SJ2B House of Books

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Girl Who Wasn't There by Ferdinand von Schirach

The Girl Who Wasn't There by Ferdinand von Schirach
GenreMystery & Thrillers, Literature, Fiction
Pages: 224
Format: e-ARC
ISBN: 9780349140469
PublisherLittle Brown Book Group UK
Source: Publisher/Netgalley

Waterstones Book of the Month (July 2015)

Sebastian von Eschburg, scion of a wealthy, self-destructive family, survived his disastrous childhood to become a celebrated if controversial artist. He casts a provocative shadow over the Berlin scene; his disturbing photographs and installations show that truth and reality are two distinct things.
When Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman and the police investigation takes a sinister turn, seasoned lawyer Konrad Biegler agrees to represent him - and hopes to help himself in the process. But Biegler soon learns that nothing about the case, or the suspect, is what it appears. The new thriller from the acclaimed author of The Collini CaseThe Girl Who Wasn't There is dark, ingenious and irresistibly gripping.

My Thoughts:
My initial response on completion was that I didn't like the book. I felt uncomfortable with some of the subject matter. The prose in the first half felt clunky, clipped and disjointed. Then the second half felt more coherent and better put together. The two halves felt disconnected; two different books. Overall, 'The Girl Who Wasn't There' was an interesting read but one which at times felt rather arty and pretentious with too much poetic ambiguous embellishment and at times I was either confused or irritated by it.  A rather odd little crime novel !

After pulling it apart to find out why I didn't like the book, I actually began to appreciate how clever Ferdinand von Schirach had been in creating this complex novel and that what I disliked was not the book itself but my reaction to particular scenes and subject matter. However on reflection I think they were necessary to tune into the mindset of the character concerned.  I won't divulge what these scenes were as it would spoil the storyline and enjoyment of the read for others.  Everything it seems was intended to offend or provoke some form of reaction or thought response. A rather clever little crime novel !

My main concern for 'The Girl Who Wasn't There' is that readers will give up after the first half perhaps feeling as I did, alienated and disconnected to Sebastian von Eschburg and therefore, not give it the chance it deserves.

The pacing of first half of the book is slow, dark, abstract and disjointed with short, sharp sentences.  It concentrates on Sebastian von Eschburg a ten year old boy who is different to most children his age. He sees the world around him in the form of colours rather than objects.
"He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his hair, as he saw it, shone violet with a touch of ochre; his father’s skin was a pale greenish blue."
Sebastian lives a lonely, detached existence and after his father's suicide he is sent away to boarding school by his emotionally absent mother where he becomes ever more insular.  It is at boarding school where he finds an outlet and is able to make sense of the world with his new found interest in photography in which he develops a real talent.
The second half of the book focuses on Monika Landau, the prosecutor, and Konrad Biegler, the defence lawyer who Sebastian requests to represent him when he is accused of murder in unusual circumstances.  This half is in total contrast and is faster paced, much more engaging and rewarding and ultimately leads to the (not too unexpected in my case) conclusion.
For me the main weakness in the book is the title itself. Originally entitled 'Tabu' for its German publication it was renamed 'The Girl Who Wasn't There' for its English speaking audience. Interesting and complex a plot as it is, it fell flat at the 'big reveal', and to my mind the former title is more suited due to the provocative themes in the main of the storyline, rather than the latter which focuses on its conclusion.
Not a must read book but certainly an interesting and thought provoking one including themes of violence, the representation of sex and violence as an art form, sex trafficking, and torture.
'The Girl Who Wasn't There' by Ferdinand von Schirach, a defence attorney himself and author of 'The Collini Case' is most definitely not your usual crime thriller and certainly not going to be for everyone but I'd definitely recommend it to those who have read, 'The Collini Case'  and Albert Camus' 'The Stranger' and to those appreciative in the arts particularly art vs pornography and the justice system.
A great choice for book reading groups with plenty of 'food for thought' topics for discussion.
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of 'The Girl Who Wasn't There' was provided by Liitle Brown via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

NELLY DEAN by Alison Case

Nelly Dean by Alison Case
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Format: Hardcopy ARC
ISBN: 9780008123383
Publisher: Harper Collins (13th August 2015)
Source: Publisher/

Rating: DNF

I had a hard time with this one. I truly wanted to love it but regretfully have to say that it wasn't to my liking.

