Harriet Lane: Her (2014)

Her

Last year I read Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always and loved it so much that I had to read her new novel Her as soon as it came out. Amanda Craig calls it “Thriller of the Year” and while I might not have read enough of the books that came out in 2014 to confirm this, it’s certainly the best thriller I’ve read so far this year. Take Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met and one of Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers and you’ll end up with something like Her.

Her has a split narrative. Nina tells one half of the chapters, while Emma narrates the other half. Do you ever wonder what people truly think of you? What they might say about you behind your back? Whether they truly like you or just pretend they do? If you have, and I’m pretty sure, we’ve all wondered at some time, this book will resonate deeply with you as Nina is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable character. She does tell us the truth, albeit in small doses, but she’s anything but truthful to Emma.

At the beginning of the book Nina sees Emma in the street, in London. She hasn’t seen her in years, decades even, and is pretty sure that Emma will not remember her. However, Nina remembers Emma because, all those years ago, Emma did something that Nina could never forgive.

At first Nina doesn’t do anything. She just relishes seeing Emma in a bad place, with one small demanding child and a second on the way. She’s not a young mother and the sleepless nights, the demands of motherhood, have taken their toll. She’s not as gorgeous as she once was. And she’s neither rich nor does she have a career, unlike Nina who lives a life of elegance and wealth and is a succesful painter.

Their paths cross again. This time Nina makes contact. What follows is extremely chilling. Nina befriends Emma, is helpful and kind, but we know what she really feels. Unbeknownst to Emma she manipulates, stages disasters that are just small at first but become more menacing every time.

Reading what Nina thinks and does, followed by Emma’s interpretation of the events, made me feel so uncomfortable. I couldn’t help putting myself into Emma’s place and tried to imagine what it would be like being duped like this. Creepy.

The book is extremely gripping because we constantly ask two questions: What did Emma do all those years ago? and How far will Nina go?

What makes this book even more readable is Harriet Lane’s writing. Her descriptions are fresh and elegant. The only thing that bothered me was the depiction of motherhood. I’m sure it’s stressful to have small children but to the extent this is described here?

The end wasn’t exactly what I had expected but I thought it made sense and it shed another, even darker light on Nina.

If you liked Notes on a Scandal or Ruth Rendell’s psychological thrillers, you’ll enjoy this and appreciate Harriet Lane’s lovely, elegant writing.

Gillian Flynn: Sharp Objects (2006)

Sharp Objects

When two girls are abducted and killed in Missouri, journalist Camille Preaker is sent back to her home town to report on the crimes. Long-haunted by a childhood tragedy and estranged from her mother for years, Camille suddenly finds herself installed once again in her family’s mansion, reacquainting herself with her distant mother and the half-sister she barely knows – a precocious 13-year-old who holds a disquieting grip on the town. As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims – a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

I had a feeling I might like Gillian Flynn very much that’s why I decided not to start with her latest novel, Gone Girl, but with her first,Sharp Objects That I went out to get the second, Dark Places, right after finishing this might tell you how much I liked it. She’s an author to my taste, but I have to admit I had a few “Ew!” moments while reading it. She’s not one to shy away from describing very sick things. What I liked was the voice, the taut writing and the story as such. While I had a feeling where this was going, I was still captivated.

Two girls are abducted in Camille’s hometown. One was found dead, her teeth missing, the other is still being searched for. Camille is a journalist for a very unglamorous newspaper in Chicago and her boss thinks it might be a good idea to send her home to investigate and write a few articles that might help the paper get out of its slump and Camille to improve her career. Knowing Camille her boss may have thought that going back to the place that hurt her and face her demons might be a healing experience. It isn’t. Camille is badly equipped to deal with her past and exposing herself to her toxic family and diving deep into the shadow aspects of her hometown take their toll. The sharp objects of the title refer to many different things and one is tied to Camille’s illness. If you have seen the US cover, you know already what I’m talking about. Camille is a cutter, only she’s not happy with slicing her body, she carves words into it. Meaningful words.

Right after Camille’s arrival, the second girl is found. Her teeth are missing too. What a bizarre, yet gruesome crime. Slowly the book reveals the truth behind the crimes and the hidden secrets of Camille’s family.

