J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

J. Courtney Sullivan – Friends and Strangers

After becoming mother for the first time, journalist and author Elizabeth agrees with her husband’s wish to leave busy New York for a quieter place closer to his parents. Yet, the new life does not really seem to fit to Elizabeth. She feels exhausted from the baby and finds it difficult to make friends in her new community, the other women seem to be happy with dull pseudo-occupations and spend their days gossiping. When she decides to hire a babysitter to gain some tome to work on her next novel, things change finally since she immediately bonds with Sam, an art student in her final year at the local college. Sam herself comes from a decent background and is fascinated by the woman who seems to get everything done easily, who has style and taste and has made an astonishing career. Despite the age gap they become friends, but there are things they just ignore which, however, become more and more apparent the better they get to know each other and when they need each other most, a gap opens which is unsurmountable.

I totally liked J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel from the start. Sympathising with Elizabeth was easy since I can imagine a lot but not leaving a big town to become a full-time mother and spend my day with gossiping neighbours. Sam, too, was easy to like, still young and unsecure but with a good heart and totally in love with her British not-so-boyish-anymore boyfriend. From the start, it is a challenge between two characters who actually like each other but where there is an imbalance in power in several areas which puts at time Elizabeth, at times Sam in a better situation.

The author explores a lot of aspects in her novel which give you food for thought. First of all, Elizabeth’s move to a small town which does not offer much. Also her struggle with being a mother is something a lot of women surely can emphasize with. Quite interesting also the dynamics between her and her husband who cannot really cope with a more successful wife on the one hand, on the other he is relying on her financial situation to realize his own dream. Elizabeth looks down on him since he has never really accomplished anything in professional ways – not a good basis for a new start in a new place.

Sam lives the typical student life, yet, her fellow students all come from rich families and can afford things she can only dream of. She manages to live in both worlds, but feels often closer to the women in the cafeteria kitchen she works with than with the girls she shares the dorm. Her relationship with Clive is mysterious form the start, yet, totally in love, she forgets to question his behaviour and falls prey to him. She is still young and simply makes mistakes young people make.

Both characters as well as the plot have a lot to offer, yet, at times I found the backstories a bit too long, a bit too detailed since they always slowed down the main action. Nevertheless, a wonderful read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Karin Smirnoff – My Brother

Karin Smirnoff – My brother

After years away, Jana returns to the Swedish village she grew up in. There is only her twin brother Bror left of her family. But as soon as she arrives, all the memories of her childhood come back. Her father, a brutal alcoholic who used to beat their mother and the kids, the mother who only ever told them to pray but never stepped in against the violence the kids had to endure. All those things Jana wanted to forget resurface, but there are also other things she wants to know after all this time: where is her daughter and who was Maria?

“I always assumed that something was wrong with me. The classic therapy answer was that I ended up in the same situation again and again in order to relive my childhood. “

Karin Smirnoff‘s novel lives on a very gloomy atmosphere. A snowstorm sets the mood on the very first page. Just as the fierce and merciless nature, the people also treat each other without too much softness in this remote area in the north. It is a story of violence and abuse, of adults looking away, not protecting children and a community which prefers to remain silent over stepping in. The result are scars on the outside and inside and two childish souls marked forever.

“All one can do is pray she said. And how we prayed. Childish prayers for help. “

Jana and Bror’s childhood is the most horrible story to imagine. Afraid of the father, every week hoping that he might die before returning to their home on Friday evening when he used to first drink and then hit whoever got in his way. The mother weak on the one hand, herself victim of constant beating, maybe having given up the hope for a better life, on the other hand, ignoring what her husband does to the kids.  Surely not a novel easy to read. Bror’s addiction and Jana‘s tendency to end up with men who show similar patterns like her father are the logic consequence.

Yet, there is more than the inner circle of the family, the whole village is full of secrets, things which are common knowledge but never told which Jana, now a grown-up and strong woman, uncovers.

To call the novel an enjoyable read would be totally inadequate, there is nothing to enjoy when reading about child abuse and domestic violence. However, the characters are authentically drawn and the dynamics within the village are interesting to observe.

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Jane is on the run, she hasn’t simply given up her old life, there are things which need to be forgotten und buried and never talked about. When she comes to Thornfield Estates, the McMansion area of Birmingham/Alabama, she sees a life which could hardly differ more from hers. Having grown up as a foster child, she has never known love and affection and surely not the riches she can observe in the families for whom she walks the dogs. One day, she meets Eddie Rochester who recently lost his wife Bea. They fall in love and suddenly, everything seems possible for Jane. Leading a carefree life, no worries about money anymore and a loving husband. But at times, she wonders if she sees something different, threatening in his eyes. Then, however, she remembers that she herself also has some secrets. Yet, there is a third person in that house also having secrets.

