Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

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Tammy Cohen – Stop At Nothing

When the bell rings one evening, Tess does not know that this will change her life completely. Her 16-year-old daughter Emma was attacked on her way home from the bus stop, a man tried to abduct her but luckily, a woman came by and could save her. Tess is more than grateful for what Frances has done that night and so it is quite natural to let her into their life which has been a bit chaotic after Tess’ divorce. When Emma fails to identify the attacker with the police, Tess feels the need to do something and so does Frances who thinks she could recognize the man: James Laurence Stephens. Tess totally freaks out, such a man cannot be left running around freely and thus she starts to observe him, follow him online and gets totally worked up about him. Frances is always on her side, supporting her and Emma who does not cope too well with the situation. But then, Tess’ anger and spying fire back and now she is under threat – obviously by a man who is capable of more than just harassing girls.

Tammy Cohen’s psychological thriller got me hooked immediately. The author does not give you a chance to slowly get into the novel, she starts right in the middle of the police investigation and thus, does not leave you any time to get acquainted with the characters and situation – just like Tess was overwhelmed by the incident. Neither does suspense nor the pace slow down after this, the plot moves at a very high speed and this is how you just like Tess lose the focus and get lost in the events. Since I utterly adored the novel, I was curious to find out more about the writer and I was quite astonished that I have read and liked several of her novels published under the pseudonyms Tamar Cohen and Rachel Rhys. She surely is a gifted writer no matter what kind of genre she works on.

What I appreciated most apart from the suspense and high pace was Cohen’s protagonist Tess who is authentically depicted: a wife who has lost her husband as well as her career, who struggles with life and just wants to do the things right at a moment, when nothing seems to work out for her anymore. She is under a lot of pressure from all sides and this makes it easy for her to get immersed in this paranoia of following her daughter’s apparent attacker. From her limited point of view, it all makes totally sense. As a reader, you know that something is not quite right with her perspective, especially since there are parentheses coming obviously from some other character that are not easy to insert into the picture.

A brilliant and captivating read that I could hardly put down. Skilfully crafted with unexpected twists and turns and superbly playing on the psychological aspects of somebody being stressed out and thus prone to fall prey to evil and malevolent fellows.

Emma Rous – The Au Pair

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Emma Rous – The Au Pair

After her beloved father has died, Seraphine Mayes digs into her family’s history. When she finds a photograph of her mother, her older brother Edwin and one baby, she is astonished: it must have been taken on the day of her birth, but which one is the baby? Seraphine or her twin brother Danny? And why does the mother look so happy, only hours before she committed suicide? The photo must have been taken by the au pair who was then looking for Edwin, a certain Laura. When the young woman starts her search for the former babysitter, memories of rumours surrounding her family home Summerbourne also come back to her mind: why did everybody in the small village always say that twins do not survive in that house? When Seraphine tracks down Laura and tries to contact her, she inadvertently sets in motion a series of events.

Emma Rous’ mystery starts as a simply family story and then develops into a suspenseful crime novel. The story is told alternatingly between Seraphine’s search for Laura and the latter’s experiences as an au pair 25 years before. Two young women full of distress who cannot foresee what they run into. The plot is carefully crafted and to sort out the complex connections takes some time thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

“The Au Pair” clearly lives on the two protagonists. I liked both of them dearly, Seraphine’s stubbornness is quite convincing, she does not give up even when being threatened, actually this only spurs her curiosity and fervour to uncover the events surrounding her birth. On the other hand, Laura had to flee from her evil stepfather and tries to regain control over her life. Both women are created multifacetedly, especially their relationships are complicated which makes them authentic and believable. Apart from the characters, I especially liked the atmosphere of the novel and the spooky tales that circle around the two family homes which give you the impression of old gothic homes which have some secrets buried that are never meant to come to the light.

Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

fiona-neill-beneath-the-surface
Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

One second, Lilly Vermuyden is sitting in her English class, the next she is lying on the floor convulsing uncontrollably. What’s wrong with the 17-year-old teenager? The doctors take test after test but do not seem to come closer to the cause for her seizure. Rumours start spreading and Lilly’s mother Grace totally freaks out. How could she not protect her daughter? Only Lilly’s younger sister Mia seems to know what is going on: archaeological excavations close to their home must have evoked evil spirits who now haunt the living. Mia gets totally worked up in her theory and behaves even stranger than normal calling her teachers into action. Life in the well-ordered Vermuyden household is close to collapsing and thus, well-hidden secrets threaten to be uncovered.

Fiona Neill’s novel sounded intriguing and actually it mixes quite some enthralling aspects: a family in which everybody seems to be on the watch in order to keep their secrets, a young girl totally immersed in Anglo-Saxon history and fascinated by spooky tales, and a medical incident that seems to be too complicated to find an easy explanation. Yet, somehow I couldn’t really connect to the story.

