As I was writing one of the reviews I realised that although I do not always (personally) enjoy a book that much, it does not mean that it is a badly written story. It is just simply not my cup of tea. But I admire all the writers out there who have enough courage to write and get published their books, exposing themselves to their readers and critics.
And now about all the books I read in August. I was not surprised when I enjoyed reading The Underground Railway or The Couple Next Door. I was enchanted by the book from my university reading list, Reading in the Dark, which is probably my new favourite read of this summer. Have a look below to find out more:
The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead - I was mentioning this book in every article for the last thirty days. Finally, I am adding its review. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When she is asked by newly arrived slave Caesar to escape with him through the mysterious underground railway, she sets off on a new adventure that she could never imagine. But the chase towards freedom is put in test as they are followed by a slave-catcher Ridgeway, who failed to catch Cora's mother, who has successfully escaped years ago (that is a lot of "who"!). But now it is finally his time to fix his reputation of a ruthless menace of the runaways. Whitehead's raw writing style has the power to grip you. He describes the terrors of slavery and the society of the day without cliché and artistic words and dialogues, which only enhances the message of the story. Although Cora is the main protagonist, different narrators take over from her, exploring their own past, explaining their current positions in the society and their attitudes towards the abolition. Usually when a writer decides to go for more than two narrators in one book, the final result has a tendency to get slightly confusing and messy. Nevertheless, Whitehead knows exactly when to change from Cora's to Caesar's or Ridgeway's point of view, leaving no space for his reader to get lost or bored. If Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (notably with her book Americanah) is the voice of the 21st century by defying racism and inequality in our society, Whitehead with The Underground Railway reminds us of the terrors of slavery and its abolition from the 19th century.
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena - It has been a while since I read a book within 24 hours. And then this novel appeared and I had to force myself to stop reading at 2am because my eyes where simply giving up on me. Lapena's crime fiction debut is about an ordinary family, Anne and Marco, who live a seemingly happy life in a luxurious house with their six-month-old daughter Cora. Until one night, when they go for a dinner to the couple next door, checking on sleeping Cora in her bedroom every half an hour. And then she disappears. Lapin unfolds almost a psychological story, examining human limits and boundaries. What would you do if your innocent baby girl went missing? What is the couple next door hiding? And has it been their fault at all? The plot and setting are compelling, the characters show reliable emotions and the plot-twist in the middle of the book only warms you up before the revelation of the last sentence of the novel. Lapin skilfully unfolds the entire story, building up the tension and gradually revealing what happened. Yes, sometimes certain situations could look slightly unrealistically. But Lapin has the power to get you into the story and persuade you that everything that you have read is possible and could actually happen in a real life. Some critics compare her novel to the famous Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. But for me, The Couple Next Door stands by itself with a strong, thrilling story and an unexpected end.
A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena - Lapena's second book was just released in the end of July and her readers have had high expectations after reading her bestselling debut hardback of 2016, The Couple Next Door. But forget about a missing baby and fractured family. Karen leaves her house in the evening without locking the door or taking her handbag. Her car has a terrible accident and everyone is wondering why she would leave the safety of her house, waiting for her husband Tom to come back home from work. But she cannot answer this burning question since she remembers nothing from that night. A Stranger in the House works at a slightly less feverish pace compare to the previous novel. The plot reveals itself slowly and yet, still steadily. Once again, it does not miss the right tension that makes the reader keep turning pages. However, this time the first shocking twist does not come in the middle of the book, as it does in The Couple Next Door. Instead, both cliffhangers take place on the last three pages of the novel, leaving you gasping for air. What I personally love about Lapena's writing style is that whenever you think that the story has been concluded, she throws at you a new revelation that changes everything that your mind has just settled on. It is never easy to write a second good novel, especially when your first one celebrates a global-wide success. Although A Stranger in the House has a couple of slow-moving parts through the course of reading, it does not miss Lapen's typical ambiguity of her characters and the ending sweeps you off your feet. By the way, do not underestimate the title of the book and once you reach the last page of the novel, go back to it and you find yourself reconsidering everything.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor - I wanted to read this book since it was published back in April 2017. After it has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, my expectations even doubled. However, I was not completely thrilled once finishing it. Maybe the problem was that I read The Couple Next Door and then moved to Reservoir 13. Or maybe it is simply not my cup of tea. The book tells a story of a small village where one day a young girl goes missing. But do not expect a typical detective novel, with a team of officers trying to solve the crime. On the contrary, McGregor follows the inhabitants of the concerned village, capturing their lives and the impact of the incident with a missing girl. Years pass, some locals go to a university, some move out, other move in, settle down, start a family... and in the meantime, the girl is still missing. The story is described with a beautiful language, but despite that I was struggling to pay attention. The reader does not follow one or two main characters. He follows at least five and especially in the beginning I had a problem to memorize all the names. The book is divided into chapters, yet there is no direct speech and it all simply flows, just like the mist over local moors. I can imagine that one day I will return to the book, realising its beauty. But for now Reservoir 13 was too slow and with a little action which I would want to follow.