Rachel Hawkins does not hide that her novel is a modern version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. The names are identical and even parts of the characters’ biographies show large similarities, only small Adèle has been turned into a dog. The plot is not set among the British upper class but among the newly rich who are driven by greed, egoism and the conviction that they can have it all.

What I liked about this version of the classic plot is that Rachel Hawkins created some unexpected twists which keep suspense high and make you reassess the characters. You can never be totally sure about who is good and who is bad, actually, they are all some dark shade of grey. I would have liked the protagonist to be a bit more complex, Jane remains a bit plain and shallow throughout the novel for my liking even though the other characters repeatedly consider her rather clever and strong. On the other hand, everything around Bea was quite surprising and I actually adored the utterly malicious character.

An enjoyable read with a lot of Jane Eyre to be found and some new aspects which added to the suspense.

Karen M. McManus – The Cousins

Karen M. McManus – The Cousins

Twenty-five years ago, their parents were disowned by their grandmother Mildred. The four Story children Adam, Allison, Archer and Anders only got a letter saying that they knew what they had done. Unfortunately, they didn’t and haven’t been in contact with their mother who still lives on the family estate Catmint House on Gull Cove Island off the coast of Massachusetts which has been turned into a successful vacation destination for the rich. Unexpectedly, Milly, Aubrey and Jonah, Mildred’s grandchildren who have not seen each other for years, are invited to spend the summer there and to get to know their granny. Has the old lady finally changed her mind? Not really, but this is only one of the many, well buried family secrets of the Storys.

I liked Karen McManus’ former young adult novels a lot since she knows how to create suspense without being actually violent and because her characters are often teenagers one can easily identify with since they show the same fears and insecurities every knows. “The Cousins” offers an interesting setting and much more twists and turns than expected and thus was an enjoyable read.

The story is told alternatingly from the three teenagers’ point of view thus giving insight not only in their thoughts but also in the secrets they hide from each other. It also adds to the fast pace and at times gives you an advance since you already know what’s coming when the characters in the novel are still in the dark.

There are also flashbacks in which we meet their parents when they were teenagers which is quite an interesting comparison and also provides the necessary background to understand the behaviour of the characters on the island.

Overall, I totally enjoyed the novel which had an unforeseeable ending and some fascinating characters.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

akwaeke emezi the death of vivek oji
Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji

When they hear some noise outside, Kavita opens the door and finds her son Vivek dead on the porch. There was some commotion at the local market and Vivek had wanted to go there where he obviously was killed. But who would ever want to do something to her beloved son? Yes, he had always been different, a bit strange which also made it hard for his cousin and childhood best friend Osita who witnessed strange occurrences such as Vivek’s mind wandering away and making him believe being a different person. And that’s just what he was, secretly, without his parents’ knowledge. But Osita, too, has some secrets he keeps from his and Vivek’s family, some just because they do not fit in their village’s idea of a young man’s life, others because they would be impossible to endure for anybody.

Just like in her novel “Freshwater”, “The Death of Vivek Oji” centres around a young protagonist who differs, whose mind works in a very singular way, yet, Vivek’s is less extraordinary than Ada’s. Nevertheless, the main conflict is placed between the individual and society: a person who does not comply with general expectations and cannot really reveal his emotions and most certainly cannot live the way he would prefer since this simply does not work in the place he lives.

“We can’t keep insisting he was who we thought he was, when he wanted to be someone else and he died being that person, Chicka. We failed, don’t you see?”

The story is told in flashbacks to describe the long road that lead to Vivek’s death. Alternately, Vivek and Osita narrate from their point of view what they experienced and how they felt. Both are trapped somehow since there are things they cannot talk about to anybody except for each other, at the same time, it is difficult for Osita to support Vivek’s otherness. The struggles they go through are very well established and easy to relate to. From a western perspective, it is incredible what is done to Vivek, especially the exorcism performed on him, but there are still places where binary thinking is the rule.

There is some mystery to solve, yet, it is much more about young people who are trying to figure out who they are and how they can live in a place where fixed rules and high expectations do not go well together with who they are. Even though it is, in the end, a rather sad story in many ways, I’d consider it a great and noteworthy read.

Sara Shepard – Reputation

sara-shepard-reputation
Sara Shepard – Reputation

When hackers enter the system of some high profile universities and publish all emails sent by staff and students, people get nervous. Which secrets will be exposed? Aldrich University in Pittsburgh is unprepared for what is to come, especially Kit Strasser-Manning who never suspected her husband Greg of any wrong-doing. But then there are the emails which insinuate he had an affair with a very young woman. Kit does not get the chance to really find out what her husband did or didn’t because she finds him stabbed in their kitchen after a charity event that she hosted only hours after the whole scandal broke lose. She has lost all her memory and cannot recollect when or how she got home or what she did then. Yet, that’s only just the beginning for the whole community.

