Rabih Alameddine – The Wrong End of the Telescope

Rabih Alameddine – The Wrong End of the Telescope

When her friend calls her, Mina Simpson comes to Lesbos to help. The doctor can assist the refugees who land on the island not only physically but, since she is of Lebanese descent, she also speaks the language of the Syrians who risk their life to flee the war raging in their home country. For Mina, the Greek island is the closest she has been to her family for decades, as a trans woman, she never found her place there, only when she came to the USA could she live freely. With the first boat she sees lands the family of Sumaiya who first refuses to be examined by the doctor. But somehow, there is a spark of understanding between the two and Mina quickly understands why the other woman refuses any treatment: she knows already that she is terminally ill and the only thing she wanted to make sure was to bring her family to a save place.

“The Wrong End of the Telescope” is the third book I read of the author and again, he did not disappoint my high expectations even though it took me some time to figure out who the narrator is talking to. Just like in “An Unnecessary Woman”, we find a strong heroine who follows her ideas and yet is not totally stubborn and ignorant but sensitive to what her actions do to others. The plot centres around the refugee crisis which has been the top news for some years now and cleverly mixes fact and fiction by also integrating actual incidents.

Mina comes to the island with a clear aim: she wants to help. She is trained and thus qualified to do the work. Apart from her, there are many young people who have been attracted by the news, their situation is a bit different. Most of them arrived well-meaning, yet, taking photos of themselves helping and documenting the disastrous situation in the refugee camps seems to be their top priority, actually helping only comes second. Most of them seem to be unaware of their inadequate behaviour; the sensation seeking journalists, on the contrary, know exactly why they are there and that they prof from other people’s sufferance.

The protagonist differs strongly here, well, she differs from most people and her personal story is also not without traumatic experiences having grown up in the wrong body in a country where such a concept simply does not exist. She, like the refugees, knows what it means to lose home, to lose the people you love and to start anew in a different country, a different culture not knowing what the future might bring. She is well respected and her knowledge of both cultures allows her to critically comment on the flaws that both exhibit. As an outsider here and there, she is like an unrelated observer who thus can also highlight common traits members might not see.

Depending on the side of the telescope you use, you can get a closer or a more distant view of what you are looking at. Alameddine does both in his novel, on the one hand, he closely portrays the fate of one family, one mother, on the other hand, he also widens the frame of the refugee crisis. In addressing Mina’s narration to an unnamed and disillusioned writer, we also get both perspectives: looking at the world’s state on a wide you, you can simply despair, on the other hand, on a more personal level, there is still hope and so much good the single person can do.

Without a doubt, Rabih Alameddine is a wonderful narrator with a genius for integrating food for thought into brilliant narration.

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Mrs March leads the classic life of a New York upper class housewife and mother. Her husband George is a successful writer whose latest novel has catapulted him to the top of the bestseller list. Mrs March was raised to this life, from her childhood on, she has learnt how to behave in society and how to present herself and her family in an adequate way. Yet, her whole life has somehow become only a scenery of a life and she has lost herself. When a young woman’s body is found, she is intrigued and soon she finds more and more evidence that her husband’s inspiration might not just come out of himself and his imagination but might actually stem from actual experience. Is she sharing her bed with a murderer?

Virginia Feito’s debut novel “Mrs March” is an intense psychological study of a woman who has lost connection to reality and is gradually plummeting into an abyss. Brilliantly the author shows how a strongly self-controlled character more and more loses power over her life and in the end can hardly distinguish between what is real and what is only imagined.

It is quite clever how the protagonist is presented to the reader, she is only ever referred to as “Mrs March” thus defined by her status as a married woman and without a first name. She is not given anything that she brings into the marriage from her childhood. From her flashbacks you learn that her parents treated her rather coolly and that she has always felt like not doing anything right, not being the daughter they had hoped for, not fulfilling the expectations, until, finally, they can hand her over to her husband. The only persons she could bond with was her – rather malicious – imagined friend Kiki and a household help, yet, she couldn’t cope with positive feelings since this concept was totally alien to her.

