J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Two young women, tourists in Venice, are found severely wounded in front of a hospital one late night. Luckily, with the help of video surveillance they can quickly find out the two men who put them there. But which did they abandon them even though they first provided help? As commissario Brunetti investigates the case together with his colleague Claudia Griffoni, they happen to link one of the men to another crime of which the police only have a faint idea so far, but this might be their breakthrough.

Whenever I take up a Donna Leon novel on commissario Brunetti, I know what I will get: a crime story which is solved not by some miraculously appearing deus ex machina, but by meticulous police work combined with the protagonist’s clever instinct and the ability to read people and to actually listen to them. Apart from that, it is always like some kind of bookish holiday to travel to the Venetian Lagoon and to delve into its very unique atmosphere. The thirtieth instalment in the series does not disappoint in this respect.

Quite interestingly, the crime with which the novel opens is quite quickly solved and classified an accident and a series of unfortunate events and decisions. Yet, it is only the beginning of a real crime – a crime of the sort nobody wants to know about and people eagerly close their eyes on. This time, it is Brunetti’s colleague who stirs the investigation and the commissario not only gets to know her from an unknown side but also learns that Griffoni’s hometown of Naples could also be on another planet that different life works there.

A plot driven by interesting and strongly painted characters, just the sort of entertainment one knows Donna Leon to provide.

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Dana Goss, a wealthy heiress only a couple of years shy of 70, decides to visit Jackie, once her best friend with whom she shared everything, but whom she has not seen for almost five decades. Jackie sees Dana approach but hides and does not open the door. It triggers memories of a time long long ago. At the same time, a young man meets his father to tell him about his new-born granddaughter, soon after, the father dies from an aneurysm, not only leaving his son behind but also many questions. His mother Alice might answer them but this would mean revealing a secret she has kept to herself for so many years that she cannot reveal it now. Taxi driver Lupita Lopez in Kauai is also unexpectedly confronted with the almost forgotten past when she receives a phone call. All these lives are connected by events that each of them has ignored successfully.

Bill Clegg’s story is set in the fictional town of Wells in Connecticut where the old farm house is the starting point of some live changing events. The different characters narrate their stories thus filling gaps the other leave and adding another perspective to what has been told before. They all try to hide things they do not want to think about, but those secrets push to the surface to be ultimately revealed.

At first, the different accounts seem only loosely connected, it takes some time to understand how they are linked and why after all those years, the memory of that time is still that hurtful. The characters are all complex in themselves and presented in detail thus giving insight in their state of mind and thinking. There is not the ultimate good guy and the bad guy; it is lives having taken a turn which is not to be undone, decision that have been made which also had consequences, good ones as well as bad ones. Thus, a wonderful illustration of how life on earth works sometimes.

Patrick Hoffman – Clean Hands

patrick hoffman clean hands
Patrick Hoffman – Clean Hands

Elizabeth is used to a high working load and stress, but this situation might bring her down. One of her young lawyer’s phones has been pickpocketed and he had neither security nor lock on it – but highly sensitive data on their current case. The best woman to take care of such a mess is Valencia Walker, former CIA officer and fixer of unsolvable cases. Indeed, she and her team can track the phone down immediately, but nevertheless, some blackmailing takes place. While Valencia sets everything in motion to stop any more harm from occurring, Elizabeth wonders why she is doing all this and if she shouldn’t just give all up, not knowing what else there is to come.

Patrick Hoffman’s mystery novel seems to be quite obvious from the start: a young and inexperienced lawyer who is threatened and therefore sells his boss. Then, some young and rather stupid men who are simply lucky and can seize a chance when it presents itself in front of them. Quite naturally, things become a bit complicated and tricky for Valencia and her team and then – you realise that this isn’t the point of it at all.

The story advances at quite some high pace with some parentheses every now and then which provide some more depth and insight and which slow the plot down a bit so that you can take a breath before it regains speed. The number of characters makes it a bit hard at times not to lose the thread, but overall, I can only conclude that the plot is brilliantly crafted and none of what happens could be foreseen from the beginning.

Even though it is clearly fiction and I don’t tend to be prone to believing any conspiracy theories about governments or any agencies carrying out secret missions in the homeland, there are some aspects of the story which at least made me ponder about the probability. That’s what I totally appreciate in a good novel: being hooked from the start and having something lingering in my mind after the last page.

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.

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.

Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

kiley-reid-such-a-fun-age
Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

Even though she is already 25, Emira Tucker still does not really know which career to follow. Her degree does not really lead to anything and that’s why she is currently doing two jobs: transcribing records and babysitting Briar Chamberlain. Briar’s parents are new to Philadelphia and happy to find somebody to take care of their small daughter. When one Friday evening their house is hit by eggs, Briar’s mother Alix can rely on Emira to leave a friend’s birthday party to come immediately to their home to secure little Briar. When Emira is accused of having kidnapped the girl in the middle of the night, a bystander films how the black babysitter is assaulted. After all is sorted out, Emira only wants to forget about this episode, but it will become a decisive moment in her life.

Sometimes you start a novel and get totally immersed in it and practically read it straight from the beginning to the end. Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” belongs to this type of story. I got hooked from the first page as she quite casually addresses so many topics worth pondering on while creating suspense and offering also much to laugh about. I am still not sure which perspective the novel should be read under, the feminist or the race or if little Briar with her very special way of making sense of the world is the aspect most worth looking at in depth.

What I liked most was actually to see the vulnerability and lack of confidence that both protagonists share. This is wonderfully transported by the author since she uncovers the gap between the outer image and the feelings from inside. Alix is a highly successful woman who appears to be sure of herself and knowing exactly what she wants and what she is doing. When we enter her thoughts, the picture we get of her is totally different, there is hardly any aspect of her life she doesn’t struggle with. Emira also seems to be content with her jobs, but secretly she envies her friends for their ‘real adult’ jobs and feels like the only one who never actually grew-up. Briar is too young to express true self-awareness, yet, she seems to be aware of the fact that she is different somehow and does not easily bond with others. I really adored her sensuous and intense way of approaching the world surrounding her.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, especially since it highlights the fact that you can never be too sure that what you see is really how the other person feels.

Emma Rous – The Au Pair

emma-rpus-the-aupair
Emma Rous – The Au Pair

After her beloved father has died, Seraphine Mayes digs into her family’s history. When she finds a photograph of her mother, her older brother Edwin and one baby, she is astonished: it must have been taken on the day of her birth, but which one is the baby? Seraphine or her twin brother Danny? And why does the mother look so happy, only hours before she committed suicide? The photo must have been taken by the au pair who was then looking for Edwin, a certain Laura. When the young woman starts her search for the former babysitter, memories of rumours surrounding her family home Summerbourne also come back to her mind: why did everybody in the small village always say that twins do not survive in that house? When Seraphine tracks down Laura and tries to contact her, she inadvertently sets in motion a series of events.

Emma Rous’ mystery starts as a simply family story and then develops into a suspenseful crime novel. The story is told alternatingly between Seraphine’s search for Laura and the latter’s experiences as an au pair 25 years before. Two young women full of distress who cannot foresee what they run into. The plot is carefully crafted and to sort out the complex connections takes some time thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

“The Au Pair” clearly lives on the two protagonists. I liked both of them dearly, Seraphine’s stubbornness is quite convincing, she does not give up even when being threatened, actually this only spurs her curiosity and fervour to uncover the events surrounding her birth. On the other hand, Laura had to flee from her evil stepfather and tries to regain control over her life. Both women are created multifacetedly, especially their relationships are complicated which makes them authentic and believable. Apart from the characters, I especially liked the atmosphere of the novel and the spooky tales that circle around the two family homes which give you the impression of old gothic homes which have some secrets buried that are never meant to come to the light.

Annabel Rivkin/Emilie McMeekan – I’m Absolutely Fine! A Manual for Imperfect Women

annabel-rivkin-emelie-mcmeekan-im-absolutely-fine
Annabel Rivkin/Emilie McMeekan – I’m Absolutely Fine! A Manual for Imperfect Women

The founders of the webpage “themidult.com“, journalists and friends, have decided to spread their word also in print. Their look at women in the middle of their adulthood – thanks to experience now a lot more realistic than in their twenties, but also at a point where everyday stress and responsibilities often keep them from doing what they really want to do – is often funny, highly entertaining and most of all simply true. There is no need anymore to embellish anything, life is what it is when you have celebrated your fortieth birthday, yet, things aren’t too bad either.

I was quite astonished when reading the book by the sheer range of topics they address. From the job situation to motherhood, aches here and there and the question of finding the perfect – or at least a fitting partner – at that age, or simply not wanting to find one. All the memories and experiences you gathered, the mistakes you made, those you regret and other you are grateful for, dieting and getting finally rid of society’s dictation of how you have to look. Masses of lists not to be taken too seriously and more than once the realisation that they are talking about you.

It’s not a manual about how to live and what to do. It is much more a kind of inventory control of where women at that age are in life and the message is obvious (since it is already clearly visible in the subtitle): we are imperfect, but that’s ok. Written in a very light-hearted and joyful tone, a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.