Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

jackie kabler the perfect couple
Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

Life has been perfect for Gemma and her husband Danny. The successful journalist and IT specialist have decided to flee busy London and settle in Bristol in a nice home where the quality of living is higher. When Gemma returns one Friday evening only three weeks after their move, she expects Danny to be at home waiting for her with dinner. However, their house is deserted, no sign that her partner has been at home after work. First, she is only slightly concerned, working overtime is not unusual in his job, but not getting hold of him makes her wonder. After changing his job, he hasn’t gotten a new mobile phone and thus, they only communicate via e-mail which he doesn’t answer. Gemma bravely waits two days, becoming increasingly frightened before she contacts the police for filing a missing persons’ report. What she learns then is that two men looking like Danny’s twins have been murdered in the area and soon she finds herself prime suspect in a serial killer case as strangely, there is not the least sign in her home of Danny ever having lived there with her. What is she actually hiding?

Jackie Kabler’s mystery novel starts quite typical for a thriller, you are immediately thrown into the plot and discover the vanishing of her husband together with Gemma. Thus, you get her growing concern first hand and can easily follow her thoughts. When the police’s side of the story is told, the author switches the point of view and leaves you quite quickly in the positing where you wonder if either you were fooled by Gemma who seemingly has set up some very good murder plot or if the woman suffers from some kind of serious mental troubles and even only imagined to have a husband whom strangely hardly anybody seems to have known. On the other hand, there is some creepy feeling that Danny might have taken advantage of Gemma for some scheme of his own, they haven’t been married that long and he proposed only weeks after they had gotten to know each other.

I totally adored the constant insecurity about whom to trust and what to believe; the more you learn about the characters and the further the events develop, you have to adapt your opinion and change sides more than once. Some unexpected twists and turns keep you hooked to the novel and make it hard to put it down. “The Perfect Couple” is a psychological thriller with an interestingly drawn protagonist and a surprising storyline which make a thrilling and gripping read.

Angie Cruz – Dominicana

angie-cruz-dominicana
Angie Cruz – Dominicana

Ana has always been an extraordinarily pretty child, so when she becomes a teenager, her parents see this as a chance to escape their poor situation. At the age of fifteen, she is married to one of the Ruiz brothers, a family making a fortune in the US which allows them to control more and more land in the Dominican Republic. Ana has to follow her new husband to New York where she lives in a poor, rundown apartment and the promises of being able to go to school are soon forgotten. She has to serve Juan and his brothers and if she doesn’t obey or dares to speak up, he shows her with brutal force who has the say in their home. She becomes more and more desperate and finally develops a plan to flee, but she underestimates her new family.

Angie Cruz’s novel is set in the 1960s, but her protagonist’s fate could be as real in 2020. Young and naive girls fall prey to seducing men or are forced by their parents to leave their home country for a supposedly better life abroad where they, with the status as an illegal immigrant, hardly have a chance to escape their domestic situation which is often marked by poverty, oppression and being exposed to violence of all kinds by their domineering husbands. Dependence due to lack of language knowledge often combined with isolation makes them sooner or later give up all opposition and succumbing to the life they are forced to live.

It is easy to sympathise with Ana; at the beginning, she is a lively girl with dreams and vivid emotions even though she has also experienced her parents’ strict and at times brutal education. She is quite clever, nevertheless, the new life in New York overburdens her and she needs some time to accommodate and develop coping strategies. However, then, she becomes the independent thinker I had hoped for, but never egoistically does she only think about herself, she also reflects what any step could mean for her family at home whose situation with the political turmoil of 1965 worsens dramatically.

A wonderful novel about emancipation and a strong-willed young woman which allows a glance behind normally closed doors.

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.

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.

Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

sally-hepworth-the-mother-in-law
Sally Hepworth – The Mother-in-Law

When one evening a police car stops in front of their house, Lucy immediately has a bad feeling. Her mother-in-law Diana has been found dead and the police treats it as a homicide. But why? Could there have been foul play? Well, Diana wasn’t somebody you instantly loved when you got to know her, you maybe never loved her and she, on the other hand, didn’t hide her despise for anybody outside her closest family circle. Lucy remembers how she first met the old, wealthy woman, recalls scenes of her family life when, again and again, Diana gave her the impression of being the wrong wife for her beloved son. And now, the police investigate her death.

