Joy Ellis – Beware the Past

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Joy Ellis – Beware the Past

It was his most important case, 25 years ago, and now it all seems to be coming back to him. Detective Matt Ballard was still young when a series of murders of three boys hit the remote area of Gibbet Fens. The killing suddenly stopped when their main suspects was killed in an accident, but nevertheless, doubts remained and now the killers seems to have resumed his series. The team is working around the clock and soon they have to realise that this is not just a normal murder case, it is a cat and mouse play with Matt Ballard at the centre. The killer wants his full attention and he want to hurt the detective – therefore everybody close to him is in the highest danger.

Joy Ellis’ thriller is just want I’d suspect from a crime novel: full of suspense, many clues and leads that only lead to dead-ends. Interesting characters with a past and buried secrets. A fast paced story with twists and turns and quite a surprising motive of the predator.

For me, the strongest aspect of the novel was actually the plot and the motivation of the killer. It is hard not to tell too much since it really comes as a surprise, but the way Joy Ellis drafted the novel, the killer’s procedure and the solution of the case was just brilliant. I was kept in the dark about who is behind it all for such a long time – ok, one might have guessed, but actually, the fact that I was totally taken by surprise makes it an outstanding thriller for me.

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Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone

Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone

Ellie just wants to go to the library to study for her GCSEs. But she never arrives there and is never seen again. Her mother Laurel is sure that her daughter is still alive, but where? Ten years pass by, the family splits up and Laurel is alone with her grief. When she meets Floyd, she experiences happiness for the first time in many years. Can this be true? Finding love at the age of 55? But why is the famous writer in love with her, this old, nondescript woman? When she meets Floyd’s daughter Poppy for the first time, a vile thought is planted in her head. Was their encounter really a coincidence? Who is that man in reality?

Lisa Jewell tells the story of the vanished girl from different perspectives at different points of time. Thus, the full picture is only revealed bit by bit throughout the story and the tension is constantly kept high. You never know whom you can really trust, what is true and what isn’t, you can guess, but at times, you might be completely wrong.

I especially liked the mystery about Floyd and his daughter. At the first glance, they appear to be a bit too perfect, too lovely and likeable to be real. Just because of this you become suspicious. Is Floyd the nice loving man or is he simply evil? What might happen to Laurel when she keeps on dating him? From the experience of reading thrillers you are convinced that sooner or later something really wicked will happen, you simply wait for it to happen all the time – of course you still hope that by some miracle the nice and decent woman is spared another nightmare in her life.

“Then she was gone” is not a too bloody thriller, but it is creepy due to the characters and you always teeter on a knife edge about what is going to happen next. So, Lisa Jewell successfully plays on the reader’s nerves – just what I would expect from a good thriller.

Richard Flanagan – First Person

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Richard Flanagan – First Person

Kif Kehlmann is dreaming of being a writer. With his wife pregnant with twins and their financial situation rather critical, the offer of writing a book is welcomed. Yet, the frame conditions are hard: he will receive 10 000 dollars if he writes the autobiography of Australia’s most wanted fraudster within 6 weeks. Money is money and writing is writing, so Kif accepts the deal not knowing what lies ahead of him. His friend Ray warns him, as Siegfried Heidl’s bodyguard, he knows him quite well and he knows what Heidl is capable of. What sounded like an easy tasks reveals itself a mission impossible. First, Heidl varies the story of his life again and again, Kif does not even know the basic facts and the more he listens to him, the more confused he gets. Second, Siegfried Heidl seems to get into his head, he cannot let go of him anymore and slowly, Kif starts to question his whole life.

If have read other books by Richard Flanagan which could really thrill me, unfortunately, “First Person” does not belong to those. It took almost a third of the book to really get into the novel. Admittedly, it is getting better and better in the course of the time, but I am sure many readers will never reach this point.

Flanagan presents two strong protagonists who are quite appealing and interesting. Kif with his dream of writing a novel sold thousands of times and at the same time struggling with his private life. His head is full with other things, diving into a task such as the ghostwriter’s job seems rather impossible at this moment of his life. And both, his life and the writing, turn out to be incompatible.