I don’t read in order to find “likable characters”. Or to say it in other words – I don’t need to bond with characters at all, but I think, I liked Camille, and was, once more, surprised how many people who reviewed this mentioned how much they hated her. Why? I don’t get it. Or maybe I do. It is as if there were some mental afflictions people are more hostile towards. If you’d like to label Camille, I’d say she’s suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, one of a few afflictions, which get a lot of negative reactions. I thought Flynn drew a very believable character and I was rooting for her. I was hoping she might be able to come out of all of this healthier and stronger.

Sharp Objects is gripping and compelling and does a few daring things, one of which is showing that perpetrators come in many different forms.

This is my fourth contribution to Carl’s RIP challenge. Don’t miss visiting the RIP review site for other Mystery/Crime/Thriller/Ghost/Dark Fantasy related reviews.

Kelley Armstrong: Omens (2013) The Cainsville Trilogy I

Omens

I always meant to return to Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, but when I saw she has a new series out, which is a real departure from her dark fantasy series and much more of a thriller/crime series, I was very interested.

Omens is a terrific read and an unusual genre, one could call it a thriller with elements of magical realism. The only bad thing I can say about this book is that it’s not a standalone and that part II will only be out in 2014.

Olivia Talyor-Jones is a 24-year-old, rich society girl, just about to get married to her fiancé James when her world is turned upside down. Not only does she find out that she has been adopted, but her birth parents are serving a life sentence. They are serial killers who have committed four ritualistic murders.

Shocked by the discovery, haunted by the press and pushed away by her adoptive mother and her fiancé, she follows some signs and ends up in the small-town Cainsville, located not too far away from her hometown Chicago. Olivia decides to cut herself off from her former life for the time being, to look for an apartment and get a job.

Cainsville is a small town that seems to be stuck in another time and as soon as Olivia arrives, she encounters signs and omens which lead her to different interesting discoveries about the town and its people and her parents. Her birth parents hear that she has been found and want to get in contact with her. When Olivia meets dubious lawyer Gabriel Walsh, who was her birth mother’s lawyer during one of her appeals, she decides to visit Pamela, her mothe, and hire Walsh.

There were always doubts about her parents really being serial killers and after Olivia has met her mother and memories of her early childhood resurface, she starts to hope that they are innocent and, together with Gabriel, she wants to prove it. Their research puts them in great danger and the story we get to read is suspenseful and fast-paced.

The end of this book tells me that the supernatural elements which are toned down in this book, will become more important in the future. It seems that Olivia has been brought to Cainsville for a reason.

I enjoyed Omens a great deal and can hardly wait for the next book. This absorbing novel would appeal to people who do not like to read fantasy but enjoy a good thriller with a strong and likable heroine. There is potential for a love story here as well. I liked the description of the small town Cainsville a lot. It reminded me a bit of  Louise Penny’s Three Pines, just with some magical realism thrown in.

This is my third contribution to Carl’s RIP VIII. At this pace I will have read four books before the second month starts. So far I have covered these genres”Haunted House”, “Urban Fantasy” and “Thriller”. Next up is, hopefully, – “Gaslamp Fantasy” (don’t tell me you are not intrigued).

If you’d like to see what others have reviewed so far, here’s the link to the  RIP review site.

Andrea Maria Schenkel: Bunker (2009)

It had been a normal day at work. Monika was locking up, ready to head home, when the man arrived. She didn’t see his fist until it was far too late. Bundled into a car, tied up and taken in darkness to an old mill in the thick of a forest, she has been flung into a bunker. It is only now, as time passes and she sees her attacker in the light, that she notices the startling resemblance to someone from her very dark and buried past. Someone she never wanted to see again.

Andrea Maria Schenkel entered the literary crime scene with a big bang when her first novel  The Murder FarmTannöd was published in Germany. Based on a true story it described a crime which wiped out a whole family. While there were many glowing reviews there were also a lot who predicted she would be a one hit wonder. Fact is, she has written three more novels, two very different ones, Ice Cold – Kalteis and Bunker – Bunker, and a fourth one which hasn’t been translated yet – Finsterau -, which is written in the vein of Tannöd, but none has had the success of the first.

Bunker is a very unusual crime novel. It takes a long time to figure out what is going on as the POV occasionally changes two to three times per page. If the different points of view were not printed in different type, it would be nearly impossible to know who is telling the story. If you are an impatient person you might give up after a few pages. I decided to read until the end and must say, I don’t regret it. Instead of passively reading about the confusion of the victim, we share this confusion which was an interesting experience.

