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.

Maria Kuznetsova – Oksana, Behave!

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Maria Kuznetsova – OKsana, Behave!

Ukraine is not what it was anymore and therefore, Oksana’s family decides to leave the country for America. Yet, life is not easy there. The father, a former physicist, does not find an adequate job and therefore delivers pizza; the mother is depressed after having lost another child early in her pregnancy; for the eccentric grandmother things are even worse. And Oksana? She is the strange kid in school. Due to her frequent misunderstandings, she gets herself constantly in trouble and behaves in a very bizarre way in her classmates’ opinion. However, while growing up, life in this strange country gets easier for her, but there is a Ukrainian part in Oksana that still lings for another side of per personality and in Roman, also of Russian decent, she finds a man with whom she can share the undefined longing.

Maria Kuznetsova herself knows what Oksana goes through when being moved from an eastern European country to the US, since she herself had to leave Kiev as a child to emigrate. Her debut is hard to sum up in just a couple of words: it is hilariously funny at the beginning when the family arrives in Florida, throughout the plot, however, they superficial amusement turns into a more thoughtful narrative that focuses on the sincerer aspects of migration and its impact on the development of a young person.

Oksana surely is a very unique character, very naive and trusting at first, she quite naturally falls prey to masses of misunderstandings and is bullied by the other children. Throughout the novel, it is not the relationships with the outside world that are interesting, but first and foremost, those within the family. Especially between Oksana and her father who is fighting hard to succeed and offer the best to his family. As a young girl, Oksana cannot really understand her mother, it takes some years until she finally realises what makes her depressed and cry so much. However, it is especially the grandmother who has a big impact on her, even though the full extent of their love and commitment will only show at the very end.

“Oksana, Behave!” is an exceptional novel in several respects. What I appreciated most is the comical tone with which the story is told and the way in which Maria Kuznetsova showed the girl’s growing up as a process which does not go without trouble but is also heart-warming.

Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

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Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

When the police is called to a crime scene, they are prepared for the worst: a child’s voice could be heard during the 911 call. Flashback to a time fifteen years before. Maddie works as a teacher in Bulgaria while her best friend Jo is based with a NGO in Macedonia. During one of her visits, Maddie gets to know Jo’s British friends, among them Ian to whom she feels immediately attracted. Times are hard for the two young women abroad and not everything runs smoothly, misunderstandings, too much alcohol and words that better had not been said. Their friendship does not last in contrast to Maddie’s love for Ian, but their love was not meant to be immediately and now the big question if it ever was meant to be looms over them.

Annie Ward’s is a psychological thriller in which nothing is what it seems, in which you have to re-assess all relationships, all events narrated and all characters again and again to get a complete picture which differs a lot from the first impression you had. The fact that different characters’ perspectives are given alternately and that the story is told at different points in time, all mixed up so that you spring forward and backward and sometimes get the same event two times, does not make it always easy to keep an overview. Even though this to a certain extent supports the suspense that is created, for me it also contributed to some lengthiness.

There are two strong aspects in the novel that I found quite remarkable and authentic. First of all, it clearly shows how detrimental bad relationships can be. Being literally addicted to a person never is a good basis for a partnership since it easy opens the door for abuse and oppression. Second, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder should never be underestimated. There are experiences that you will never forget and you never really come to terms with. They shape your personality if you want or not and have an impact on your behaviour, relationships and whole life.

“Beautiful Bad” could certainly surprise me with all the twists and turns and was cleverly crafted to lead you in a lot of wrong directions.

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.

Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar

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Dervla McTiernan – The Scholar

When on a late evening scientist Emma finds a young woman dead on the university premises, it looks like a hit and run without any connection to the place. But then, the police find out that she had the ID of another student with her and also wore her clothes. Carline Darcy, first presumed the victim, reacts very harshly to the police showing up at her apartment, but her behaviour makes her even more suspicious, especially since Carline comes from a very rich family owning the institute close to which the body of the still unidentified woman was found. As Cormac Reilly and his team investigate, more and more evidence pops up linking the rich girl to the murder. But also the scientist who found the victim is doubtful – wasn’t she connected to another murder just a couple of months before? And what about the fact that Emma is the leading sergeant’s partner?

