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.

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Joan flees New York to California after he lover Victor shot himself publicly in front of her. With little money left, she finds a small place to stay and she also finds the woman she was looking for. Alice, whom she had tracked online over all those years. She thinks back to what her life had to offer so far, her mother who was unable to love her, her father whom she admired childishly. Both have long been gone. Joan can run, but somehow her bad luck follows her, she seems prone to attracting all kind of evil and so it does not take too long until it comes back to her.

Lisa Taddeo made her debut with “Three women“ which I already liked a lot. In her latest novel, too, complicated relationships between men and women are central to the story’s development. The narrator herself is unable to love unconditionally, she needs to have the upper hand over her lovers, yet, this presumed precaution measure fires back and somehow she is stuck in the role of the kid who is longing for being loved. She is addressing her account of the events to somebody, yet it takes until the end for the reader to understand whom she tells about her life.

From a psychological point of view, Taddeo has created quite interesting characters. Violence and love are constantly opposed and they seem not to able to exist without each other. Joan’s grandmother has been raped, a dramatic experience of violence, yet, we do never learn about what this did to the woman. On the other hand, Joan’s mother does not seem to be a direct victim, yet, she reacts quite strongly and refuses her daughter the love she craves for. The women in her family are no good role models, yet, her father, too, does not provide a good example of how to behave, especially at critical moments in his life. As a consequence, Joan is unable to lead a relationship at eye level and feels the need to protect herself from the things that might happen.

Thus, as a grown up, Joan replicates what she has seen as a kid and ignores the effect this might have on others, only when she is confronted with a kind of mirror, her genuine feelings offer her another way.

“Animal” is all but an easy read, yet, it offers a lot of food for thought and raises important questions concerning central human emotions and behaviour. I am not an expert, however, I would classify Joan’s thinking with all those flashbacks as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which is highly likely from her family’s history. In this respect, the author very successfully displays the impact of traumatic events on untreated children.

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

It started out as a love story, but Mick Riva wasn’t made for loving only one woman, he was first of all made for a career in the music business and that’s what he did. His wife June though was made for loving but since her husband was absent, she only had to love her kids. The first born Nina, and the second, Jay, and the third who wasn’t her kid at all but she couldn’t just turn her back on Mick’s son Hud who was abandoned by his mother. And last but not least Kit, born long after her parents’ relationship had already fractured several times. While Mick was away, June took care of the kids until she couldn’t anymore, then quite naturally, Nina took over. Now, as a successful model, she is preparing for the legendary annual Riva party in her home in Malibu. Even though they have been having this party for many years, this year will be different and at the end of the night, nothing will be the same anymore for any of the Riva family.

I totally adored Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel “Daisy Jones & The Six“ which was totally lively and got be hooked from the first page. He latest book “Malibu Rising” had exactly the same effect. Her protagonist Nina, whose day of the big party is told alternatingly with the family’s story, is a strong character in a very special way. Her most striking feature surely is to take over responsibility and to do what needs to be done while totally forgetting that she, too, has the right to live. But instead of thinking about herself, she simply cares for the people around her, especially her younger siblings.

While everybody is preparing for the party, the biggest event every summer which is not to be missed by anybody important, Nina strikes a balance of her life so far. She made the maximum of the rather poor baseline. She has become one of the most demanded sports models, idolised by masses of people, her younger brothers are just starting their careers and also the baby of the family is going to fledge the family nest and to make herself noticed and a name. Their father has only ever existed at the edge of their life, it was their mother June who put herself last to make her children feel loved and have a good life despite all the adversities. Now, however, seems to be the moment for a big change.

Another set of unforgettable characters who know what is important in life and underline that there is nothing that will bring you down as long as you’ve got the ones who love you around. Even though nothing could be further from my life than surfing, I liked the passages where the author describes how the kids feel in the water and how surfing provides them with an unknown feeling of freedom.

The perfect summer read which is not at all the light feel-good novel but much rather a great story simply to indulge in.

Karin Smirnoff – My Brother

Karin Smirnoff – My brother

After years away, Jana returns to the Swedish village she grew up in. There is only her twin brother Bror left of her family. But as soon as she arrives, all the memories of her childhood come back. Her father, a brutal alcoholic who used to beat their mother and the kids, the mother who only ever told them to pray but never stepped in against the violence the kids had to endure. All those things Jana wanted to forget resurface, but there are also other things she wants to know after all this time: where is her daughter and who was Maria?

