Jo Baker – The Body Lies

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Jo Baker – The Body Lies

After having been assaulted on her way home a couple of years before, a young writer never feels secure in her London house anymore. When she is offered a job by a remote university, this could not only solve the small family’s financial problems but also bring her away from the bad memories. She is supposed to take over a creative writing course and soon figures out that she is completely left alone since her colleague who was supposed to mentor her is on a leave. The trimester starts slowly but she gets along well with her students even though they seem to be quite unique. When they read out their first writing attempts, the situation becomes complicated since one of them, Nicholas Baker, insists on only telling the truth and not inventing anything which is not taken very well by his fellow students. As the time advances, the professor feels more and more uncomfortable around him and his texts as they become increasingly more personal and Nicholas develops into a real stalker who is ready to turn his bizarre fantasies into reality making her the protagonist of his weird story.

“The Body Lies” is completely different form Jo Baker’s novel “Longbourn” which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago. Reading it was not easy at times since, due to her vivid style of writing, you can imagine the event narrated without any problem and some of the violence really gets under the skin. This is really a psychological thriller as you follow the invasion of the protagonist’s private life and you are not sure if there could actually be a happy ending.

What I liked most about the novel was that, apart from being suspenseful and entertaining as a psychological thriller, it also conveys an authentic picture of reality and an important message. The unnamed professor is exposed to violence and does not really have a chance to fight the men who assault her. Defending herself would have led to more injuries in the first case and in the second, she feels ashamed for what happened to her which, unfortunately, is quite common. But not only the physical violence hurts her, it is first and foremost the psychological threat that slowly hurts her and the fact that she has nobody to believe her version of the story makes it even worse. Sadly, I have no doubt that the story told could happen anywhere everyday.

A great read even though it is at times hard to support.

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.

Dominic Smith – The Electric Hotel

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Dominic Smith – The Electric Hotel

Claude Ballard is a legend in film making. Having started at the times of the brothers Lumière and the silent film, his „The Electric Hotel“ was a highly innovative masterpiece which is meant to have been lost for decades. Yet, when a student comes to interview Ballard about his life and work, he not only learns about the beginning of the moving pictures, but also makes an interesting discovery.

Dominic Smith’s novel is a must read for film lovers, at the example of Claude Ballard who wanders the streets of Paris and New York of 1910 to capture real life through the lens, the history and development of the silent film is narrated. His only film – “The Electric Hotel” – could have been a great success, but times weren’t easy and so were the women, first and foremost Sabine Montrose the actress who had the main role in his film and his life.

The cinematic background is clearly well researched and also the times that the characters remember come to life vividly. Yet, I am not enough into cinema to really enjoy this intensive read and the characters were quite hard for me to relate to. I am sure that readers with more interest I the topic will find a lot more delight in the novel than I did.

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.

John Marrs – The Passengers

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John Marrs – The Passengers

“Who in their right mind would want to send someone to their death?”

Cadman read the tablet he held

“Approximately two hundred thousand people so far – and that’s based only on what’s trending on Twitter.”

When mental nurse Libby is called into a jury to decide on accidents caused by self-drive cars, she is astonished since she never kept her position on those a secret. Having witnessed an evil crash, she is absolutely against handing over control to AI. But she never expected the outcome of her jury session, nobody in there would ever have expected this. Soon after they started, the system is taken over by a Hacker claiming to have taken over eight self-drive cars and threatening to have them collide in two and a half hours. The jury has the chance to save one of them, should they not comply with his rules, he would immediately kill one after the other. But not only the jury would be there to judge, also the world outside could be part of the show and have their vote via social media. It’s the show of the year and the prize is high: it’s your life and you aren’t even asked if you want to take part in it.

John Marrs’ thriller really caught me by surprise and left a deep impression. Not only is the story masterly crafted with many unexpected twists and turns, no, it also mirrors our own behaviour in many different ways thus making you flinch at times because you recognise yourself and feel ashamed soon after. It surely is an absolute must-read for everybody using any kind of technology.

I hardly know where to begin with this novel. There are so many topics and layers that don’t make it easy to find a beginning. First of all, the setting of this evil game. Forcing people to make a decision over life and death is not just unfair, it is impossible. Yet, given no other way out, the jury has to come to a decision based on the information they have and only later do they find out that core aspects have been omitted which cast a completely different light on the person they have just sentenced to death. As a reader, you follow their verdict and often agree – running into the open knife just like they did. All passengers have something evil they hide, but the world isn’t simply black and white and only the whole picture provides you with what you would have needed to know before coming to a final decision. Too often we come to a conclusion fat too soon before we know all we should.

