Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

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Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

When Natasha arrives from Russia at her new boarding school in rural England, she struggles to adapt. Not only the foreign language, but the special language all these year-11 girls from superrich families use. Yet, not only the words, but also the manners are quite unique and the one thing that they are obsessed with is how to lose weight. It is not just to get rid of some rests of baby fat or being in a better shape, the most important thing is being thinner than the others since the headmaster treats those girls differently. But then, their weight-loss competition goes totally wrong and one of the girls dies. Reaction of the school management: let’s not get any information outside and set up an anti-anorexia plan which only gives the girls even more ideas of what to do…

“Oligarchy” starts like some typical boarding school novel. 15-year-olds who do not have any serious worries, who try out the most absurd diets they can find, and modern-day obsession with pictures on the internet. Yet, it does not stop there, on the surface, of course, it is the world of adolescents we are presented with, teenagers who are reluctant to what their parents do and where the money comes from and who rebel against strict rules on their school. However, underneath, there are some much more fundamental questions addressed, first of all, how eating disorders are fired by what we are presented with every day. Secondly, the girls are rich, but most of them actually do not really have somebody to turn to, their parents are simply absent and even times of deepest distress does not seem to trigger any reaction from them.

Even though the novel is a bit stereotypical when it comes to the characters, I think the author did well in combining relevant topics in an enjoyable read. First and foremost, she has found the perfect tone with does neither ridicule the teenagers with their absurd ideas of how to diet and their supposedly secret cheating, nor does she take the serious consequences of their action too lightly. It is a novel that can educate, but fortunately, you do not feel like being educated.

Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

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Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

Adelaida Falcón has just buried her beloved mother and finds herself completely on her own, when not just her own life but the lives of all inhabitants of her hometown of Caracas crumble. Outside, protesters fight, looters take everything they can and leaving the apartment surely means an immediate death. When her small world is invaded, too, she tries to fight, but in vain, she not only has nobody to turn to anymore but also has to consider herself homeless. The fight for her life makes her do things she, the literary translator, would never have dreamt of. But these are not times to act morally, these are times of trying to survive only.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s debut is a work of fiction, but to anybody who followed the news of South America in the last couple of months, the question of how much truth and reality might be found in the novel inevitable comes to mind. In an interview, the author underlines the fictitious nature of the plot, yet, she also stresses that all the rioting, murdering, fraud and random acts of violence are true. They do exist and they certainly exist in fragile countries.

“Generous in beauty and in violence, two of the qualities that it had in greatest abundance.”

Not all is bad in Venezuela, Adelaida remembers the time of carelessness outside Caracas where she spent her childhood summers. But she also knows city life where all was welcoming for children, but simply a waste since going outside and enjoying the playgrounds was too dangerous. She finds herself oscillating between extremes, her country does not seem to know any state of moderation.

“Human beings transformed into meat, which someone else would turn into news items displayed on the newsstands the next day.”

At times, it is hard to endure what Sainz Borgo narrates. In particular, the report on situation in Venezuelan prisons under the watch of the paramilitary troops made me hold my breath. One does not want to read about it, does not want to know about it, however, you are totally aware that this is how it is.

“Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’.”

How can one live under such circumstances? One cannot. Dot. So, if the chance of escape presents itself, seize it. And that’s just what Adelaida does, though, not without a guilty conscience.

A novel full of brutality and misery, the portrait of a country on the ground. Corruption and violence dominate; humanity is hard to find. It is not an objective report, it remains a work of fiction and the first person narrator underlines the subjective point of view, which in this case, however, only renders the atmosphere gloomier and more depressing. A novel that goes under your skin and forces you to face what people have to endure day in, day out.

John Marrs – The Passengers

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John Marrs – The Passengers

“Who in their right mind would want to send someone to their death?”

Cadman read the tablet he held

“Approximately two hundred thousand people so far – and that’s based only on what’s trending on Twitter.”

When mental nurse Libby is called into a jury to decide on accidents caused by self-drive cars, she is astonished since she never kept her position on those a secret. Having witnessed an evil crash, she is absolutely against handing over control to AI. But she never expected the outcome of her jury session, nobody in there would ever have expected this. Soon after they started, the system is taken over by a Hacker claiming to have taken over eight self-drive cars and threatening to have them collide in two and a half hours. The jury has the chance to save one of them, should they not comply with his rules, he would immediately kill one after the other. But not only the jury would be there to judge, also the world outside could be part of the show and have their vote via social media. It’s the show of the year and the prize is high: it’s your life and you aren’t even asked if you want to take part in it.

John Marrs’ thriller really caught me by surprise and left a deep impression. Not only is the story masterly crafted with many unexpected twists and turns, no, it also mirrors our own behaviour in many different ways thus making you flinch at times because you recognise yourself and feel ashamed soon after. It surely is an absolute must-read for everybody using any kind of technology.