Sally Hepworth’s novel caught me straightaway. From the first page on, I was intrigued by the story and just wanted to find out how Lucy could have killed Diana. Well, of course, there was always the possibility that somebody else also disliked Diana that much – but it took quite some time until I gave up my first suspicions and then, admittedly, looked at the plot cluelessly: but who? They all hated her more or less, but rather more.

The story is told in flashbacks what makes the actual plot advance only slowly. Yet, this does not reduce suspense since the memories of Lucy and Diana alike definitely contribute to arouse suspicion. What I enjoyed most was how you directly think you know everything, have an idea of who is the good guy and who is the bad guy and how, slowly but steadily, your tower of belief crumbles and ultimately falls because the characters get more profile, other sides of their personality are shown and they become really authentic and plausible in the way they act and behave. At the same time, Sally Hepworth’s novel is often really funny and entertaining, I liked her kind of humour deeply.

The author was definitely great discovery for me and I am eager to read more from her.

Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

samantha-downing-my-lovely-wife
Samantha Downing – My Lovely Wife

They did it before and they are about to do it again. What looks like the absolute average family in Hidden Oaks – the father a tennis coach, the mother in real estates and two lovely kids – is all but average. They have a secret, or better: secrets in plural since they have killed more than one woman. And they are looking for their next victim. They are clever, a lot cleverer than all the other inhabitants of their small community and most certainly smarter than the police who don’t even know that somebody is missing. Yet, every run of luck has an ending and theirs is about to come, isn’t it?

Samantha Downing’s debut is a terrific thriller which combines the core emotions of human beings: love and hate. It’s masterly constructed and when you think you finally know what it all adds up to, you get a big surprise and a twist that takes suspense to another level.

First of all, the couple at the centre of the novel. The story is told from the husband’s point of view – interestingly, he never gets a name, there are only his aliases when he makes contact with possible victims. The point of view is limited of course which will play a major role and undeniably helps to lead you to wrong assumptions. As a reader, I should have known better, but I fell easily prey to Downing. At the beginning, you get the impression that the parents are a bit different, even strange to a certain extent, but even though you know that they have killed before, it doesn’t really keep you from seeing the loving father and mother who try to educate their children and deeply care for them. At some point, I even wished for them to get away with murder. Well, they are great in deceiving their environment and so is the reader.

An impressive psychological thriller which only reveals its full extent at the end of the novel and definitely makes you think about what you really know of the people around you and how easily you can be tricked and misled.

Tony Parsons – #taken

tony-parsons-taken
Tony Parsons – #taken

When Jessica Lyle is abducted in front of her apartment, the kidnappers obviously made a big mistake. It was not the lovely mother of a baby-boy, but her flatmate Snezia Jones who was the target since she is the mistress of London’s drug dealer number one: Harry Flowers. This is personal, the woman has been taken to get to the underworld boss who is so distressed that he comes personally to DC Max Wolfe to offer his assistance. It does not help the police that Jessica’s parents immediately go public with the case, they want their daughter back and they give their mission a hashtag to spread the word: #taken. Yet, this media hype only leads to more people who have waited a long time for their chance to take revenge on Harry Flowers. Jessica remains missing and obviously, the time is running out.

I absolutely love Tony Parson’s series about DC Max Wolfe, the sixth instalment actually was one of the best so far. The author has created a plot that can really surprise due to the astonishing twists and turns.

This time, Max Wolfe’s team really has a hard job to do since they need the cooperation of the drug dealer Harry Flowers and have to rely on his information – which not only is all but reliable but also brings Max and also his daughter Scout in the highest danger. The threat comes from a very unexpected side but it was absolutely credible from a human point of view. Apart from the missing person’s case, Max has to struggle again with his ex-wife Anne and the question of how to educate Scout. Surprisingly, the loss of Max’s lover Edie Wren which happened at the end of the last book in the series did not really play a big role even though I expected this to have a large impact on him.

Again, a masterly crafted plot around a set of very unique characters makes a great read.