Catherine Ryan Howard – Rewind

catherine-ryan-howard-rewind
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.

Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

Livia-Franchini-Shelf-Life
Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

After ten years together, Ruth finds herself suddenly alone. Neil has left and all that her life consists of now is her work as a nurse in an old people’s home and shopping groceries at the small Tesco close to her flat. How did she get here? First, the escape of her ill-willed mother, then her friend Alanna whom she met in nursery school and with whom she still works together, the different patients and their respective needs, and Neil whom she despite all the time together seems to have hardly known.

Shelf Life – a. the period during which a good remains effective and free from deterioration. B. the period for which an idea or piece of information is considered an advantage over the competitor.

Still after having finished reading the novel, I wonder about the link between the title and the plot. Yes, the groceries Ruth buys somehow play a prominent role since they provide the titles for the different chapters. But beyond this? So what else could the title refer to? The time the main character is considered young – might be, but Ruth is beyond this discussion and her age is of no importance. Even as a young girl she wasn’t actually judged pretty or attractive. An innovative idea or piece of information is also something I didn’t find.

Thus, just as the titles leaves me a bit perplex, the whole story only slightly touched me. There is some red thread, basically between Alanna and Ruth, which is a bit strange since her relationship and breakup with Neil somehow nevertheless make up the centre of the plot around which everything revolves.

I liked Livia Fanchini’s style of writing and I am sure she can tell an interesting story, but somehow “Shelf Life” confused me much more than it made sense. Her characters are definitely interesting in their very peculiar manners, but somehow it all seemed not fully developed to me.

Scott Johnston – Campusland

scott-johnston-campusland
Scott Johnston – Campusland

Devon is a small New England campus where things run at their unhurried pace as they always have. Eph Russell has been teaching English literature for quite some time and also this winter’s course seems to like him and his way of addressing the 19th century classics. When a minor incident in his classroom occurs – a student claiming trigger warning as Mark Twain uses offensive language in her view – suddenly, Eph’s world crumbles and things fall totally apart. Before the term is over, minority groups have gotten the upper hand on campus accusing staff of racism, sexism and all other kinds of –isms that can be found. Plus, Eph is at the centre of the revolt accused not only of being a white supremacist due to his reading of books written by white men but also of having assaulted and violated one of his students. This student however, Lulu, sees a chance of gaining her fifteen minutes of fame and she is determined not to let this chance pass by.

Scott Johnston’s debut novel surely will not remain without any effect on the reader, in fact, it provokes strong emotions ranging from aversion to frustration, from laughing out loud to total desperation. It is hilarious at times and oftentimes simply infuriates you, most of all because you can imagine all the plot to be totally true. It is a chain of events set in motion, not even intentionally, but unstoppable and the way the characters react to it is more than authentic.

There are many noteworthy and controversial aspects in this highly entertaining novel. First of all, the debate of “trigger warnings” in university that has been going on for some time. Wrapping students up in cotton wool in order not to confront them with reality has been an attitude that I always struggled with. Especially when it comes to literature which reflects the time of its origin, this is hard to understand. Therefore, the beginning of the novel when Eph Russell is accused of only reading white men – who else was there to be published in this period? – this is merely funny and can be dismissed as stupid somehow. The next step is the discussion of which gender somebody identifies himself/herself – or as in the novel: themselves. It goes without saying that LGBTI rights are a great achievement and that minorities should be respected in the same way as majorities. Yet, accusing somebody of misogyny because he is holding the door open definitely ridicules the earnest cause – unfortunately, this is all too real in a strange understanding of feminism and the like and something one sees quite often.

The most striking point is surely Russell’s accusation of sexual assault. Without any doubt, the way the female characters in the novel act is not only convincing, but seems totally authentic. Putting unrelated aspects in a certain context, interpreting them along one single line of interpretation and thus narrating a coherent story that fits well in the world view one has – this can destroy a perfectly innocent life. When you read what happens to the professor, you cannot believe it, yet, you see how the mechanisms work and how Russell cannot do anything about it.

