebody appear in a desired way. Fake news and alternative news have become a widely accepted accessory phenomenon of factual news, thus, our assumed reality is full of fiction and we are simply a part of it.

It is not just this intelligent and highly entertaining interplay between fact and fiction that makes the novel an outstanding read, it is also the masses of references to classic literature, pup culture, film, music, current issues like racism or the opioid crisis that turn the read into a roller coaster ride. His letter writing protagonist on his quest through seven valleys compulsorily seems to have fallen out of time completely – yet, that’s exactly what makes Salma R become interested in him.

Rushdie does not show the slightest respect for any limits of genre, his Quichotte is a road novel as well as a chivalric romance, popular literature and documentary of current America, philosophical essay and modern version of a great classic novel. He is most certainly known for finding literary ways of criticising the world around him in which he also succeeds with his latest novel. Apart from the plot, his witty and playful narrator adds to the humorous tone and earned him a well-deserved place on the shortlist of the 2019 Man Booker Prize.

Wendy Clarke – The Bride

wendy clarke the bride
Wendy Clarke – The Bride

There nothing in Alice’s life that didn’t go completely wrong in the last couple of weeks: her employer laid her off, her father didn’t want to see her and now, her partner leaves her because he is having a baby with another woman. After days in bed, she gets a message from an old friend. Joanna. Her former best friend with whom she has lost contact, but now, Joanna wants to meet her to get to know the man she’s going to marry. Could there be a better excuse to leave everything behind at least for a couple of days? Obviously, Joanna must be quite successful living in one of the new posh apartment blocks which must be super expensive. However, when, Alice knocks on the door, there is just Mark, Joanna’s husband to be and he knows nothing of a visitor. Joanna is not there, also the next day, she doesn’t show up. Alice feels increasingly uncomfortable until Mark tells her that Joanna has been kidnapped and that he needs her help to get her back.

Told from Alice’s point of view, you go through a horrendous mass of emotions – emotions which could hardly be more contradictory. Wendy Clarke leads the reader through a tour de force of lies, secrets and very spooky and distressing moments that, at times, give you the creeps. Just like her protagonist, you do not know whom to believe or trust, the whole situation she is caught in feels like a big ghost train rushing towards a giant obstacle without preparing for the impact.

I totally adore plots which keep you alert throughout the whole narration. It is those seemingly insignificant side notes that reveal that there’s so much you do not know, that all characters have some blind spots you don’t see and that everything might be completely different from what you expect or believe. Even though I found Alice a bit too naïve and shallow, I liked to follow her.

The further the plot gets, the higher the pace and suspense, thus a true page-turner that entertained me well.