I have no doubt that Alison Case's debut offering will become a best seller.  So why my lack of enthusiasm?  My first reading of Wuthering Heights was over twenty years ago and I fell in love with Emily Bronte's gothic classic.  Maybe I'm stuck in the past with my 15 year old romanticised memories of the spirited Cathy and the broody Heathcliff running wild together on the Yorkshire moors. Could it be that my memories of this classic have merged and blurred with the memory of Hollywood's 1939 film version with Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff ? Is a reread of the classic in order or should I leave it and retain my fond memories?

I digress, as the retelling of Wuthering Heights from Nelly's perspective through her written correspondence to Mr Lockwood, Nelly recounts, including less favourable details omitted in her original account, the unfortunate events that befell the families at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.  The 194 pages I managed to read felt like a chore and it became apparent that I wouldn't finish the book in time to submit my review in the deadline timeframe. Nor did I have the patience to persevere and had to admit defeat.

Nelly Dean is undoubtably well written. The pace is slow allowing the reader to become fully acquainted with the characters.  However they felt flat and uninteresting to me.  Had I continued with the novel I may have changed my view but I didn't feel connected enough to want to find out.  I may be missing out on a brilliant novel, perhaps timing was wrong, and I may try to read it again sometime.

Nelly Dean is a perfect companion to Bronte's Wuthering Heights, for fans of Jo Baker's Longbourne (of which I'm one),  Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, and Tracy Chevalier. It would certainly make an excellent book club choice.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of the book from the publisher via Lovereading for an unbiased review.

I didn't finish reading Nelly Dean and am therefore, only able give my thoughts on the chapters read and do not wish to influence the reader in any way and would like to point out that I am in a minority with my opinions and even though this one wasn't for me I look forward to Alison Case's next offering.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Shelf Inflicted: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE BY JAMES M. CAIN: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain My rating: 5 of 5 stars ”Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, tha...

If this review doesn't get you all hot under the collar and clamouring for a copy then I don't know what will. I've no idea why its taken so long for me to get around reading The a Postman Always Rings Twice but I'm certainly moving it from the very bottom of My To Read pile to near the top now.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Girl From The Garden by Parnaz Faroutan

The Girl From The Garden by Parnaz Faroutan
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women's Lives, Historical Fiction

Pages: 288
Format: e-ARC
ISBN: 9780062442864
PublisherEcco (Aug 18, 2015)
Source: Publisher/Edelweiss

THE GIRL FROM THE GARDEN’s lyrical prose and heartbreaking evocation of female struggle in a forgotten time and place is reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, but it is not just a novel about women. It is a story of Iran, of a lost cultural moment and identity that flourished before the wars and the reign of the shahs. And it is a story about family—about the things that draw us closer and perhaps inevitably push us apart.
My Thoughts:
The Girl From Garden is the debut masterpiece from Parnaz Faroutan and another one added to my favourite reads this year.  It is a powerful tale of desire, obsession, jealousy, power and vulnerability and ultimately the downfall of a wealthy Persian-Jewish family set in the early twentieth century.

Mahboubeh, the only surviving daughter of the Malacouti family, is an elderly woman who spends her time tending and talking to the plants in her garden. Mahboubeh drifts in and out of the past reliving her memories as a young girl in Iran and it is through her that we hear about a young married couple who are unable to produce an heir to ensure the continuation of the family line; and we bear witness to the tragic events and destructive forces that destroyed the family.

When Asher Malacouti's young wife fails to produce an heir and his brother's new wife becomes pregnant he decides on a course of action that will have disastrous consequences. The disdain and resentment that Asher displays toward his wife, Rakhel, will distort and shape her into a manipulative, vindictive woman.  Rakhel will go to any extremes to maintain her status within the family including the use of spells and help of djinns in this highly superstitious, spirit believing culture.

In a male dominated and strict boundary controlled environment the young women jostle with one another in a struggle to reach the most beneficial status within the unit, sacrificing any chance of true friendship or bond, and is where betrayal, and manipulation are the unending driving force.

