Thursday, 26 September 2019

Book Review: AFTER SHE'S GONE by Camilla Grebe

Author: Camilla Grebe
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

In a small backwater town in Sweden, a young boy with a dark secret comes across a diary. As a cold case investigation suddenly becomes eerily current, a police investigator mysteriously disappears. What links these seemingly random events?

As atrocious acts from the past haunt the present and lives are changed forever, some will struggle to remember - while others struggle to forget . . .

My musings:

I was very excited when I stumbled across THE ICE BENEATH HER earlier this year. I love Scandinavian thrillers, and Camilla Grebe ticked all the boxes for me with her police procedural. I was hoping to see psychological profiler Hanne Lagerlind-SchΓΆn back in another book, and with AFTER SHE’S GONE my wish has been granted!

The story starts out with the type of atmospheric setting that makes this book series so irresistible for me. Ormberg, a small backwater town amidst a large Swedish forest in the snow is as good as it gets as far as backdrops to dark Nordic thrillers go. Add a few eclectic small town characters, an abandoned factory, a mysterious cairn and a couple of bodies and the scene is set. It was at this point that I knew I was in for a real treat, and the book surely delivered it all!

Grebe uses three narrators to tell her latest story, and manages to pull off one of the most difficult things a writer can do – to make each of them as interesting and compelling as the others, so I was equally invested in all their fates. Jake, a young teenage boy who witnesses something on a dark winter night that will have huge implications for many lives – but he cannot tell anyone, for reasons of his own. Malin, a young police officer who had been born and raised in Ormberg and has now been forced to return here from her new city home to help with a murder investigation. And last but not least there is Hanne, who has been found wandering the dark forest covered in blood and no memory of what has happened to her. Peter, her lover and partner has disappeared and the police hold grave fears that he has come to harm.

Grebe has created a multi-faceted plot here that takes some time to establish, but she does so skilfully and with that constant air of underlying menace and tension that makes this genre so compelling for me. As the small town of Ormberg came to life in my mind, I realised that it shares the characteristics of small dying towns everywhere. In a place where people have been robbed of their livelihoods by outsourcing, where small businesses have long gone bust and resentment is rife, a simmering hatred is looking for someone to blame. And who could be more convenient scapegoats  than the group of asylum seekers that have been houses in the abandoned factory buildings? Grebe brings up a lot of contemporary issues here, which made this both an entertaining but also thought provoking read.

If you have met Hanne in Grebe’s earlier novel, you will know that she has a long battle ahead of her. Suffering from early onset dementia she is faced with losing everything she holds dear. Her struggle is well portrayed, and my heart ached for her in this latest book. I am not sure how Hanne will fare, but she seems so real to me that I am truly saddened by her plight. To help her remember, Hanne keeps a journal where she writes everything that happens in her day, which allows her to still use her extensive knowledge of criminal profiling to assist in murder cases. Her diary features strongly here, even maybe not in the way you would expect. It gives a heartbreaking insight into her life, and one that made this book touch me in a way that many other police procedurals haven’t managed to.

I really appreciated the way Grebe slowly leads us to the final reveal in a way that the reader can follow the breadcrumbs and see where they are leading – only to be completely gobsmacked by another aspect of the story that was simply genius. So whilst I could see some aspects of the final reveal fall into place, I was not prepared for the whole complexity of this very clever plot!


All in all, AFTER SHE’S GONE is a perfect read for anyone who loves complex, well thought out Nordic thrillers featuring contemporary issues and an atmospheric setting. I have really come to love this series and hope that the next instalment will be translated into English soon so I can find out how Hanne will fare in future. 

Book Review: THE BUTTERFLY GIRL (Naomi Cottle #2) by Rene Denfeld

Title: THE BUTTERFLY GIRL (Naomi Cottle #2)
Author: Rene Denfeld
Publisher: Harper
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: 1 October 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

A year ago, Naomi, the investigator with an uncanny ability for finding missing children, made a promise that she would not take another case until she finds the younger sister who has been missing for years. Naomi has no picture, not even a name. All she has is a vague memory of a strawberry field at night, black dirt under her bare feet as she ran for her life.