I am sure some reader might find “Campusland” offensive, yet, in my opinion, the way the author satirizes and exaggerates is necessary to put straight some positions that somehow went a bit too far or have taken questionable developments. For me, it was a fantastic read and I would surely say that this is one of the most relevant literary contributions to a lot of current discussions – and, on top, it is wonderfully narrated.

Steve Cavanagh – TH1RT3EN

Steve-Cavanagh - Thirteen
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.

Laura Lippman –Lady in the Lake

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Laura Lippman –Lady in the Lake

Just one evening with an old school friend and Maddie’s life is not what it was anymore. Her life with her husband Milton and their son Seth simply isn’t what she wants anymore and so she makes a courageous decision for the year 1966: she leaves. Now completely on her own, she wants to make real another dream: becoming a journalist and when she, by pure chance, comes across the body of a young girl and soon after again of a woman, she seizes the opportunity of her first contact with the press. It is especially the second case of the “Lady in the Lake” as she was named that turns in her mind. Nobody seems to be really care about who murdered Cleo Sherwood, just because Cleo was black. Maddie knows that there must be a story behind it and that this can be her chance to really become a reporter.

Laura Lippman’s novel is one of the most talked about books of 2019 and it only takes a couple of pages to understand why all this praise is more than justified. “Lady in the Lake” is the perfect combination of a crime novel and the story of a woman who follows her will and is brave enough to do this against all societal conventions. The setting is all but favourable for such an undertaking and Lippman’s lively portrait of Baltimore of the 1960s underlines with which severe consequences such an attitude came in these days.

The most outstanding aspect of the novel is surely the protagonist. Maddie Schwartz is the perfect Jewish housewife – until she isn’t anymore. She remembers the young woman she once was, surely a bit stubborn, but to put it positively: she knew what she wanted and she got it. So why should she be pleased with the second best life? She definitely is a bit naive, but her sympathetic authenticity is the key to the people and this makes her story convincing and plausible. Times were harsh, above all for black people and the novel gives a good impression of what this meant in everyday life. It is not an open accusation of segregation and the different kind of treatment of people of colour or even a political statement, but simply a fact and thus an integral part of what the characters experience.

I also liked the constant change of perspective and how Lippman integrated different points of view which also gives a good idea of someone like Maddie was perceived in her time. This also make the narrative lively and varied. I had some high expectations due to the masses of admiring reviews I had read, but nevertheless, the novel surpassed them easily.

Max Manning – The Victim

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Max Manning – The Victim

When one evening Gem Golding stops at a drugstore to get some pain killers, a man approaches her and tries to hijack her car. He obviously has a knife, but she never wanted to become a victim. So she has to make a choice quickly: either give in, surrender to him and the situation or fight for her life. Depending on how she decides, her life will take different turns. Gem will either be the fighter or the victim.

Max Manning’s thriller is an interesting play with how the options presented to us and the decisions made have a huge impact on what follows. He continues the story by narrating the two outcomes in a paralleled line, showing the result of each of Gem’s choice and the consequences that necessarily come with it: the psychological effect the decision has on her but also on her husband Drew, her relationship with him, but also her career in PR which forces her to work late hours.

Both sides are convincing in their own way and both stories have their appeal. Yet, admittedly, I got frequently confused which annoyed me a lot. It took some time until I had figured out the concept but until that I was wondering if I could really have misunderstood so much. A different font or the like might have helped a lot. There were some interesting twists and turns, also the characters varied a lot depending on the story line which made it quite interesting and kept suspense high.

An utterly singular concept of dealing with a story, however, it did not fully work out for me which is a pity since I really appreciated the story itself and the writer’s style of writing.