The Girls by Emma Cline - I feel like each year there is that "one" book that everyone talks about. Such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn in 2012, or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins in 2015. The Girls, published last year, is no exception. Set in 1969, a story of fourteen-year old Evie, who joins a group of young, wild and enchanting people, is Emma Cline's debut. And it is not a bad one. What happens when a young girl, whose parents got divorced and pay her no attention, feels lost during a summer break before starting a boarding school in autumn? She becomes an easy target to be manipulated with. First pages of the book easily got me because of the writing style and Cline's ability to authentically describe Evie's inner thoughts and fears. The reader understands Evie's struggle to find her own identity and is not surprised when she searches a solace in Suzanne's arms. Evie's innocence is a sharp contrast to charming older Suzanne living outside the city on a ranch ruled by charismatic Russell. A proof that nothing good can come out of that friendship becomes obvious as Cline jumps from the past to the present day, following broken adult Evie and foreshadowing the tragedy that happened in the end of the summer in 1969. This tactic only adds to the tension and I kept reading long after midnight. But after the hundredth page Cline simply loses the grip over the strong potential of the story. Evie just keeps repeating how lost she feels, how grateful she is that Suzanne and the rest have offered her a place in their community. So grateful that she does not find it weird to be stealing money for them from her mother or that she is offered as a sexual toy to Russel's famous friend and musician Mitch as an exchange for a record deal. And that all happens before the worst part, the murders. Cline bases her novel on the infamous criminal case of Charles Manson in August 1969, whose so-called cult "Family" killed Polanski's pregnant wife and their friends while Manson himself did not participate. Surely an interesting subject, yet after all these years I do not understand why to bring up the crime that happened back in 60s and which Cline only read about. And exactly because she was born long after the end of the trial and is not personally familiar with the society at that time, she cannot reliably capture it in The Girls. The strong start of the book is thus slowly loosing pace and force, gradually revealing its weakness. A lack of authenticity.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane - if there is one book I would strongly recommend you to read this year, it would be (surprisingly) a title from my university reading list about Irish identity and trauma dated back to the 20th century. Reading in the Dark broke my heart like a book has not done for a long time (maybe since reading The Hours by Cunningham). A collection of childhood memories of an unnamed young Irish narrator recollects what happened in between 1945 to 1971 to him, his family and his homeland. Individual fragments (each of them introduced by a month and year) witness the impact of a tragedy, which haunts the family in the years of a political turmoil in Ireland when the island was geographically and religiously divided, and when being seen with a police officer was a proof of being an informer. Deane skilfully combines childish point of view with broader and more serious reflections of the society back then, offering to his reader an unusual way of recounting the Irish history. The suspension grows slowly but steadily, revealing what actually happened to Eddie, the brother of the narrator's father, and its everlasting consequences.
If you are interested in the history of Ireland, I would suggest doing some background research before diving into these two books which I also read in August:
Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee - A raw novel about Victor Kelly, a coldblooded Protestant killer eliminating Catholics in the streets of Belfast in the 1970's.
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness - A play poetically depicting different characters and showing their human sides during the Battle of Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
You can find another two books I read in Czech here. (The reviews are obviously in Czech)