Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

jo-spain-six-wicked-reasons
Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

When the long lost son returns after ten years without a word, Frazer Lattimer calls his six children for a family reunion. It is only reluctantly that they return to the family villa in Spanish Cove, all of them had a good reason for leaving. Yet, Adam‘s unexpected knock on the door when they all thought him dead makes them change their mind. However, from the very first minute, underlying suspicions and open hatred dominate the atmosphere and their anger escalates on a boat trip when one of them kills their father. None of them is innocent, but who really hated the old man that much that he or she could kill him?

Jo Spain‘s mystery is a highly suspenseful murder investigation combined with the psychological analysis of a family which is dominated by secrets and lies. Six children with six different fates, a controlling father and a mother who died from the grief over her lost son – there is a lot to discover under the surface of the successful and rich Lattimer clan.

I highly adored how Jo Spain slowly unfolds the secrets around each of the now grown up children. Starting with the murder of their old father, you are highly alert when hearing all their different stories, looking for motives that could lead them so far. The author created individuals who all have their flaws and weaknesses that they try to hide but which ultimately have to come out, so in every new chapter, you have something totally unexpected come to the light adding to the picture of this young and pitiable generation.

Suspense rises slowly the better you get to know the family members and yet, the conspiracy and murder nevertheless came as a surprise to me since it was brilliantly set up and convincingly motivated. A great read in every respect.

Liz Moore – Long Bright River

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Liz Moore – Long Bright River

Two sisters who could hardly differ more. Mickey has always been the serious, more diligent one who went to school eagerly and was dreaming of a better life than the one they had at their not very loving grandmother’s. Kacey, eighteen months her junior, has always been the wilder, more adventurous girl who early pushed against the boundaries. Now, as grown-ups, they find themselves on opposing sides: Mickey has become a cop with the Philadelphia police, Kacey is highly addicted and working on the street. Mickey always has an eye on her younger sister even though they haven’t been talking for years. When several young and vulnerable women are killed, Mickey is highly alarmed since she hasn’t seen Kacey for several weeks.

Liz Moore‘s novel is a brilliant combination of a mystery novel with the search for a serial killer and a very sad story about a dysfunctional family where problems are handed from one generation to the next and where an escape is not really possible not matter how hard you try. Even though it looks as if there were clear sides, the good sister Mickey and the bad sister Kacey, you realise soon that life isn‘t that easy and that both women are more like different and changing shades of grey.

Mickey is a great protagonist in so far as she has a lot of interesting traits to offer. On the one hand, she is the hard working single mom who only wants the best for her son and constantly fears that she cannot live up to her own expectations. As a policewoman, too, she seems to do a great job, her family history helping her to understand the situation of the less favoured by life and those on the streets. That she suffers from constant misogyny in the forces does not really astonish. Yet, there are also other sides of the young women which only slowly unfold and show that there are a lot of lies she has been told by the people around her, but also lies that she told herself to shape the things in the way she wants to see them.

The mystery parts about the serial killer and the search for the sister are full of suspense and have some unexpected twists and turns to offer. What struck me most was the feeling that a lot of what Moore narrates is actually very sad, none of the characters has much to look forward to in their life and all seems but too authentic. A novel which provides entertainment but also much to ponder about after the last page thus something not to be missed.

J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

jt-ellison-good-girls-lie
J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

The Goode School will be the perfect place to leave her old life behind. Ash Carlisle has just lost both her parents and is now happy to flee to Marchburg, Virginia, to concentrate on school and forget what happened in Oxford. However, her fellow schoolmates do not like secrets and eye her suspiciously, it is obvious that the newcomer has some interesting things to tell them and this exclusive all-girls school has its own rules that have to be followed. When Ash is exposed and her roommate found dead, her carefully set up facade is threatened to crumble and reveal the real person she so hard tried to hide.

J.T. Ellison has chosen the perfect setting for a mysterious story where everybody has some well-hidden secrets: the old buildings of the élite private school provide the characters with tunnels and undisclosed rooms, a history of secret societies with old passed down hazings and rules that bind the girls, rumours about suspicious deaths and a headmistress with her very own agenda. It all adds up to a thrilling atmosphere where the protagonist herself offers only shady bits and pieces of her own story so that you are well alert not to trust any of them.

I really adored J.T. Ellison’s style of writing, the author brilliantly creates suspense by only hinting at what happened back in England and by insinuating that there is much more to know about Ash. It only takes a couple of pages to dive into the atmosphere of this elite school and its very own rules that seem to have a long history and make the girls bond immediately.