Siegfried on the other hand is fascinating because we can never really make up a picture of him. Is he a con man or is he actually super-clever? Which pieces of the story he tells are true (in as much as fiction can be true), which are just narrative? Or as Kif puts it:

“For Heidl wasn’t so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making.” (pos. 3055)

It is his strange charisma that makes him enthralling and captivating. Kif, too, in his description is oscillating between adoration and disdain:

“I couldn’t decide whether I hated Heidl or admired him, if I was his friend or his enemy, if I wanted to save him or kill him.” (pos. 2877) and yet, “He was the closest thing to a man of genius I ever met.” (Po. 3747)

The dance they do is shows that Flanagan is one of the best writers of our time, but nevertheless, this story just was not one that could capture me completely.

Anthony Horowitz – The Word is Murder

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Anthony Howoritz – The Word is Murder

Diana Cowper, an elegant elderly woman goes to an undertaker to sort out her funeral. This is not absolutely strange, but nevertheless rare. The same evening, she is murdered in her London house. Daniel Hawthorne, a former detective with the London Metropolitan police supports the investigation. He asks the writer Anthony Horowitz to accompany his inquiry and to write a book about it. This is how the famous writer gets to see a murder investigation from the inside. Yet, the case does not really seem to lead anywhere. Is it all just a coincidence and did Mrs Cowper fall prey to a burglar who also broke into other houses of the area? When her son Damian Cowper is found stabbed in his apartment, it is obvious that his mother’s death was no bad luck. All signs lead to a car accident 10 years before in which Mrs Cowper killed an 8-year-old boy. But somehow the pieces do not really fall into place. The peculiar team of the strange ex-detective and the author will have to investigate further – until they get in mortal danger themselves.

Even after having finished reading the novel and the acknowledgements, I am not sure if this is all based on a true story or if Anthony Horowitz is just a great inventor. However, it doesn’t really matter, what matters is first of all, did I enjoy reading the novel? Yes, absolutely, it is so much fun and I hardly could put it away. And second, how was the murder case? Cleverly constructed, surprising, simply fantastic. I could stop here since it is clear that “The Word is Murder” is a must read of 2017.

The novel starts a bit surprisingly. You get Mrs Cowper walking into the undertaker’s and so on. Then, quite abruptly, there is a break and the author is starting to talk to you and you learn that you just read a chapter of a book which is to be written. So, he takes you out of the novel you were just reading into another novel about the writing of that specific book about the woman you have just encountered. This is quite a unique start, but it fits in quite well and I like surprises like this.

As summarised before, the murder case has everything you could ask for: several suspects, all with dubious behaviours and clear motives. Quite outstanding characters which give you much to puzzle over. Nevertheless, it all fits together perfectly in the end and the here again, the motivation comes quite as a surprise but is absolutely reasonable and coherent with the whole plot.

Concerning the characters, I liked the author who is not the perfect detective who knows it all, who has doubts about what he is doing, sometimes a guilt conscience and a conversational tone which makes it easy to indulge in the story. Hawthorne on the other hand is only presented through the eyes of the narrator, thus never objectively presented and definitely a bit bizarre – but I liked him nevertheless.

All in all, a humorous crime novel which additionally benefits from Horowitz’s masterly writing skills.

Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express

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Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express

Nachdem er gerade erst in Istanbul angekommen ist, wird Hercule Poirot durch ein Telegramm nach London zurückverlangt. Am schnellsten ist der Simplon-Orient-Express, doch unerwarteter Weise ist dieser ausgebucht. Als ein Passagier nicht erscheint, kann er gerade noch den letzten Platz bekommen. An Bord wird er bald schon von Samuel Ratchett angesprochen, der ihn gerne als Privatbeschützer anstellen würde, da er fürchtet, dass sein Leben bedroht ist. Da ihm der Mann unsympathisch ist, lehnt Poirot ab. Ein plötzlicher Schneesturm zwingt den Zug in Jugoslawien mitten in der Nacht zum Halten. Am nächsten Morgen erfahren die Passagiere, dass Ratchett tot ist. Der Mörder kann wegen des ungeplanten Zwischenstopp den Zug nicht verlassen haben. Wohl oder übel muss Poirot die Ermittlungen übernehmen.