Behind the facade of the impeccable woman is a troubled mind. First, it is just the assumption that people talk behind her back, compare her to her husband’s latest novel’s protagonist – not very flattering since this is a prostitute who is paid out of pity instead of for good service rendered – then she sees cockroaches and finds more and more signs which link George with the murder of the young woman the whole country is talking about. From her point of view, it a fits together perfectly, but she does not see how she herself increasingly fractures. Most of the plot happens behind closed doors, she does not have friends or family she is close to, thus, there is nobody to help her.

As readers, we know exactly where she is headed to and then, Virginia Feito confronts us with an unexpected twist which lets you reassess what you have just read. The distinction between reality and paranoia sometimes isn’t that clear at all.

A wonderfully written, suspenseful kind of gothic novel set in New York’s upper class whose signs of class affiliation are repeatedly mocked while also showing that not all is well just because you live in a posh apartment and can wear expensive clothes.

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

Max Seeck – The Ice Coven

The disappearance of a famous blogger does not seem to be a too interesting case for Jessica Niemi and her team of Helsinki police. After a big music business event, she did not come home and has since vanished into thin air. Her roommate also cannot contribute anything to Lisa Yamamoto’s whereabouts. When the body of a Ukrainian prostitute in Manga clothing is washed ashore, the investigators do not link the two events immediately, but, bit by bit, they untangle the complex web and soon find themselves confronted with a network of ill doings which goes far beyond the city limits. While working on the most challenging case of her career, Jessica is still mourning the loss of her former boss and friend while Erne’s successor openly hates and threatens to expose her, thus destroying her carefully constructed life.

Already in the first case for Jessica Niemi, Max Seeck masterfully crafted a highly complex plot which was great to follow as a reader. “The Ice Coven”, too, seems to be not too mystifying at the beginning but then it slowly unfolds its whole potential and turns into a high-paced thriller. The short chapters add to the suspense which rises and only climaxes at the very end even though long before you were fooled to believe you know what is going on.

Apart from the crime story, the book’s most outstanding element is the protagonist. Being familiar with the first instalment, you already know her backstory, the things she hides from her colleagues and the demons that haunt her. Still, there are some white spaces to be discovered in further stories which I am eagerly looking for.

A multi-layered thriller which is hard to put down once you started.

Sarah Goodwin – Stranded

Sarah Goodwin – Stranded

Maddie wants to flee from the ghosts that haunt her life after her parents‘ death. Together with seven others, she takes part in a TV experiment in which they have to stay isolated from the world on an island off the Scottish coast for a year. Equipped with cameras and just the most necessary items, the group has to survive in the unfriendly environment. It does not take too long for them until the first conflicts arise. Who does not contribute enough to the community, who is working harder, how can daytime be used in the most useful way? The issues for quarrelling are manifold and Maddie soon finds herself the main target of the male participants. She has always been an outsider, is she just unable of integrating into or group? She tries hard but with lowering food supplies, tension grows and annoyance ultimately turns into blind rage which sets free basic instincts of survival.

Even though Sarah Goodwin’s thriller “Stranded” follows quite a classic scheme, I was totally gripped by the story and hardly could put down the book. The reader follows the first person narrator Maddie thus sharing not only her insecurities and thoughts but also wondering if you can trust her assessment of the situation and feeling hesitant about the other characters’ behaviour and actions behind Maddie’s back. You know from the prologue that things will turn out nasty and that not everybody will survive, thus tension is set high from the start and does not lower at any point keeping you spellbound.

Even though I personally would never take part in such a challenge, I found the setting enthralling. It is well documented what atrocious surroundings in which a bunch of people are threatened by starvation and lose hope of rescue can make of human beings. They turn into animals, it is just a question of when and degree of how horrible the situation becomes. The author does not wait too long for the first small escalations; the characters are well chosen to quickly provide enough room for conflict.

