Paula Cocozza – How To Be Human

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Paula Cocozza – How to be Human

 

Five months after Mark has left her, Mary still lives in a kind of bubble disconnected from the world around her. She goes to work and returns home, but somehow she is numb and dehumanized. When one evening a fox appears in her garden, she is mesmerized. The animal returns regularly and a bond between the two lonely beings slowly forms. The more Mary feels connected with the wild animal, the more hysterical her neighbours become. They want to kill the foxes, they feel threatened in their own homes and their nerves are on edge. When suddenly Mark shows up again to rescue Mary and to save their relationship, she has to make a decision.

„How to be human“ – it seems to be contradictory to use the contact with a wild animal to illustrate what represents a human being. However, in Mary’s case, the beast helps her to overcome her numbness, to rediscover feelings she once had and the innocence and unassuming attitude of the fox make her become a human again. She feels sympathy with the animal, especially when the whole world seems to be against it. Just like baby Flora she can approach the fox without hesitation and reservation.

The humans apart from Mary do not really make a good impression in the novel. Her neighbours Michelle and Eric are quite egoistic and only think about their habitat and needs. I am not sure if Michelle actually suffers from postpartum depression as mentioned in the novel, to me, she is rather a neurotic egoist. Eric in contrast, is weak, servant and obeys his wife without questioning her decisions. Mark does not play a major role, but the fact that after half a year he realises that life with his wife was better, does not really speak in his favour.

What I liked most were the fox’s thoughts. The author got in his mind convincingly and portrayed his simple and natural character quite well. Considering all the beings, he is the human one, unobtrusive, decent and not demanding anything. Thus, he can help the lonesome and forlorn protagonist to find herself and her strengths again.

 

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Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

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Ruth Ware – The Lying Game

A short message Isa Wilde had hoped would never come. „I need you “, is all it says. The young mother knows exactly who sent it, even without giving a name. It comes from the past, from the time, 15 years ago, when she was at Salton House, a boarding house for girls. Isa, Kate, Thea and Fatima were best friends in their short time together and an incident has bond them for life. Even if they haven’t seen each other since then, they know they cannot escape it. Isa has to go back, she cannot tell her husband the truth, because this would mean risking their life. She only takes her six-months-old daughter Freya with her and heads to confront the past. When the now women are reunited, Kate tells the others what has happened: bones have been found and their well-kept secret is threatened to surface after all these years.

“The Lying Game” is a game the four girls played when they were at school. They had five rules which function as titles for the chapters:

1) Tell a lie;

2) Stick to your story;

3) Don’t get caught;

4) Never lie to each other;

5) Know when to stop.

So it is quite obvious that many lies have been told and that this is where the key to the story lies. The scenes of the past are only told from Isa’s memories, so the reader only gets fragments, the things she remembers at that moment, and she obviously cannot tell what she does not know, what she has buried deep in her brain and what she refuses to think of. Therefore, you as a reader can only speculate about what the girls have done. When it comes out, I was about disappointed at first because I ranked the deed as not that grave considering their age. Yet, since I was only halfway through the novel, I was sure that more would be coming and I was not disappointed. Until the end, new facts were added to the story and I had to readjust my idea of what had happened several times.

Just like Ruth Ware’s novel “The woman in cabin 10”, I enjoyed reading this one. It is not a suspenseful thriller form the start which gives you the creeps throughout the whole story. It is much more a cleverly built psychological novel which makes you think about what you would do in the characters’ place. You can definitely feel the stress that especially Isa is exposed to, torn between her life in the present and a guilt from the past. There are scary situations, but luckily they do not come from bloody murders described in detail. It is playing on your nerves, the fact of keeping you in the dark about many things clearly supports this.

All in all, I like this kind of thrillers and relished reading it.

Fiona Barton – The Child

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Fiona Barton – The Child

During construction works in London, a builder comes across the dead body of a baby. Angela and Nick hope that they will be finally relieved. For almost 40 years now, they have waited for a sign of their daughter Alice back then abducted from the maternity ward. The police investigate all options while journalist Kate Waters is looking for a story to get her career back on track. She quickly uncovers people who lived around the building site area decades before and who might have witnessed something; yet quickly she has to realize that there is much more behind the story than she initially thought. When another woman claims to baby to be hers, Kate and the police do not know whom to believe and that they are about to uncover much more than they suspected.