Monika is abducted from her work place, tied up, thrown into a car and driven to a mill in a dark forest. A bunker belongs to the mill and she is held captive there. The man hits and mishandles her but what he really wants is not clear.

After some time she feels she knows him. It seems to be someone she never wanted to see again and who was tied to the disappearance of her brother when she was still a teenager.

The relationship between Monika and her attacker changes constantly. While he hits her one moment, he takes care of her the next. At one point she has a chance to escape but she stays.

At the end of the book a murder has been committed, a person has been severely injured and another one escapes. That’s all I’m telling you.

I liked this puzzle approach, I found it interesting to only ever get a few snippets of information which only formed a whole after I had finished the book. The main story line ends in a satisfying way but there is a lot of back story which is never really sorted out. There are too many open questions at the end. I don’t aways mind being left with unanswered questions if I think, the author withheld answers despite the fact that he/she had them. When I feel it was an easy way out for the author, I’m not impressed. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this is what happened here.

Bunker is a quick read, offers an interesting narrative technique but I’m still not sure whether it is not rather a gimmick than a great book.

Nicci French: Secret Smile (2004)

I really like Nicci French or I wouldn’t have picked the third book in such a short time. The last two I have read were the first two installments of the new series, Blue Monday and Tuesday’s Gone. Both were really good books. Unfortunately that’s not exactly the case here. Secret Smile has a lot of what I truly like about Nicci French but it’s painfully unbelievable. Still, call me weird, I liked it.

The story, if one doesn’t want to spoil the book, is told in a few sentences. Miranda has been dating Brendan for three weeks when she catches him reading her diary. She immediately ends the relationship. In a way she is relieved because he annoyed her. He was far too obtrusive and possessive. Brendan takes the break up very badly, still she manges to get rid of him. Or so she thinks. A few weeks later he is introduced to her as her sister’s new boyfriend. She is quite shocked and the idea to have to see him regularly really bothers her but on top of that Brendan pretends that he ended the relationship.

What follows is at first manipulation, then pure psychological terror. This premise as such isn’t unbelievable but what is unbelievable is the fact that Miranda doesn’t try to clarify right away who broke up with whom and when she does, nobody believes her anymore.

I always find it annoying when a whole plot relies on one person’s silence, a silence at that which isn’t realistic but has to be maintained in order to get the plot moving. If you can forgive this major flaw or if it is in character with you – let’s say you’re the type who always speaks up too late – then you might not find this unbelievable and would enjoy the book because I think there are a lot of really appealing elements in it. Nicci French is really good at creating atmosphere. The change of seasons is captured well and there are a lot of scenes in which Miranda is on her own and they are all nicely created. Plus she is an interesting character. She is independent, attractive, makes a living as a decorator, all things which work quite well.

Despite the fact that there are unrealistic elements, Secret Smile was a page turner and I really wanted to find out how it would end. Surprisingly the end is different from what I expected which was a pleasant surprise.

As you can see, a mixed bag, but still an enjoyable, quick read.

This is my first contribution to Carl’s R.I.P. VII. Here are the links to the posts of the other participants.

S.J. Bolton: Sacrifice (2008)

Danielle recently wrote about S.J. Bolton’s book Now You See Me and I really liked the tone of it and wanted to read one of her books. I got her first novel Sacrifice instead because I liked the idea of a book set on The Shetland Islands. I know some of the islands off the Scottish coast and I find the landscape incredibly beautiful.

Tora, an obstetrician from London, is married to a man from The Shetland Islands. Duncan hasn’t been living on the islands for over twenty years but now he wants to return and Tora follows him. She has found a job in a local clinic. They live in a house in the country, quite far away from any other houses or farms which doesn’t bother Tora too much as she grew up on a horse farm.

The novel opens with Tora trying to bury her beloved horse Jamie. While digging in the field she finds something utterly disturbing, namely a corpse wrapped in fabric. Whether the dead person has been lying in its peat grave since the earliest days of Shetland Civilization or been buried recently isn’t sure at first but the police soon find out, the body hasn’t been dead for longer than two years. When they unwrap the corpse they discover something quite grisly. The dead womans heart has ben cut out and there are runic symbols carved into the skin of her back. On top of that the dead woman must have given birth right before she was killed.

