Review - All These Perfect Strangers, Aoife Clifford
You don’t have to believe in ghosts for the dead to haunt you.
You don’t have to be a murderer to be guilty.
Within six months of Pen Sheppard starting university, three of her new friends are dead. Only Pen knows the reason why.
College life had seemed like a wonderland of sex, drugs and maybe even love. The perfect place to run away from your past and reinvent yourself. But Pen never can run far enough and when friendships are betrayed, her secrets are revealed. The consequences are deadly.
In 2013 Aoife Clifford was awarded an Australian Society of Author's mentorship to help bring this debut novel - ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS - to fruition. To be fair to those who have read it and are finding the idea that this is a debut novel hard to believe, she has form. Shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, Clifford won the Ned Kelly / S.D. Harvey Short Story Award and a Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto. What she has now produced is an assured, clever and profoundly disconcerting psychological thriller.
In the manner of all good slow burner, tightly controlled psychological suspense novels, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is beautifully crafted. Told from Pen's viewpoint it combines the tantalising prospect of an unreliable narrator, or a past too dreadful to be revealed. By taking the reader straight into the life and mind of young Pen Sheppard as she is about to leave her small hometown, her difficult mother and a fraught childhood behind, heading for University and life within the walls of a typical residential college, the reader is immediately dragged straight into a relationship with this character. And it's discomforting to know so little about somebody, and yet be so intimately involved.
The narrative itself switches between the present of life in the College as she sets out to build a new life, start again, move on from a secret that nobody needs to know about and the alternative present of her "other life" where she is under the care of a psychiatrist - dealing with something from her University days that possibly has longer term and more deep seated elements behind it. As she tentatively makes friends, and the group settle into life in College, they party and they get to know each other - exactly as you'd expect from people this age. Then things implode with a series of attacks on the campus, and a dead student who may or may not have succumbed to a dreadful accident.
An exploration of truth, and presentation, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS really does throw harsh lights on the perception of teenage life. The hesitancy with which the truth of Penn's background is revealed matches beautifully with her personality. The shakiness of the quickly formed friendships is as revealing as the way that edifices start to crumble. The good and bad start to reveal themselves (and it's not all bad), all of which exactly as you'd expect of a group of "perfect strangers" thrust into close proximity, the tension heightened by the threat of an unknown attacker. In this instance even the use of "perfect" in the title is exquisitely nuanced. Are they "perfect" people or will they always be "perfect strangers", is what you see really what you get, or are the persona's they have all constructed as deep and difficult as that which Pen hides behind?
It is a slow burner though, and you may start out profoundly confused about what's going on and why, but it is a very short trip from there to not able to put it down territory. As you'd expect from something this complex, layered, and confronting not everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, as it most definitely should never be. There's so much in ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS that is open to interpretation that it's only right that the reader is likely to be left with as many questions as answers.
This review is part of a blog tour organised for the release of ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS. For the other reviews:
Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children's books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease - enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma.
If you ever need to sum up UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent in one word then mesmerising is it. It starts out with the serious assault of Alice by her husband Oliver Ryan and then steps back through the previous five decades, charting the events in Oliver’s life leading up to the assault. The narrative switches from Oliver to other people he has spent time with over the years, and it carefully and very cleverly builds a story of the real Oliver and why he is who he is, why he did what he did. There is also geographical variation with many of the pivotal events in their lives happening in France, whereas day to day life, and the crime occur in Ireland.
There’s a claustrophobic, intense feeling to this style of narrative, as Oliver’s facade is laid bare, carefully and forensically. In a style that’s almost deceptively gentle, there’s a deliberation to the way that friends and family all step up to tell their part of this man’s sorry story each in turn, each twisting the knife a further turn.