The search takes her to Portland, Oregon, where scores of homeless children wander the streets like ghosts, searching for money, food, and companionship. The sharp-eyed investigator soon discovers that young girls have been going missing for months, many later found in the dirty waters of the river. Though she does not want to get involved, Naomi is unable to resist the pull of children in need—and the fear she sees in the eyes of a twelve-year old girl named Celia. Running from an abusive stepfather and an addict mother, Celia has nothing but hope in the butterflies—her guides and guardians on the dangerous streets. She sees them all around her, tiny iridescent wisps of hope that soften the edges of this hard world and illuminate a cherished memory from her childhood—the Butterfly Museum, a place where everything is safe and nothing can hurt her.

As danger creeps closer, Naomi and Celia find echoes of themselves in one another, forcing them each to consider the question: Can you still be lost even when you’ve been found? But will they find the answer too late?

My musings:

I absolutely loved Denfeld’s previous novel  THE CHILD FINDER, and couldn’t wait to hear more about Naomi and her quest to find missing children. 

In THE BUTTERLY GIRL, Naomi’s search for her missing sister takes her to the city of Portland, Oregon, where countless children are forced to live on the streets. Lately, several bodies of young homeless girls have been found in the river, and the word is out in the homeless community that a killer is targeting the city’s most vulnerable. Among those children is Celia, a young girl who has been forced to escape the nightly visits by her stepfather by leaving home and living on the streets, after her drug addict mother and the justice system have failed to protect her from sexual abuse. To survive the horror and bleakness of life on the streets, Celia’s mind conjures up butterflies – hundreds of bright, colourful creatures that give her solace and accompany her wherever she goes.

I love the way Denfeld manages to bring her fictional characters to life in such a way that they haunted me long after I finished the story. Celia is a character who will steal your heart – I just wanted to give her a hug! Denfeld, who has been homeless and living on the streets herself as a kid, is not afraid to expose the sinister side of the city many of us never get to see, but she does so with empathy and hope that salvation is possible, and that the lost can be found. I find it inspiring and heart warming how the author herself has been, and still is, a foster parent, giving a loving home to many children in need. So despite themes that are sad and heart breaking, Denfeld’s writing is lyrical and uplifting, the way Celia’s butterflies create a rainbow swirl of hope in her mind and readers’ hearts.

I found that in this book, Celia features more prominently than Naomi, who is so intent on her quest to find her lost sister that she has little energy left to fight for the many homeless children she encounters in the city, Celia among them. For me, Celia was definitely the star of the story here. Her chapters are raw and will undoubtedly trigger a lot of emotions in readers. As a parent, I found her scenes especially hard to read, because it is terrifying to think how children as young as Celia are forced to survive in terrible circumstances. I see it as a huge failure of our society that we cannot protect our most vulnerable, the children!

However, the character of Naomi remained a bit of an enigma for me in this latest instalment. I found her to be distracted and distant, and where I thought she should have bonded much more easily with Celia, she remained oddly aloof, intent solely on finding her sister. Whilst the mystery surrounding Naomi’s sister was something that revealed a little bit more about the girls’ terrible past (which was interesting), I found the premise a bit farfetched and lacking in the kind of tension the mystery in THE CHILD FINDER offered. Maybe I missed something, but some of the connections and decisions Naomi makes in the book did not totally make sense to me.


All in all, I enjoyed Celia’s moving story in THE BUTTERFLY GIRL more than Naomi’s chapters, and hope that Naomi will go back to investigating cases of missing children in future books. I freely admit that I am not good at suspending disbelief, which is probably why this story did not totally hit the mark for me. However, I really enjoy Denfeld’s lyrical writing style and her keen observations of life on the streets, which she describes with a level of empathy and insight missing in many other novels with a similar subject matter. I look forward to reading more of this series in future.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Harper for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Book Review: THE LYING ROOM by Nicci French

Author: Nicci French
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: 1 October 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ all the stars!

Book Description:

It should have been just a mid-life fling. A guilty indiscretion that Neve Connolly could have weathered. An escape from twenty years of routine marriage to her overworked husband, and from her increasingly distant children. But when Neve pays a morning-after visit to her lover, Saul, and finds him brutally murdered, their pied-Γ -terre still heady with her perfume, all the lies she has so painstakingly stitched together threaten to unravel.

After scrubbing clean every trace of her existence from Saul’s life—and death—Neve believes she can return to normal, shaken but intact. But she can’t get out of her head the one tormenting question: what was she forgetting?

An investigation into the slaying could provide the answer. It’s brought Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Hitching, and Neve’s worst fears, to her door. But with every new lie, every new misdirection to save herself, Neve descends further into the darkness of her betrayal—and into more danger than she ever imagined. Because Hitching isn’t the only one watching Neve. So is a determined killer who’s about to make the next terrifying move in a deadly affair….

