The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

The Chalet: the most exciting new debut crime thriller of 2020 - with a twist you won’t see coming by [Catherine Cooper]

In January 1998 two skiers separate from their guides and go missing during a blizzard in the French Alps. Only one of them is found. Twenty-two years later, at the same ski resort, Hugo and Ria entertain a potential investor in Hugo’s struggling business and his young wife. They are staying at a luxurious chalet, waited on by a chalet girl, Millie. The scene for a perilous slalom through this thrilling mystery is set. It will ultimately lead to the finish line where the events of the past merge with the present and culminate in chilling disclosures.

Cooper’s narrative is gripping and her characterisation flawless. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of individual characters. The reader gains first-hand insights into their memories and feelings, which may be fragmented at times and biased, but that’s what makes them credible. Although there are many characters taking over the narration in turns, Cooper doesn’t lose her overall control over the plot which powers forward unhindered by too much baggage. New POVs are introduced into the story gradually and are layered in such a way that each person remains constant but the story acquires different new dimensions.

The Chalet is a tightly plotted and expertly delivered psychological thriller with a punchy conclusion.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes

Still Me is a third book in a trilogy. I hadn’t read the first two, but that didn’t matter. The story is so skilfully developed that I just dived into it and in no time felt like a little fish frolicking in a friendly pond. All the characters were fully fleshed out and multi-layered. They weren’t just cardboard cut-outs, but talking, feeling, walking people complete with their shadows, their past, their secrets and their quirks. Their stories flew and crossed with one another, and all of them were delivered to a satisfactory resolution. New beginnings, heart breaks, up and downs, injustices and small acts of kindness were assembled together to create a rich background to what, in essence, was a classic love story.
Heart-warming, life-affirming, sweet, uplifting and adorable are the kind of superlatives I wouldn’t hesitate to use to sum up Still Me, and that’s some compliment because I am not a romantic. I enjoyed it just like I sometimes enjoy a box of chocolates, which always takes me by surprise as chocolate isn’t my thing.

The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup

This is a classic Scandinavian crime noir. It has all the essential ingredients: a series of gruesome murders, a strong female detective, a damaged and complex male detective, and dark, brooding atmosphere. There are painful secrets and the storyline manoeuvres across and through the body of evidence, closer and closer to the perpetrator. The perpetrator is psychopathic and seemingly inhuman, but at the same time highly intelligent. He knows how to play the police and on some level he interacts with the detectives, pokes and probes them, and manipulates their investigation. This draws the reader into the events on a more personal, intimate level.

Perhaps because the Nordic crime fiction is so crowded these days, I found myself craving something more, something different, something to make this book stand out from the rest and render it unique.

As much as it was a compelling piece of fiction, that something special eluded the author. Assuming that this is the first instalment in a series, I am expecting Sveistrup to develop that personal trademark as he builds this brand. I would most certainly read the next book.

French Exit by Patrick de Witt

French Exit is so deliciously decadent that you will want to drink it, shaken not stirred. It is classy, it is wicked and it is irreverent.

The assemble of characters dazzles. The three main heroes (though they don’t qualify for that term in any way, shape of form) are Frances, Malcolm and Small Frank. Frances is an extravagant rich widow hellbent of self-destruction, financially and otherwise. Her son Malcolm is a man frozen in inaction, content to drift through life without any clear direction or destination, sort of attached to his mother like a barnacle to the underbelly of a sinking ship. And Small Frank is the late husband-father who has found home in a body of a domestic cat.

In transit to self-destruction Francis, accompanied by her two dependants, makes a stop in Paris.

At first sight you may think this book shallow, degenerate and immoral, but very soon you come to realise that there is a depth of despair and surrender under the surface of flamboyance and extravagance. Patrick de Witt is very elegant in hinting at it. He doesn’t tell you about it. He doesn’t let his characters tell you about it. Still, you know that depth sits there – the root of all trouble.

The story is character driven, and each character is a scream – unique, distinct and irredeemable. But you wish them well, you root for them, you hope for them.

It is a riot of a book!

 

The Humans by Matt Haig

If I ever read a feel-good book, this is it. It is humanity-affirming, optimistic and generous of heart.

An alien being takes on a human form – that of professor of mathematics, Andrew – and comes down to earth to kill everybody whom the professor may have appraised of his great discovery that would give humans knowledge for which they aren’t ready. Flowed, weird and utterly illogical to the alien, unbeknown to themselves, the humans manage to charm him and get a stay of execution.

The book is entirely predictable. I am not betraying any great secrets or twists for there aren’t any. You will know very soon into the book that the humans in Andrew’s life will get our alien onto their side. But the predictability doesn’t matter. It is the spirit of this book that is so sweet and so endearing that you will want to keep reading. It is also the poignancy and almost Christ-like self-sacrifice of our alien that captures your heart. And last but not least, it is the hilarity of the alien’s observations of human rituals and his definitions of our everyday objects. Seen from the perspective of an alien, we are laughable – in a good way.

How to be Good by Nick Hornby

 

I must be one of the only two people who, until now, has not read How to Be Good, and if you’re reading this review, you must be the other. Years wasted! The book is a cracker.

Katie is a good person, in her opinion: she is a doctor, provides for her family and has mild liberal views. Her husband David is the devil: opinionated, cynical and lazy. But David undergoes a sudden transformation, and it seems like it is he who ends up teaching Katie how to be good.

His metamorphosis starts with the shock of Katie asking for divorce. She is shocked by it herself. It isn’t because she is having an affair with Stephen, it is rather than she is emotionally spent. And that’s not good. David finds a guru in the person of DJ GoodNews, a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a saviour. Instead of fighting Katie for the house, for the custody of their children or even for the survival of their marriage, David goes about giving everything away and saving those less fortunate than himself, often at his family’s expense. Though you get a sneaky feeling that this may be the only way of saving his marriage since he has burned all other bridges…

David transformation and Katie’s reaction to it is wonderfully presented. From reacting to David’s antics Katie moves to introspection. And she is learning to let go of certain things and to hang on to others. But the beauty of this book lies in the fact that it is free from the so-called absolute truths or values and free from didacticism. Instead, it bristles with humour and sharp observations of the middle classes, mid-life crises and all that middle-of-the-road fluff our lives are stuffed with.

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw

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Lorna, a self-confessed agnostic, steps in front of a car and dies. Whether it was an accident or suicide is subject to debate. Lorna wakes up in heaven, but it isn’t heaven in the conventional sense of the word: it is a malfunctioning spacecraft operated by aliens, God being one of them. I found Laidlaw’s concept of heaven fascinating and totally different from my own version of it in Paula Goes to Heaven. Laidlaw’s heaven is scientifically justifiable and would make good sense to many a rational disbeliever.

God, too, isn’t what we have come to expect him to be. He’s a tracksuit-wearing geyser, struggling with his command of the ship and of his crew, especially the irreverent, chain-smoking Irene. He is painted with many humorous touches of the paintbrush, as is his heavenly abode. But the tracksuit doesn’t detract from the fact that he is God: he saved man from self-obliteration by lending his own DNA to us and he keeps a watchful eye over how we progress on earth. He also works in mysterious ways as his reasons for choosing Lorna remain obscure.

Lorna’s life memories are regenerated in heaven: her working class family, her best friend, the flamboyant Suzie, her lovers and the challenging world at large she cared passionately about. She is learning about who she was in life. Laidlaw leads her to a full disclosure with a steady and assured hand.

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead isn’t your average sci-fi book. It is much more than that. It is poignant and philosophical. It will make you think.