Despite her isolated and overprotective upbringing, Maddie is fairly well equipped for survival. This she needs to be as all kinds of aggressions are addressed to her by her fellows. Her survival instinct kicks in and she is willing to fight back – not matter what it takes. Yet, the other characters are not drawn one-dimensionally either, especially Zoe shows that at times, you are in conflicting situations where you are forced to take sides even though you do not want to and you have to choose maybe the wrong one just because it is the one with the upper hand.

There is no human abyss left out and thus, you only wait for the next escalation level until you reach the ultimate one. Full of suspense, a thriller which definitely deserves this label.

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.  

With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.

“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.

The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.

Tammy Cohen – The Wedding Party

Tammy Cohen – The Wedding Party

All her life Lucy has dreamt of the perfect wedding. It took her 18 months to plan everything to detail so that her nuptials to Jason would be the most spectacular moment. The wedding party arrives on the beautiful Greek island of Kefalonia already a couple of days prior to enjoy themselves and to prepare for the big day. Yet, from the start, things do not run as smoothly as expected. Lucy’s sister Jess appears with a stranger in tow, her parents behave strangely and her wedding planner Nina is asking repeatedly for the pay of the last bill which Lucy simply couldn’t settle as she has been overspending and is totally broke. It is only her best friend Shelly who supports her unconditionally. But this is only the beginning, with the strange woman Vivian, a doomy omen seems to have arrived at their luxurious hotel threatening not only to destroy the best day of her life but her whole family.

I have been a huge fan of Tammy Cohen for years and thus was looking forward to reading her latest novel. Again, she did not disappoint me but created a gripping plot which had me struggle to put the book down once I had started. Brilliantly crafted, suspense is high from the beginning as you know that something absolutely terrible is going to happen, yet, the big question is: what?

Lucy just wants her wedding to be perfect, not necessarily for herself, but much more for her Instagram followers and colleagues. She seems to be doing everything right except for spending money she does not have and not telling her husband-to-be about it. Her sister, on the contrary, is more on the rebel side of life not caring too much about outer appearances and following her own ideals. That she might spoil her sister’s wedding by bringing a total stranger does not really occur to her, it is just her way of having a bit of fun. Their parents, too, seem to have fallen apart, even though the girls do not have a clue why this might be. Just for the sake of the wedding, they all try at least to play their assigned role for a couple of days longer.

Even though it could be a carefree week under the sun, smaller and bigger secrets surface one after the other leading to an increasingly dense atmosphere among the party and opening up all doors for speculation about what might happen. From the police interviews interjected, you can only guess so much, but this is this theorising that makes reading the novel great fun.

Wonderfully depicted characters who all have their flaws and shortcomings mixed with a lot of drama and suspense – a perfect summer read.

Alexandra Kleeman – Something New Under the Sun

Alexandra Kleeman – SOmething New Under the Sun

Patrick Hamlin leaves the east coast when his novel is turned into a film. This promises to be his big breakthrough, especially since Cassidy Carter is going to play the lead role. The young film and internet star is sure to attract a great audience. But from the start, Patrick has the sensation that strange things are going on. First, the bunch of youngsters who should care for him but do not seem to have a clue about the job and also Brenda and Jay who hardly show an interest in the film they are about to produce. That life on the west coast differs from his eastern home does not surprise Patrick, yet the extent is astonishing since people heavily rely on a product called WAT-R instead of the ordinary water he knows. At the beginning, he is just annoyed by all the things which seem to go wrong and Cassidy’s diva attitude, however, after a couple of days, the hints that there is something really going on behind the scenes are hard to ignore anymore and thus, Patrick starts to investigate.

Alexandra Kleeman‘s novel is the perfect read of the moment. Many people around the globe are unsure about what to believe and convinced that there is some kind of deep going conspiracy the ordinary people cannot see and therefore are just figures in a game without realising it. The ecological crisis with water shortage and raging wildfires in California is another aspect she cleverly incorporates into the plot.

The reader, together with Patrick, tries to make sense of the things he experiences in California while his wife and daughter at home seems to have fallen prey to a strange cult which goes into the complete opposite rejecting all modern technology and focussing on basic needs and a reduced life on a farm outside town. While worrying about his family, Patrick cannot see clear and lacks support in his mixed feelings about the incidents on the film set.