My musings:

Let me begin by saying that I have been a huge Nicci French fan ever since reading THE MEMORY GAME over twenty years ago, and I have read each and every book by this fantastic writer duo as soon as they came out ever since. You can therefore imagine my delight when I received an ARC of their latest novel THE LYING ROOM from Netgalley! And I am even more delighted to say that it was another five star read for me!

To truly appreciate Nicci French novels you must know that these are slow burning, character driven mysteries. Their power lies in the keen observation of the details of ordinary people living their everyday lives. Getting up, eating breakfast, going to work, bathtime with the kids, a silly argument with your spouse, reading in your flannelette pyjamas. Boring, Except that it’s not. Because among those ordinary people usually hides evil. Ordinary person next door or psychopath? Sometimes it seems to be a very fine line. But it’s those small details that bring the characters to life, make them relatable, ratchet up tension. If it can happen to them, it could happen to us. Ordinary lives spiralling out of control through just one small decision, one white lie, one step in the wrong direction. It’s then that the ordinary becomes sinister, terrifying, the stuff of nightmares.

THE LYING ROOM is no different.  Here, our main character is Neve, a middle-aged woman and mother living an ordinary existence in London. After twenty or so years of marriage, the relationship has become a bit stale and routine. After a recent merger at work, even her job has lost its excitement, and the colleagues she has known since college are all getting older, too. Her oldest child is on the verge of leaving home, whilst the younger ones are firmly entrenched in a routine of school and homework and hanging out with friends. So is it really so surprising that Neve has a quick guilty fling with her boss, who for a moment or two makes her feel desired, and beautiful, and exciting? It would probably have all taken its course, except that one morning Neve receives a text from her lover to go and see him urgently. When she gets to his flat, she finds him dead on the floor, brutally stabbed to death.

What would you do? Call the police and confess your affair, risking your marriage, your career, the respect of your friends and children? Or leave, hide, pretend this has never happened?

Neve makes her choice, and her life will never be the same again. Like the gentle flutter of butterfly wings, her actions will have consequences and cause an avalanche of extraordinary events in her ordinary life. Slowly but inevitably, the line of dominos is tumbling, faster and faster until everything will come crashing down. It’s this gradual unravelling that creates almost unbearable tension that characterises Nicci French’s books and which always makes me come back for more. That, and the foray into the darker corners of the human psyche that make you look at your neighbours, your colleagues, your friends a bit closer, more suspiciously. Can you really be sure to recognise the psychopath in your midst?

THE LYING ROOM lived up to all my expectations and more. I devoured it. It may be a slow burner, but this small simmering fire soon consumed me and made me read frantically until late into the night. I couldn’t get enough of this book!


All in all, THE LYING ROOM was a clever, multi layered, descriptive domestic noir story that may have simmered slowly but with such tension that it really got under my skin – like only Nicci French can! With everyday details that could have been taken from my life, or yours, or the person next door’s, one decision causes an avalanche of events that will have your reading late into the night – right to its terrifying finale. A masterful psychological thriller I enjoyed immensely!

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

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Sunday, 8 September 2019

Book Review: HERE TO STAY by Mark Edwards

Author: Mark Edwards
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

A beautiful home. A loving wife. And in-laws to die for.

Gemma Robinson comes into Elliot’s life like a whirlwind, and they marry and settle into his home. When she asks him if her parents can come to stay for a couple of weeks, he is keen to oblige – he just doesn’t quite know what he’s signing up for.

The Robinsons arrive with Gemma’s sister, Chloe, a mysterious young woman who refuses to speak or leave her room. Elliot starts to suspect that the Robinsons are hiding a dark secret. And then there are the scars on his wife’s body that she won’t talk about . . .

As Elliot’s in-laws become more comfortable in his home, encroaching on all aspects of his life, it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving out. To protect Gemma, and their marriage, Elliot delves into the Robinsons’ past. But is he prepared for the truth?

My musings:

Author Mark Edwards describes his psychological thrillers as stories “in which scary things happen to ordinary people”. No kidding! I actually had nightmares about this book and felt so stressed throughout that it gave me a tension headache. This is the third book this month where ordinary people have had their homes taken over by evil houseguests, and I don’t like it! It freaks me out!!!!