Admittedly, there were some aspects I found not totally convincing, e.g. 16-year-olds acting and plotting like adults, the detective providing the girls with core information about one of the deceased, another detective investigating such a delicate case even though she has been suspended or the headmistress’s behaviour which equals much more the girls’ than would be considered adequate for her position. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and the mystery surrounding the characters.

Olivia Rayne – My Mother the Psychopath

Olivia-Rayne-my-mother-the-psychopath
Olivia Rayne – My Mother the Psychopath

When children grow up, they do this in the believe that their parents know best and that they only want the best for their children. Since they hardly have any insight in other children’s homes, they forcibly must come to the conclusion that what they experience is how things in a family should be. Olivia has always known that her mother isn’t easy, they have changed home so many more times than any other kid she knows and even as a small child, she knew what to avoid and what to do around her mother for fear of her reaction. But it took her many years to understand the woman who gave birth to her and to find an explanation for her mother’s behaviour: she is a psychopath.

Olivia Rayne tells her experiences of growing up with a psychopathic mother. The chapters are dedicated to typical clinical features that a person diagnosed with this mental illness shows and a short explanation. Then, she outlines how this realised in her mother’s case. It is unbelievable to read what the girl had to endure and how she was left alone while her father watched and could clearly see what was happening. Not only did he not provide any help or shelter, he even supported his wife’s erratic behaviour. Outside the family, hardly anybody had the chance to do anything about the situation since the facade portrayed a totally different picture of the events that at times made people wonder.

The book is highly informative since you get a lot background information of how a psychopath operates. You can also recognise the patterns of manipulation they use and thus, at least I hope, get an idea of how they remain undiscovered for a long time. Yet, first and foremost, it is very moving and heart-breaking and should startle anybody who works with children to provide them with help and clear ideas of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable parental behaviour.

Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

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Victoria Jenkins – The Argument

Olivia is a typical 15-year-old girl who is fighting with her parents about going to parties, who is unsure of how to dress and how to behave in school and daydreaming about finally getting away from her family. Except she isn’t. Her life has two sides: on the outside, there is the loving mother in the caring home, on the inside, Olivia and her smaller sister Rosie grow up much more than overprotected. Their parents keep them away from the life outside their small home. They are allowed to school, but not much more. Never can they visit or invite friends, never can they really bond with anybody outside their family. When one evening Olivia sneaks out to go to a party, she sets in motion a series of events that will reveal much more about the family than just explain this very uncommon behaviour of the parents.

The story is told alternately from Olivia’s and her mother Hannah’s perspective. Quite cleverly, Victoria Jenkins first makes you believe in a fairly ordinary phase of rebellion of a teenager. Olivia behaves just like any other girl her age and seems to overdramatise her family life. Yet, slowly and almost unnoticed, something else creeps in and step by step, the image and idea you formed about the family shifts until you have to throw all your assumptions over board.

“The Argument” is a cleverly constructed psychological thriller which captivates the reader with the unexpected development of the characters. Both mother and daughter are actually equal protagonists, the age difference and uneven roles do not really make a difference. You focus on their subtle fight, the bits and pieces of their lives that lie beneath the surface and one after the other come out make them turn into realistic and multifaceted characters. While being occupied with the two women, you overlook the real danger and in the end, it is not easy to come to a final verdict on wrong-doings.

A spell-binding novel which does not offer the immediate thrill but which captivates you at a certain point and in the end, does not leave you without a melancholy feeling.

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.

Mads Peder Nordbo – Cold Fear

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Mads Peder Nordbo – Cold Fear

After his first investigation in Greenland, Matthew Cave has remained on the Danish island. There are still a lot of questions around his family he would like to have answered. Now, the story goes back to the year 1990 when Matt’s father Tom was stationed at an American military base on Greenland to carry out revolutionary medical tests. They managed to develop a pill which could make the body support cold temperatures much longer – a definite advantage in the cold north. Yet, this did not come without side effects and then something went totally wrong. Matt thought his father had died in that spring but he has already figured out that he must have survived somehow since Matt unexpectedly has found out that he has a younger sister. When he starts to investigate what happened on that military base almost 25 years before, he suddenly hits a hornet’s nest and puts himself and his sister in danger.