Fiona Barton tells her story from different perspectives: first of all, we have Kate the journalist who is looking for some kind of heart-breaking story to report and thus to escape being fired like many others from her team. We only get bits and bobs from her private life, a son who refuses to pursue his studies any further, but that’s it. Thus, this character is mainly illustrated through her actions as a journalist. I quite liked her, she not the hard-boiled reporter who doesn’t care about the people she writes about, but tries find a way between securing a good story and not exposing the people involved. On the other hand, we have Angela the mother who has been suffering for 40 years and who is not willing to give up hope to find her daughter. I am not sure if this character is really authentic, that a family and a marriage can survive such a stroke of fate is rather seldom. Emma, the last of the three protagonists remains incomprehensible for a long time and thus keeps suspense of the novel high. Much of what she says does not make sense and her role in the whole story is rather mysterious.

Even though the end is quite foreseeable, it liked the story. It is fast paced and the different perspectives keep you alert on who says what and who knows what. The mystery around the buried baby is solved convincingly even though I wonder of the subplot about the rapists was really required.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a crime novel or even thriller. It is rather a psychological drama with a lot of suspense to me. And compared to Fiona Barton’s first novel “The Widow”, this is much stronger both in the plot and the characters’ design.

Paula Hawkins – Into the Water

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Paula Hawkins – Into the Water

Welcher böse Fluch lastet auf dem Fluss nahe Beckford, der bereits mehrere Frauenleben zu verantworten hat? Erst im Frühling fand die erst 15-jährige Katie dort den Tod, nun auch Nel, die Mutter von Katies bester Freundin Lena. Nel war besessen von dem sogenannten „Drowning Pool“, der immer wieder Frauen angezogen hat. Allerdings ist dieses Mal die Lage etwas anders, Nel hat mehrfach vor ihrem Tod versucht ihre Schwester Jules zu erreichen, die beiden hatten seit Jahren keinen Kontakt mehr. Jules hat die Anrufe registriert, aber nie entgegengenommen. Sie ist sich allerdings sicher, dass Nel niemals Selbstmord begangen hätte. Vieles passt in dem Ort nicht zusammen und je tiefer Jules und die beiden Polizisten Sean Townsend und Erin Morgan nachforschen, desto mehr Verbrechen kommen sie auf die Spur.

Dieses Buch ist in der Hörversion eine echte Herausforderung. Gelungen sind die unterschiedlichen Sprecher, die den einzelnen Charakteren, die jeweils abwechseln aus ihrer Sicht die Geschehnisse erzählen, ihre Stimme verleihen und so ein wenig helfen, den Überblick zu behalten. Insgesamt erschienen es mir aber viel zu viele Figuren, die gerade zu Beginn nicht einfach zu unterschieden waren und deren Verhältnis zueinander ebenfalls nicht immer ganz klar war. Leider leiden sie fast aller unter Charakterzügen, die sie nicht gerade besonders liebenswert machen, was ich ebenfalls nicht einfach finde, man möchte ja doch so etwas wie Empathie gegenüber den Figuren empfinden.

Die Geschichte an sich ist komplex und immer mehr Nebenstränge entwickeln sich, die jedoch nicht alle besonders glaubwürdig sind und für mich zum Teil sehr konstruiert wirken. Insbesondere Jules Verhalten erscheint mir absurd, steht aber vielen anderen diesbezüglich in nichts nach. So richtige Spannung kam leider nie auf, dafür war die Erzählung oftmals zu sprunghaft und konfus und kaum auf das Wesentliche fokussiert. Auch wenn am Ende alle Zusammenhänge aufgeklärt und der Fall quasi gelöst ist, stellt sich kein befriedigendes Gefühl bei der Story ein.

„The Girl on The Train“ konnte mich insgesamt überzeugen, Paula Hawkins aktueller Roman jedoch ist mir zu schwach, um mit dem Vorgänger mithalten zu können.

Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

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Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

Five students of Bayview High School have to go to detention for having a cell phone with them. They all swear that the mobiles do not belong to them and that they don’t have the least idea how they ended up in their backpacks. Bronwyn, the perfect student with a flawless record and surely a place at one of the Ivy League colleges; Nate, the constant loser who is currently on probation for drug dealing; Cooper, a promising baseball player; Addy, the girlfriend of one Bayview High’s most wanted boys; and Simon, on the one hand an outsider, on the other the creator and head behind the school’s gossip app who seems to know all the secrets of his class mates. Just a couple of minutes later, Simon is dead and the four remaining students are the prime suspects. Actually, all of them have something to hide as the police soon finds out and their secrets might have lead each single student to murder. They all plead innocent, but apparently one of them must be lying.