After a whirlwind romance followed closely by marriage to the gorgeous Gemma, science teacher Elliot feels like his life is complete. He has everything he can ever want: a loving partner, a beautiful home, a job he loves and an adored cat who is like a child to him. That’s until his in-laws come to stay for two weeks – and never move out. Which in itself is terrifying, except that you have no idea how bad it can get, because these are not your average family but a bunch of utter psychopaths! Sweet Elliot, whose own parents are long dead, has no chance against the destructive force that is about to be unleashed on his life.

This is my third book by Mark Edwards, and he is becoming a go-to author for me when I want a truly terrifying domestic noir thriller that messes with my mind. His stories are never predictable, and neither do they always end the way I would like, i.e. the good guys win, the bad ones get punished, or swallowed by a black hole, or incinerated by the breath of an avenging dragon. Instead, there are crazy twists at every turn, some so hair-raising that if this was a scary movie I would have to turn the volume on low and peek through my fingers. No such luck here, though. The story slowly unrolled in all its horrifying glory, and I felt like I had knives thrown at my heart. I am relieved to hear that this story has not been inspired by the author’s own in-laws, who apparently are lovely (really????).

As I am sitting here writing this review, I still feel the remnants of tension in my gut, the sort that only a stiff drink and a night off the thrillers can fix. At this stage I am determined that I am never going to have houseguests ever again!

Phew, deep breath! In summary, if you like a tense, nightmarish thriller that will take over your dreams like the evil houseguests in Mark Edward’s latest story, then go for it! Disclaimer: if you suffer from high blood pressure, anxiety or poor impulse control (i.e. book throwing), do not enter into this without consulting your doctor first. Also, this book is like reading about a plane crash before embarking on a long-haul flight, so if your in-laws’ visit is imminent, I recommend skipping it for now. Who am I kidding? This book is pure hell!!!!! Enter at your own risk! And don’t say I didn’t warn you ....

Thank you to Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Book Review: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell

Author: Lisa Jewell
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ all the stars!

Book Description:

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

My musings:

THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS is a prefect example of why Lisa Jewell is one of my all-time favourite authors! It was exactly what I had been hoping and more, and it was so deliciously dark and creepy. I must also say that I really enjoyed the narration of the audio book version, which may have further contributed to the suspense, since I was unable to skip parts in my curiosity and for some time had absolutely no idea where the story was headed. I did however spend a lot more time in my car, driving extra slowly to prolong the experience and even sat in my driveway in the dark to listen just a little bit longer.

The story rolls out in three separate narratives by three different characters: Libby, Lucy and Henry. It took me quite some time to connect the three together, and some parts of the mystery didn’t fall into place until very late in the book, which made me form all sorts of weird and wonderful theories – and it still managed to take me by surprise with that WTH!!!??? moment towards the end that totally floored me.

On Libby Jones’25th birthday, she receives a letter from her solicitor to inform her that she has inherited a large house in a wealthy London suburb. But with the joy of sudden wealth also comes another bombshell, because Libby finds out that she was once known as Serenity Lamb, a ten-months old baby who was found in the house with the bodies of three adults – both her birth parents and an unidentified adult male. The case has never been solved.

Meanwhile, a thirty-nine year old woman called Lucy is living rough on the streets of Southern France with her two children, playing her fiddle to pay for food and a bed for the night. One day a message flags up on her phone: “The baby is twenty-five.”

Henry, our third character, is recalling memories of a carefree childhood in a large mansion in Chelsea with his socialite parents. Until the money ran out, and the family upstairs moved in and took over their home.

So how do these characters all tie in together? What really happened to Libby / Serenity as a baby? Who was the dead man in her parents’ home? There were so many questions, and the joy lay in the gradual unravelling of the mystery in the clever, suspenseful way that Jewell is famous for. Each and every character’s voice was unique and compelling, and managed to create not only an air of mystery but a mounting tension that had me on the edge of my seat. I also remember feeling indignation and anger at one point, as I was becoming way too emotionally involved with the characters!


THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS was the type of clever, suspenseful and multi-layered mystery that has made Lisa Jewell an auto-buy author for me. It was one of my most anticipated new releases this year, and I was not disappointed. I loved every minute of this book, and one that has wormed its way into my psyche – I still keep thinking about it! If you love a mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end, and still manages to surprise you in a way that is not over the top crazy in the way other “killer twists” are, then you should definitely put this on your reading list right now!