“I always assumed that something was wrong with me. The classic therapy answer was that I ended up in the same situation again and again in order to relive my childhood. “

Karin Smirnoff‘s novel lives on a very gloomy atmosphere. A snowstorm sets the mood on the very first page. Just as the fierce and merciless nature, the people also treat each other without too much softness in this remote area in the north. It is a story of violence and abuse, of adults looking away, not protecting children and a community which prefers to remain silent over stepping in. The result are scars on the outside and inside and two childish souls marked forever.

“All one can do is pray she said. And how we prayed. Childish prayers for help. “

Jana and Bror’s childhood is the most horrible story to imagine. Afraid of the father, every week hoping that he might die before returning to their home on Friday evening when he used to first drink and then hit whoever got in his way. The mother weak on the one hand, herself victim of constant beating, maybe having given up the hope for a better life, on the other hand, ignoring what her husband does to the kids.  Surely not a novel easy to read. Bror’s addiction and Jana‘s tendency to end up with men who show similar patterns like her father are the logic consequence.

Yet, there is more than the inner circle of the family, the whole village is full of secrets, things which are common knowledge but never told which Jana, now a grown-up and strong woman, uncovers.

To call the novel an enjoyable read would be totally inadequate, there is nothing to enjoy when reading about child abuse and domestic violence. However, the characters are authentically drawn and the dynamics within the village are interesting to observe.

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Annabel Lyon – Consent

Saskia and Jenny are twins but only equal in looks, their personalities could hardly differ more. Where Saskia is diligent and studious, Jenny enjoys life at the fullest and is always looking for some more thrill. Only a car accident in which she is seriously injured can put an end to her posh and impulsive lifestyle and brings the sisters back together. Mattie and Sara are sisters, too, the first with an intellectual disability, the second striving for academic success and the life she knows from stylish magazines. The latter sister pair, too, moves apart only to be forced together by fate again. Looking for reasons behind the tragic events, Saskia and Sara recognise that there is an unexpected link between them which goes far beyond the parallels of their sisterhoods.

I totally adored the first half on Annabel Lyon’s novel. Showing four young women emancipating themselves, developing personalities and ideas of who they want to be and how they want to live their life was wonderful to read. Even though the parallels show quite from the start, they are two quite unique sets of siblings which do have complicated but nevertheless deep bonds. Especially when Saskia and Sara come to the critical points in their sisters’ lives, they themselves are hit to the core, too, and have to make far-going decisions which also deeply impact their own lives. Throughout the novel, we see a great elaboration of characters with very authentic nuances and facets.

The second half did not convince me that much which, I assume, was mainly due to the fact that the central aspect of the relationships between the sisters was lost by then. Even though here the link between the two pairs was established and some secrets revealed, I found it lacked a bit of depths.

I found the title quite interestingly chosen, very often, “consent” is immediately associated with relationships and intercourse, but in the novel, however, also other aspects, e.g. to what extent the sisters approve of each other’s choices and decisions is explored. Especially Saskia investigates her sister’s life and by walking in her shoes, detects new sides of herself.

Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Woman Inside

Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Woman Inside

Shortly after her fiancé left her, Daisey gets drunk during a professional event. The same evening, she is attacked in her flat but unexpectedly can survive. Yet, he has no memory at all of what happened and of who her assailant might be. She is not the first, London is haunted by a clever man that much some DNA finding can confirm, more is not known. A complicated case for Detective Dan Riley and a lot of time pressure since they are sure that Daisey is not the last. But then, things seem to fall into place, all evidence hints at Daisey’s ex Luke who behaves highly suspiciously, too. Dan remains sceptical, he is sure that there is much more behind the coward murders, however, who might have a reason to direct police’s attention towards Luke? Can the forensic psychologist whom Dan is forced to consult shed new light on what the investigators have found?

I totally adored Anna-Lou Weatherley’s novel “The Stranger’s Wife” and her latest thriller did not disappoint me, either. It is not just the classic play of who is quicker and cleverer – the police or the murderer – it is the psychological profile of the wanted person which is extremely interesting and cleverly drafted to make it a really exceptional thriller.

