Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Giveaway

This is the tale of three fourteen-year-old girls and a volatile combination of lies, jealousy and perversion that ends in tragedy. Except the tragedy is even darker and more tangled than their tight-knit community has been persuaded to believe.
Blackly funny and with a surreal edge to its portrait of a northern English town, Jenn Ashworth’s gripping novel captures the intensity of girls’ friendships and the dangers they face in a predatory adult world they think they can handle. And it shows just how far that world is willing to let sentiment get in the way of the truth.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I loved Jenn Ashworth’s novel A Kind of Intimacy (here is my review). That’s why I am especially pleased to be able to giveaway 2 copies of her new book Cold Light courtesy of Hodder.co.uk.

The giveaway is open internationally. All you need to do is leave a comment and tell me if you would like one of the books. If there is a lot of interest, I will determine the winners with the help of random.org. They will be announced next Monday.

I started reading my review copy and so far I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s different from A Kind of Intimacy but quite captivating as well.

The giveaway ends Sunday June 5 2011.

Juan José Campanella’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos / The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) An Argentinian/Spanish Thriller

Juan José Campanella’s movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos aka The Secret in Their Eyes is an unusual thriller. It’s a Argentinian/Spanish co production, based on Eduardo Sacheri’s novel El Secreto de Sus Ojos.

The story is told in an unusual way, takes many twists and turns and offers an astonishing and thought-provoking ending.

Benjamín Espósito is a retired Argentinian federal agent. He has started to write a novel about a case that happened many years ago and that took an unsatisfactory turn. Liliana Coloto, a beautiful young woman, was brutally raped and murdered in her own apartment. Although Espósito and his colleague probably found the killer, the man was let go.

Espósito writes his novel for many reasons, one of which is giving an ending to something that didn’t have one. In order to achieve this, he revisits the case and the people who were involved.

Espósito pays a visit to the former chief of the department, Irene Menéndez-Hastings and tells her about his plans to write a novel about the case. She isn’t very keen on the idea. The case and its outcome were too upsetting. And there may be other reasons why she doesn’t want to remember what happened so many years ago.

The story of the case is told in flash backs and bit by bit we see what happened, how the people involved in the investigation lived, how they got emotionally involved in the case. Espósito cares a lot about Liliana’s husband. The man is devastated by the loss and the brutality of the crime and tries to find the murderer on his own.

In a conversation between Liliana’s husband and Espósito, Liliana’s husband says that he wouldn’t want the man to be executed. Capital punishment would be much too merciful.

I liked this movie a lot, it’s very melancholic, manages to interweave different story lines and offers a few interesting themes like writing as a means to find closure,  second chances, capital punishment and justice. The characters are very complex and interesting.

The movie is mysterious for a long time but I can assure you that everything is resolved in the end, all the loose ends will be tied together.

I’m not always tempted to read a novel after having watched a movie but it in this case I’m really curious. Has any one read the Spanish original? The English translation The Secret in Their Eyes will be out soon as well.
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Gianrico Carofiglio: Involuntary Witness aka Testimone inconsapevole (2002) First in an Italian Legal Thriller Series

A nine-year-old boy is found murdered at the bottom of a well near a popular beach resort in southern Italy. In what looks like a hopeless case for Guido Guerrieri, counsel for the defence, a Senegalese peddler is accused of the crime. Faced with small-town racism fuelled by the recent immigration from Africa, Guido attempts to exploit the esoteric workings of the Italian courts. More than a perfectly paced legal thriller, this relentless suspense novel transcends the genre. A powerful attack on racism, and a fascinating insight into the Italian judicial process, it is also an affectionate portrait of a deeply humane hero.

Former anti-Mafia prosecutor Gianrico Carofiglio is said to write some of the best legal thrillers Italy has to offer. I am not an expert when it comes to legal thrillers but  his novel Involuntary Witness, the first in the series centering on Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, is really good. Guerrieri is such a likable character and the themes of the novel are varied, spanning from racism, immigration, relationships and marriage, the meaning of life, to the Italian criminal system.

Guerrieri has recently been divorced and is very depressed. At the beginning of the novel he has panic attacks, can hardly sleep. He is a vulnerable, pensive  man who likes to read, have long discussions about books, movies and music. He loves St. Exupéry, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the music of David Gray. As a criminal lawyer he has to do some dubious things and tries to ignore whether his clients are guilty or not. After all, he is paid to get them out, no matter what they did. But Guerrieri has  a conscience that’s why he often wonders if what he does is really right. He also lives dangerously occasionally.
One of the best parts of the novel is the change Guerrieri undergoes. The person at the beginning of the novel isn’t the same as the one at the end. Just to watch him, follow him, first through his misery and later when he starts to enjoy life again, feels so realistic. I started to believe after a while that the description was based on a real person.