You may also like:

THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS is the third book I have read this month that features strangers taking over someone's home. Personally, I find that very stressful, and I got quite angry at times, but if you are a fan of such unbearable tension and, like me, keep coming back for more, then you may also like these books:

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Book Review: REWIND by Catherine Ryan Howard

Title: REWIND 
Author: Catherine Ryan Howard
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Read: September 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Andrew, the manager of Shanamore Holiday Cottages, watches his only guest via a hidden camera in her room. One night the unthinkable happens: a shadowy figure emerges onscreen, kills her and destroys the camera. But who is the murderer? How did they know about the camera? And how will Andrew live with himself?

Natalie wishes she'd stayed at home as soon as she arrives in the wintry isolation of Shanamore. There's something creepy about the manager. She wants to leave, but she can't - not until she's found what she's looking for...

This is an explosive story about a murder caught on camera. You've already missed the start. To get the full picture you must rewind the tape and play it through to the end, no matter how shocking...

My musings:

Ever since reading DISTRESS SIGNALS, the name Catherine Ryan Howard has been on my radar as an author I will seek out when looking for a good thriller with that different element that makes it stand out from the rest – and this one was no exception.

Play: the brutal murder of a young woman caught on camera.
Pause: who is the victim, and how did she get to be there?
Rewind:  to understand what has happened you will have to retrace the victim’s steps to the beginning.

Have you ever read a book that plays out like a film clip? To me, the format of this story was quite unique and I had visions of sitting in front of my TV and playing, fast forwarding and rewinding the movie until I finally understood what was happening here.  Seeing that the story features a murder caught on film, the way the author chose to tell the story was not only clever but also very fitting, and really helped to set the scene in what could have been a run-of-the-mill whodunit.

But the author doesn’t just stop there. Add an atmospheric setting, a couple of truly creepy characters, a bit of social media to make it all contemporary and an enigmatic and plucky amateur sleuth, and you have a story that was both suspenseful as well as addictive. I admit that it took me a little while to work out the timeline, partly because I started to read the book when I had very little time on my hands to devote to it. In hindsight it is one of those stories you will want to set time aside for to devour it over a couple of sittings to get the most out of it. It’s definitely not a book to read when you are tired and in the mood for “just a couple of pages before I turn out the light”. I am glad that I had a long car journey to devour the second half of the book in one big chunk because by then I was so firmly hooked that I had to find out answers!

I am not going to say any more. Like most mysteries, this one relies on its surprise factor and I don’t want to spoil anything for other readers. 


In summary, REWIND was a suspenseful mystery told in a unique, clever way by an author who is now firmly on my radar when I am looking for something that is both original as well as utterly addictive. I really enjoyed it and recommend it to lovers of the genre who are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. And thanks a lot, Catherine Ryan Howard, for making me too terrified to ever stay in an Airbnb again!

Thank you to Edelweiss and Blackstone Publishing for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Book Review: SECRET SMILE by Nicci French

Author: Nicci French
Read: September 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ all the stars!

Book Description:

Miranda Cotton thinks she's put boyfriend Brendan out of her life for good. But two weeks later, he's intimately involved with her sister. 

Soon what began as an embarrassment becomes threatening - then even more terrifying than a girl's worst nightmare. 

Because this time Brendan will stop at nothing to be part of Miranda's life - even if it means taking it from her . . .

My musings:

WOW – what an intense book! I don’t think that Nicci French books are good for my blood pressure! Anyone who chats with me on Instagram may have read my rant as I was halfway through this book and in the grip of some very strong emotion:

“I feel so outraged right now. Shocked. Sickened. Physically ill. I have such a bad feeling about this!”

This was around the 50% mark and I have to say that the feeling persisted until the very end, and I am still not totally vindicated.

Miranda may have believed that after a short and foolish fling, she is finally rid of creepy Brendan for good, but now he has firmly inserted himself like a big fat cuckoo’s egg right into the heart of her family. Brendan is out for revenge, but no one believes her. They have all fallen for his charm. Nothing good can possibly come from this ...

Take it from me when I say that this book is not to be entered into lightly. Brendan may be one of the most sinister everyday characters I have ever encountered. I am so glad that I am no longer in the dating game, or I may feel tempted to take up a hermit’s life in a mountain cave with ten cats because who would like to tempt fate? I felt intense anger through most of this book and at one stage I vividly remember yelling out loud and having to put the book aside for fear that my head may explode.