J.P. Delaney – The Perfect Wife

jp-delaney-the-perfect-wife
J.P. Delaney – The Perfect Wife

Tim Scott, prodigy of Silicon Valley, has lost his wife and is since mourning. But he wouldn’t be one of the richest and most admired IT specialists if he wasn’t the one with visions. And now his dream has come true: a cobot, perfect replica of his wife Abbie, lookalike and fed with memories of former wife’s life. As soon as the public becomes aware of this technological milestone, strong opinions collide: how do you treat a robot who looks, speaks and behaves like a human? Who do Abbie’s memories belong to? And why would someone prefer to live with a machine if he could have any woman in the country? For Tim the last question is easy to answer, but this is something he would never tell the public or his new partner. He mission is far bigger than just building a perfect copy of Abbie.

“The Perfect Wife” is a stunning combination of science-fiction novel and thriller. I especially appreciated the perspective taken: together with recently awaken cobot Abbie, we learn our way around the world of Tim Scott and only bit by bit gain knowledge about the seemingly perfect marriage he and Abbie had. There is a second voice adding information somehow from the inside Tim’s company, yet it takes until the very end to understand where this voice comes from. Many unexpected twists and turns keep suspense high and the more the action advances, the more you ask yourself what your position is when it comes to artificial intelligence.

Creating the perfect partner has been mankind’s dream forever, already in the old Greek tales you find the example of Pygmalion and throughout our history, this has always been a vision. Now, our technical knowledge and the means seem at a point where this could be possible. I found JP Delaney’s idea quite realistic and not too far-fetched after all. Machine learning has been around for a couple of years now and more and more humanoid robots inhabit our world. We even talk to them as if they were humans and Siri, Alexa and the like have become a normal part of our life.

There is another aspect I found particularly interesting: Tim’s and Abbie’s son was diagnosed with autism and the cobot seems to be much more capable of understanding his ways of communication than human beings. They share some similarities in how their programming/brains work which leads me to wonder if with the help of machines, we could facilitate life for many people suffering from this or similar disorders.

All in all, a suspenseful thriller which raises the most relevant questions of our time and surely mirrors our human hubris. Something we definitely must reconsider.

Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

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Colson Whitehead – The Nickel Boys

Elwood Curtis has done everything right: he is diligent, reliable in his after school job and he eagerly follows this charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King. When his teacher recognizes his intellect and promising future, he helps him to attend college courses. Yet, fate didn’t want his life to turn out like this and being black even after the Jim Crow laws meant that there are certain roads not to be travelled. Thus, instead of learning for college, Elwood find himself in Nickel Academy, a juvenile detention centre. He doesn’t fit in the group of delinquent and illiterate boys but he has to be what the supervisors see in him and either he plays by the rules or he gets to know the other side of Nickel, the one that is hidden and buried and will only be excavated half a century later.

“The Nickel Boys” undoubtedly is one of the most awaited novels of 2019. After his tremendous success with “Underground Railroad” and winning the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, expectations ran high for his next book and there is no denying: Colson Whitehead surpassed what I had anticipated. Another tragic story that needed to be told, narrated in a gripping and heart-breaking way that leaves emotionally exhausted.

Institutions like Nickel Academy were a reality not only in the US but also in Europe. Establishment for boys whom nobody cared for or missed were the ideal place for abuse and maltreatment of every kind and where, under the disguise of pedagogy and good-will, the most horrible atrocities took place. It is not only the fact of bringing this piece of eagerly forgotten history back to our mind why Whitehead’s novel is so important and relevant, first and foremost, he masterly narrates how a young boy could become an innocent victim of the circumstances without the least hope of every getting justice or at least an apology for the wrong that has been done to him.

Apart from this, this story – even though it is fictitious – underlines that it takes people who stand up for their ideals, who endure hardship and injustice in order to make a change. We can see these people in the news every day and all of them deserve our support. Taking into consideration the current state of the world, we surely need more Elwoods who fearlessly fight for the right cause.