Sara Shepard’s novel is a tour de force of characters in an extreme situation. There is nobody who can escape since all have their small or big secrets that are suddenly threatened to be exposed. And they are, one after the other, they let down their guards and reveal what they hoped to be deeply buried and forgotten. At the beginning, I had some trouble keeping track of all the characters and understanding how they link, but then suddenly, the pieces all fell into place and an incredibly brilliant picture formed.

The motives are actually very old and well known: pride, hubris, greed, lust, wrath, envy – just consult the seven deadly sins and you’ll find them well portrayed in the novel. It is the core human faults that drive the characters. Along the way, Shepard also addresses hot topics such as the fraternity culture and spying on your beloved ones thanks to modern technology. Thus, not just the question about what each of the characters hides and the search for Greg’s murderer keep suspense high, but also current societal developments make it an entertaining and interesting read.

Due to the multiple points of view, the story is fast paced and keeps you reading that just one more chapter until you are all of a sudden through. Not just the plot, but also the author’s perfectly pitched foreshadowing make it a highly diverting novel.

Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

fiona-neill-beneath-the-surface
Fiona Neill – Beneath the Surface

One second, Lilly Vermuyden is sitting in her English class, the next she is lying on the floor convulsing uncontrollably. What’s wrong with the 17-year-old teenager? The doctors take test after test but do not seem to come closer to the cause for her seizure. Rumours start spreading and Lilly’s mother Grace totally freaks out. How could she not protect her daughter? Only Lilly’s younger sister Mia seems to know what is going on: archaeological excavations close to their home must have evoked evil spirits who now haunt the living. Mia gets totally worked up in her theory and behaves even stranger than normal calling her teachers into action. Life in the well-ordered Vermuyden household is close to collapsing and thus, well-hidden secrets threaten to be uncovered.

Fiona Neill’s novel sounded intriguing and actually it mixes quite some enthralling aspects: a family in which everybody seems to be on the watch in order to keep their secrets, a young girl totally immersed in Anglo-Saxon history and fascinated by spooky tales, and a medical incident that seems to be too complicated to find an easy explanation. Yet, somehow I couldn’t really connect to the story.

The story mainly lives on the characters who were multi-faceted and interestingly drawn. First and foremost, Lilly who is a typical teenager who hides her private life from her parents since she does not want to destroy the picture they have of her. She tries to please her mother und fulfil the expectations but can only fail here. There is some mystery about what happened that made her collapse that keeps suspense high throughout the plot. Her mother, on the other hand, is quite unsympathetic since she is a total control freak who does not grant her golden girl one millimetre of free space. There is a reason for her behaviour, yet, this is only inserted in a very brief excursus and thus remains too superficial to make her a really remarkable and complex character. Admittedly, I soon got totally annoyed with Mia. For quite some time I was wondering if she is somehow autistic since she doesn’t seem to understand how she tramples on the other characters’ feelings. Then, I thought she was rather precocious before I came to the conclusion that she is simply an entirely malignant egoistic young person.  The father, Patrick, ended up deeply in debt and so weak that the story could have been told without him.

There are some major questions raised about family life, parenting, growing-up and how much privacy is healthy for people close to each other. It all adds up in the end, yet, somehow, I had the impression that a bit more focus on one or a maximum of two characters would have been better.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

megan-collins-the-winter-sister
Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

It’s been sixteen years since her sister Persephone was murdered. Sylvie has created herself a new life, far away from home, but now she has to return to her hometown and confront her seriously ill mother. It doesn’t take long until all that happened that winter night comes back to her, especially when she meets Ben, her sister’s boyfriend, her sister’s murderer. Yet, Ben insists in his innocence. But can she trust him? And what about her mother who always refused to tell the girls who their respective fathers are and who also refused to talk about that night. Is it time now to open Pandora’s box and let the truth out?

Megan Collins’ debut is at the first glance a typical murder case: an 18-year-old girl is strangled and the murderer has been running free for sixteen years. However, at the second glance, it is much more a story about family relationships, about secrets and about love and trust. The small family of three females lived on secrets and lies, had they ever been open and honest with each other, the death of one daughter could have been prevented. Yet, that’s how human beings are, sometimes they lack the necessary courage to do what is right and thus risk to lose all they love.

The novel is well-created, even though at a certain point it is quite obvious how all the dots are linked, I found it full of suspense. Telling the story through Sylvie’s eyes gives you a certain bias at the beginning, but the missing pieces and gaps add to the thrill and the big questions marks Sylvie herself feels can also be experienced by the reader. Collins’ biggest strength is certainly the creation of the characters who all act convincingly and appear quite authentic. I am looking forward to read more from the author.