The Girl From The Garden is all the more poignant as life for young girls is pretty much the same today as it was then. Little or no alternative exists than to be married very young to produce children, and look after their husband and family, often in oppressive and restrictive marriages, as is the case for Rakhel.

The Girl From The Garden is a beautifully written piece of literature.  Vividly depicting a world rich in detail with beautifully drawn characters who effortlessly come to life and lodge themselves into your mind.
I highly recommend The Girl from the Garden to anyone interested in learning about lives from a different time and culture and would generate lively discussion in book reading groups.

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of The Girl From The Garden was provided by Ecco via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest unbiased review.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Speak: A Novel by Louisa Hall

Speak: A Novel by Louisa Hall
Series: N/A
Genre: Fiction, sci fi,
Pages: 336 (Hardback)
Format: e-ARC
ISBN: 9780062391193
PublisherEcco (July 7, 2015)
Source: Publisher/Edelweiss


Synopsis: (Source: Hardback Book Flap)

A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of artificial intelligence—illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding.
In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century to a correctional institution in Texas in the near future, told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.
A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend's mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegally lifelike dolls.
All five characters are attempting to communicate—with estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or computer programs that may or may not understand them. Although each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, they all share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human—shrinking rapidly with today's technological advances—echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people.

Praise for Speak:
SPEAK  is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven)

“SPEAK reads like a hybrid of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood; a literary page turner that spans four centuries and examines the idea of who and what we define as human. Louisa Hall has written a brilliant novel.” (Philipp Meyer, author of The Son)

My Thoughts:
'Speak' A Novel by Louisa Hall is a multi narrative consisting of five seemingly unconnected voices distanced by geography, and alternating time periods spanning from the 1600's, to the near future of 2040.

The 'voices' have their own individual style of narrative:

Mary, a young girl sailing with her parents and her new husband from England to the Colonies uses her journal to document her anguished thoughts as an outlet for her frustrations and feelings of increasing despair and isolation. So touching and exquisitely written this was by far the most compelling narrative for me;

A Texas inmate writes his (confessional) memoirs for his part in the story;

Chat transcripts of a young girl’s internet conversations are used as evidence in the inmate’s trial;

We hear the sad, deeply moving private and individual thoughts of a couple who are drifting ever farther apart, but remaining ever closer together; again these narratives were highly emotive and deeply moving.

Alan Turing writes letters voicing his concerns about a friend to the mother, ultimately divulging his own intimate thoughts, inner turmoils and dilemmas, again sensitive,  touching and beautifully composed.

The narrators 'speak' because they have a need to be heard and understood, but they do not necessarily 'speak' to whom they really should, nor are their voices necessarily heard by their intended listener. Their private intimate divulgences may also be read out of context, misinterpreted or manipulated and used against them or people connected to them in some way by an unintended listener.  Therefore, not speaking and being misunderstood becomes a common thread in this complex tale.

These totally random stories, and characters initially appear to be unconnected, however as you read on, fragments that interconnect the voices and threads begin to come together making sense as the story unravels.

I savoured and devoured this book in equal measures and genuinely didn't want it to end. Louisa Hall is a master in the art of painting vivid imagery with the written word. With stunning, sumptuous and beautiful balletic prose, I absolutely adored this novel.

Powerfully written in its complexity, and diverse in narrative style, Speak is sheer brilliance in its construction and delivery. Fans of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas', Emily St. John Mandel's 'Station Eleven' and Erin Morgenstern's 'The Night Circus' should seek this one out as a 'must read'.

It is unfathomable to believe that 'Speak' is only the second novel from the author. I'll definitely read more from Louisa Hall and will have to contain my excitement until her next book is published.


Louisa Hall grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Haverford. After graduating from Harvard, she played squash professionally and was ranked #2 in the country. She teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. Her poems have been published in journals, such as The New Republic, The Southwest Review, and Ellipsis. 'Speak' is her second novel. She lives in Austin.

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of 'Speak' was provided by Ecco via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest unbiased review.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville
Series: DCI Serena Flanagan Crime Series #1
Genre: Crime Thriller
Format: ARC (Hardcopy)
ISBN: 9781846556975
PublisherHarvill Secker London (25 June 2015)

Source: Publisher/Dead Good Books(GoodReads)


When 12 year old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation. DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran's confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn't forgotten the kindness she showed him - in fact, she hasn't left his thoughts in the seven years he's been locked away.

Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran's confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother. When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.

My Thoughts:
Set in Belfast, 'Those We Left Behind' is an atmospheric and gripping psychological thriller.  A 'must read' for all crime thriller fans.  It follows four key characters, along two timeframes which are seamlessly executed.

Ciaran Devine is being released on parole after serving seven years for killing his foster father. His older brother, Thomas, released two years earlier is anticipating their reunion.
DCI Serena Flanagan has just returned to the department after recovering from breast cancer.
Probation Officer Paula Cunningham has been working with Ciaran to help him adjust to his release from prison.

'Those We Left Behind' is narrated in each character's point of view.  Ciaran portrays a quiet, insular, troubled and anguished child, even as an adult on release it was difficult to imagine him as a nineteen year old man. It was as if he hadn't aged mentally and just remained in the past.  I read somewhere that this often happens. That there is little emotional or mental maturing in very young offenders. Time stays still. They remain in the past, unable to develop or mature. The world moves on leaving them in stasis. The 'outside' becomes a hostile, alien place.  If this was Neville's intention to portray Ciaran as emotionally stunted then he did exactly what he set out to do.

DCI Serena Flanagan shows signs of being a maverick detective as she will fight to achieve what she believes in even if it goes against the grain and causes tension with her superiors. There is also a 
vulnerability about her which comes to the fore during her interviews with Ciaran.

Paula Cunningham, Ciaran's probation officer, believes he is innocent of the crime he confessed to and works towards helping him break free of the unnatural hold his older brother has over him and tell the truth about what happened that night.

Flanagan and Cunningham work together after a murder once again brings the brothers under suspicion. Each endeavour to unburden Ciaran of his loyalty to his brother, but Thomas is not ready to relinquish his hold and be abandoned or betrayed and trouble ensues. 

There is another strand running alongside the main storyline about the paramilitary and the difficulties encountered by the community who want to live as normal a life as possible in the aftermath of 'The Troubles'. This is only touched on with the team leaders where Ciaran finds work, but it certainly has an impact and demonstrates the current tensions and compromises of working and living alongside each other.

'Those We Left Behind' is a character driven, emotional thought-provoking read about abusive sibling relationships and obsession.  Highly compelling it is also about how violent crime affects everyone involved from the perpetrators, to the family of the victim, and the investigating team. Above all it show how there is never any real closure for those left in its aftermath.

'Those We Left Behind' is the first novel I've read by Stuart Neville and I was not disappointed. I look forward to reading what's in store for the main character DCI Serena Flanagan now that she has been awarded justifiably her own series after featuring in Neville's previous novels.

'Those We Left Behind' will surely generate some interesting discussion at book reading groups.  Highly recommended.

About The Author:

Stuart Neville's debut novel, THE TWELVE (published in the USA as THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST), won the Mystery/Thriller category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was picked as one of the top crime novels of 2009 by both the New York Times and the LA Times. He has been shortlisted for various awards, including the Barry, Macavity, Dilys awards, as well as the Irish Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year. He has since published three critically acclaimed sequels, COLLUSION, STOLEN SOULS and THE FINAL SILENCE.
His first four novels have each been longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and RATLINES was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.
Stuart's novels have been translated into various languages, including German, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, Greek and more. The French edition of The Ghosts of Belfast, Les Fantômes de Belfast, won Le Prix Mystère de la Critique du Meilleur Roman Étranger and Grand Prix du Roman Noir Étranger.

His fourth novel, RATLINES, about Nazis harboured by the Irish state following WWII is currently in development for television.

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of Those We Left Behind was provided by Harvill Secker via Dead Good Books(GoodReads) in exchange for an honest unbiased review.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Madness Visible A Memoir of War by Janine du Giovanni & George Orwell : Essays
Sarah by J.T. Leroy, The Charioteer by Mary Renault, Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq, The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor, The Lost Daughter by Elana Ferrante, The Root Worker by Rainelle  Burton & Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi
The Dark Valley by Valerio Varesi, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Hutson, Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh, Alex by Pierre Lemaitre & 
The Witch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower