Claire McGowan – What You Did

claire-mcgowan-what-you-did
Claire McGowan – What You Did

It was meant to be a relaxed weekend and reunion of old friends, but then it turns into an absolute nightmare. It’s been 25 years that Ali and her husband Mike first met their friends Karen, Jodi, Bill and Callum at university, a reason to celebrate in their new home. Yet, after a lot of alcohol, a loud cry from Karen suddenly ends the joyful get together: Karen claims to have been assaulted by Mike, her bleeding and overall status seem confirm her accusation. After Mike’s arrest, Ali’s world slowly crumbles and falls, the more she learns about her husband, the more she has to ask herself if she really knew whom she has been married to for all those years. Not only did he have an affair all those years, but also are there money transfers to an unknown account and more pieces of information that are far beyond just being inconvenient: they are purely frightening. But this is just the beginning.

Claire McGowan’s thriller is absolutely breath taking. It is mainly narrated from Ali’s point of you and you constantly ask yourself: what would I do if I were in her shoes? Whom would I believe, my husband or my former best friend? Would I stick to my ideals or try to save the life I had worked for for years? How far would I be willing to go for the person I love? The story moves at a very high pace, just whenever you think the characters have found a way of coping with the catastrophe, the next follows immediately only to make the whole situation even worse. There is no moment to relax and sit down to think through the mess they are in, they are forced to react to ever more complications from one minute to the other.

The plot is very cleverly constructed, revealing its full potential only slowly. What makes it especially delicate is the fact that it plays on those core emotions in life: trust and believe in the people who are closest to you. It hurts a lot more to feel betrayed by the ones you love than coping with just with stressful situations. Additionally, I found it quite clever to put Ali in the position where she is presented as an advocate for women who have been assaulted and speak out against their perpetrators and then finding her in the position where she is inclined to take the other side and rather believe her husband than the woman – and friend! – who without any doubt is a victim.

I utterly rushed through the novel since I could hardly put it down. The short chapters even accelerated the plot and made you read on just one more chapter and another one and so on until the end. A brilliant story that I enjoyed throughout.

Scott Johnston – Campusland

scott-johnston-campusland
Scott Johnston – Campusland

Devon is a small New England campus where things run at their unhurried pace as they always have. Eph Russell has been teaching English literature for quite some time and also this winter’s course seems to like him and his way of addressing the 19th century classics. When a minor incident in his classroom occurs – a student claiming trigger warning as Mark Twain uses offensive language in her view – suddenly, Eph’s world crumbles and things fall totally apart. Before the term is over, minority groups have gotten the upper hand on campus accusing staff of racism, sexism and all other kinds of –isms that can be found. Plus, Eph is at the centre of the revolt accused not only of being a white supremacist due to his reading of books written by white men but also of having assaulted and violated one of his students. This student however, Lulu, sees a chance of gaining her fifteen minutes of fame and she is determined not to let this chance pass by.

Scott Johnston’s debut novel surely will not remain without any effect on the reader, in fact, it provokes strong emotions ranging from aversion to frustration, from laughing out loud to total desperation. It is hilarious at times and oftentimes simply infuriates you, most of all because you can imagine all the plot to be totally true. It is a chain of events set in motion, not even intentionally, but unstoppable and the way the characters react to it is more than authentic.

There are many noteworthy and controversial aspects in this highly entertaining novel. First of all, the debate of “trigger warnings” in university that has been going on for some time. Wrapping students up in cotton wool in order not to confront them with reality has been an attitude that I always struggled with. Especially when it comes to literature which reflects the time of its origin, this is hard to understand. Therefore, the beginning of the novel when Eph Russell is accused of only reading white men – who else was there to be published in this period? – this is merely funny and can be dismissed as stupid somehow. The next step is the discussion of which gender somebody identifies himself/herself – or as in the novel: themselves. It goes without saying that LGBTI rights are a great achievement and that minorities should be respected in the same way as majorities. Yet, accusing somebody of misogyny because he is holding the door open definitely ridicules the earnest cause – unfortunately, this is all too real in a strange understanding of feminism and the like and something one sees quite often.

The most striking point is surely Russell’s accusation of sexual assault. Without any doubt, the way the female characters in the novel act is not only convincing, but seems totally authentic. Putting unrelated aspects in a certain context, interpreting them along one single line of interpretation and thus narrating a coherent story that fits well in the world view one has – this can destroy a perfectly innocent life. When you read what happens to the professor, you cannot believe it, yet, you see how the mechanisms work and how Russell cannot do anything about it.

I am sure some reader might find “Campusland” offensive, yet, in my opinion, the way the author satirizes and exaggerates is necessary to put straight some positions that somehow went a bit too far or have taken questionable developments. For me, it was a fantastic read and I would surely say that this is one of the most relevant literary contributions to a lot of current discussions – and, on top, it is wonderfully narrated.

Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

tammy-cohen-stop-at-nothing
Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

When the bell rings one evening, Tess does not know that this will change her life completely. Her 16-year-old daughter Emma was attacked on her way home from the bus stop, a man tried to abduct her but luckily, a woman came by and could save her. Tess is more than grateful for what Frances has done that night and so it is quite natural to let her into their life which has been a bit chaotic after Tess’ divorce. When Emma fails to identify the attacker with the police, Tess feels the need to do something and so does Frances who thinks she could recognize the man: James Laurence Stephens. Tess totally freaks out, such a man cannot be left running around freely and thus she starts to observe him, follow him online and gets totally worked up about him. Frances is always on her side, supporting her and Emma who does not cope too well with the situation. But then, Tess’ anger and spying fire back and now she is under threat – obviously by a man who is capable of more than just harassing girls.

Tammy Cohen’s psychological thriller got me hooked immediately. The author does not give you a chance to slowly get into the novel, she starts right in the middle of the police investigation and thus, does not leave you any time to get acquainted with the characters and situation – just like Tess was overwhelmed by the incident. Neither does suspense nor the pace slow down after this, the plot moves at a very high speed and this is how you just like Tess lose the focus and get lost in the events. Since I utterly adored the novel, I was curious to find out more about the writer and I was quite astonished that I have read and liked several of her novels published under the pseudonyms Tamar Cohen and Rachel Rhys. She surely is a gifted writer no matter what kind of genre she works on.

What I appreciated most apart from the suspense and high pace was Cohen’s protagonist Tess who is authentically depicted: a wife who has lost her husband as well as her career, who struggles with life and just wants to do the things right at a moment, when nothing seems to work out for her anymore. She is under a lot of pressure from all sides and this makes it easy for her to get immersed in this paranoia of following her daughter’s apparent attacker. From her limited point of view, it all makes totally sense. As a reader, you know that something is not quite right with her perspective, especially since there are parentheses coming obviously from some other character that are not easy to insert into the picture.

A brilliant and captivating read that I could hardly put down. Skilfully crafted with unexpected twists and turns and superbly playing on the psychological aspects of somebody being stressed out and thus prone to fall prey to evil and malevolent fellows.

Jo Baker – The Body Lies

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Jo Baker – The Body Lies

After having been assaulted on her way home a couple of years before, a young writer never feels secure in her London house anymore. When she is offered a job by a remote university, this could not only solve the small family’s financial problems but also bring her away from the bad memories. She is supposed to take over a creative writing course and soon figures out that she is completely left alone since her colleague who was supposed to mentor her is on a leave. The trimester starts slowly but she gets along well with her students even though they seem to be quite unique. When they read out their first writing attempts, the situation becomes complicated since one of them, Nicholas Baker, insists on only telling the truth and not inventing anything which is not taken very well by his fellow students. As the time advances, the professor feels more and more uncomfortable around him and his texts as they become increasingly more personal and Nicholas develops into a real stalker who is ready to turn his bizarre fantasies into reality making her the protagonist of his weird story.

“The Body Lies” is completely different form Jo Baker’s novel “Longbourn” which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago. Reading it was not easy at times since, due to her vivid style of writing, you can imagine the event narrated without any problem and some of the violence really gets under the skin. This is really a psychological thriller as you follow the invasion of the protagonist’s private life and you are not sure if there could actually be a happy ending.

What I liked most about the novel was that, apart from being suspenseful and entertaining as a psychological thriller, it also conveys an authentic picture of reality and an important message. The unnamed professor is exposed to violence and does not really have a chance to fight the men who assault her. Defending herself would have led to more injuries in the first case and in the second, she feels ashamed for what happened to her which, unfortunately, is quite common. But not only the physical violence hurts her, it is first and foremost the psychological threat that slowly hurts her and the fact that she has nobody to believe her version of the story makes it even worse. Sadly, I have no doubt that the story told could happen anywhere everyday.

A great read even though it is at times hard to support.