The story mainly lives on the characters who were multi-faceted and interestingly drawn. First and foremost, Lilly who is a typical teenager who hides her private life from her parents since she does not want to destroy the picture they have of her. She tries to please her mother und fulfil the expectations but can only fail here. There is some mystery about what happened that made her collapse that keeps suspense high throughout the plot. Her mother, on the other hand, is quite unsympathetic since she is a total control freak who does not grant her golden girl one millimetre of free space. There is a reason for her behaviour, yet, this is only inserted in a very brief excursus and thus remains too superficial to make her a really remarkable and complex character. Admittedly, I soon got totally annoyed with Mia. For quite some time I was wondering if she is somehow autistic since she doesn’t seem to understand how she tramples on the other characters’ feelings. Then, I thought she was rather precocious before I came to the conclusion that she is simply an entirely malignant egoistic young person.  The father, Patrick, ended up deeply in debt and so weak that the story could have been told without him.

There are some major questions raised about family life, parenting, growing-up and how much privacy is healthy for people close to each other. It all adds up in the end, yet, somehow, I had the impression that a bit more focus on one or a maximum of two characters would have been better.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy

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Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy

When one night a man breaks into her New York apartment and tries to kill her, Marie knows that it is time to flee and to take her twin boys out of the country since they will not be secure there anymore. As a former member of the FBI she knows how to defend herself, she went through worse, but not her kids. She flees to a tiny village on Martinique where her mother has been living for decades, hoping to earn some time to write down everything that happened years before for her kids to understand one day when they are old enough. Marie thinks back to her beginnings at the agency when she had the impression of being stuck and then the unexpected chance to be a part of something bigger, of doing something good – which ended in an African bloodbath and forced her into hiding.

“American Spy” is Lauren Wilkinson’s first novel after some highly appraised shorter writings. What is quite fascinating about the thriller is that apart from the action part, it offers many different layers and aspects that can be discussed. It is set in the time of the Cold War and of course, first and foremost, the role of the two big players and their proxy wars in Africa obviously take a major part in the book. Yet, it can also be read as a feminist novel since the protagonist struggles to find her place in an all-male federal agency where people are openly sexist. Marie and her Caribbean background also qualify the novel under the label of a Black History book.

The thriller is full of suspense and provides insight into the world of spies. The complicated political situations they are in and the fact that the world is much more greyish than black and white at times forces them to either give up their ideals or simply quit their job. I liked a lot how the author combined Marie’s family history and the ghosts that haunt her with the bigger picture of world politics that, in the end, also can be broken down to personal relationships and enmities. The protagonist makes it easy to sympathise with her and thus you instantaneously immerse into the novel. Additionally, I learned a lot about Burkina Faso’s history, something that I was highly ignorant about.

Claire Douglas – Then She Vanishes

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Claire Douglas – Then She Vanishes

A double murder shakes the small seaside town of Tilby. Heather, a 32-year-old mother of a small boy has killed Clive Wilson, 58, and his mother Deirdre, 76, in the early hours before attempting suicide. But why did she do it? Did she even know them? Her mother is devastated and so is Heather’s childhood friend Jess, now a journalist with a newspaper in Bristol. For almost twenty years, they had not been in contact, but now she is reaching out to the family Jess once regarded as her own. How can one single family be stricken by fate that often? Heather’s father was killed in an accident when a gun was fired, her older sister Flora went missing at the age of sixteen, and now this. There’s something rotten, obviously, but can Jess figure it out?

Another page-turning mystery by Claire Douglas that hooked me immediately. I had high expectations that were totally fulfilled: many mysteries to solve, twists and turns, unexpected links and whole lot of characters that are not to be trusted. Just what you would expect from a great thriller.

What I liked most about the story were the secrets that everybody keeps, those small things that seem to be without any importance but suddenly become crucial but then it’s already too late to tell them. And then, people have to live with the knowledge that they are keeping some major facts that when being told could have saved somebody or prevented a lot of things. The plot is quite complex, at the beginning it all seems quite obvious, yet, the more it advances the more characters are added and the more multi-layered it becomes. Whenever you think you have seen through it all, your theory simply crumbles and falls – and this works out until the very last page.

Simply a great read that I could hardly put down.

Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

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Joyce Carol Oates – My Life as a Rat

“I was twelve years old. This was the morning of the last day of my childhood.”

Violet Rue has always been her father’s favourite little girl. Just like her older sisters before, but not the brothers. The seventh of the children was loved beyond belief and treated differently. Jerome Kerrigan wasn’t an easy man, expecting his family to be obedient and to follow his orders. His education was strict and very clear. But then, one event changes everything. Her older brothers commit a cruel crime, killing a boy from the neighbourhood, a black boy. Violet Rue knows about it and she knows where the murder weapon is to be found. Keeping this secret is not really an option, but positioning herself against her family means that she has to life a life as a rat, a person who betrayed their closest.