Guerrieri is good at his job, no doubt about it. There is always work for him. We sense that Carofiglio knows what he is writing about. The descriptions of the city and the court, the people, the lawyers, judges, policemen, prosecutors are realistic. The series is set in the Southern Italian town of Bari, an attractive location, close to the sea.

The story is rather simple. A nine year old boy is found murdered in a well. Due to some unfortunate circumstances a Senegalese immigrant is accused of the murder. The case looks hopeless as there is a lot of evidence against the man. Guerrieri isn’t even sure at first whether he should accept to defend him but he feels pity and finally accepts.

I wasn’t familiar with the subgenre of the legal thriller. At least not in book form. The focus is really on the trial and whether the accused will be sentenced or not. Guerrieri isn’t playing the role of an investigator. He thinks his client is innocent but he doesn’t try to find someone who might have done it or even find out why the child has been killed.

In Italy Carofiglio’s novels are considered to be much more than just thrillers and I can see why. The books seem to tell the story of an interesting man who happens to be a criminal lawyer and is excellent in his job, but this isn’t the most important element of the books. Guerrieri’s outlook on life, the way he sees and analyses people is far more important.

Involuntary Witness is an excellent book and I am certainly going to read the next in the series. I absolutely want to know what happens to Guerrieri and where life and love will lead him.

Do you know the series or any other legal thrillers that you like?

Louise Welsh: Naming the Bones (2010)

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away, and yet it is because of the mysterious writer, Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore. Loaded with Welsh’s trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, this adventure novel weaves the lives of Murray and Archie together in a tale of literature, obsession and dark magic.

I read a few intriguing reviews of Louise Welsh’s books and Naming the Bones was the one that tempted me the most. Set in Glasgow, Edinburgh and on the Island of Lismore, off the West Coast of Scotland, this is a very atmospherical read. The first 150 pages or so, it did remind me a lot of Kate Atkinson but farther into the novel, this changed considerably. And that is a bit sad. The novel had the potential to be great but the denouement wasn’t to my liking and so I would say, yes, it is a very good novel but not a great one.

Murray Watson, a professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow has a passion that makes him ask for a sabbatical. Since he was a very young guy, he loved the poems of Archie Lunan. Lunan has only had one slim collection published before he died an untimely and mysterious death. Living on the Island of Lismore for a certain time, together with Christie, his girl friend, he took a boat in stormy weather and never returned.

Murray wants to write his biography, do extensive research on the poet, interview people who knew him and secretly wishes to find a few undiscovered poems. Fergus Baine, the head of the department and husband of Murray’s lover Rachel, disadvises this approach. He tells him to concentrate on the poems, not the man.

It is obvious that Naming the Bones is exploring these two approaches to literature; the biographical one and the one leaving out everything related to the life of the author.

Murray is an interesting character. We meet him at a junction in his life. He has just been dumped by Rachel and realizes that Fergus may have known all along that he had an affair with her and that he may not have been the only one whith whom she had affairs. Fergus and Rachel seem to have a very unhealthy relationship.

Murray’s father died of Alzheimer’s and Jack, his brother, who is an artist, made an installation, showing their demented father on film which infuriates Murray.

Murray is a good looking, very attractive man and his charms are the reason why all through the novel women feel attracted to him.

What reads for the first 100 and so pages like a character study and an adventure story circling around the core theme of researching a deceased poet, starts to get dismal once it seems obvious that some of the people in Murray’s life knew Archie and that there may be secrets tied to Archie’s death that are far more disturbing than the possibility that Archie committed suicide.

When the reasearch in Edinburgh and Glasgow is finished, Murray leaves for the Island of Lismore where Christie lives. She doesn’t want to give him an interview or any other information, still Murray wants to see the place where Archie lived and died.

As beautiful as the island may be, it is a lonely and desolate place. Murray’s mood seems to get darker and darker, along with the developments in the novel. It also seems as if other people looking into Archie’s life had met with an untimely death and the further we read into the novel the more uncanny it gets.

I saw the term “gothic” mentioned a few times along with this book and couldn’t understand the use at first. I love gothic books but I do not like the blend of gothic and crime/thriller because that invariably means that  a “satanistic cult” or some such thing serves as part of the background. It’s not as bad as that here but the elements are present. Lucky the outcome isn’t tied to anything supernatural or occult. What we find out at the end just shows some young people’s depravity.