So why did this man get under my skin like this? Burrowed his way into my psyche like a parasite? It’s no accident that I am a huge Nicci French fan, because this writer duo sure know how to tap into our worst fears and nightmares. With a keen eye for detail and an eerie insight into the dark places of the human psyche, the story rolled out slowly but with such a sinister undertone that I was feeling truly frightened for poor Miranda the whole time. Miranda, who is the only one who can see where this is all headed. Miranda, who everyone thinks is paranoid and a bit crazy. How terrible would it be to see an imminent train wreck but everyone laughs off your fears? I shudder at the thought. I found it interesting how Miranda blamed herself for unleashing this evil on her friends and family – and saw it as her moral duty to fix it. I think I would have run for the hills!

If you are a fan of slow burning mysteries that look deeply into the dark places of the human heart, and enjoy an evil, psychopathic main character, then enter this one at your own risk. I am still feeling a little bit of simmering anger like a fire that has not been fully extinguished when I think about this book. Such is the genius of Nicci French. Bye bye Brendan, I may see you in my nightmares ...

Very highly recommended, but make sure to take your blood pressure meds!

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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Book Review: CONFESSION WITH BLUE HORSES by Sophie Hardach

Author: Sophie Hardach
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Read: August 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

Tobi and Ella’s childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past in full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family's daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive. Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses?

In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession.

When Ella is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her fate clashes with Aaron's, and together they piece together the details of Ella's past ... and a family destroyed.

Devastating and beautifully written, funny and life-affirming, CONFESSIONS WITH BLUE HORSES explores intimate family life and its strength in the most difficult of circumstances.

My musings:

Are you old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? As a child growing up near the (then) Czechoslovakian border, a line of barbed wire that, according to my grandmother, gave way to a minefield, with watchtowers casting beams of light into the night, I had always been aware of the divide between East and West. We grew up with stories of people trying to flee across borders, concealed in cars, swimming across dark waters or running through dense forests, and getting shot by border guards. There was a song that used to make me cry, of someone imagining freedom on the other side of the wall. So when I read the premise of this book, it was very much close to my heart!

CONFESSION WITH BLUE HORSES is a heart-breaking story of the Valentin family living in East Berlin in the former GDR, in a small apartment close to the Wall. Regine and Jochen Valentin may have well-respected positions in academia and have a reasonably good life in the East, but feel stifled by the restrictions of the Socialist government. In a country where everyone is always watching you, and an informer and traitor could be living in your own home, it is dangerous to have dreams. So it is no surprise that tragedy soon follows in their wake.

Twenty years later, Ella Valentin and her brother Tobi are adults living in London. Whilst Tobi has left their childhood trauma behind and has made a good life for himself, Ella still lives in the shadow of her mother’s past and the disappearance of their little brother Heiko. Now that her mother is dead, it is up to her to continue searching for him, and she decides to go to Berlin to find some information in the old GDR archives that may give her some clues as to where to look for him.

Did you know that the East German state took children from politically undesirable parents and gave them up for adoption to punish them for their “unruly behaviour"? This was also supposed to ensure that the children would receive a good socialist upbringing from their adoptive parents, who were chosen amongst those loyal to the party line. This policy targeted parents who had been trying to escape and had been caught, and whose children were forcibly removed from them, as was the case with the Valentin children. Whilst Ella and Tobi, as the older children, were allowed to remain in their grandmother’s care, the baby Heiko – a much more desirable child for adoption – was taken away and never heard from again. How utterly heartbreaking! I could not imagine many worse things than having your child taken from you, and never knowing his fate, and I shed many a tear over this when reading Sophie Hardach’s touching story.

Hardach does a great job in describing life in the former GDR both through adults’ as well as a child’s eyes. Whilst Ella remembers  her childhood before their attempt to escape fondly, her mother’s view is a very different one. I loved the way the painting of the blue horses had a double meaning in the story – it also meant something very personal to me, as I have special childhood memories attached to Frank Marc’s painting of his blue horses. Hardach’s story really touched my heart, maybe because my childhood was coloured by living close to the iron curtain and I related to many of her descriptions of the era. I also really enjoyed the reactions of various characters to life after the fall of the wall – what an eye opener!


All in all, CONFESSION WITH BLUE HORSES was a heart-breaking snapshot of life in the former GDR, taken both through a child’s and adult eyes. Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate Hardach’s eye for detail when describing East Berlin and her account of living under the ever-watchful eye of an unforgiving socialist government. Very highly recommended, even though the title may seem a bit strange ....

Thank you to Netgalley and Head of Zeus for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.