Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

Lawrence Osborne – The Glass Kingdom

What could be a good place to hide for some time? Bangkok it is Sarah resolves after she has stolen $200.000 from her former employer in New York. In the anonymous building “The Kingdom” she hopes to spend some weeks alone to have the situation cool down. Soon, she gets to know some other tenants, Mali, a half-Thai girl whom Sarah can never fully grasp. And there is the Chilean Ximena, a chef who dreams of her own restaurant whereas Natalie lives the life of a rich wife and sees Bangkok only as a short stop before moving to a better place. Even though most of the people keep to themselves, secrets move fast within the walls of the glass skyscraper and it does not take too long for Sarah to rouse her neighbours’ suspicions and interest.

I have been a huge fan of Lawrence Osborne’s novels for some years. Not only do his settings vary enormously – Morocco, Greece, Mexico, now Thailand – but he also creates highly interesting characters whom he confronts with challenging situations they, on the one hand, provoked themselves but which, on the other, unexpectedly get highly complicated without an actual good way out. Thus, he brings out the worst of human nature.

At first, Sarah seems a bit lost and you feel sympathy for her, but just until you learn which reckless behaviour brought her to the strange house. Yet, only for a short time do those negative feelings towards the protagonist linger since you soon realise that she is too naive and trusting for the world she entered. All other characters behave highly suspiciously and it is obvious that the young American will easily fall prey to them even though they are all quite diverse and aim at different things, whom their victim will be is more than obvious.

Just as the outer world is shaken by a political turmoil, also the inner world of The Kingdom seems to crumble. Decision have to be made and options have to be weighed quickly. Cleverly, Osborne builds increasing suspense and shows those sides of human character you never wanted to see. Threats appear from all corners, even the most unexpected, all heading to a highly tragic end.

Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.

Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

jo-spain-six-wicked-reasons
Jo Spain – Six Wicked Reasons

When the long lost son returns after ten years without a word, Frazer Lattimer calls his six children for a family reunion. It is only reluctantly that they return to the family villa in Spanish Cove, all of them had a good reason for leaving. Yet, Adam‘s unexpected knock on the door when they all thought him dead makes them change their mind. However, from the very first minute, underlying suspicions and open hatred dominate the atmosphere and their anger escalates on a boat trip when one of them kills their father. None of them is innocent, but who really hated the old man that much that he or she could kill him?

Jo Spain‘s mystery is a highly suspenseful murder investigation combined with the psychological analysis of a family which is dominated by secrets and lies. Six children with six different fates, a controlling father and a mother who died from the grief over her lost son – there is a lot to discover under the surface of the successful and rich Lattimer clan.

I highly adored how Jo Spain slowly unfolds the secrets around each of the now grown up children. Starting with the murder of their old father, you are highly alert when hearing all their different stories, looking for motives that could lead them so far. The author created individuals who all have their flaws and weaknesses that they try to hide but which ultimately have to come out, so in every new chapter, you have something totally unexpected come to the light adding to the picture of this young and pitiable generation.

Suspense rises slowly the better you get to know the family members and yet, the conspiracy and murder nevertheless came as a surprise to me since it was brilliantly set up and convincingly motivated. A great read in every respect.

Tanen Jones – The Better Liar

tanen-jones-the-better-liar
Tanen Jones – The Better Liar

When her father dies, he leaves a wish in his will that Leslie Flores hasn’t expected: she will only inherit the money if her sister Robin also signs the papers. So she sets out for Las Vegas where Robin is supposed to live. They haven’t talked for a decade and Leslie is all but looking forward to do so now. But when she finally arrives at her sister’s apartment, she finds her dead and apparently, Robin has lived there under a false name. When Leslie makes the acquaintance of young charismatic Mary who dreams of a career as an actress, an idea forms in her head: why not take the woman with her back to Albuquerque and have her play Robin’s role for a couple of days? Nobody has seen her sister for ten years and Mary has some clear resemblance to Robin, so why should anybody become suspicious? It’s is a win-win situation, Mary could take her share of the money and make her start in Hollywood and Leslie would get her part of her father’s inheritance. Mary agrees but soon she realises that the respectable wife and mother also has some secrets she hides.

