Zoe Lea – The Secretary

zoe lea the secretary
Zoe Lea – The Secretary

As a single mother with a highly sensitive 8-year-old son and a very tight financial situation, Ruth already has a lot to carry. When one morning she comes across Rob in front of the school where she works as a secretary, she cannot believe what she sees: the man who pretended to be single when she spent a night with him obviously is happily married with kids. Ruth is furious and so is Janine, Rob’s wife, when she realises what she is witnessing. Ruth made her biggest enemy with Janine, the one woman in the community who is great at networking and friends with everybody. The same day, the school gets a letter demanding Ruth’s lay-off because of how she behaved in front of children. But this is only the beginning of a totally nasty fight.

Zoe Lea’s novel is a real page turner. It is unbelievable what happens to Ruth who seems to be a caring mother who’d do anything for her boy and who only tries to live a decent life after the divorce. Nobody wants to believe her and everything is simply turned around making her appear to be to aggressor. The most awful thing is that you get the impression that money and power are more important than the truth and that those who are already at the end of the food chain hardly have a chance to be heard and taken seriously.

A fast paced novel that was hard to put down. I was hooked immediately and liked the development of the events, a downward spiral which once set in motion couldn’t be stopped anymore. With each chapter, Ruth’s actions became more drastic since she was pushed more and more in a corner and like a threatened animal, did not see another way out of the menacing situation. Yet, her character is not too obvious, I started questioning her more and more towards the end which, actually, I totally liked since I couldn’t be too sure about what to believe anymore.

All in all, very entertaining and enjoyable.

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.

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.

Eileen Pollack – The Professor of Immortality

eileen-pollack-the-professor-of-immortality
Eileen Pollack – The Professor of Immortality

Since her husband Sam has died, Ann Arbor professor Maxine Sayers feels lonely. She fully dedicates her life to her Institute of Future Studies where she researches the effects of technology on the people knowing that, eventually, her small world might be closed down as they do not produce anything commercially useful. When her son Zach quits his Silicon Valley job without a warning and vanishes without any further notice and her mother’s health deteriorates, she feels quite depressed. But things become even worse when a series of bomb attacks by the so-called “Technobomber” remind her of incidents of the past: might her son be involved in these terrorist doings? When his former MIT professor is seriously hurt, she knows that she has to find him and she has the bad feeling that she knows who is behind it all.

When reading Eileen Pollack’s novel, I was immediately reminded of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski who bears a lot of resemblance to one of the main characters in the novel. The author might be inspired by these events, yet, they are not the main and only focus in the book. Pollack writes about family bonds, about the loss of a beloved person, technology, feminism and chauvinism in the academic world, and, first and foremost, about the question of how we want to live and what is important for us. Once I started, I was totally immersed and read the book in just one sitting which is also due to the fact that towards the end, it becomes a suspenseful crime novel.

Even though most of the issues addressed in the novel are interesting and provide some food for thought, Maxine’s teaching was the one that stimulated my pondering most. Especially the scenes of her classroom where she discusses the impact of technology and questions about how far we are willing to following technological advances are superb. Unfortunately, this topic is a bit abandoned for the Technobomber plot line which also has some fascinating psychological aspects to offer but was a bit weaker in my opinion.

A rather unusual combination of campus and crime novel that provides not only much to think about but also a lot of suspense.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

jami-attenberg-all-this-could-be-yours
Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

tayari-jones-an-american-marriage
Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

“How did we end up here? My key works, but you won’t let me in.”

Celestial and Roy are made for each other, even though their relationship is not without fights. But they always manage to get together again. Some issues are hot topics – their different backgrounds, their families, having a child – so they try to avoid them. But sometimes these things come up nevertheless and one evening, their quarrel escalates. Fifteen minutes should be enough to cool down. But these fifteen minutes will change their lives, their fates and all the dreams they had for their future together. Nothing will be anymore as it was the next morning.

Tayari Jones’ novel hits you like a hammer. You cannot read it without getting involved deeply and asking yourself the question: how would I react in their place? What I loved utterly was the author’s way of foreshadowing: telling you that a meteor was to crash their lives or that this was their last happy evening for a long time; this creates an almost unbearable suspense, you absolutely want to know what is going to happen and thus, you surely cannot put down the book.