Not that Oliver does not deserve skewering. His assault on his wife, as described in the opening pages of the book is shocking, vicious and seemingly utterly without regret. The mesmerising manner in which Liz Nugent does that cannot be understated. The assured narrative, the way that the cast of characters become so real in such short sharp chapters, the sense that you’re being given an opportunity to understand that great question of crime fiction - why, in such detail, all combine to create something extremely satisfying in UNRAVELLING OLIVER.
Review - LEONA: The Die is Cast, Jenny Rogneby
A naked and bloody seven-year-old girl walks into a bank, clutching a grubby teddy bear. She plays a threatening recording, demanding money. No one dares intervene.
The child leaves the bank and disappears, without leaving a trace of evidence.
Any readers looking for something different - LEONA: THE DIE IS CAST could be just the ticket. There's so much here in the writing, and the styling that is very brave of this author.
Leona Lindberg is both a highly regarded investigator and an outsider. She has a personality disorder which makes her a tricky person to work with, and an even harder protagonist for a reader to establish a connection with. Her internal dialogue clearly shows she's aware of her limitations, that her interactions with others are flawed, and able to moderate that to some extent. Every now and again her true self breaks out though - and she offends, and annoys many around her.
She's also the one that's more than willing to take on yet another case in a workload that's killing her and her colleagues - the really odd case of a naked, bloody young girl who has robbed a bank.
Whilst that case, and subsequent crimes by this young child stay in the forefront of the investigation aspects of the book, Lindberg's personal life, her family and her background are slowly revealed. There is much that gives pause for thought about this protagonist, and whilst you might struggle to see her in the role of victim, there's a real challenge being thrown at the reader throughout this book. Getting inside the head of somebody who is so different, so blatant and so matter-of-fact about her own self-interest isn't a straight-forward experience, but it's very worthwhile in LEONA. The reveals are built deftly into the narrative, in exactly the matter-of-fact style you'd expect of somebody like Lindberg, and there's no doubt whatsoever from the very start that there's something about her that's not quite right.
Spending time in Lindberg's head is hard work to be honest, she's not the nicest of people to be around, and her ruthless use and disregard for everyone around her is startling, fascinating and profoundly discomforting. It's also instructive and, for this reader, surprisingly moving in the end. This is a woman who simply doesn't seem to give a damn about anybody else, and for a while readers will have to wonder why.
Needless to say the revelations come solidly throughout LEONA and saying much about the actual plot is difficult without huge spoilers. But if you're lucky enough to get a chance to read this book, no matter how off-putting you find your initial introduction to Leona Lindberg, stick with it. This is an unusual approach to the psychological crime thriller, from a style of crime fiction that concentrates on "why", rather than who or how or gotcha.
Review - ELIZABETH IS MISSING, Emma Healey
Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.
But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth's mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.
Reading a lot of crime fiction can sometimes get a little groundhog day"ish". Not so when a book like ELIZABETH IS MISSING comes along. Not only is the styling of this mystery very unusual, the central character is outstanding and different.
Maud is an eighty-two-year old independent woman, living in her own home, slowly losing her memory. Devastatingly she sometimes knows she's losing touch with reality, she certainly knows enough to recognise that the notes that are liberally dotted throughout her home, in her pockets and her bag are an important aide-memoire. Yet the note that appears most frequently is "Elizabeth is Missing". Despite being constantly assured that nothing is wrong, Maud remains convinced her best friend Elizabeth has gone missing. Her home is deserted, Elizabeth's son cannot to be trusted, and despite reporting the disappearance to the police nobody seems to be doing anything. It's up to Maud who even puts a missing person's advertisement in the paper.
Maud's obsessed with Elizabeth's fate, as she is with marrows and where to plant them. Her gardener daughter, and main carer Helen is constantly called upon for advice on growing marrows. There's something about marrows and Elizabeth - something more than just the way that they got to know each other.
As seems to be the way with dementia, much of Maud's childhood is clearer in her memory than current day events, and the narrative of ELIZABETH IS MISSING uses this aspect to chilling effect. There are snippets of the past constantly being woven into the present, and there's something particularly prescient about much of this interweaving. Especially as it becomes clear that the past disappearance of Maud's sister is firmly in her mind, that something has triggered this particular memory.