Tanen Jones’s “The Better Liar” is a highly surprising psychological novel with many unexpected twists and turns. The two protagonists develop from average women into enemies who fight their war on a very high emotional and psychological level. The story is told alternately from their different points of you, thus the reader is always aware of their respective plots and ahead of each character – at least you believe you are, but at certain point you also have to recognise that there are some highly relevant pieces of information they did not reveal to you and this makes things appear in a totally different light.

The novel starts at a rather slow pace with Leslie looking out for her sister and then finding her dead and seeing her father’s money in jeopardy. You wonder why she would take a stranger to her house, especially a house with a very young kid – this seems to be too dangerous, just for the money? Why does she need it, seemingly, she and her husband lead quite a good life. This and the question if she really succeeds with presenting a stranger as her sister seem to be the mystery of the novel, yet, with Mary’s arrival in Albuquerque, the real story slowly unfolds and the plot takes up pace and becomes much more dynamic and gripping.

Tanen Jones wonderfully leads the reader into wrong directions over and over again which I liked a lot. I totally adored how the two women play with each other and was eagerly awaiting the end to see who would finally win their very special game. Yet, some twists lacked a bit plausibility, but from a psychological point of view, a great read.

J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

jt-ellison-good-girls-lie
J.T. Ellison – Good Girls Lie

The Goode School will be the perfect place to leave her old life behind. Ash Carlisle has just lost both her parents and is now happy to flee to Marchburg, Virginia, to concentrate on school and forget what happened in Oxford. However, her fellow schoolmates do not like secrets and eye her suspiciously, it is obvious that the newcomer has some interesting things to tell them and this exclusive all-girls school has its own rules that have to be followed. When Ash is exposed and her roommate found dead, her carefully set up facade is threatened to crumble and reveal the real person she so hard tried to hide.

J.T. Ellison has chosen the perfect setting for a mysterious story where everybody has some well-hidden secrets: the old buildings of the élite private school provide the characters with tunnels and undisclosed rooms, a history of secret societies with old passed down hazings and rules that bind the girls, rumours about suspicious deaths and a headmistress with her very own agenda. It all adds up to a thrilling atmosphere where the protagonist herself offers only shady bits and pieces of her own story so that you are well alert not to trust any of them.

I really adored J.T. Ellison’s style of writing, the author brilliantly creates suspense by only hinting at what happened back in England and by insinuating that there is much more to know about Ash. It only takes a couple of pages to dive into the atmosphere of this elite school and its very own rules that seem to have a long history and make the girls bond immediately.

Admittedly, there were some aspects I found not totally convincing, e.g. 16-year-olds acting and plotting like adults, the detective providing the girls with core information about one of the deceased, another detective investigating such a delicate case even though she has been suspended or the headmistress’s behaviour which equals much more the girls’ than would be considered adequate for her position. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and the mystery surrounding the characters.

Emma Rous – The Au Pair

emma-rpus-the-aupair
Emma Rous – The Au Pair

After her beloved father has died, Seraphine Mayes digs into her family’s history. When she finds a photograph of her mother, her older brother Edwin and one baby, she is astonished: it must have been taken on the day of her birth, but which one is the baby? Seraphine or her twin brother Danny? And why does the mother look so happy, only hours before she committed suicide? The photo must have been taken by the au pair who was then looking for Edwin, a certain Laura. When the young woman starts her search for the former babysitter, memories of rumours surrounding her family home Summerbourne also come back to her mind: why did everybody in the small village always say that twins do not survive in that house? When Seraphine tracks down Laura and tries to contact her, she inadvertently sets in motion a series of events.

Emma Rous’ mystery starts as a simply family story and then develops into a suspenseful crime novel. The story is told alternatingly between Seraphine’s search for Laura and the latter’s experiences as an au pair 25 years before. Two young women full of distress who cannot foresee what they run into. The plot is carefully crafted and to sort out the complex connections takes some time thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

“The Au Pair” clearly lives on the two protagonists. I liked both of them dearly, Seraphine’s stubbornness is quite convincing, she does not give up even when being threatened, actually this only spurs her curiosity and fervour to uncover the events surrounding her birth. On the other hand, Laura had to flee from her evil stepfather and tries to regain control over her life. Both women are created multifacetedly, especially their relationships are complicated which makes them authentic and believable. Apart from the characters, I especially liked the atmosphere of the novel and the spooky tales that circle around the two family homes which give you the impression of old gothic homes which have some secrets buried that are never meant to come to the light.

Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

rachel-rhys-fatal-inheritance
Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

England, 1948. When Eve Forrester is informed that a certain Guy Lester has mentioned her in his last will, she cannot make any sense of it. Her husband is not very happy about the news, especially since it means his wife will have to travel to southern France to attend the opening of the will alone since he cannot leave work. Mr Lester’s notary Bernard informs the unhappy housewife that she together with Guy’s three children is the heir of a Villa in Cap d’Antibes. None of them is very happy about this, especially since nobody understands how Eve relates to the rich and famous of the Côte d’Azur. Eve prolongs her stay there to find out what had happened and it is obvious from the start that there must be a link to her mother who refuses to talk. The longer she stays and the more she mingles with her new acquaintances, amongst them a famous film star, the farer away Eve gets from her old life. But still, what was Guy Lester’s motivation, what is the secret that had been kept hidden for so long?

Rachel Rhys’ historical novel is the absolutely perfect summer read. Escaping the heat to the south of France to a time long ago and a gorgeous place with villas and parties and people living a life which you don’t find anymore. Added to this, the story comes with a certain mystery which slowly unfolds and finally bursts with a big bang.

First of all, I really liked the protagonist Eve. She is quite a lovable, modest young woman who is fascinated and appalled by what she sees at the Riviera at the same time. The peoples’ lifestyle is so far from her own life that she never really adapts and sticks to her own values and convictions. Even though she is greeted with a lot of hostility and rejection, she doesn’t forget her upbringing and manners. Just like at home, she feels a bit lonely and forlorn which make the reader stay on her side and support her against all the rest. The longer she is away from her husband, the more confident and independent she grows and I really appreciated the woman we see at the end of the novel.

The mystery was also very well played. It is all but obvious what had happened in England long time ago and the small pieces of information you get, just refuse to fall into place. It’s a riddle which takes the complete novel to be solved but when all is finally revealed, it makes perfectly sense and puts everything in a completely new picture.

All in all, an absolute joy to read and to indulge in on a hot summer day.

Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

bina-shah-before-she-sleeps
Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

A virus has seriously affected human population. Even though men and women get infected equally, it is only deadly for the later with the consequence that the number of female citizens has drastically been diminished. Thus, in Green City, women are assigned several husbands and closely monitored to keep the number of children born as high as possible. This is the single task for them and there is no alternative to functioning as a kind of human breeder. But some women just don’t want to comply with the assigned role and a kind of secret underground community has been formed known as the Panah. To keep their group alive, the women offer a service which is not provided by the wives anymore: non-sexual companionship. Sabine is one of the women living underground, but when she collapses on the street after visiting a client, the whole community is threatened to be revealed.

Bina Shah, a Pakistani writer, columnist and blogger who has published several novels and short story collections has created quite an interesting feminist dystopian novel with “Before She Sleeps”. Since Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been talked about a lot in the last couple of months, it is quite natural to compare the two pieces of work since they belong to the same genre. In my opinion, Shah does not have to hide from the great Mrs Atwood.

What I found the strongest in the novel was the picture of the society highly affected by a drastically decreased number of women. On the one hand, they are worshipped since they are the only ones who can cater for an increase in population, on the other, they easily become the victims of rape and male outrage due to the non-fulfilled sexual needs. They are regarded not as equal human beings but in terms of their functionality and thus severely reduced in their significance as humans. Both, men and women, have no say when it comes to the choice of a partner. From a political point of view, this makes sense, but it is obvious that it doesn’t actually support social rest and satisfaction or content. What the new society lacks most seems to be compassion and emotion, this is only visible in the women living underground.

I also liked the protagonist Sabine. Her motivation for fleeing for her duty as a woman is well motivated and her family story comprehensibly portrayed. Also her state of mind and how she is betrayed by a man whom she trusted to a certain extent and the effect the abuse has on her psychologically seemed to me quite authentic and believable.

All in all, an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about women’s rights and the way they are treated by men.