Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Zakiya Dalila Harris – The Other Black Girl

Nella Rogers has achieved what she could only dream of, at 26 she is editorial assistant at one of the most prestigious publishing houses. The only thing she has been struggling with the last two years is how the idea of diversity has never entered her workplace, after the Asian girl left, she is the only person with a different background. Things change when unexpectedly Hazel is employed and gets the cubicle next to her. Nella senses immediately that with another black girl, they might finally make a change in publishing, promote more diverse authors and bring forward new topics relevant to a large audience which wasn’t addressed so far. However, it does not take too long until Nella’s work life starts to go downhill.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel has been called one of the buzz books of 2021 by several magazines. I was intrigued by the blurb immediately, a kind of horror version of “The Devil Wars Prada” sounded totally enthralling. For a long time, “The Other Black Girl” could fulfil the expectations, there is a highly uncomfortable feeling creeping around, yet, the end was a bit too much for my liking.

Nella is quite a likeable young woman, hardworking and even though not an activist she is following the Black Lives Matter movement even before this becomes a widespread phenomenon and big news. She imagines being able of making a change in the publishing industry but first needs to get at the position where she has the actual power to do so. Therefore, she is quite assimilated and she swallows comments from her colleagues even though they might be quite offensive for persons of colour. With the arrival of Hazel she seems to get an ally and befriends her immediately.

For the reader, even though there are some chapters which seems unrelated to Nella’s story but hint at some goings-ons beyond her scope, it is obvious that Hazel is not the friendly and reliable colleague Nella assumes, this was an aspect which annoyed me a bit, I didn’t get the impression of Nelly being that naive and credulous at first and would have liked her to be a bit cleverer in relation to what happens at her workplace.

The novel, however, is quite strong at portraying Nella’s feelings as being the only black girl, the role she assigned to as representative of a totally diverse group which is just too simplistic, yet, nobody really seems to care about the concept of diversity, having one black girl is enough. She has other issues than her colleagues, especially the talk about hair was quite a novelty, even though this is a huge topic if you do not have the easy-care blond hair.

Overall, I liked the writing and found Nella’s perspective and the insight in the publishing world interestingly realised.

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Yukito Ayatsuji – The Decagon House Murders

Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels:  Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.

“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”

Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.

The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.

A classic whodunnit I thoroughly enjoyed.

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Gilly Macmillan – To Tell You the Truth

Lucy Harper has achieved what many writers dream of: her detective novels about Eliza Grey have become highly successful and she built up a huge fan base. Her husband Dan supports her and takes care of their finances and everyday life. When he, without asking her first, decides to buy a house, she gets angry, even more so when she learns where exactly the house is located: close to where she grew up, next to the woods where her younger brother once disappeared and which she connects with her most dreadful nightmares. How could he do something like this, knowing about her childhood? Quite obviously, he is gaslighting her – that’s what Eliza tells her. Eliza, not only the protagonist of her novels but also the voice that has been in her head as long as she can remember. What has been useful for her writing now becomes complicated when Lucy struggles to distinguish between what is real, what is fiction and what is only in her head and when her husband is found murdered, the writer finds herself the main suspect of a story just like her novels.

I have several of Gilly Macmillan’s novels, always liking how she plays with the reader’s sympathies for the characters and the unexpected twists which keep suspense high. “To Tell You the Truth” is also masterfully crafted in terms of being vague and keeping you in the dark about what is real within fiction and what is only imagined by Lucy. Just like the protagonist, it takes a long time to figure out where the actual threat comes from, many different leads offer options for speculation which makes reading totally enjoyable.

Having a crime writer who finds herself suddenly suspect in a crime in which the police use her own writing against her, is a setting which has been used before. Yet, Gilly Macmillan added a lot of aspects to make the case much more complicated. On the one hand, the voice in Lucy’s head is quite strong and surely a negative character whom you shouldn’t trust. Again and again, Lucy also seems to suffer from blackouts thus opening the possibility of actions she simply cannot recollect and which therefore remain blank spaces also for the reader. The backstory of her vanished brother and the big question looming over all if she herself might be responsible for his likely death – maybe even willingly – also add to the unpleasant feeling that she might not be a victim in this story at all.

Her husband, too, raises many questions. He is, quite obviously, envious of his wife’s success since he also dreams of a career in writing but lacks talent. The bits and pieces of information one gets directly lead to the assumption of him gaslighting her. However, the possibility of Lucy getting it all wrong due to her hallucinations and the Eliza-voice is also in the air.

A creepy thriller which keeps you alert at all times. Even though I found the end a bit too simply for the plot, a fantastic read I totally enjoyed.

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Two young women, tourists in Venice, are found severely wounded in front of a hospital one late night. Luckily, with the help of video surveillance they can quickly find out the two men who put them there. But which did they abandon them even though they first provided help? As commissario Brunetti investigates the case together with his colleague Claudia Griffoni, they happen to link one of the men to another crime of which the police only have a faint idea so far, but this might be their breakthrough.

Whenever I take up a Donna Leon novel on commissario Brunetti, I know what I will get: a crime story which is solved not by some miraculously appearing deus ex machina, but by meticulous police work combined with the protagonist’s clever instinct and the ability to read people and to actually listen to them. Apart from that, it is always like some kind of bookish holiday to travel to the Venetian Lagoon and to delve into its very unique atmosphere. The thirtieth instalment in the series does not disappoint in this respect.

Quite interestingly, the crime with which the novel opens is quite quickly solved and classified an accident and a series of unfortunate events and decisions. Yet, it is only the beginning of a real crime – a crime of the sort nobody wants to know about and people eagerly close their eyes on. This time, it is Brunetti’s colleague who stirs the investigation and the commissario not only gets to know her from an unknown side but also learns that Griffoni’s hometown of Naples could also be on another planet that different life works there.

A plot driven by interesting and strongly painted characters, just the sort of entertainment one knows Donna Leon to provide.

Graham Moore – The Holdout

Graham Moore – The Holdout

A reunion they have never really wanted since all of them only wanted to forget what happened ten years ago. When lawyer Maya Seale is first approached by Rick, she refuses, but her boss convinces her to take part. They were the jury on the most popular case of the time: 15-year-old Jessica had vanished and was supposedly murdered by her teacher Bobby Nock with whom she obviously had had an affair. Even though the body had never been found, the whole country was convinced that the black man had killed the daughter of a rich Californian real estate mogul. However, the jurors followed Maya’s arguing in finding Bobby not guilty. It took Rick, one of the jurors, a decade of his life to investigate privately and now, he has come up with new evidence he wants his co-jurors and the whole world to see. They return to the hotel where they were kept away from the public for months, but then, Rick is found dead – in Maya’s room. All is just too obvious: the one person who is responsible for the killer of a young girl running free now wants to protect herself by keeping the evidence secret. Thus, consequently, Maya is arrested.

The reader follows Maya Seale in her quest to prove her innocence. You know from the beginning that she is not a reckless killer and that she’s got nothing to hide, but much more interestingly than this already answered question is the one about the legal system: Maya’s chances of being acquitted from murder rise tremendously if she pleads guilty of manslaughter – there does not seem to be a chance of just telling the truth and it simply being acknowledged. So the interesting question actually is: how does the truth have to be framed, or to put it more explicitly: manipulated, to get the result you want?

Graham Moore’s “The Holdout” is a real page-turner. Once you have started, you cannot simply put the novel aside. It is fascinating to see how the law works, to follow the arguing of the lawyers and their weighing the different versions of truth. I also liked how the author created a jury of very peculiar individuals who all have their small secrets they want to hide. Yet, ultimately, they all come out, some with more, others with less consequences. The big mystery looming over the whole story is who killed Jessica Silver and why. This is very cleverly solved but also challenges the reader’s moral value system. At the end of the day, life is complicated and, at times, you have to weigh different perspectives against each other and you may come to the conclusion that one version of truth might be better than another.

A gripping legal thriller full of suspense and a lot of food for thought.

Carissa Ann Lynch – Whisper Island

Carissa Ann Lynch – Whisper Island

Riley, Sammy, Mia and Scarlett are art students at Monroe and working on projects together when one day, Sammy suggests a trip to Whisper Island, Alaska, where they could spend their holidays for free and profit from its remoteness and special surroundings for their artwork. Even though the others are not too keen on spending summer in the cold north, they agree and see it as an adventure. When they are on their way, Sammy announces that her brother Rob would join them, not just does she thus destroy the girls trip, but especially Mia is angry, her best friend should know that after their breakup, the wounds that Rob had caused never really healed. When they finally arrive, it is not just Rob but also his new girlfriend Opal awaiting them in a run-down house. But not only their lodging is a disappointment, also their boat to travel to the next town is out of order and then their whole trip turns into a nightmare when they realise that they are obviously not alone on the island since a murderer is on the loose killing one after the other.

Carissa Ann Lynch has chosen a classic locked-room setting which strongly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. Even though the students are not total strangers, they evidently know much less from each other than they thought before their departure. The story is narrated alternatingly from the points of view of the characters thus providing insight in their hidden thoughts and offering the reader, on the hand, clues to what could be behind all this murdering but, on the other hand, also a lot of red herrings which keeps suspense high.

The present events on the island are surely the main focus of the plot, however, the girls’ past, the things they hide from the others – and astonishingly, each of them has quite a story to offer – are much more interesting to unravel. Sammy soon hints at the fact that she did not suggest the trip out of the blue but actually had a good reason to vanish from Memphis and so had her brother. Mia seems to have been in a scandal a couple of years ago which she hopes the others have never heard of but of which the anniversary is close and threatening to make the others a see side of her she prefers to keep hidden. Scarlett struggles with drug abuse and hopes to get sober in the weeks on the island. Riley is new to the group and she is also the one who is quite closed up not giving away too much form herself and her family, so, what does she have to hide?

I liked the atmosphere on the hardly welcoming island which immediately gives you the creeps and fits perfectly to the plot. Speculating about why the six might have been chosen as targets was great fun and finally was revealed and explained. An entertaining and fast-paced mystery following a classic structure.

Courtney Summers – The Project

Courtney Summer – The Project

Lo Denham has lost her parents in a car accident in which she herself was also seriously injured and which marked her with a scar for life. Her sister Bea, six years her senior, is the last bit of family she has, but she has not been able to contact her for months. It must be The Unity Project’s fault, the sect Bea joined when she couldn’t make sense of the loss she experienced anymore. When a man claims that The Unity Project killed his son, Lo decides to take a closer look and to get nearer to the charismatic leader Lev Warren with the aim to expose the group’s doings in the magazine she works for. However, Lo is not prepared for the experiences she makes there.

Courtney Summers narrates the story from different points of view at different points in time, thus we get both sisters’ perspective on the highly emotional events in their lives. This also creates a lot of suspense since from the beginning, there are gaps which need to be filled to make sense. It also underlines the different characters of Lo and Bea which, nevertheless, does not hinder them from being fascinated by the same man.

The crucial point is most definitely the psychological impact a major tragic event such as the loss of the parents can have on young persons. Coming to grips with such a stroke of fate which does not make sense and is hard to understand is not only very hard but also makes people fragile and prone to others who are eager to exploit their situation. The leader of the group is surely an interesting character, it is easy to see how he manages to win people for his project and how he can make them follow him blindly. In this way, the novel also cleverly portrays the mechanism which work behind sects and which make it difficult to immediately see through them and more importantly to leave them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel due to the multifaceted characters and the message beyond the suspenseful and entertaining plot.