Claire Douglas – Do not Disturb

claire-douglas-do-not-disturb
Claire Douglas – Do Not Disturb

After her husband’s breakdown, Kirsty and her family move from London to Hywelphilly, a small village in Wales where they buy a guesthouse. After weeks of refurbishing, they look forward to welcoming the first guests, among them to Kirsty’s dislike her cousin Selena whom she hasn’t seen for more than sixteen years. They had been like sisters, but Selena’s constant lying lead to the inevitable break. Kirsty’s two daughters Evie and Amelia struggle with the move at first, but when Selena and her daughter Ruby arrive, the house awakes. The cousins manage to sort out their quarrels; yet, Kirsty cannot get rid of the feeling that Selena still does not tell her the complete truth. When Selena’s former boyfriend shows up to rent a room, the atmosphere gets tense and with the arrival of Kirsty’s brother and his wife, trouble is in the air. And then, the worst fears come true: Selena gets murdered.

I really liked the novel because Claire Douglas has well dosed the revelation of secrets the characters keep – and there are many of them. Everybody has something to hide, buried down in his or her mind, even the nice ones are not what they seem at the first glance. There is something mysterious about the house, the whispers of the village inhabitants add to this and many of the incidents are hard to make sense of.

The novel is told from Kirsty’s perspective, quite normally, you are biased in what she tells as you only get her limited point of view. On the other hand, this adds to the suspense and you can easily share her feeling of unease. To me, Kirsty is authentic in her action and in the way she tries to protect her family. Since it is not clear where the threat comes from, you suspiciously eye all the other characters simply to learn in the end that you were completely wrong. I absolutely liked that especially since the whole mystery is solved convincingly.

“Do not disturb” triggers the biggest fear: having evil in your own home, the place where you want to feel safe and secure and where you assume that also your children are protected. Many twists and turns and unexpected revelations keep suspense high throughout the novel, a mystery thriller just as it should be.

Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

ruth-ware-the-death-of-mrs-westaway
Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

Harriet Westaway, called Hal, is broke, totally broke. When she receives a letter stating that her grandmother has died and she is to inherit a substantial sum, this seems to be the solution to all her problems. Yet: the dead woman simply cannot be her grandmother. They share the same last name, but all the dates on the birth certificates show that there must have been a mistake. Nevertheless, she travels to Cornwall to the funeral where she meets “her family”: Harding, Abel and Ezra – presumably her mother Maud’s brothers. Before Maud died three years ago, she never spoke of neither her family nor Hal’s father, she and her mother were all family she had and now, she got three uncles and their families. Hal feels uncomfortable betraying them, even though they apparently do much better in life than she herself and they easily could do without a couple of pounds. But more than the nagging bad conscience she senses that the old mansion, Trepassen, she is staying at has some secrets to hide – especially the deceased Mrs Westaway’s servant Mrs Warren seems to know something she does not want to share – and she recognises Hal. How could that be?

I have read several of Ruth Ware’s novels and I like that she always finds a completely new story and that you are not reminded of any former books – a problem of so many authors who seem to write the same novel over and over again. Even though Ware has become famous for her psychological thrillers, I wouldn’t classify “The Death of Mrs Westaway” as one, for me it is rather a suspenseful family drama without the big thrill but a lot of secrets and mysteries.

What I liked especially was the setting of the old house in which all the secrets have lain buried for two decades. The floor boards creak when you walk on them, there is an old study with masses of books and you can hear the wind howl. Plus, the secretive family who is not very open and welcoming to the stranger and who surely does not want any old stories to be uncovered.

For her protagonist, Ruth Ware has chosen a very unique character. A young orphaned woman is not that rare in those kinds of novels, however, Hal is a tarot reader and has a special capacity of reading people – in order to tell them what they want to hear. She herself does not believe in the cards as fortune-tellers, they are much more providing guidance and concentration at the facts at hand.

The story itself is captivating immediately since you anxiously wait until Hal’s deliberate deception is revealed and she is thrown-out. Then you realise that things might be a bit more complicated and the further you get, the more pieces of the puzzle appear leading to a new picture.

There are many small aspects which make the novel absolutely outstanding, first of all the title which seems so simple since you know right from the start that a certain Mrs Westaway has died. Yet, at the end, there is much more to this than you might have guessed at first. Second, Harriet has a tattoo of a magpie, a reference to her mother and closely linked to Trepassen – which is a corruption of the Cornish word for magpie farm. She calls herself “Hal” which is also the name of the goddess of death in Norse mythology and whom the magpies served.

All in all, a captivating read in which it is worth looking at the details.