William Shaw – Grave’s End

william shaw graves end
William Shaw – Grave’s End

An unoccupied house which is for sale becomes a crime scene when a body is found in a freezer. This is just the first of a couple of bodies that DS Alexandra Cupidi has to deal with. They do not seem to be connected in any way, but the deeper she digs, the more apparent it becomes that all is somehow linked to the housing project September Homes which causes fierce protests among locals. One of them is the victim in the freezer, Vincent Gibbons, who had been observing badgers in the area and feared that the new houses would kill them or drive them away. Alex Cupidi’s daughter Zoë and their neighbour and ex policeman Bill South also protest against the destruction of the habitat, but quite soon, all three of them have to realise that powerful enemies are willing to do everything to stop them from interfering with the project.

The third instalment of the DS Alexandra Cupidi series so far is the best in my opinion. A single body with no obvious links to anything is the starting point of a highly complex murder investigation which expands from chapter to chapter. What I totally adored were the chapters the old badger is given a voice, thus, the topic of building houses without considering the impact on wildlife becomes a lot more important and interesting and one can only agree with the badger when it concludes, “People stink.”

The plot is perfectly crafted, first moving at a slower pace but then accelerating and also raising suspense. The connections between the different dots are all but obvious and it was a great fun puzzling over it. In the end, the case is solved without leaving any questions unanswered. What I liked most this time was how the characters developed, especially the relationship between Alexandra and her daughter. Bill also becomes more and more a close friend of the two while remaining a bit stubborn but he has the heart in the right place. Alexandra’s partner Jill also becomes more remarkable providing just glimpses of her past where a lot seems to remain to be uncovered.

A series which I absolutely adore and would like to read more of.

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

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Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

He hit her. Again. But this time, she cannot hide it under her clothes, her eye is visible to everybody in school and therefore Maya goes forward to their principal and tells her what Mike Parker, everybody’s darling and sports superstar, has done. Even though it is quite obvious and Maya has no reason to lie, questions like “maybe she provoked him?” and “maybe it was just an accident?” blame her for being the victim. The school is divided and so are the friends. Yet, not only Maya goes through a hard time, her formerly best friend Juniper does so, too, apart from feeling ashamed for not having been the friend Maya would have needed, her break-up with Tess combined with her psychological struggles already keep her mind busy. But this is something that needs action and that’s what Juniper’s parents educated her for: standing up for those who are in need.

I was immediately hooked by Alyssa Sheinmel’s novel, she brilliantly captivates Maya’s thoughts which oscillate between not wanting to be the victim but speaking out for her rights and being strong on the one hand, and feeling insecure about what happened, questioning herself, her own contribution to bringing her boyfriend so far as to hit her again and again on the other. She is young and even though she knows exactly what is right and what is wrong, emotions are not that easy and rarely only black and white.

Providing different perspectives also adds to underline the complexity of a topic which seems so easy to make an opinion about. At first, however, I was a bit confused by the headlines of the chapters which introduce the respective character talking, I first assumed that wide range of girls would be presented until I realised that it is just the two of them perceiving themselves in different roles depending on their mood.

Unfortunately, after a great start, the novel lost focus a bit for my liking. Of course, it is only natural that all teenagers have their own struggles, that none of them really lives a carefree life where all is perfect. Yet, it was a bit too much here: Maya and the violence, Juniper cutting herself and suffering from OCD, drugs abuse – adding too many big topics quite naturally lead to a very shallow and superficial treatment of all of them. Not only did the author miss the chance to provide some insight in the psychological background of each, she treats them like some small bruise that can easily be overcome by just being friends again with your BFF. Simply focussing on Maya and Juniper also did not seize the extent of such an accusation and what it really does to a small community like a school.

Nevertheless, a great read that I enjoyed and which provides some food for thought.