I really enjoyed this combination of young adult with crime novel. Karen McManus’ four protagonists are interestingly drawn, very singular characters which – of course – show some stereotypical features but which I think is normal for their age where you try to play some role and fit in. The author plays with the reader in bit by bit revealing more about the teenagers and their individual flaws and weaknesses. I did not really expect all of them having these secrets which, in fact, are everything but harmless and could really destroy their lives – well, that’s what happens when they are a finally revealed.

I liked the arc of suspense a lot. First of all, there has been a murder quite at the beginning of the story and of course you want to know who committed the crime. But then, all protagonists one after the other tell you that they have something to hide without immediately illuminating you. So apart from the search for the murderer, there is much more you want to find out and which makes you keep on reading.

For me, “One of US is Lying” can easily equal novels such as Jay Ashers “Thirteen Reasons Why”, Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” or E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars”.

Megan Miranda – The Perfect Stranger

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Megan Miranda – The Perfect Stranger

Leah Stevens has to leave Boston and wants to start a new life as a teacher somewhere in Pennsylvania. Together with Emmy Grey, who already had been her roommate after college, the two women move to the small town which makes an idyllic impression. Yet, this idyll does not last long, soon after their arrival a girl is assaulted and Leah finds herself in the middle of the investigation around one of her colleagues. When Emmy does not show up for several days, she is just a bit concerned, but when the police find out that there is no person of the name Emmy Grey and when Leah realises that her friend did not leave any trace, she gets more and more scared.

I was really looking forward to reading this novel, but actually I am a bit disappointed. First of all, I could never really bond with the protagonist. Neither did I find Leah especially sympathetic nor did her behaviour make any sense to me. Had we known more about her, this might have been different, but equipping her with y mysterious past, too, did not really help to like her, because as a reader you always suspect her of false play and not of being the pitiable victim. For me, it was hard to believe that a clever investigative journalist can turn into a shallow, trustful teacher who only believes in the best of people. Moving in with somebody without knowing anything about that person is rather unlikely with such a past.

The plot itself had some suspense to offer, there were also some unexpected twists and turns, but here too, a lot was just too flat and unimaginative to convince me. The affair between Leah and Kyle, for example, who did not see it coming? Police rummaging the house just after a mysterious box with relevant information has been found hidden in the basement and secured from their eyes. These are mere props you can find in any second rate mystery novel.

All in all, it was ok, the knots were undone in the end.

 

Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

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Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

February 1980, after lunch with François Mitterrand, promising politician of the socialists and candidate for the 1981 presidential election, the literary theorist Roland Barthes is run over by a lorry and later dies in hospital. What first looks like an ordinary car accident, turns out to be malicious murder. But who would want to murder Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard has to investigate and soon understands that he does not understand anything at all of what all these intellectuals talk about. He needs help and contacts Simon Herzog, a young lecturer on linguistics who not only has to translate the theoretical paraphernalia but also helps him to unravel the mystery of the 7th function of language.

Forming an opinion on Laurent Binet’s novel is not easy. Well, actually, I really enjoyed it, but I can easily understand people who just hate it and find it boring. So, what does it need for a reader to indulge in it?

  1. If you are a linguist – jackpot. The novel is full of linguistic theory. Having at least a slight notion of what structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics and of course the communicative functions of language are, helps a lot to enjoy the novel since you do not have to pay too much attention to the theoretical passages (which will certainly help if you do not know anything about it).
  2. An interest in French intellectuals, or intellectuals gathering in Paris at the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. We meet Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, BHL, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Eco, Foucault – also PPDA plays a minor role – and also Derrida and Searle pop up. Seeing them interact is just hilarious. At least as long as you find them interesting.
  3. French politics: Giscard d’Estaing vs. Mitterrand. Two of the greatest politicians of the second half of the 20th century which could hardly differ more than they did.
  4. Secret Societies of scholars – Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, whatever.

Yes, it is a kind of crime novel centred around intellectuals. The crime aspect is not that relevant, there is some kind of suspense – you do want to know what is behind all this – but much more it is a brilliant way of integrating philosophy, linguistics, literary studies etc. into a fictional plot. Binet is a mastermind when it comes to presenting the theory and directly using it within the story, he plays with it and with the reader and if you are ready to play the game, you can have real fun. Apart from this, I really enjoyed his style of writing, it is full of irony, playfulness and spirit:

“25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.” (pos. 2236)

or

“We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?” (pos. 3450)

And the most amusing comment from poor Simon Herzog is:

“I think I’m trapped in a fucking novel.” (pos. 3899)

For me, just the perfect combination of entertainment (the characters are masterly drawn) and intellectually challenging.