As said in the beginning, this is a very atmospherical novel. I have been to Scotland and know Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as some of the islands off the West Coast and I must say they are very well rendered. It is also an extremely well written novel, the numerous main and secondary characters are without any exception interesting and complex. There is more than one theme explored in this book which gives it additional depth. Welsh tackles topics like old age, research, poetry, alternative life styles, modern relationships, death and suicide with intelligence and a great deal of insight.

All this together makes Naming the Bones a very entertaining read on an autumn or winter afternoon when the world outside is as rainy, stormy and dark as the world in the novel. If you like a gothic atmosphere, you will enjoy this a great deal.

Here’s the island’s website should you plan a trip to Scotland: Island of Lismore.

Araminta Hall: everything and nothing (2011) Social Realism and Psychological Suspense

Ruth and Christian are – just – holding their marriage together, after Christian’s disastrous affair a year ago. But chaos beckons, and when the family are suddenly left without any childcare, Agatha comes into their lives to solve all their problems. But Agatha is not as perfect as she seems and her love for the children masks a deeper secret.

I read a review of this book on Lizzy’s Literary Life and something told me I might like it. And I did. It was one of those super fast reads, a book that I could hardly put down. Really riveting. The only complaint I have is that this is labelled as a psychological thriller. Although there is a part of it reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, it is like a background story and not really very gripping. At least not for me. Still I consider this to be a real page-turner for the simple reason that it captures chaotic family life in so much detail and explores some of the questions and problems parents who work full-time would face. I often enjoy descriptions of domestic life although I don’t live anything that is even remotely comparable.

Ruth and Christian both not only work full-time but overtime many days of the week. They both have careers that seem to absorb all of their energy and when they come home in the evening they face total chaos. The place is dirty, sticky and disorderly, the little girl is screaming constantly and throws one temper tantrum after the other. The little boy, at three, still doesn’t eat properly and drinks from a bottle. The nights are nightmares too. Ruth and Christian fight and when they finally go to bed, the girl starts to scream again. She always wakes at midnight and never goes back to sleep.

At the beginning of the novel Ruth knows she isn’t capable of going on like this. She needs a new nanny. And in comes Agatha. We know from the start that something is wrong with her. She lives in daydreams and lies to her employers and to herself constantly. Something bad has happened in her past, a trauma that she cannot overcome and tries to repress with her imagination.

Family life improves considerably after she has started working for Ruth and Christian. She is super organized and makes Ruth feel deficient. To make things worse, Christian accidentally meets the woman he has had an affair with and starts seeing her for drinks.

Something bad, coming from Agatha, is lurking in the background and we know things will go very awry. But as said, this is completely toned down. I was fascinated by Ruth. Christian was not particularly interesting. Just one of those guys who thinks he has the right to have an affair when his wife is pregnant for the second time and is not that much into him during that time.  Ruth shows every sign of a severe depression and what I found interesting is the fact that this did not start right after she had the first baby but several months later. As if the bubble of enchantment that the little baby brought burst suddenly. From that moment on she struggles. I could feel the exhaustion of that woman and I know that this is very realistic. Women around me have mentioned it. If you are unlucky and have a baby that doesn’t sleep well and you need to go to work every morning… Ruth is a journalist and her work is very demanding. There is always someone waiting to jump into her position should she show signs of weakness.

I also hear the type of questioning very often that Ruth utters. Is it OK to work full-time and have children? Is it OK to have someone else looking after them? I think in the book the problem isn’t only that Ruth works full-time but that both work overtime and that she tries for too long to cope with everything else as well. She is afraid that having a nanny means defeat. And she thinks that women like Nigella Lawson are an example for the fact that it is possible to have and do it all yourself.

There is a strange fascination in seeing people at their most vulnerable, when their masks are down. That’s what made this book so riveting for me. And I think the questions it asks are very important.

I would be curious to hear from anyone who has read it.

This was Araminta Hall’s first novel. I really wouldn’t mind reading the next one too.

Ruth Rendell: The Tree of Hands (1984)

Once, when Benet was about fourteen, she and her mother had been alone in a train carriage and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife. It was some time since Benet had seen her mad mother. So when Mopsa arrived at the airport, looking drab and colourless in a dowdy grey suit, Benet tried not to hate her. But the tragic death of a child begins a chain of deception, kidnap and murder. Domestic dramas exploding into deaths and murders …threads are drawn tightly together in a lethal last pattern.