All in all, the story is a quite unique ménage à trois. On the one hand, Celestial and Roy, wed for some months and still somehow at the beginning of their common life. On the other hand, there is Andre who has been a friend of Celestial since their days in kindergarten, who befriended Roy in college and who actually made them acquainted with each other. Long hidden feelings for Celestial can no longer kept buried when she is in need of a shoulder to lie on. Reading the story as it is, you cannot really blame anyone for what they do. It just happens, but it doesn’t make you really happy either. Especially when compared to their parents’ marriages: a deep affection that lasts over decades and that survives even the biggest crises.

Apart from this, the novel is also highly critical in several respects: the American legal system, the way blacks are still treated today and have to fight harder than others and also the question of what makes a man a man and a father a father. A lot of food for thought written in a light style which is full of splendid metaphors that I absolutely adored.

Fiona Barton – The Suspect

fiona-barton-the-suspect
Fiona Barton – The Suspect

It was supposed to be the best time of their life: Alex and Rosie fly to Thailand after their A-levels to travel and party. But then, things go completely wrong and now the two girls are dead. What happened in the burnt-down-guesthouse? And where is that English boy who might have seen them last and is obviously closely linked to the fire? The parents fly to Bangkok and reporter Kate Waters comes with them to cover the story. But what they find out isn’t what they had expected: Kate’s son Jake is the wanted English boy who is now on the run and prime suspect in the murder of Alex and Rosie.

Again, Fiona Barton could well entertain me with a plot with many twists and turns and a story full of suspense. The narrative does not follow chronology and is told from alternating perspectives which I found great since it provides a lot more depth for the characters on the one hand and keeps suspense high on the other. In the end, the case is solved without leaving any questions open.

What I liked most were actually the very different characters who seemed all quite authentic to me: first of all the two young women who could hardly be more different. Quiet Alex who wants to see the country and learn about the culture and Rosie just expecting to have a good time partying. That this combination wouldn’t work out too long is pretty obvious. The girls behave like typical teenagers do on their first trip alone far away from the parents, they are careless and easily fall prey to all kind of wrong-doers. Also their mothers are portrayed in convincing ways, especially Jenny who is very bitter after her husband left her alone with the daughter.

Most interesting of course is Kate whose role changes massively throughout the story: from the nosy reporter she herself becomes the target of the press and has to endure what is written about her boy without being able of doing anything against it.

Altogether, a perfectly pitched thriller that keeps you reading on and on and on to find out the truth about what happened in Thailand.

Katy Regan – Little Big Man

katy-regan-little-big-man
Katy Regan – Little Big Man

With his eleventh birthday approaching, Zac decides that it is time to actively look for his father. He has never met him because his father was not interested in him and left his mom before he was born. His friend Teagan is going to help him with his search and they are quite determined even though they have to keep their mission secret since in Zac’s family, it is forbidden to ever mention his father because of what he had done. But it’s not only the Dad-finding-mission that keeps Zac occupied, for months now he has been bullied due to his weight and now the school has written a letter to his mother. Life is not easy when you are ten years old. Especially when there are adults around you with secrets they want to keep.

I really loved this book even though in its story, there is not much that is positive after all. Zac’s life is all but easy: his mother Juliet is fighting, but as a single parent with a low income, they cannot afford any fancy pastime activities and the lack of a partner doesn’t make things easier. Both find relief in food which isn’t helpful after all, so another war that has to be fought. However, the love they show for each other is genuine and the only actual ray of hope.

The story is told alternatively from Zac’s, Juliet’s and Mick’s point of view – this is a bit astonishing as in the beginning you cannot really figure out why Juliet’s father Mick is that important while his wife’s perspective isn’t given. Yet, the secrets the adults have kept from Zac for more than ten years are slowly unfolded and the more you hear from Mick, the more obvious his role becomes.

Katy Regan did a great job in portraying what life in school can be for outsiders like Zac and his friend Teagan. It is hard to say, but all the bullying is just too authentic. And she also shows what this does to the kids – luckily, Zac has found a friend he can confide in. It would be a lot harder if he was on his own. The author also found the perfect voice for Zac, his diary entries sound like the one’s of a 10-year-old, a clever one but nevertheless a child.

Even though the lives of the characters are not too joyful, the novel is often full of humour and definitively of love – a classic bitter-sweet story that hits the heart.