 

Peter Heller – Celine

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Peter Heller – Celine

Celine is a very peculiar woman. Her personal history made her become a private eye specialised in reuniting families. She has been tracking down people whom even the FBI could not locate. When Gabriela, a woman with an interesting family history, asks for her help to find her father, Celine does not immediately think of what this case might demand of her. Gabriela’s father disappeared many years ago when he, a professional photographer, was in a national park. The police suppose he was attacked by a bear, but they could never find the body. Celine and her husband agree to start the search anew. But soon they have to acknowledge that there are mighty enemies who will do everything to hinder them from discovering something.

Admittedly, I found the parts of Gabriela’s life as a girl, the strange family situation after her mother died in the ocean and her father married again, the most fascinating in the novel. They way her father’s new wife treats her, how they manage to hide from the outside world what is going wrong inside was most compelling and repellent at the same time. Yet, the search for her presumably dead father also had some interesting aspects, especially when they were looking more closely at the scene of crime and the traces.

Concerning the characters, the protagonist has some noteworthy spots, she is not the mediocre standard investigator whose private life is a mess and who is addicted to alcohol or drugs. Her family life before coming to the States and the things she hides from her own son make her outstanding in the ocean of crime novels. Peter Heller clearly has created a unique character here, but quite often she seemed a bit too peculiar to me to be authentic. In this regard I preferred her husband who is much more down to earth. Nevertheless, this is for me the strongest aspect of the novel: the characters are complex, shaped by their experiences and sensitive to others.

All in all, even though there is some kind of mystery about Gabriela’s father’s disappearance and also some suspense and even a kind of showdown, it is not this aspect that made the novel noteworthy, but Heller’s passion for detail in creating his characters.

Leif G.W. Persson – The Sword of Justice

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Leif G.W. Persson – The Sword of Justice

Thomas Eriksson, Stockholm lawyer for all sorts of gangsters, is found dead in his private house. The list of suspects is quite long, considering his usual business partners. Evert Bäckström, Detective Superintendent with the Stockholm police, is in charge of the investigation. Avid avoider of work, his sets up his team to investigate the case which turns out to be more complicated with every piece they add to the picture. Bäckström himself investigates the case from his own point of view and with his own means, not all of them legal. Thus, he finally gets the culprits brought to him and can even make some money with the case.

Scandinavian crime novels have been quite popular for some time, mainly because the investigators are unique characters who have something to offer besides a good case. Persson’s protagonist Bäckström definitely is one of them. It makes so much fun reading his thoughts, mainly about his colleague where he has a collection of very remarkable characters. Additionally, the image of Bäckström and the reality could not differ more: a capable investigator, highly successful in the public opinion, a lazy betrayer and fraudster on the dark side. This makes him outstanding and – albeit all the despicable traits of character – a kind of lovable or at least enjoyable character.

The case itself is quite complicated, In the course of the action, more and more complicating factors are added and you really have to pay attention not to mix up anything. Nevertheless, it is solved convincingly and no questions remain unanswered. All in all, quite some joy to read.

Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

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Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

Winter on Oland, the Swedish island the Westins have just moved to. Joakim is on his way home when a tragic message reaches him: his daughter has died in an accident. However, when he arrives home, it is not his daughter but his wife Katrine who drowned in the cold sea. How could this happen? Why was she at the shore at all? Joakim struggles with the new situation when their home seems to start speaking to them. It is his daughter who seems to be especially responsive. She can talk to her dead mother and thus an old tradition of Eel Point is kept alive: every Christmas, the dead return to tell their story.

“The darkest Room” is the second of Johan Theorin’s Quartet set on the second largest island of Sweden. This time he combines a crime story with spooky elements to which the weather conditions fit perfectly: a winter storm is coming and people retreat to their homes. We have the ideal setting for a classic ghost story: a haunted house, a mother killed and her murder still unsolved, a child responsive to the dead, a protagonist who does not really believe in old stories but has to surrender to what is happening. Apart from this, Theorin has a second plot which we follow together with the police: a series of robberies on the island disturbs the quiet life of the islanders.

The novel is a wonderful read for winter evenings, particularly because of Theorin’s capacities of creating an intensive atmosphere which drags you into the story.