Second, the role of technology in our life surely should be questioned a lot more. The self-drive cars could definitely help to ease the situation in frequently gridlocked cities, on the other hand: what’s the price we pay for this? Providing more from the novel would spoil the fun, but as could be assumed, there is much more behind that we undeniably should think about before welcoming all technological advances. Also the role of social media should be seen a lot more critical than we do at the moment. Marrs goes so far as to give Twitter a vote – without anybody knowing who or what is behind it.

The protagonists also are very interesting in their own ways. Not just Libby, but also the passengers and of course Jack Larsson, the minister, are carefully drawn and offer a lot questionable traits of character.

I am totally flashed by this ambitious novel for which I am actually lacking the words to honour it.

Felicity McLean – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

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Felicity McLean – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

It’s been twenty years that Tikka Molloy fled her Australian home. Now that her sister is seriously ill, she returns not only to her family but also to a secret that the girls have kept for two decades. They have always been friends with the three van Apfel girls who just lived across the street, Cordelia, Hannah and Ruth were their closest friends that they confided in. And so did the Molloy girls. This is why they shared their plan of running away. But something went totally wrong. Tikka’s older sister Lauren was to go with them, but somehow they miss each other at their agreed meeting point and a few days after they ran away, only 8-year-old Ruth turned up again. Dead. Returning home brings back all the memories of the weeks before the van Apfel girls’ disappearance.

Felicity McLean’s novel mixes different topics and genres. On the one hand, it is a coming-of-age novel, the girls all have to face the fact that adults can be evil and that sometimes are not to be trusted. On the other hand, it is also a mystery novel, you don’t know what really happened, if the girls might still be alive. And it is a study in how to live with the knowledge that behaving in a different way in a certain situation might have made a big difference.

As other reviewers have pointed out before, yes, while reading you have the impression of having read it before. There are certain parallels to other novels such as “The Suicide Sisters” and much of the plot has been treated in similar ways before. Yet, I liked to read it anyway especially because McLean manages to convincingly get the tone of eleven-year-old Tikka who is at times naive but always good-hearted and well-meaning. A perfect beach read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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.

Will Wiles – Plume

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Will Wiles – Plume

A fire somewhere in London attracts the people’s attention. Where is it exactly? What is burning? Is it dangerous? But Jack Bick has other problems. His alcohol consumption is totally out of control which highly impacts his job as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. This has not gone unnoticed and his superiors virtually hold a pistol to his head: either he runs an interview with a real estate manager or he is out. Jack, instead, is highly fascinated by an author who hasn’t published anything for years. His sixth sense tells him that there is a story, but nobody wants to hear about it. Should he succumb or follow his instincts? Well, it’s not really a question for Bick and so a series of catastrophes starts-

I was totally hooked by the flap text which promised a novel about truth – personal truth, objective truth, journalistic truth and modern day London life. Well, yes, this is what it is about, but after a great start with the scene about the plume, the novel completely lost me. It had the impression that the plot did not advance but turn round itself all the time and the protagonist, whose addiction and sloppiness I highly detested, did not help either.

There were some great aspects, especially the question about creating reality and turning lies into facts. Also how real estate works in London and how ordinary tenants are treated just as objects you can make money with was certainly interesting. Yet, for me, the protagonist destroyed a lot and I had the impression that just as Jack Bick lost control of his life, the author also lost the red thread of the plot at times which made it hard to keep focused and go on reading for me.

Anthony Horowitz – The Sentence Is Death

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Anthony Horowitz – The Sentence Is Death

Why did he ever consent to write three books about Daniel Hawthorne? He can’t remember and now, there is another murder and he has to play the detective’s assistant and document to case to turn into a crime novel. Reluctantly, the narrator comes to the crime scene, but he is soon fascinated by the case. Richard Pryce, a well-known and respected lawyer, is found murdered in his house, killed by a bottle of 1982 Chateau Lafite worth thousands. On the wall, three greenish digits have been painted: 182. The number of suspects is remarkable, from the victim’s partner to his former clients – many might have wanted to see him dead. But who actually committed the crime?

After “The Word Is Murder”, this is the second instalment of this very unique crime series starring the author as narrator and the very peculiar former police detective Daniel Hawthorne who has his very own way of proceeding. Not to forget: again there are some very obvious hints to the number one crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not just Horowitz and Hawthorne as a comic version of Watson and Holmes, also the case bears close resemblance to some well-known cases of the private London detective.

The case was without any doubt cleverly constructed and is based on a very human vice. Signs everywhere lead to the murderer, yet, they have to be detected and read in the right way. The narrator is getting better in analysing crime scenes, yet this does not prevent him from coming to coherent, but unfortunately false conclusions. The character of Hawthorne has lost nothing of his peculiarity which made me enjoy reading about him and hating him at the same time. He strongly seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum with his massive lack of social competence. Most of all, however, I really relished Horowitz’s humour which accounts for most of the fun of the read.

A wonderful series with certainly a highly unique style of narration.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

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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.