Tora is a very determined woman and the shock to find a body on her land triggers an urge to help find the killer. Being a doctor allows her to have access to much more information than even the police. She teams up with a police woman, Dana, also a foreigner, who has a hard time being accepted by the locals. The two women start to dig quite deep into some mysterious things. Tora’s investigation isn’t entirely legal but she can’t stop it, even less when she discovers that the dental records of a woman who has died of cancer two years ago match the records of the dead body in her peat field.

From the early moments in the novel, it’s obvious that Tora endangers herself with this investigation. And when she wakes one night and thinks that someone is in her bedroom, she is sure her life is threatened.

The fact that Tora lives in this lonely house on her own most of the time, because Duncan is away for work, heightens the feeling of threat. She and Dana stumble from one eerie discovery to the next and I really speeded through the 550 pages because I wanted to find out what was going on.

This is a book to read in almost one sitting, if you break the speed for a while, which I did, you lose momentum and the end might not go down so well. I saw Danielle reviewed Sacrifice here as well and there is a comment from the author saying that she herself wasn’t too sure about the ending (if you intend to read this book don’t read the authors’ comment it does give away a lot).

I can only say, this is a great read, if you rush through it but a part of the explanation was a disappointment for me. It’s too unbelievable. Still, the book works well on many levels. It’s very suspenseful and has a great atmosphere. Something I really liked was the description of the friendship between Tora and Dana. They both do not easily trust other people but they soon feel quite close. Also these are not your typical “women in jeopardy”, they are threatened but they are gutsy and can fight for themselves. Being threatened worries them but doesn’t keep them from going on. I might very well read another S.J. Bolton. Judging from the comment she left on Danielle’s blog, I could imagine, she did in her more recent books stay away from stretching believability too much.

Simone van der Vlugt: Shadow Sister – Schaduwzuster (2005) A Dutch Thriller

Married. One child. A career: Lydia has her life in perfect order – if only everyone else around her could be as organised as she is. Her unmarried twin sister Elisa is still struggling to find what she wants to do. And her colleagues at the school where she teaches often fail to reach her high standards.But one day, it all falls apart from Lydia. When she is threatened by one of her pupils, her sister is the first person she turns to. But Elisa is powerless to stop the campaign of intimidation that follows. How far will it go? Or is someone else taking advantage of the situation? And what is Elisa’s part in all of this? Twins are close. Aren’t they?

I was looking forward to reading Shadow Sister because Simone van der Vlugt’s first novel Reunion was excellent, a gripping page-turner with a surprising ending. Shadow Sister wasn’t as good but despite its flaws I couldn’t put it down and thought the ending was not foreseeable.

The story is told from a first person point of view, alternating between the two sisters. While we know early on that Lydia was killed, we still read her chapters. The chapters of the sister start after Lydia has died while hers progress slowly towards her death.

Lydia is a Dutch teacher at a school for immigrant kids. It isn’t an easy job but she loves it. She thinks she can make a difference and that is all that matters to her. The kids aren’t very disciplined and get into fights among each other but mostly they respect her. Until Bilal, a Moroccan boy, feels ridiculed by Lydia and attacks her with a knife. She has him suspended from school and from that moment on she feels threatened. Someone stands in front of her house at night, someone follows her from the school. The police take it very seriously but she just reports it. When she is killed, no one has doubts that it was the boy but Bilal has an alibi.

From her sisters point of view we start to see another side of Lydia. We realize that she was maybe not as perfect as everybody believed and we also realize that there were problems in the marriage. Her husband Raoul is a bit too good-looking and he seems to be having an affair or be in love with someone. We also find out that Elisa has feelings for her brother-in-law.

All this together makes for gripping reading. The description of the school and the problems schoolteachers face nowadays with children who are not motivated, who come from other cultures, who don’t take a woman seriously, who feel threatened in their masculinity the moment you criticize a tiny thing, is interesting. What I didn’t like is the fact that van der Vlugt uses present tense all through the book. And I wouldn’t call Shadow Sister a psychological thriller as there isn’t much in terms of character analysis. Both sisters sound exactly the same and also the other characters are a bit flat. The person that is rendered best is Lydia’s little daughter.  If you are looking for another Ruth Rendell, this isn’t your book but if you look for a gripping page-turner offering social elements, you might enjoy it.