I have read several novels written by Joyce Carol Oates and thus knew that she does not make it easy for her readers and demands a lot. Here, too, the book at times is hard to tolerate, the family situation is shocking and what the girl experiences – also after leaving the family – is merciless, just like reality sometimes is. A very strong narration that especially could convince me due to the tone of the young narrator who is torn between a childish naiveté and the need to grow-up and care for herself far too early.

It’s a novel about family bonds, family secrets, punishment, and all kinds of abuse. Powerfully Oates portrays how strong the core family members are sometimes linked and how the children and partners of abusive husbands sometimes keep silent just to secure their life. Violet knows as a young girl already what is right and what is wrong and that her decision to take the side of the victim will have severe consequences. But she – just like any child in a comparable situation – underestimates the hatred that people might show and how heartlessly her family is ready to cast her out.

A book not especially pleasurable to read but surely not to miss either.

K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

kc-maher-the-best-of-crimes
K.C. Maher – The Best of Crimes

When Walter turns himself in to the police, nobody wants to hear about it. He has committed a crime that the small town ignores – but, it is a crime and he wants to be sentenced. How could it all come so far? How could he kidnap a child for three days? Flashback. Walter was a child prodigy and due to his maths skills already as a young man makes a career in the financing business. In Sterling he finds an older but loving wife and with their child Olivia their family is perfectly complete. In their community, they are a typical family, not like the one from across the street. The father has always been absent and so is the mother, leaving young Amanda alone. The two girls become close friends and Olivia’s family somehow adopts Amada. While the girls grow up, Sterling and Walter become more and more distant until they finally break apart – leaving Walter and the almost teenager Amanda in a very precarious situation.

When I read the first pages of the novel, I was like “Oh my god, not another Lolita story!”. I was afraid that the worst could happen, yet, the strange reaction of the inhabitants of the small town made me wonder: would they ever accept a man who seriously molested a child? I doubted this and luckily read on. What unfolded then was a wonderful story of love and affection of two persons being left and feeling alone and thus becoming a very unique couple.

Even though at the beginning, the relationship between Walter and Amanda is perfectly innocent, at a certain point there is a thin line which somehow is crossed. You feel uncomfortable about how close they are, and even though Walter tries to set up clear boundaries to prevent anything from happening, there is an underlying feeling of an edgy uneasiness. The author plays with a taboo without transgression, but it makes clear that when it comes to affection between an adult and a child, there is some grey area. On the one hand, Walter is the best that could ever happen to Amanda. There is no doubt about his positive influence on her education and personal development. On the other hand, he is much more than a father figure which clearly is a no go considering her age.

Interestingly, both mothers fail in their role as educator and carer, something which you rarely encounter. They do not mistreat their daughters but definitely neglect them. Thus, the novel has a lot to offer from a psychological point of view. Not only the parents’ roles, but also the fact that Walter as a child prodigy never really had a childhood or normal adolescence and now with Amanda somehow lives through a time that he missed out at that age.

A wonderfully written novel that certainly could surprise me several times and which offers much to ponder about.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

valeria-luisellu-lost-children-archive
Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

A typical patchwork family: mother with daughter and father with son form a new unit after the parents got to know each other through work. For a new professional project of the father, they leave New York and their cosy home for the southern states close to the Mexican border. A very unique road trip of a family which is educating for their young children, but also brings them closer to the hot political topic: thousands of children are on their way to the border to come to the USA. As the family gets closer, the radio news become more and more a part of their life, too.

Valeria Luiselli’s novel was nominated on the long list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and you can quickly understand why it definitely earned a place there: the author masterly combines fact and fiction, mixes different types of materials to for something new and she has an outstanding capacity of using language.

There is so much one could say about the novel which makes it difficult to make a selection for a short review. The largest part is narrated from the mother’s point of view, a character who is highly poetic in describing especially her family relationships and who thoroughly analyses not only how the dynamics within the family shift but also how they interact with the outside world. I also liked this idea of having boxes in which each of the characters collects things with a certain meaning for them. Then, you have the American history – the past with the stories of the Native Americans which is contrasted with the present and its train of children moving towards the country.

The characters are not given any names, they are just mother and father, son and daughter. They could be anybody. They are you and me confronted with the real world and forced to understand that we live in a kind of multi-layered reality in which you repeatedly have to adjust yourself and your opinion depending on your current point of view and knowledge and experiences. The novel does not provide definitive answers, but it provides you with masses of questions to ponder about.

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

samantha-downing-my-lovely-wife
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.