Cassidy is first presented in a way you would expect a young superstar to behave. However, her personality turns out to differ heavily from the public egocentric diva image thus revealing one of the few critically thinking and actually caring people.

Even though the idea behind the plot is great and alluring, it was hard for me to really indulge in the novel. Yet, I liked Kleeman’s style of writing and will surely look out to read more of her.

Nick Spalding – You Again?

Nick Spalding – You Again?

It was an offer they could not let go by: one week on the Maldives for an unbeatable price, the perfect island for a couple. Joel has been there before, for the honeymoon with his ex-wife Amy, but now he is with Cara and wants to relive the happy time on the sandy beach. Yet, when they arrive at the airport, he spots Amy with her new boyfriend Ray. This can only be a coincidence. But it isn’t. Amy, too, has seen the offer and wanted to go there again. Thus, the two of them find each other on the same plane heading to the same destination after two years of hateful ignorance. Trapped on a small island, they cannot get out of each other’s way and therefore, quite some complicated days lie ahead of the former couple.

Nick Spalding’s novel fulfilled all my expectations of a hilariously funny summer read: a great surrounding with beautiful nature, characters who easy fall prey to their own shortcomings and over and over again find themselves victim of their own doings – but in a comical and not too hurtful way.

Even though it is clear from the start what is going to happen, I enjoyed following the alternating accounts of Joel and Amy offering their respective views which are filled with unattended to emotions. Underneath the hatred, you sense that there is still something that binds them and that makes them matter to each other. If it wasn’t, they could easily ignore the ex-partner. Both of them are totally predictable and too much caught in their maelstrom of negative emotions to stand above what happened in the past. Yet, just the fact that they know each other so well allows them to play really foul tricks.

It is totally hilarious to see how they get worked up in trying to outplay each other. A light and entertaining read, perfect for the summer holiday on the beach.

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Ballet has always been the world of sisters Dara and Marie. Their glamourous mother, a former ballet soloist, had kept them close and after the parents’ death, they have taken over the Durant School of Dance together with Dara’s husband Charlie who had become a family member as a boy. When a fire destroys one of their studios amidst the preparations of their biggest annual event, the performance of “The Nutcracker”, they hire Derek, a seemingly highly skilled contractor, to have everything restored as quickly as possible. Yet, they do not have the least idea of whom they let into their studio and lives. The fire was just the beginning of a series of dreadful events which will change their lives forever.

“No one wanted to face the truth. That every family was a hothouse, a swamp. Its own atmosphere, its own rules. Its own laws and gods. There would never be any understanding from the outside. There couldn’t be.”

Megan Abbott is a master of foreshadowing and again has created unique characters who reveal their full potential slowly throughout the novel. The title – “The Turnout” – is quite ambiguous but perfectly fits in several respects. A turnout is a demanding move in ballet and that’s what the sisters expects from their élèves. Secondly, it is also the moment where you are confronted with different directions and have to decide for one. Thirdly, it is a clearing out, an act of cleaning what has been spoilt. All three can be found in the novel. The preparation for the ballet performance is at the centre when the sisters get into a deep conflict in which they decide for different roads and, in the end, the initial state is restored and all disruptive factors are cleared. At least they might think so.

The novel moves at a rather slow pace but this adds the creepy atmosphere which makes the plot quite authentic. The threat does not come in in an obvious way, it is sneaking into their lives with a friendly and smiling face like a predator who observes his prey, gets closer and tenaciously waits for the perfect moment to attack.

It is also a novel about family structures and sisterly bonds. Quite obviously, their mother’s way of keeping the girls away from other children, of treating them in a special – or rather: strange – way to form them according to her own ideals cannot be healthy. Dara and Marie become like two sides of one coin, an inseparable unit which even cannot be divided by Charlie who integrates into their union. No wonder, at a certain point in life, such a bond is threatened and the lack of experience with people makes them even more vulnerable than others might have been.

From a psychological point of view, an outstanding novel which is also full of spine-chilling suspense.