I hardly know where to begin with this novel. There are so many topics and layers that don’t make it easy to find a beginning. First of all, the setting of this evil game. Forcing people to make a decision over life and death is not just unfair, it is impossible. Yet, given no other way out, the jury has to come to a decision based on the information they have and only later do they find out that core aspects have been omitted which cast a completely different light on the person they have just sentenced to death. As a reader, you follow their verdict and often agree – running into the open knife just like they did. All passengers have something evil they hide, but the world isn’t simply black and white and only the whole picture provides you with what you would have needed to know before coming to a final decision. Too often we come to a conclusion fat too soon before we know all we should.

Second, the role of technology in our life surely should be questioned a lot more. The self-drive cars could definitely help to ease the situation in frequently gridlocked cities, on the other hand: what’s the price we pay for this? Providing more from the novel would spoil the fun, but as could be assumed, there is much more behind that we undeniably should think about before welcoming all technological advances. Also the role of social media should be seen a lot more critical than we do at the moment. Marrs goes so far as to give Twitter a vote – without anybody knowing who or what is behind it.

The protagonists also are very interesting in their own ways. Not just Libby, but also the passengers and of course Jack Larsson, the minister, are carefully drawn and offer a lot questionable traits of character.

I am totally flashed by this ambitious novel for which I am actually lacking the words to honour it.

Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

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Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

When one evening a police car stops in front of their house, Lucy immediately has a bad feeling. Her mother-in-law Diana has been found dead and the police treats it as a homicide. But why? Could there have been foul play? Well, Diana wasn’t somebody you instantly loved when you got to know her, you maybe never loved her and she, on the other hand, didn’t hide her despise for anybody outside her closest family circle. Lucy remembers how she first met the old, wealthy woman, recalls scenes of her family life when, again and again, Diana gave her the impression of being the wrong wife for her beloved son. And now, the police investigate her death.

Sally Hepworth’s novel caught me straightaway. From the first page on, I was intrigued by the story and just wanted to find out how Lucy could have killed Diana. Well, of course, there was always the possibility that somebody else also disliked Diana that much – but it took quite some time until I gave up my first suspicions and then, admittedly, looked at the plot cluelessly: but who? They all hated her more or less, but rather more.

The story is told in flashbacks what makes the actual plot advance only slowly. Yet, this does not reduce suspense since the memories of Lucy and Diana alike definitely contribute to arouse suspicion. What I enjoyed most was how you directly think you know everything, have an idea of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and how, slowly but steadily, your tower of belief crumbles and ultimately falls because the characters get more profile, other sides of their personality are shown and they become really authentic and plausible in the way they act and behave. At the same time, Sally Hepworth’s novel is often really funny and entertaining, I liked her kind of humour deeply.

The author was definitely great discovery for me and I am eager to read more from her.

Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

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Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

They did it before and they are about to do it again. What looks like the absolute average family in Hidden Oaks – the father a tennis coach, the mother in real estates and two lovely kids – is all but average. They have a secret, or better: secrets in plural since they have killed more than one woman. And they are looking for their next victim. They are clever, a lot cleverer than all the other inhabitants of their small community and most certainly smarter than the police who don’t even know that somebody is missing. Yet, every run of luck has an ending and theirs is about to come, isn’t it?

Samantha Downing’s debut is a terrific thriller which combines the core emotions of human beings: love and hate. It’s masterly constructed and when you think you finally know what it all adds up to, you get a big surprise and a twist that takes suspense to another level.

First of all, the couple at the centre of the novel. The story is told from the husband’s point of view – interestingly, he never gets a name, there are only his aliases when he makes contact with possible victims. The point of view is limited of course which will play a major role and undeniably helps to lead you to wrong assumptions. As a reader, I should have known better, but I fell easily prey to Downing. At the beginning, you get the impression that the parents are a bit different, even strange to a certain extent, but even though you know that they have killed before, it doesn’t really keep you from seeing the loving father and mother who try to educate their children and deeply care for them. At some point, I even wished for them to get away with murder. Well, they are great in deceiving their environment and so is the reader.

An impressive psychological thriller which only reveals its full extent at the end of the novel and definitely makes you think about what you really know of the people around you and how easily you can be tricked and misled.

Sadie Jones – The Snakes

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Sadie Jones – The Snakes

Bea and Dan are frustrated with their London life and jobs and therefore decide to take a couple of months off. They start their tour across Europe in France where Bea’s brother Alex runs a hotel. Yet, when they arrive in the Burgundy village, it seems completely deserted. The hotel has never seen any guests and the house is completely run down. However, Alex is happy with the way things are. Bea is all but close to her family and when her parents announce to visit their children, she is all but amused. Dan cannot understand his wife’s hostility towards her parents, but there is a lot more that he doesn’t know and when they are hit by a major incident, he finally gets to know his real in-laws.

It’s the third novel by Sadie Jones that I have read and just like the other two before, again I really enjoyed her style of writing. The full extent of the story only slowly reveals and even though it is not a classic suspense novel, you know that there is a lot buried that will be uncovered sooner or later and you eagerly wait for it to show.