ELIZABETH IS MISSING is told from Maud's viewpoint, in present tense, which gives the reader an insight into the fractured way that Maud's mind is now working. Her perception and understanding is shattered or adjusted as is the reader's. Frequently the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of knowing the recent past, whereas Maud doesn't. There's also spatterings of humour in this viewpoint, Maud is defiant enough to ignore some notes (particularly about her shopping habits) and yet terrifyingly able to ignore reasonable notes to not cook (and leave the gas on endangering life).
There are so many strengths to this book. The characterisation of Maud is so real, so uplifting at points, and so distressing at others. The reader wants to shout warnings, cheer defiance, patiently explain the unremembered and mostly, help Maud live her life. At the same time you can't help but feel for her daughter Helen, and grand-daughter Katy. The frustration of caring for a much loved relative who can't remember who you are half the time and constantly seems to ignore the important things makes you ache for them. Then there's the acknowledgement that independence is going, and changes in living circumstances are going to trigger more defiance, more rage against the machine, and more erratic behaviour.
Woven into this family tale is an underlying potential for crime. The present in the disappearance of Elizabeth, the past with Maud's sister Sukey. The interplay between these elements of ELIZABETH IS MISSING provide a narrative drive. Maud is slowly losing everything, and yet there's something that's driving her forward, that must be resolved, answers that have to be sought out.
There is just so very much to admire about ELIZABETH IS MISSING. A realistic, loving and extremely sympathetic portrayal of all of the main characters in the present - Maud, Helen and Katy. A clear view back to Maud's parents, Sukey, her husband and the lodger in their home. Beautifully descriptive about place and the things that Maud observes, along with a good, strong plot delivered in a style that fits 100% with Maud and her situation. There's tension here, but the pace is slow, cautious and utterly believable. There are beautiful touches of humour and sadness, clarity and muddle, past and present. A most unexpected novel, wonderfully original, clever, compassionate and revealing, ELIZABETH IS MISSING was an absolute privilege to read.
Review - REMEMBER ME THIS WAY, Sabine Durrant
Everyone keeps telling me I have to move on. And so here I am, walking down the road where he died, trying to remember him the right way. A year after her husband's death, Lizzie goes to lay flowers where his fatal accident took place. As she makes her way along the motorway, she thinks about their life together. She wonders whether she has changed since Zach died. She wonders if she will ever feel whole again. At last she reaches the spot. And there, tied to a tree, is a bunch of lilies. The flowers are addressed to her husband. Someone has been there before her. Lizzie loved Zach.
Thrillers involving bad marriages are coming thick and fast, both to the bookshelf and the screen. With titles like Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep, just to name a couple of recent examples. In these thrillers the idea of marriage, and relationships in general, is deconstructed as characters come to realise how much they don't know about their loved ones. They are the dark side of chick-lit, exploring broken relationships rather than ideal ones. Generally these stories are played as thrillers and Remember Me This Way is no exception.
One year after the death of her husband Zach, Lizzie finally gets up the courage to visit the place where his car crashed. When she gets to the spot she finds that someone else has already left flowers for Zach and gets a glimpse into the idea that he may have had another life. As the clues mount and strange things start to happen, Lizzie begins to suspect that Zach, a control freak who learnt that she wanted a break from him, has faked his death in order to take a slow revenge on her.
Zach is a sociopath, a point made clear through his diary entries that come as alternate chapters and chart the development of their relationship. Lizzie herself is an incredibly passive character, easy prey for a sociopath like Zach. Neither character is particularly interesting or engaging and seeing the same events from each of their points of view does nothing to make them more interesting. However, Durrant uses this relationship to explore how their controlling and passive characters creates a mutual neediness.