Ohne Frage hat mich die aktuelle Verfilmung dazu animiert, den Klassiker von Agatha Christie auszupacken und mir eine etwas ältere britische Hörspielversion zu gönnen. In der Hauptrolle Albert John Moffatt, der für die BBC in insgesamt 25 Radio-Produktionen den belgischen Detektiv mimte und interessanterweise auch in der 1974er Verfilmung des Orient Express mitspielte, wenn hier auch nicht in der Hauptrolle.

Das Setting ist recht typisch für die Krimis von Agatha Christie, ein abgeschotteter Ort, an dem eine größere Anzahl von Verdächtigen auf engstem Raum gefangen sind und unter denen sich auch der Mörder befindet. Zwischen den Passagieren des Zuges scheint es keine näheren Verbindungen zu geben, zu unterschiedlich sind sie: Count und Countess Andrenyi, eine deutsche Zugehfrau, schwedische Missionarin, ein ehemaliger Colonel, der Sekretär des Getöteten, eine britische Gouvernante und weitere offenbaren keine naheliegenden Lösungen für den Mordfall. Systematisch befragt Poirot die Reisenden und nähert sich so zielsicher dem Täter. Erwartungsgemäß auch das Ende: alle werden im Speisewagen versammelt und der belgischer Meisterermittler löst Motiv und Mordvorgang auf. Allerdings kann uns die große Agatha Christie dieses Mal mit einem ungewöhnlichen Ende überraschen.

Für mich einer der besten Plots von Agatha Christies Hercule Poirot Reihe. Ein besonderer Charme macht auch der Zug aus, den ich mir von einiger Zeit einmal live anschauen konnte und der heute noch genauso aussieht wie vor gut 80 Jahren als der Krimi entstand.

Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

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Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

Henry Dunbar has lead his whole life a successful businessman whose orders are carried out immediately and who is not only in charge but in control. But now he finds himself in a sanatorium somewhere in the British countryside, locked away and sedated by his doctors. His eldest daughters Abby and Megan and the family doctor Bob have complotted against him to take over the Dunbar imperium. With his roommate Dunbar decides to flee and to get his life back. His youngest daughter Florence has also gotten wind of the other daughters’ doings and is rushing for help. While the old man is roaming the unknown country in a fierce storm, the sisters and their accomplices are plotting how to get out of the mess best, each one is fighting the others with insidious plans and tricks. But the old man is stronger than anyone would have thought.

“Dunbar” is part of the Shakespeare Hogarth project in which famous authors have transferred the bard’s stories into our modern time in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death. One of the four major tragedies provides the basis for this modern madness: King Lear.

Edward St Aubyn clearly is one of the most gifted authors of our time. He masterly managed to create a gripping story in which the core conflict of Shakespeare’s play can clearly be seen, but which speaks for itself and is a great pleasure to read from the very first to the last page. First of all, the setting. Transferring the king’s household to a media mogul’s family is absolutely adequate for today, it’s not only about power, but much more about the stock market and money. That’s what drives many people nowadays and for which they are willing to sell their own grandmother – or their father as it is here.

Strongest are the characters in the novel. The stubborn old head of the family who cannot be broken by medication and a remote clinic, who develops superhuman survival forces if needed but who finally finds the wisdom of the elderly and can see when in his life he was wrong – that’s one side of the story. Yet, I had a lot more fun with the beastly sisters Abby and Megan, they both are that sly and cunning – it was just a great fun to read (“Oh, God, it was so unfair! That selfish old man was spoiling everything”, Megan complains about her father when she learns that he has fled and her carefully designed plot is about to crumble down). Admittedly, I did not feel too much compassion for their Victim Dr. Bob, who, he himself, also was not the philantropic doctor whom you wish for but much more a turncoat seeking for his own benefit.

A lively family vendetta which completely gets out of control perfectly framed by Edward St Aubyn’s gifted writing. Great dialogues alternate with extraordinary inner monologues – for me so far one of the best works of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

 

Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

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Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

Taro lives alone in one of Tokyo’s anonymous block of flats. His family is far away and they are hardly in contact, his father died already ten years ago, yet the memories of him are still alive. His neighbours, he only knows the names that were given to the flats they inhabit, but not who is living close to him. Since the flats are going to be destroyed soon, they will have to leave anyway.  One day, he observes a woman walking around the sky-blue house neighbouring their block. She seems to try to look into it through the window. When she realises that she is spotted, they make contact and Nishi explains Taro why she is behaving this strangely: the house is actually quite famous, she even possesses a book about its interior and her greatest wish is to enter and have a look herself. A singular friendship forms between the two neighbours, centred around a building close but far away for them.

Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Spring Garden” has many typical features of what I expect from Japanese literature. First of all, the characters. We have two protagonists who seem to live a life without close connection to other people, loneliness and isolation are reoccurring themes in Japan’s novels and from the news I read about the country this really seems to be a major topic. Yet, it is not the suffering from being alone that is central, they seem to have accepted that this is just how it is for them. When they finally bond with somebody – even if it is just a weak connection like the one of neighbours – there are many societal rules which prevent an honest friendship in my opinion. E.g. when Taro is given a present he does not like, it is not easy for him and he nevertheless feels obliged to behave in a certain manner. Even to eat things he doesn’t like in order not to appear impolite.

Some aspects I found really strange and I do not know if this is the case because the character of Taro is a bit bizarre or if this is just a cultural matter which is quite far from the world I life in. Taro keeps the mortar and pestle in his kitchen cupboard with which he turned the remains of his father’s bones into powder to distribute them. They remind him of the father and he frequently thinks about him when he comes across the two utensils. Both, first the idea of working on a deceased’s bones and keeping the utensils close to pots and pans is very astonishing to me to put it politely.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the house that Taro and Nishi go to explore, first through the book and the outside, later also from the inside. It is not only the poetical language, especially about the lighting of the colourful windows, which makes it quite impressive, but also how human boing have an impact on the outer world. Even though the walls and windows are the same, with the change of the inhabitants, the whole ambiance can change and everybody leaves his mark on his surroundings.

William Boyd – The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

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William Boyd – The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

William Boyd’s collection of stories “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth“ is not easy to review. As it often with such an assembly of very various texts, differing in length and topic, not connected in any way, you cannot pay them all the due respect in a review. The opening is great, I absolutely liked the the story about the art dealer and womanizer Ludo who immediately after having married one is looking for the next wife. The story about the thief did not really appeal to me, it was a mere enumeration without a real story, whereas the story of the freeing of the monkey had some deeper message. The longest and title providing story was the one about Bethany Mellmoth. Actually, I think it would have also made a good novel if extended a bit. Bethany is an interesting character and I think her make-up could have provided more to fill the pages of a whole book. In the last story, we even get a kind of short thriller which I also liked a lot. You sense that there is something odd about the woman and job for Dunbar, but it is hard to say what is wrong about it. William Boyd knows how to tell a story and he definitely is best in longer narrations such as the one about Bethany’s dreams.

One reoccurring topic in several stories is love, or rather: unfulfilled love. The characters are looking for the one person with whom they can spend the rest of their life, but they only encounter the ones who do not really match or who have mischievous plans. Or they themselves are actually unable to love and to be faithful. Loneliness can be found in many of them which gives the whole collection a kind of underlying melancholy.

All in all, there is something in every single story and a lot of wit in Boyd’s writing make reading the stories a great pleasure. In the narration of Bethany’s dreams he somehow sums at a point what life and the core of his stories are about, what he not only tries but masterly manages to portray:

Bethany is suspicious – this is not normal: everything seems to be going well and this is not how the world works – no. Life is a dysfunctioning system, she knows: failure, breakdown, disappointment, frustration – where are you hiding?

Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

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Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

Summertime in the early 1950s. Willa and her older sister Joan would like to have a relaxing time at their summer home together with their mom. But the mother has a new lover, Eugene, and to the girls‘ surprise, Eugene has invited his two sons to spend the summer with them. Kenneth and Patrick are slightly older than the girls immediately attract their attention. No, they definitely are not like brothers and sisters, Joan and Kenneth quickly fall for each other. For Willa and Patrick things are not that easy. Over the next years, they regularly meet and between Willa and Patrick a strange connection is formed. On the one hand, the boy can arouse feelings in her, but on the other, what he is doing to her repels her and she senses that his behaviour is far from being normal and acceptable. But what is there she can to about it? It will take years until she can free herself.

“Demi-God” – according to the Merriam-Webster definition, it is a mythological being with more power than a mortal but less than a god or a person so outstanding as to seem to approach the divine. For all female members of the family, the male counterparts are somehow demi-gods, at least in so far as they cannot refrain from their attraction. The mother is charmed by Eugene, Joan falls for Kenneth and also Willa has a special liking for Patrick. It is not quite clear what makes those three that outstanding, but their appeal is obvious. They can exert power over the women in different ways, but it is only Patrick how openly abuses this.

Before coming to this, what I liked especially about the novel was the atmosphere. You can sense immediately that Eliza Robertson is great at creating certain moods and you actually can feel this carefree time of being young during summer holidays when the days seem endless, when the sun is shining and when there are no worries and fears. I also appreciated her characters, first of all the mother who is neither completely stereotypical but nevertheless clearly represents a certain kind of woman of her time. In the focus of the novel are the girls and their relationship. It is not always easy to be sisters, at times they can confide in each other, at others they can’t. Yet, there is something like unconditional love between them, if one needs the other, she can surely count on her.

In this nice and loving ambiance now enters the evil that can be found in human beings. To name it openly, the novel is about sexual abuse, about menacing and exerting power over a weaker person. Willa is first too young, then unsure of how to react and how to qualify what happens to her. It is not the all bad and awful situation – this is what makes the novel especially impressive. It only happens at single instances, partly, she isn’t even sure if she did actually refuse it or even contributed to it happening. This makes it even more awful, because the girl is left alone with her feelings and worries. She plays normal and hides what has happened. It does not take much to imagine that there might be millions of girls out there suffering from the same abuse and feeling helpless and powerless.

Thus, the novel takes up a very serious topic and hopefully some readers might recognize that what Willa is going through is far from acceptable and can find a way of seeking help if they are in need.

Salman Rushdie – The Golden House

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Salman Rusdie – The Golden House

When the new neighbours move in, René immediately declares them his object of study and protagonists of the film he is going to make. The Golden family are simply fascinating, the father Nero and his three sons Petya, Apu and D. Interestingly, all carry ancient Roman names even though they obviously come from India. There must be more they are hiding. Their male idyll is threatened when Vasilisa shows up, the father’s new Russian lover. When René’s parents die in an accident, the Goldens become his replacement family and he moves in with them which gives him the opportunity to study them from much closer. The more time he spends with them, the more secrets are revealed and finally, he himself becomes a part of the family secret. Yet, the past the Goldens wanted to flee from catches up and they have to pay for what they thought they could leave behind them.

Salman Rushdie is well known for his politically loaded novels which never go unnoticed. Again, his latest novel puts the finger in a wound, this time the American and the question which played a major role in the 2016 presidential election: who is a true American and what makes you and American? Apart from this, in “The Golden House” the supervillain The Joker wins the election which is not very promising for the nation.

Even though there is an obvious political message, this hides behind the family story of the Goldens. Here, unfortunately, I had expected much more. Admittedly, the four men are drawn with noteworthy features and fates and to follow their struggles after settling in the USA is far from uninteresting, but it also is not as fascinating and remarkable as I had expected. It is the chronicles of an immigration family, not less, but also not more. Their numerous secrets can create some suspense, however, much of it is too obvious to really excite.

Where Salman Rushdie can definitely score is in the side notes:

True is such a twentieth-century concept. The question is, can I get you to believe it, can I get it repeated enough times to make it as good as true. The question is, can I lie better than the truth.“ (Pos. 3380) and

“You need to become post-factual. – Is that the same as fictional? – Fiction is élite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information-age, troll generated. It’s what people want. “(Pos. 3390)

These are the times we are living in. Truth is created by the ruling classes and repeated as often as necessary until the people believe it. It is even better than fiction. This should definitely make us think about our consumption of media and question the producers of the news.

I appreciate Rushdie’s capacity of formulating to the point, the masses of references to novels and films are also quite enticing, at least they show that Rushdie himself in fully immersed in the western culture, but, nevertheless, I missed something really captivating in the novel. It was somehow pleasant to read, but not as remarkable as expected.