Dervla McTiernan’s thriller is a highly complex police investigation that I thoroughly enjoyed to read. It moves at a high pace and on every new page, new evidence appears that leads to another thread that you could follow. To fully understand to extent of the case, it takes some time and you as a reader investigate along the police all the time. The fact that sergeant Reilly himself is personally involved gives it all a bit of an extra that made the whole story even more interesting.

There are two aspects in the novel that I found wonderfully elaborated. First of all, the ways dysfunctional families find their own modus operandi in which they proceed and which can never be penetrated by somebody from outside. It was mainly in a side plot that this a deeply developed, but it was also true for the protagonist’s family, just with a slight shift of interest. The second was the question of how far people are willing to go for success and recognition. These are highly valued in our times and often the main feature to define a person. If you cannot compete, you are nothing. With this attitude, to we dig our own graves in putting people under so much pressure that they cannot see a way out?

All in all, very gripping and real page-turner.

Andrew Ridker – The Altruists

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Andrew Ridker – The Altruists

The Alters are a very special kind of family. As their telling name suggests, they want to be there for the others, alter in Latin, what leaves them in a complete mess. After mother Francine’s death, Arthur runs deeply in debt and is not realising that his career is over and that it is only a question of time until his Midwestern college sets him free. His son Ethan had started a big career after college, but found his work dull and useless and finally just quit. Daughter Maggie had higher ambitions from the start, but troubles financing her work at non-profit organisations leaves her almost famished. When Arthur calls for a family reunion to save the family home, Maggie and Ethan are not sure if they want to come. And from their past, this reunion can only end in a catastrophe.

Andrew Ridker’s debut is a tour de force through a family history narrated in a hilarious tone that reminds me strongly of the classic Jewish wit and humour. The characters suffer their shortcomings, but are never humiliated. He treats them with a generous smile, knowing that they can’t actually change the way they are. He integrates stereotypes carefully so that it is a great fun to deconstruct them, starting with the family name and ending with the fact that it is money that drives the story.

The author created some quite interesting characters, even though they try to lead a meaningful life, selfless and to the benefit of others, all three of them withdraw from the world and social contacts and in the end, find themselves only circling around themselves. For me, this seems to be the most central question of the novel: how can you lead a meaningful life, that has a purpose and a lasting impact on the world. Careers do not seem to be the solution, but the absence of careers also isn’t the answer. Just as the Alters, the reader will have to figure out for himself what makes you happy and gives a meaning to your time on earth.

Ann Lambert – The Birds That Stay

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Ann Lambert – The Birds That Stay

In a small place north of Montreal, an old lady is found dead, strangled and frozen outside. Who would ever do such a thing to a woman of more than eighty years? Not far from the scene of crime Marie cares about her mother Claire who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s time to move her to a home where better care can be taken of her. When her mother sees the report of the murder in the newspaper, she refers to old Mrs Newman as Mrs Kovak and is convinced that the victim is her former neighbour. Just the talk of a demented woman or a memory that will reveal a lot about the case and the motive of the murderer?

Ann Lambert’s novel takes quite an interesting turn that I didn’t expect at all. To a murder case she adds a bit of Canadian history that is not often heard of, one of those things people prefer to forget about because it is embarrassing. What I appreciated most was how the author managed in her debut to intertwine different plot lines that at first seem to be totally independent without any connection.

It is mainly two aspects that made me ponder while reading the novel. First of all, I had never heard of the Canadian position towards European refugees after WW II and most certainly didn’t I ever connect the country with the idea of being a refuge for Nazi collaborators. Second, the novel provides an interesting study of human nature, Tomas/Ennis is seemingly lacking any kind of compassion and willing to do everything to get what he deserves in his opinion. Both of them linked inevitably lead to the question if there is something “running in the blood” – the father part of the most atrocious crimes of the 20th century and the son likewise ruthless? Apart from the plot, I liked Lambert’s style of writing a lot and I am looking forward to reading more from her.

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.