Remember Me This Way is an extremely slow burn psychological thriller. So slow that the thrills tend to evaporate and the climax is telegraphed well ahead of time. Without that thriller element firing, all that is left is a couple of not particularly interesting characters and the psychology of a destructive relationship.
THE DINNER - Herman Koch
A darkly suspenseful, highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the hardest decision of their lives -- all over the course of one meal.
It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse -- the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.
Should have suspected something when a friend lent me this book. There was something about the gleam in their eye that sort of suggested that this could be talked about long into the night. And boy has it been already.
Classically slow burning, obscure and cleverly done, two brothers and their wives meet for dinner one night. One brother, famous, wealthy and with the behaviour and personality that goes with that. The other brother quieter, almost repressed. Initially it seems like these brothers could be at dinner simply to annoy each other, to pick fault, to laud it over each other. Only there are two fifteen-year-old sons as well, and how much each parent knows about what their sons have done isn't always clear, nor is it obvious that they will ever agree on what needs to be done about it.
Complex and nuanced, this is just the sort of book that I love. Partially because I just knew from the moment I picked it up, it's just the thing for one of those long, late, loud, big discussions about it. THE DINNER is going to be one of those books that will most likely polarise readers. Personally I thought it was fascinating.
BAY OF FIRES - Poppy Gee
When the body of a backpacker washes ashore in an idyllic small town in Tasmania, the close-knit community starts to fall apart. As long-buried secrets start to come out, the delicate balance of their fragile lives is threatened...
It is possible that the reader of a lot of mystery fiction could come to BAY OF FIRES with a predisposition to like it very much. It's an unusual twist on what is, frequently, a rather formulaic style. More importantly, it's a lot more about the people involved in a community than the tragic death.
The story revolves around Sarah Avery, who was second on the scene when the bikini-clad body is found on the beach. She and her family are long-term holiday residents at the Bay of Fires, so they were there the year before when a young girl went missing. As were a lot of the characters in the story, this being the sort of holiday destination where people own shacks and return every year.
The only incomer in the story is Journalist Hall Flynn, sent to the coast to write a story on the dead girl, he soon finds himself attracted to the odd little community, and to Sarah.
The people who occupy this mostly transient community are a very quirky bunch, and because of the style of BAY OF FIRES there's an intense and concentrated view of them. Avery herself is quite a character, a fishing fanatic, obviously running away from a relationship that went pear-shaped in Queensland, she's a prickly, tricky character. Her encounter with the local teenage peeping tom is just one of the problems she's trying to process, her attraction to Flynn another big problem. Although Flynn quickly comes to share her feelings of protectiveness for the local intellectually disabled town loner who is picked on, bullied and suspected of both the murder and the disappearance.
Cleverly there's no shortage of suspects within the community, and whilst there's not a lot of overt concentration on the actual murder, or even, until towards the end, the disappearance of the young girl, there is a slow build up of possible suspects, of strange behaviour and odd occurrences that make you question the tranquillity of the location.
Being a huge fan of the why's of crime fiction, BAY OF FIRES ticked just about every box for me. It's not absolutely perfect, and there are some parts that do wander around a bit, as well as the occasional feeling of disconnection or lack of purpose. Minor problems in what is overall an interesting, and refreshing debut novel.
THE PARIS LAWYER - Sylvie Granotier
As a child, Catherine Monsigny was the only witness to her mother's death. 20 years later as an ambitious attorney in contemporary Paris, she catches a professional break when her boss assigns her to major felony case in rural France. An immigrant stands accused of poisoning her husband, but her secrets are not the only ones hidden in the scenic rolling hills of Creuse. While preparing the defence, Catherine is reunited with images of own past and a high-intensity search for two murderers ensues. Who can she believe? And what will Catherine do with her past should she discover it?
It is always a pleasure to come across publishers who are bringing works from different cultures to the English-reading world, particularly when there is such a strong sense of place in the books I've been lucky enough to read from Le French Book (http://lefrenchbook.com/). THE PARIS LAWYER has a particular French sensibility, combined with a clever take on lawyer based crime fiction.
The Parisian Lawyer is Catherine Monsigny, a young lawyer whose earliest memories are fleeting glimpses of the day that her mother was murdered. Her debut criminal trial involves an enigmatic immigrant, accused of murder, a defence harder to build because this person seems to have come from nowhere. Called out of Paris to assist her client, the case triggers Monsigny to confront her own history. Along the way she develops a relationship with a strange man who may have an ulterior motive for his pursuit of her.
One of the most interesting aspects of THE PARIS LAWYER is how what starts of as a slightly meandering, low key sort of a story, builds into something that becomes extremely involving. It's almost sneaky how the combination of an isolated location, a man with a secret and a central character with a confronting past, all combine as Monsigny's investigation into her own background and the defence of the murder accused, twist and turn together. The story deftly balances the idea of a lawyer, trial based book; with many of the aspects of a psychological thriller.
Whilst much of the standard formula of a psychological thriller is twisted on its head early in the book, and Monsigny's reveals her insecurity, there is a further twist that may or may not work for many readers. At some point in the search for the murderer of her mother, Monsigny becomes even more preoccupied with what the mother she never had a chance to know was really like, and hence who she is herself. At that point the book becomes increasingly less about the who and more about the why. What is driving many of the central characters, why they do what they do, and who they really are. For this reader it added an extra layer, and there was absolutely no reason not to follow where the author was leading.
The only other problem is likely to be in the way that many of the plot elements are left unresolved at the end of the book. Not necessarily a bad thing, unless that lack has no apparent reason. Be it to allow the reader some thinking material, or because everything in life is not automatically wrapped up neatly, unresolved elements aren't automatically an issue as far as this reader is concerned. Unfortunately here, some of the elements left hanging at the end of THE PARIS LAWYER didn't leave a question to consider, instead they contributed to the feeling of a bit of a mad scramble to the end.
Fortunately these minor problems did not lessen any enjoyment of THE PARIS LAWYER at all. It is a refreshing, different, challenging approach to some standard and not so standard crime fiction norms.
THE SINNER - Petra Hammesfahr
Cora Bender killed a man on a sunny summer afternoon by the lake and in full view of her family and friends. Why? What could have caused this quiet, lovable young mother to stab a stranger in the throat, again and again, until she was pulled off his body? For the local police it was an open-and-shut case. Cora confessed; there was no shortage of witnesses. But Police Commissioner Rudolf Grovian refused to close the file and started his own maverick investigation. So begins the slow unravelling of Cora's past, a harrowing descent into a woman's private hell.
As you can tell from the blurb above, THE SINNER is a whydunnit, as opposed to a whodunnit book, although that's way too simplistic a description. When Cora Bender stabs a man to death in front of family, friends, and a crowded park, nobody realises that she was originally planning to commit suicide. Bender is obviously not in a good place in her life, despite outward appearances. Rejected wholeheartedly by her husband immediately after the attack, it seems an open-and-shut case, which may only be mitigated by a plea of insanity. Except that Rudolf Grovian senses something behind Frau Bender's acknowledgement of her guilt and maniacal desire to declare herself guilty with no reasons or explanations.
It's partially Grovian's investigation into Bender's childhood and family life, and partially his patient and careful questioning of her that slowly draws out the truth. Bender's childhood is the stuff of nightmares - a desperately ill younger sister and a fanatical religious zealot of a mother who never hesitated to blame her first-born daughter for all of the younger sister's medical problems. Add a caring but sexually frustrated and ineffectual father, who whilst never sexually abusing his daughter, confronted her with her parent's sexual problems, and everything has combined to create a girl who is guilty, conflicted, and profoundly disturbed. Her closeness with her father creates a complex relationship with him, whilst he is kind and caring towards his daughter, his failure to take firm action in the face of her mother Elsbeth's more extreme behaviour makes him a weak figure, difficult to maintain respect, love and affection for. Bender's ill sister, Magdalena, should have died many times in her childhood, somehow managing to cling to life, she is the centre of her mother's world, swamping everything and everyone with her requirements, draining the families financial as well as emotional resources, isolating them. Eventually the two sisters seem to work out an understanding, a relationship, even love for each other, although, as with everything in this family, there's something not quite right.
Because of the way that Grovian goes about drawing out the story of Bender's background and therefore her reasons for violently killing a complete stranger, there's a lot of ground gone back over. As she constantly lies about her past, Grovian is forced to look for the sprinklings of truth within the lies and slowly and steadily disprove the lies, forcing Bender back and back over the same ground, coaxing the truth from the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Because of that narrative device, the pace is slow, emotional, repetitive and intricate. The reader is given every opportunity to share Grovian's frustration, but at the same time you also get a feeling for Bender's distress, her desperation. Whatever it is that she doesn't want known is held close, she's desperate to obfuscate, confuse, deny, avoid. Particularly interesting was the way that Bender's family members, in particular, are characterised. Seen, as they are, mostly from Bender's point of view, there's something misty about them, hesitantly revealing her father's ineffectiveness, her mother's madness, and her sister's memory. It's particularly interesting that Magdalena is both transparent, weak, seemingly just about incapable of even basic communication; yet she's ultimately revealed as a much stronger personality, capable of manipulation, more able than originally contemplated. Remembering that we were viewing Bender's family from her perspective, and the role that Magdalena's entire existence had such a profound affect on Bender - made it a particularly thought-provoking aspect.
THE SINNER isn't a straight-forward book. Part thriller, a most unusual psychological study, it wasn't an easy book to read but it was an extremely thought-provoking, worthwhile book to read.
THE CALLER - Karin Fossum
One mild summer evening Lily and her husband are enjoying a meal while their baby daughter sleeps peacefully in her pram beneath a maple tree. But when Lily steps outside she is paralysed with terror. The child is bathed in blood.
Inspector Sejer is called to the hospital to meet the family. Mercifully the baby is unharmed, but her parents are deeply shaken. Sejer spends the evening trying to comprehend why anyone would carry out such a sinister prank.
One of the most exciting things about a new book from Karin Fossum is exactly where she's going to take the reader this time. The scenarios, the crimes, the individuals that Fossum incorporates in her books are always very thought provoking, and THE CALLER was certainly no different.
From the moment that a young child is found in her pram, in the backyard of her parent's home, bathed in blood; through the mysterious delivery of a message to Inspector Sejer's door; into the story of Johnny and his drunken, irresponsible mother and the touching relationship he has with his grandfather; there's something very very different going on in this book. THE CALLER is very much about consequences. The acts of one irresponsible, foolish prankster who continues to cause havoc with practical jokes that annoy, frighten and discomfort. Even though the nature of the crime being committed as part of these jokes is sometimes obvious, sometimes a little obscure, Inspector Sejer does his best to find the perpetrator as the level of concern grows. The problem is that the perpetrator is clever, and very cool and collected, and you just know the outcomes are going to get worse.
THE CALLER takes the reader into the world of both victims and perpetrators - an unusual position in crime fiction where the victim is frequently necessarily silent. Whilst this provides a different perspective it is, as usual, Fossum's way of lighting the dark recesses of human behaviour that stand out in this book. Although there's nothing judgemental about the way that she does this - as in other books, it's a matter of the author drawing the picture, explaining the acts and describing the consequences, leaving the question of guilt or innocence, inexcusable acts and mitigating circumstances open to the reader to consider.
All of this is delivered in a simple, lyrical, extremely readable manner. THE CALLER is really another excellent entry in the ongoing series based around Inspector Sejer. The books, however, could easily be read as standalones or out of series order if needs must. But reading them all is no trial whatsoever.