Daisey is hit twice, first, her fiancé leaves her for a younger woman, then, she is attacked and seriously injured. Additionally, she cannot pay the expensive flat alone, this is why a new colleague moves in with her. She isn’t alone anymore, but her mental state is unstable. She seems to hear voices or people moving around in the flat, mixes up what her new flatmate tells her and she has some flashbacks which bring back fragments of the evening in question. She is really not doing fine and quite palpably, the horror isn’t over for her even though many friends and the police take care of her.

The narration is interrupted time and again by a second line of the plot which is set about two decades in the past and tells the story of twins who are quite close but also mysteriously witness some serious misadventures. It is obvious from the start that this part gives insight in the murderer’s childhood and provides the reason for his strange behaviour. However, you cannot link this narration to any of the characters of the present.

A mysterious plot which remains blurry for a long time but does not lose its suspense. A superb read which I enjoyed from the first to the last page.

Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

anne tyler redhead by the side of the road
Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road

Everything in Micah Mortimer’s life is in the best order imaginable. He has developed his routines of the house chores, of running every morning at exactly the same time before having a shower and eating breakfast. His company “Tech Hermit” provides enough for himself to survive and he is independent in every way. But then one day, his life somehow runs out of control. First, an 18-year-old boy shows up at his door claiming to be his son and then, his girlfriend Cass leaves him unexpectedly. He is not well equipped to deal with this interruption of his routines and certainly not when everybody suddenly seems to be meddling with his love life.

Anne Tyler is a wonderful narrator and thus, also in her most recent novel I got exactly what I had expected. “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is the story of a very peculiar man who seems somehow to go unnoticed when you cross him in the street, who is totally reliable, but also quite predictable. In his Baltimore apartment block, he takes care of everything that needs to be tended to and he seems to be totally ok with his life as he has established it. He shows little interest in matters outside his cocoon and would go on in this way forever if he weren’t interrupted. The author shows that crucial moment, when suddenly everything is put to a test, is questioned and what seems to be perfectly fine turns out to be quite the opposite. He is confronted with the decisions he has made, has to take others’ perspectives and question himself and his habits.

Micah’s obsession with tidiness and order is well explained by the contrast with his chaotic sisters. What the reader sees immediately is that not only are they quite messy and tumultuous in certain ways, but they also seem to be alive. In comparison, Micah is well organised but somehow also lifeless. Nevertheless, they love and support him and would like him to have a fulfilled partnership, their teasing is their way of showing fondness, however, he is not yet at the point of recognising this. It needs another confrontation with his past to fully understand what goes wrong.

He is not a character you immediately sympathise with, but I adored his direct and somehow naive way of addressing people, especially when Brink appears and maybe it is exactly this somehow innocent straightforwardness that makes the boy open up to him.

It is not a novel that goes totally deep with hidden meanings and messages, but without any doubt, it advocates for those nondescript, unimposing characters who have to say much more than you’d expect and it also holds the mirror up to the reader to question what is important in life, where to set the priorities and most of all, to ask yourself if you’re really happy. A moving story that I totally adored to read.

Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – You Are Not Alone

greer hendricks sarah pekkanen you are not alone
Greer Hendricks/Sarah Pekkanen – You Are Not Alone

When one morning Shay Miller observes a woman committing suicide in the New York underground, her life, too, crumbles and falls. The shock sits so deep that she in not able to enter any underground station anymore. She starts to investigate about the woman and soon finds out her name, Amanda, and thus comes across some of her friends: Cassandra and Jane Moore, two sisters her own age who are everything Shay is not: They have a successful PR agency, know how to dress and obviously know the right places and the right people in town. Just as Shay is fascinated by them, they seem to feel pity for her and help her to find a new place to stay when she needs to move out, they help her to get a new style and also can connect her to finally find a better job. All seems to be perfect in Shay’s new life, yet some things are completely wrong and it does not take too long for her to realise that all that glitters isn’t gold, but fake and also highly dangerous.

I was already fascinated by “The Wife Between Us” which convinced me due to the very clever construction of the story. In “You Are Not Alone”, we also get the story narrated from different points of view and also different points in time which cleverly supports suspense since you already get facts which do not make too much sense until you learn the story behind them. As you are always a bit ahead of Shay, you sympathise with her and, of course, you hope that in the end, all will turn out well even though you cannot be too sure of that.