I already liked the first book in the series about the Danish journalist where the basis for this second novel was laid. Where I found “The Girl Without Skin” a bit creepier and more spine-chilling, “Cold Fear” is much more a spy novel which convinced me with a complex plot and repeated moments of highest suspense. Additionally, again, Nordbo provides insight in the Greenland culture and traditions of which I hardly know anything and which I found as disturbing as interesting.

It is not easy to sum up or briefly retell what “Cold Fear” is all about, there simply is too much and this really demands all your attention while reading. The plot certainly is strongest when political and societal aspects are touched – not just since we have seen the USA repeat their claims of the island this year. As Greenland is located so far away, we are highly ignorant about the different people who settled there and especially their mutual regard or rather disregard which becomes a lot clearer while reading.

However, what enchanted me most were the characters. From a psychological point of view, it is easy to comprehend why they act the way they do and how they developed into the person we meet in the novel. Most powerful are the female characters for me since all of them grow-up under the harshest circumstances and what they have to go through does not remain without trace.

Among the masses of Scandinavian crime novel, undoubtedly one that stands out.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

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Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.

Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

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Jacqueline Woodson – Red at the Bone

When Iris gets pregnant at the age of fifteen, she only takes in the fact that she and her boyfriend Aubrey are going to have a baby. What this really means for her life, she cannot assess at that moment. Sixteen years later, her daughter Melody is having her coming-of-age-party wearing the dress that was once meant for her mother. Not just Iris’s life takes another road with the unexpected kid, also her parents’ plans and of course those of Aubrey and his family change due to the new situation and all of them also have to face the world outside their family bubbly where not everybody is totally understanding. A novel about family bonds and about what influence a single human being can have on how you live your life.

Jacqueline Woodson has chosen a discontinuous mode of narration. Not only does she spring back and forward chronologically, but she also gives different characters a voice and also has a 3rd person narrator tell parts of the plot. This makes the whole story quite lively and often unexpected because at the beginning of each chapter you do not know where you are starting from and who is addressing you.

There are some central topics focussed on, first of all, of course, the teenager falling pregnant. The family manages the situation perfectly, no major fight or disruption arises from Iris’s decision to keep the baby, but it is hard to read about the reactions of her friends and school, even though I would classify it as highly authentic. The only person really struggling with the new-born, yet, is Iris who can never really bond with her daughter. She puts some effort in their relationship, but it is simply never enough and she most certainly suffers from the chances that she in her own perception never had in her life due to becoming a mother that early – admittedly, I had the impression that life could be much worse under these circumstances and Iris had a lot of opportunities to fulfil her dreams.

Another aspect are the class-related and skin-colour attributed options in life. These do not determine the characters’ fate, yet provide some food for thought as do family relations in general in the novel.

The novel offers a lot of blind spots, leaves gaps that you have to fill on your own due to the structure of the narration. I actually liked it because it makes you think on after reading and sticking with the book much longer. I also enjoyed Jacqueline Woodson’s style e of writing which is well adapted to the different characters and authentic.

Catherine Chung – The Tenth Muse

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Catherine Chung – The Tenth Muse

“What terrible things we do in the name of love.”

Katherine grows up a very special girl. Her father introduces her to natural sciences and she is fascinated by numbers from her childhood. When her mother leaves them unexpectedly, the bond between father and daughter becomes even closer. Stubborn as she is, she wants to study mathematics knowing that the time hasn’t yet come for women to enter university and compete with men in the 1950s. But which other way could she possibly choose? She is obsessed with the Riemann hypothesis and determined to solved the greatest riddle of her time. Her stubbornness does not prevent her from being hurt, from learning the hard way that only because you are talented and eager, you do not necessarily get what you want.

Even though Catherine Chung’s novel is set in the 1950s, there is so much also today intelligent young women experience when it comes to the intellectual ivory tower. Men are still considered made in god’s image and thus by nature more capable, cleverer and more talented that any woman could ever be. Well, that’s their interpretation. I found it easy to bond with the striving protagonist and, unfortunately, only could commiserate too easily with what she feels when being deceived and her intellect ignored over and over again.

One should not shy away from the book because of the mathematics, the logical problems they are occupied with are well explained and remain quite on the surface so that the average reader can easily follow their thoughts. Apart from that, what I appreciated most is how Katherine sticks to her ideals and goals, even though this at times means that she hurts herself and gives up a lot for her professional integrity – without being rewarded for it. The second line of the plot about Katherine’s family is also quite intriguing since it is well embedded in the German history and the dangers even intellectuals ran when they had the wrong religion.

A beautifully written book about a strong woman that captivated me immediately.