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.

Claire McGowan – What You Did

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Claire McGowan – What You Did

It was meant to be a relaxed weekend and reunion of old friends, but then it turns into an absolute nightmare. It’s been 25 years that Ali and her husband Mike first met their friends Karen, Jodi, Bill and Callum at university, a reason to celebrate in their new home. Yet, after a lot of alcohol, a loud cry from Karen suddenly ends the joyful get together: Karen claims to have been assaulted by Mike, her bleeding and overall status seem confirm her accusation. After Mike’s arrest, Ali’s world slowly crumbles and falls, the more she learns about her husband, the more she has to ask herself if she really knew whom she has been married to for all those years. Not only did he have an affair all those years, but also are there money transfers to an unknown account and more pieces of information that are far beyond just being inconvenient: they are purely frightening. But this is just the beginning.

Claire McGowan’s thriller is absolutely breath taking. It is mainly narrated from Ali’s point of you and you constantly ask yourself: what would I do if I were in her shoes? Whom would I believe, my husband or my former best friend? Would I stick to my ideals or try to save the life I had worked for for years? How far would I be willing to go for the person I love? The story moves at a very high pace, just whenever you think the characters have found a way of coping with the catastrophe, the next follows immediately only to make the whole situation even worse. There is no moment to relax and sit down to think through the mess they are in, they are forced to react to ever more complications from one minute to the other.

The plot is very cleverly constructed, revealing its full potential only slowly. What makes it especially delicate is the fact that it plays on those core emotions in life: trust and believe in the people who are closest to you. It hurts a lot more to feel betrayed by the ones you love than coping with just with stressful situations. Additionally, I found it quite clever to put Ali in the position where she is presented as an advocate for women who have been assaulted and speak out against their perpetrators and then finding her in the position where she is inclined to take the other side and rather believe her husband than the woman – and friend! – who without any doubt is a victim.

I utterly rushed through the novel since I could hardly put it down. The short chapters even accelerated the plot and made you read on just one more chapter and another one and so on until the end. A brilliant story that I enjoyed throughout.

Catherine Ryan Howard – Rewind

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Catherine Ryan Howard – Rewind

Andrew, manager of Shanamore Cottages, does not trust his eyes when he watches the camera he secretly installed in the bedroom of the cottages: his only guest has just been murdered. Yet, he surely cannot call the police but has to cope with the situation. Rewind. Strange things seem to happen in the life of influencer Natalie. However, her husband Mike does not believe her, supposedly because he himself is behind it all. He not only seems to have an affair but also wants her to believe that she has gone nuts. The key to it all seems to lie in the cottages where her obviously spent several days, so she packs her bag and spontaneously goes there. She knows immediately that this has been a mistake, the place is not only remote but more than literally abandoned in November and the people out there more than creepy. She does not know how correct her assessment of the place is and how wrong she was about the connection between this village and herself.

I have read Catherine Ryan Howard’s former novel “The Liar’s Girls” about Dublin’s Canal Killer and had liked it a lot. That’s why I was eager to read another of her thrillers and I wasn’t disappointed. Again, she starts with a murder and the reader has to figure out how this character ended up killed. “Rewind” is cleverly constructed and it takes some time to connect the dots and to make sense of it all. Yet, suspense does not decline once you see through the plot as there is still a chance that the actual culprit might simply walk away without ever being discovered and charged.

What I found strongest apart from the carefully composed plot, was the atmosphere the author creates. The small village of Shanamore really gives you the creeps only when reading about it. This place – added the time of the year, November, which is in itself often spine-chilling due to the cold and darkness – is perfect for hideous murders and you wouldn’t expect anybody else than weird and dubious characters walking around there. But also the action taking place in Dublin that makes Natalie feel increasingly hesitant and insecure about herself adds to the overall frightening ambiance of the novel.

Catherine Ryan Howard provides a lot of wrong leads that make you readjust the picture again and again and ponder how all can possibly fit into the picture. The solution is plausible and does not leave any question unanswered. “Rewind” is a perfect page-turner that I read in just one sitting since it hooked me immediately.

Steve Cavanagh – TH1RT3EN

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Steve Cavanagh – Th1rt3en

It’s one of the biggest murder trials New York has seen for some time and all the country is waiting for actor Robert „Bobby“ Solomon to be convicted for the double murder of his girlfriend and her lover. Chances for Bobby are low, all the evidence is clearly against him: he was at the crime scene, blood all over, he left a finger print on a dollar note which was found on the victims, the murder weapon, a baseball bat, belongs to him and has his prints and blood of the victims all over. And he does not have an alibi for the time of the deed. Yet, there is another factor which will make sure that Bobby goes to jail: the murderer is on the jury. But, the killer didn’t anticipate Eddie Flynn, Bobby’s defence attorney, who looked his client in the eyes and saw that this man is innocent. So there must be someone else to blame. Let the game begin.

Steve Cavanagh’s legal crime novel has a rather slow start, but then it takes up pace and suddenly you can only wonder what unfolds in front of you. A brilliant puzzle and fight between two highly intelligent combatants who quickly combine facts and spectacularly try to outplay the enemy. “Th1rt3en” is the fourth novel of the Eddie Flynn series which can also be read without knowledge of the preceding books. For the third of the series, “The Liar”, Steve Cavanagh was awarded the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2018.

The novel clearly lives on the fight between the killer and the lawyer. Both are highly interesting characters and certainly equal in many respects. On the one hand, Joshua Kane who seems to have perfected crime and taken killing to a higher level. It is brilliant how he proceeds and does not only care about the murder itself but also about what follows after. On the other hand, it seems as if nothing can stop Eddie Flynn, his sharp intellect guarantees clever tactical manoeuvres and seeing things that other might overlook.

It’s the classic fight of good versus evil integrated in a complex story. When the actual trial starts, the plot accelerates and suspense rises enormously. It is fascinating to follow the story line and see how all pieces finally fall into places. Even though there are some blunt and brutal murders, “TH1RT3EN” is a rather demanding and intellectual thriller that demands all your attention and concentration, something I highly appreciate.

Shari Lapena – Someone We Know

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Shari Lapena – Someone We Know

Aylesford is a small community not far from New York. People know each other, are friends, have barbecues together and share their everyday problems. New to the neighbourhood are Amanda and Robert Pierce, both stunningly attractive and younger than the rest with their teenage kids. When Amanda goes missing, everybody soon blames the husband, the obvious suspect, but then, slowly, the facades of the good people start to crumble. They are not the loving husbands who go to work every day to support their beloved family, they are not the good housewives who only care for their dears and they are not the good kids of the suburbs. They all have their secrets they thought well hidden, but now it’s time for revelation.

I hardly could put down Shari Lapena’s thriller since I was hooked from the first page. She has created the perfect environment for readers who enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. Those nice people who appear to be caring and concerned about the others and who are suddenly confronted with their dark sides that threaten the picture they have drawn of themselves. A great read that was not only fun to read because all of them sooner or later have to admit their misconduct, but first and foremost, because the plot was masterly woven and thus kept suspense high until the very end.

It’s hard to say more about the plot without giving away too much. I liked how Lapena slowly unravels the revelations and shifts the focus from one character to the next. They all act suspiciously and at a certain point, I gave up believing any of them since it was too obvious that none of them is innocent in one way or the other. The author skilfully plays with the reader along these lines and this keeps you addicted since you eagerly want to find out what actually happened. It’s a brilliant, enthralling novel that you cannot stop reading once you’ve started.

Michael Robotham – Good Girl, Bad Girl

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Michael Robotham – Good Girl, Bad Girl

When Evie Cormack was found almost starved hidden behind a secret wall and her so called father killed in the next room, it was clear that this must have a severe impact on the girl’s mind. But who is she? Nobody seems to miss her. Cyrus Haven, forensic psychologist with the Nottingham police, is highly interested in the case of “Angel Face” even though the now young woman refuses all cooperation with carers and doctors who already established that she possesses a unique gift: she can tell if somebody lies. Yet, Cyrus does not have the time to totally focus on her since the body of Jodie Sheehan, figure-skating prodigy, has been found close to her cousin’s home. The deeper the police investigate, the stranger and puzzling the facts that they dig out about the girl become: wasn’t Evie the golden girl with the promising career that everybody believed?

Michael Robotham’s latest thriller does not come with unnerving suspense, it stands out because of two other aspects: first of all, it really goes into the psyche of the protagonists and second, the complex story offers many leads and red herrings that keep you alert and reading on. The characters are much more intricate than you would expect for a mystery novel and thus add a lot of thrill to the plot.

Cyrus Haven, the psychologist, is himself an interesting character since his own family was murdered by his elder brother when he was just a child. The knowledge that not returning home on due time saved him sticks with him and finding his parents’ and sisters’ bodies surely had an impact on him. His subject of study is also designed very interestingly, she does not just react to her experiences of being abused and hidden, quite on the contrary, she is highly intelligent and capable of controlling her moods when interacting with psychologists. She can anticipate what is expected from her and thus play with those who want to gain insight in her brain what she refuses. On the other hand, there are some triggers that make her explode and react uncontrollably. Robotham gives them both a voice and with the first person narration grants a glimpse in their mind.

The murder case comes with many surprises, too. The more you learn about the victim, the more interesting the dead girl gets. She obviously had a certain image that was portrayed to her family and the world, but there are also secrets she kept and only shared with selected persons. Whenever the police are convinced to have established the course of the evening of her assassination, some aspects simply do not fit in the picture and keep them investigating further.

“Good Girl, Bad Girl” really is a psychological thriller that deserves this label. Cyrus and Evie are certainly an odd couple of which I would love to read more.

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.

Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

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Stefan Ahnhem – Motive X

It’s only four weeks after his life was almost completely devastated, but now Fabian Risk sees light again when his daughter Matilda wakes from the coma. Yet, there is not really the time to spend it with his family since Helsingborg police have several tricky cases to solve: a young boy is found dead in a washing machine, a woman is killed and a third murder case also does not seem to have any recognizable pattern. The team’s nerves are on the edge since all of them also have to fight with their own demons. For Fabian, there is also something that has been nagging him since they found their former colleague Elvin dead in his apartment: he cannot believe in the suicide theory and slowly, the pieces seem to fall into place, but does he like the result? Could one of their colleagues actually be a serial murderer?

Stefan Ahnhem continues in this instalment of the Fabian Risk series exactly where he stopped in “18 below”. Quite often you can read a novel form a series without knowing what happened before, here, however, you will certainly not understand a lot without any prior knowledge. And it is obvious that there is more to come since, unfortunately, the big questions are not answered and this is why I could not rate it with five stars.

Again, the author underlines why he is one of the big names of Scandinavian crime. Ahnhem does not tell one story, but he has several plots running parallel, oscillating between them and pushing forward the pots at a very high speed. Admittedly, I could not really say which one is the most important plot here, but it made completely sense since life isn’t a succession of stories that wait in line until their time has come. This happen at the same time and rarely do you have the time to only focus on one case or problem at a time.

Since there is so much going on in “Motive X”, the character development is a bit reduced, but Risk seems to have found his private case to investigate all alone. This will surely be decisive for his life, even more than his family life which is in a very fragile state. Whom I followed eagerly again was Irene Lilja, she surely is somehow out of control, but her motives are good.

All in all, a great read with all the ingredients for a thriller that hooks you at once.