The whole plot lives on the characters. Shay as well as Cassandra and Jane are interestingly drawn and totally contrasting which makes them equally appealing for the reader. Just a simply – yet, quite important aspect – that I totally adored was Shay’s obsession with numbers and statistics. The authors have perfectly integrated this fact into the story.

Apart from the entertaining factor, in my opinion, the novel also provides insight in the psychological mechanisms that operate within people who are a bit unsecure and rather sad since their life did not turn out the way they hoped. Shay is very clever and likeable, nevertheless, in all areas of her life she more or less failed: neither does she have a flat of her own, nor a permanent job or relationship. No wonder that she immediately falls for the shiny and glamorous Moore sisters who represent everything she also wishes for. This makes it quite easy for them to manipulate her – just as they managed to take advantage of others who were in critical situations, too.

A captivating suspense novel that I did not want to put down once I had started.

Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

jo-spain-six-wicked-reasons
Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

When the long lost son returns after ten years without a word, Frazer Lattimer calls his six children for a family reunion. It is only reluctantly that they return to the family villa in Spanish Cove, all of them had a good reason for leaving. Yet, Adam‘s unexpected knock on the door when they all thought him dead makes them change their mind. However, from the very first minute, underlying suspicions and open hatred dominate the atmosphere and their anger escalates on a boat trip when one of them kills their father. None of them is innocent, but who really hated the old man that much that he or she could kill him?

Jo Spain‘s mystery is a highly suspenseful murder investigation combined with the psychological analysis of a family which is dominated by secrets and lies. Six children with six different fates, a controlling father and a mother who died from the grief over her lost son – there is a lot to discover under the surface of the successful and rich Lattimer clan.

I highly adored how Jo Spain slowly unfolds the secrets around each of the now grown up children. Starting with the murder of their old father, you are highly alert when hearing all their different stories, looking for motives that could lead them so far. The author created individuals who all have their flaws and weaknesses that they try to hide but which ultimately have to come out, so in every new chapter, you have something totally unexpected come to the light adding to the picture of this young and pitiable generation.

Suspense rises slowly the better you get to know the family members and yet, the conspiracy and murder nevertheless came as a surprise to me since it was brilliantly set up and convincingly motivated. A great read in every respect.

Tanen Jones – The Better Liar

tanen-jones-the-better-liar
Tanen Jones – The Better Liar

When her father dies, he leaves a wish in his will that Leslie Flores hasn’t expected: she will only inherit the money if her sister Robin also signs the papers. So she sets out for Las Vegas where Robin is supposed to live. They haven’t talked for a decade and Leslie is all but looking forward to do so now. But when she finally arrives at her sister’s apartment, she finds her dead and apparently, Robin has lived there under a false name. When Leslie makes the acquaintance of young charismatic Mary who dreams of a career as an actress, an idea forms in her head: why not take the woman with her back to Albuquerque and have her play Robin’s role for a couple of days? Nobody has seen her sister for ten years and Mary has some clear resemblance to Robin, so why should anybody become suspicious? It’s is a win-win situation, Mary could take her share of the money and make her start in Hollywood and Leslie would get her part of her father’s inheritance. Mary agrees but soon she realises that the respectable wife and mother also has some secrets she hides.

Tanen Jones’s “The Better Liar” is a highly surprising psychological novel with many unexpected twists and turns. The two protagonists develop from average women into enemies who fight their war on a very high emotional and psychological level. The story is told alternately from their different points of you, thus the reader is always aware of their respective plots and ahead of each character – at least you believe you are, but at certain point you also have to recognise that there are some highly relevant pieces of information they did not reveal to you and this makes things appear in a totally different light.

The novel starts at a rather slow pace with Leslie looking out for her sister and then finding her dead and seeing her father’s money in jeopardy. You wonder why she would take a stranger to her house, especially a house with a very young kid – this seems to be too dangerous, just for the money? Why does she need it, seemingly, she and her husband lead quite a good life. This and the question if she really succeeds with presenting a stranger as her sister seem to be the mystery of the novel, yet, with Mary’s arrival in Albuquerque, the real story slowly unfolds and the plot takes up pace and becomes much more dynamic and gripping.

Tanen Jones wonderfully leads the reader into wrong directions over and over again which I liked a lot. I totally adored how the two women play with each other and was eagerly awaiting the end to see who would finally win their very special game. Yet, some twists lacked a bit plausibility, but from a psychological point of view, a great read.