Hank Green – An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

hank-green-an-absolutely-remarkable-thing
Hank Green – An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

When April May leaves the office totally exhausted at 3am to return home, she comes across a surely true remarkable thing. She calls her friend Andy to meet her and to bring his camera so that they could film this big sculpture which suddenly was just there in the middle of New York City. April names it Carl and Andy uploads their short video to YouTube. What both of them do not have the least premonition of at that moment is what happens afterwards. All over the world, Carls have appeared, but New York’s one is considered the first and April May somehow the connection to these strange and unmovable figures. This could be the story, but not in our times anymore because the internet is yearning for idols, for people to worship and follow and April May has become exactly that. She is not the 23-year-old design student anymore, a brand replaces her personality and obviously, for the Carls, she is the human being to communicate with.

Hank Green knows what he is talking about in making the internet and different social media platforms the centre of his debut novel since he himself has become famous as a video blogger and with different web projects. “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” is often classified as a science-fiction novel, I would like to disagree here because there is not much that isn’t real today in it. Just the one aspect, aliens making contact, yet the rest of far from being futuristic and imaginative but all too real.

No matter which genre you assign the book to, it is a great read that offers food for thought on several levels. Normally, I prefer novels with realistic settings and plots that create the impression of authenticity. Well, this is not really the case here with those Carls showing up unexpectedly. Yet, I was immediately hooked and couldn’t put it down anymore. April May – I have to say it here: did I ever come across a protagonist with a more ridiculous name? I don’t think so – is quite an interesting character since, on the one hand, she surely is a bit naive or at least does not anticipate the extent of her doings. On the other hand, she seems to be quite natural and acts on impulse which I liked at lot since it made it easy to sympathise with her in a certain way. Her development from young woman to brand is remarkable and gives you a great idea of media and internet dynamics; I also liked the marketing background coming with it which was masterly integrated into the novel.

I you ever wanted to explain to anybody how the internet community works and what the advantages and dangers of social media are, just hand over this novel. I think it is a wonderful example of today’s communication mechanisms and of how nobody can control these processes anymore once set in motion. The internet is not a separate space any longer where you can have something like a second life, it has become a part of our real life and certainly has an impact on what happens in the real world nowadays. It is flattering that Green makes his alien believe that there is some clever and beautiful life on earth, yet, for me the more important message to take from the book was certainly the question of how we can synergise those two worlds that we are living in without forgetting who we are when creating ourselves.

In several respects a great read that could have an important impact and make us readers ponder about our behaviour.

Wendy Clarke – We Were Sisters

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Wendy Clarke – We Were Sisters

Kelly’s childhood was all but easy. Her father was never at home and her mother didn’t care about her at all, her whole focus was on the foster children who came and went off again. When Kelly was eight, she was promised a sister, this time to stay with them forever. Freya, two years her senior, turned out to be a very headstrong and reckless girl who soon took over control and manipulated Kelly’s mum. This is why Kelly was not too sad when she did not return after a stay at a hospital. Yet, a couple of years later, Freya is back, but now, Kelly is older and not the weak girl who puts up with everything anymore. However, all these are stories of the past, by now, Kelly has a loving husband and three wonderful kids. But, when strange things start to happen, Kelly is unsure whether to blame the lack of sleep or if she is reading the signs correctly. Is Freya back? But she saw her die, this cannot be, can it?

Wendy Clarke’s thriller “We were sisters” keeps the reader a long time in the dark. The story is narrated at two periods of time, on the one hand, the adult Kelly who tries to cope with three children and the constant fear that something from the past might endanger her lucky little family; on the other hand, her memories of the past, the disturbed family she grew up in and the encounter with her foster sister Freya. Thus, it takes some time to sort out what happened and to form an idea of what the signs she sees might mean actually. The author, however, has to offer some twists and turns which come quite unexpectedly.

I adore those stories where there is a creepy feeling that there is a threat coming from somewhere without the characters knowing where to look for it. I was really surprised by the ending as it all turns out quite differently from what I had in mind – brilliantly done. Nevertheless, even though it all makes totally sense, I had the impression that it was a bit too much. Also Kelly’s relationship – or rather: non-relationship – with her parents seemed a bit exaggerated to me, just as her feeling of being threatened without a real reason before all the strange things started to happen. Yet, I enjoyed Wendy Clarke’s writing a lot, she certainly knows how to keep you hooked.