The strongest aspect were the complicated family ties. It is not clear at the beginning why Bea resents her parents so much, only when these two characters show up you start to understand her hatred and why she tried to cut all bonds. It is clearly a dysfunctional family in all respects: a strong and stubborn father who, self-centred as he is, just ignores the needs of the other family members and egoistically subordinates all to his wishes. The mother, however, is rather weak and clearly has a very unhealthy relationship with her children, even though they vary a lot. Alex and Bea seem to get along quite well even though there is a big gap in their age, yet, their different attitude towards the parents makes it impossible for them to really unite.

And the novel is about money. It is difficult to talk about it without revealing too much of the plot, thus, quite obviously, it doesn’t really help to make you happy. Even if you got masses of it. All in all, a very compelling read that I enjoyed a lot.

Jane Harper – Lost Man

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Jane Harper – Lost Man

Since they have not heard from their brother Cameron who was due to meet them, Nathan and Bub set out for the remote border of their land in the Australian outback. They find Cameron dead, obviously from dehydration and close to the grave of the legendary stockman. His car about 9 miles away. The whole scene doesn’t make sense to them, yet, there must be a reason. When they return home, the news is greeted with silence, nobody really seems to be too sad, but nobody wants to tell Nathan what had happened the weeks before, obviously, there was something that had troubled Cameron. The deeper Nathan digs, the more secrets he uncovers that had been buried for a long time.

I have read novels from Jane Harper before and had certain expectations. “The Lost Man” however, did not make it easy for me. I expected some crime novel with a lot of suspense, but it took more than two thirds into the novel until I finally found it interesting and at least a bit exciting.

What made it most difficult was the fact that I hated all the characters. None of them was sympathetic and I was always fighting internally whom to hate most. We mainly meet elderly men, frustrated, eaten away by hatred and therefore harassing the people around them. It was just awful to follow them when they recklessly and egoistically do their own thing. More than once was I close to giving up because I didn’t see any progress in the plot and hardly could stand the characters’ lamentations.

Looking at it from the end, there is a clever crime plot that I could really appreciate, but it is a very long and hard way to get there. The novel certainly transports the hardship of farmers in the far away outback.

Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived

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Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived. Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

The death of her father has left Katharine pondering about her life and the people playing major roles in it. Amongst them is not only her family but also Virginia Woolf whose works deeply impressed her when she was a student at Oxford. The parallels between “To the Lighthouse” and her own life are stunning, especially when it comes to the impact that places have on the people. It is her family’s summer house in Rhode Island that first and foremost underlines this impression. Re-reading Virginia Woolf gives her the opportunity to understand her grief as well as her family relationships and to finally cope with her father’s passing.

Katharine Smyth makes it easy for the reader to follow her thoughts. Even though it is some years since I last read “To the Lighthouse”, I could effortlessly find my way back into the novel and see the thread that Smyth also saw. I found it an interesting approach for a memoir or biography and I liked it a lot.

There are two major aspects that I’d like to mention. First of all, Katharine Smyth cleverly shows how literature can help to overcome hard situations and to find solace in reading. It has been a concept since the ancient times, the classic Greek drama with its purgatory function and the possibility of a katharsis which helps you to sort out your feelings and opens the way to go on in life. Second, I also appreciated the author’s frankness. It is certainly not easy to write about the own father’s addiction and his slow deterioration, yet, the process of writing might have helped her, too, and embellishing things would have been counterproductive here.

An interesting memoir which was also beautifully written that made me think about which novel I would pick as a parallel to my own life.

Lawrence Osborne – Only to Sleep

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Lawrence Osborne – Only to Sleep

It’s 1988 and Philip Marlowe is already 72 years old and retired. But when an insurance asks for his help to investigate the death of a certain Donald Zinn, his curiosity is aroused and he accepts the job. After talking to the widow – young and beautiful and hardly mourning – he travels to Mexico to follow the last traces of the rich American. He soon finds out that there are some pieces about his death which do not really make sense and then he happens to find the man alive and kicking. But Zinn isn’t stupid, he knows how to get money and how to get rid of Marlowe. A scavenger hunt starts across Mexico.

Lawrence Osborne, who could already win me as a loyal reader with his former novels “Beautiful Animals” and “The Forgiven”, has done a great job in his Philip Marlowe novel. I liked Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled crime novels about the investigator and it is a risk to copy such a great writer. Yet, Osborne succeeded in creating exactly the mood that one finds in the old Marlowe novels and he placed the novel convincingly in the late 1980s. The title already is an homage to Chandler’s greatest novel and you can feel that Osborne has a lot of respect for his idol.

The novel itself has everything it needs: a femme fatale who seems to shift easily from one role into the other, a treacherous couple, a fierce environment where bribery reigns and money easily floats between the informant and the investigator. Some unexpected twists and turns made the plot move at a high pace, but most of all, it is the atmosphere that made it a great enjoyment to read. Even though it set in 1988, you can still feel the old Marlowe who acts as if nothing had changed since the 1930s and actually much that happens in Mexico could have happened decades before in exactly the same way. For me, Osborne did a great job and his Marlowe is in no way inferior to Chandler’s.

Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?