I read and reviewed A Judgment in Stone last year and have mentioned how much I liked it. It was one of my favourite reads of 2010. On one of the comment thread’s Guy Savage suggested another book by Ruth Rendell, The Tree of Hands, and that is how I discovered this novel.

I have to emphasize once more what a great writer Ruth Rendell is. This book is different from A Judgment in Stone but also very engrossing. After having read The Tree of Hands I can also see why A Kind of Intimacy was compared to Rendell’s books. The description of the streets and their inhabitants shows a lot of parallels plus the people are equally deranged.

In the Tree of Hands the stories of at least 6 people are interwoven but it is skillfully done and they are all linked together in a logical way. The novel works like those rows of domino stones that have been set up in order to see them fall one by one. The falling down of the first stone makes the others follow. One action in the novel triggers another action and they are all equally fatal and catastrophic.

I was a bit wary at the beginning as Mopsa, Benet’s mother, is said to have a mental illness. Using mental illness as an explanation for a crime is often insufferable to me. But fortunately Mopsa is just the first domino stone. Being totally irresponsible she steals a child without ever thinking of the consequences but then she leaves and lets all the other people deal with the aftermath of his kidnapping.

The book really has a chain reaction at its core and one bad decision leads to another. And it also describes quite a lot of negative, selfish and frankly bad people. What struck me, even though Mopsa is mentally ill and on top of that clearly not a good person, she is by far less deranged than some of the other nasty characters in this book.

One of the main stories is the story of Benet, a young mother and extremely successful writer who lives in a beautiful house in Hampstead. At the beginning of the book her mentally ill and very unstable mother, Mopsa, comes to visit her and her little boy, James. Benet is a very loving mother and James is the most important person in her live.

The second main story revolves around another young mother, Carol, her son Jason and her young boyfriend Barry. Carol is a superficial and unrestrained woman with a flaming temper. At the age of 28 she is already a widow and has three children from different men. Two have been taken away, only the smallest, Jason, is living with her and Barry.

At first the two strands of the story run in parallel until a tragedy happens and Mopsa steals Jason.

I am tempted to write a lot more as there are a few aspects that I find interesting but unfortunately it isn’t possible, it would spoil too much. I can however say that the novel also explores the concept of parenthood and if someone who loves a child dearly might not be a better parent than a biological parent.

Something that struck me in this book is the overuse of the sedative Valium. This dates the book. Surely nowadays people in novels don’t pop pills like sweets and they might not use benzodiazepines as often anymore. This constant use of downers and alcohol is of course symbolical and just underlines that the people in the novel do not want to face any problems or consequences of their actions.

Ruth Rendell’s writing is suspenseful, her characterizations are psychologically plausible and the descriptions of different social milieus spot-on. Do I have to mention that I will certainly read another Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine very soon?

Rosamund Lupton: Sister (2010) A Great New British Thriller Writer

Nothing can break the bond between sisters …When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiance and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

That was a fast read. Even though this was a busy week and the novel had some 370 pages I read it in a few days. That certainly says something. I liked it a lot. The writing reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell. Should she ever choose to write a thriller, that’s what it could look like.

Sister is the story of  Tess and Beatrice, two sisters who are extremely close, even though the older one, Beatrice, lives in New York, while the younger, Tess, is still in London where she goes to an art school. When Beatrice gets the phone call from her mother saying her sister is missing she is highly alarmed and flies back to London immediately. When the sister is found dead and declared to be a suicide Bee – as her sister used to call her – is the only one who does not believe it was suicide. She is certain it was murder. And she won’t change her mind. No matter what the police, her mother or Tess’ psychiatrist say.

The story is told in part as if Beatrice was writing  a letter to her dead sister, telling her the whole story after the murderer has been found and arrested. In part she writes the letter, in part she tells the whole story to a lawyer. Consecutive flash backs. The story is also interspersed with dialogue between the sisters.  There are many red herrings as so many men who were in Tess’ life seem suspicious. The ending is quite a twist. That’s the only flaw I could find in this book. It seems a little bit artificial but then again it is not an improbable ending.

There are  many colorful characters in this novel. Art students, immigrants, doctors, scientists, policemen. The bond between those sisters is certainly the most important relationship in the book and it is very deep and moving. The story of their childhood is not an easy one which is another reason why they were so close. All through the novel Beatrice finds other people to relate to and some relationships like the one with her mother are completely transformed. Bee herself is also changed considerably. When the novel starts she is afraid of life, at the end she is ready to embrace and enjoy it.

Sister is Rosamund Lupton’s first book. The next should come out in 2011. I am already looking forward to reading it.