David Owen – All The Lonely People

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David Owen  – All The Lonely People

The last strike by the anonymous bullying group really hit Kat hard. She was never the popular girl with many friends, but at least online she could be the person she saw in herself, but now, that is taken away from her and she just wants to vanish, fade away. Her wish is granted, slowly her body becomes translucent, only Safa, sharing the same fate can see her. She quickly finds out that there are others, not just people who would like to be someone different and forget their old life and be forgotten, but people who actually faded away. However, there is still one thing she needs to do on earth: the bullies have found another target and she must stop them and therefore collaborate with one of them.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really thinking that the act of vanishing in the novel was meant “real”, yet, this unrealistic aspect is the only thing I wasn’t completely happy with. Apart from this, David Owen has really captured the emotions of teenager who feel like they don’t fit in, that they cannot lead the life they would like to have and the hardship of going to school and being exposed to the attacks of bullies.

I found both protagonists – Kat as the good, pitiable girl and Wesley who first seems to be her enemy but then turns out to be in a comparable situation – strong characters for the novel. They are easy to relate to and the problems they face are things most pupils might know from their everyday life. The novel also had some suspense that kept you read on and it surely made you think of how you treat your family members and how attentive you are concerning the people around you that you never really see.

All in all, I liked it and would surely recommend it to young people who are searching for their identity and place in the world.

Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

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Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

Mischa Abramavicious is the perfect student: she has all the grades it needs to get into the best colleges, her list of extracurricular activities is impressive and her single-parent mom will be proud of her. But on Admission Day, she only gets rejections. None of the schools has admitted her, not even the local safety college. But how come? Mischa doesn’t dare to tell her mother but starts investigating instead. Together of the Ophelia Club, a bunch of tech-wise girls of her school, and her friend Nate, they discover that marks and letter of recommendation have been changed – but why, and especially: be whom?

“We Regret to Inform You” is a well-written novel about today’s teenagers and the pressure they are under. Only when the whole world falls apart for Mischa does she realize that she actually has no hobbies, not even an interest but that she has spent the last for years only working for her résumé and to fulfil her mother’s expectations. The later, too, also put much in her daughter’s future, invested money she didn’t have to get her into an expensive private school which promised the best starting point for an Ivy League University.

I really liked Ariel Kaplan’s style of writing. Even though a major catastrophe is happening to the protagonist, the novel is not really depressing but quite entertaining since there are many comic situations and ironic dialogues. The novel concentrates on the positive side which I liked a lot, Mischa doesn’t give up, but her focus shifts and she finally gets to understand herself better. She makes the best of it and fights for her rights – but not at the expense of everything else. So, it still is a young adult novel even though there are some underlying very serious issues.

Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

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Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

Five students of Bayview High School have to go to detention for having a cell phone with them. They all swear that the mobiles do not belong to them and that they don’t have the least idea how they ended up in their backpacks. Bronwyn, the perfect student with a flawless record and surely a place at one of the Ivy League colleges; Nate, the constant loser who is currently on probation for drug dealing; Cooper, a promising baseball player; Addy, the girlfriend of one Bayview High’s most wanted boys; and Simon, on the one hand an outsider, on the other the creator and head behind the school’s gossip app who seems to know all the secrets of his class mates. Just a couple of minutes later, Simon is dead and the four remaining students are the prime suspects. Actually, all of them have something to hide as the police soon finds out and their secrets might have lead each single student to murder. They all plead innocent, but apparently one of them must be lying.

I really enjoyed this combination of young adult with crime novel. Karen McManus’ four protagonists are interestingly drawn, very singular characters which – of course – show some stereotypical features but which I think is normal for their age where you try to play some role and fit in. The author plays with the reader in bit by bit revealing more about the teenagers and their individual flaws and weaknesses. I did not really expect all of them having these secrets which, in fact, are everything but harmless and could really destroy their lives – well, that’s what happens when they are a finally revealed.

I liked the arc of suspense a lot. First of all, there has been a murder quite at the beginning of the story and of course you want to know who committed the crime. But then, all protagonists one after the other tell you that they have something to hide without immediately illuminating you. So apart from the search for the murderer, there is much more you want to find out and which makes you keep on reading.

For me, “One of US is Lying” can easily equal novels such as Jay Ashers “Thirteen Reasons Why”, Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” or E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars”.