Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

amy engel the familiar dark
Amy Engel – The Familiar Dark

Two 12-year-old girls have been murdered, but except for their parents, nobody really seems to care about it. Maybe they had it coming, that’s how it is with girls their age, they should have paid more attention to whom they mingle with. Eve Taggert is not willing to simply accept that her daughter Junie has gone and nobody is hold responsible for the senseless death. What did she and her friend Izzy do in the park at that time and bad weather? She starts to ask questions even though her brother Cal, a policeman and close to the investigation, tries to keep her away and out of trouble which her private research soon causes. The more Eve learns, the closer she also gets to her own family and especially her mother with whom she had cut all contact before Junie was born because she never wanted to be like her. But in the course of the events, Eve must realise that she shares more traits with her mother than she ever expected.

Amy Engel’s mystery novel deals with the greatest horror that parents could ever go through: learning about the death of their beloved child and having the impression that nobody bothers to find the culprit and to bring him or her to justice. However, it is also about life in small and remote community where poverty and precarious standards of living are a daily occurrence. Growing up in trailer homes or small, run-down apartments where children only get a nook for themselves and see the adults drink alcohol or being addicted to drugs of all kinds – this is not the childhood one could ever wish for. Even if some want the best for their children, just like Eve, getting out of this isn’t as easy as it seems.

The story is narrated from Eve’s point of view which gives you a deep insight in the emotions she goes through. Not just losing her daughter and thus the sense of life, but she also falls back into old patterns she had given up and totally loses her footing. Even though she could not offer Junie much, she put an effort in her daughter’s education and she lead a decent life and loved her – more than she herself had experienced as a kid. To see such a woman being hit by fate is especially bitter.

Amy Engel does a great job in showing the development of Eve, going from being totally blinded by mourning and anger to gaining strength – even if she becomes a bit too reckless and headless at times – and in the end, fearlessly doing what she needs to do.

Notwithstanding that a lot is going wrong in the small town of Barren Springs, what I liked a lot is that the author did not paint the characters in black and white. The greatest villains do also show their positive and human sides – just as the “good” ones suddenly are capable of quite some crime.  Albeit a murder investigation is at the centre of the novel, for me it was much more a psychological study of small town life and people who struggle in life. It does not lack suspense though and several unexpected twists and turns keep you reading on.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Michael Wood – The Murder House

michael-wood-the-murder-house
Michael Wood – The Murder House

It is the most disturbing crime scene Sheffield police have ever seen: three persons have literally been slaughtered at home. The morning after the wedding reception of their daughter Leah, Clive and Serena Mercer as well as their son Jeremy are attacked and brutally killed, only Jeremy’s daughter is spared, but she had to witness the crime. When DCI Matilda Darke and her team start the investigation, they soon realise that this case will not be easy to solve, apparently everybody loved the family of well-respected and highly admired doctors. There simply seems to be nobody with a motive and especially nobody to commit such a crime. Yet, forensics come up with an ID: Keith Lumb, arrested several times for petty burglary, left traces at the house, but could this man really be capable of a triple killing? And why should he do this?

Michael Wood’s thriller “The Murder House” is a real page-turner. Once you start reading, the story doesn’t let go anymore and you keep on reading. The case is quite complex and the author brilliantly laid some wrong leads to keep you in the dark for a long time. In the end, however, it all makes sense and the pieces fall perfectly into place. A second plot line about a missing boy shifts focus at times, but also provides some suspense and is quite interesting from a psychological point of view.

Apart from the murder investigation, I liked the characters in the novel who seem quite authentic in the way they are presented and how they cope with the high demand of their job. They show different facets of their personality and all of them have their very own demons they have to fight with. However, they can also laugh and support each other, what I totally adored.

An exciting thriller with a lot of suspense and a carefully crafted plot which leaves nothing else to wish for.

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

liz-moore-long-bright-river
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

victoria-jenkins-the-argument
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

scarlett-thomas-oligarchy
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

mads-peder-nordbo-cold-fear
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.