Book review and giveaway: People Like Them

People Like Them

People Like Them
by Samira Sedira
Translated by 
Lara Vergnaud
Penguin Books
Published on 7/6/2021
Des gens comme eux
was first published in French in 2020
192 pages
Suspense/Thriller/Literary fiction

Goodreads

As Covid related restrictions loosen up, many tourists are going to head for France, and for good reasons, as it’s a wonderful place to visit for a few days or a few weeks, with great landscape, delicious food, and tasty wine. However, daily life for a lot of French people is far from the rosy glimpses caught by the average tourist. Several recent novels, like Summer of Reckoning, by Marion Brunet,  have even shown how dark it can get.

This is definitely the case with People Like Them, as Samira Sedira bases her story on a tragedy that happened in 2003, with a quintuple murder.

From the very first pages, you feel how dreadful life is in Carmac, a tiny mountain village. The weather itself doesn’t help, it’s either too hot or too cold to bear. No escape possible:

I once was young and now I am old. In its great simplicity, this sentence says everything about us. Live, and then die. Rot.

Chapter 2 recapitulates the horrible murder, when Guillot killed Mr. and Mrs. Langlois and their three children.

Then most of the chapters alternate between the trial and the background, how Constant Guillot, the killer, and his wife Anna (the main narrator) met, and their life in the village before the terrible event.

The style has a great flow, very well conveyed in translation, as the narrator addresses her husband while reminiscing.

Several times throughout the book, we are told about the difficult social background, especially the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.

That year, a rich black family, the Langlois, built a very expensive mansion close to the Guillots. They became friends for a while, even feeling compassion for their mutual difficulties in life. Bakary Langlois, from Gabon, was indeed given up for adoption.

But Constant saw all his hopes of a high-level athletic career vanish in an accident during training. And little by little, his built-up anger resurfaces, especially as he feels cheated by Langlois, and we see the dark sides of his character emerge: his “fanatical determination”, his “unwavering obstinacy… as though nothing could distract [him] from [his] objective” (page 50), his obsessions, his tendency to become “an unpredictable volcano”.

The author, who focuses on class relations, did a fantastic job at capturing the French social background, and at conveying the local color of life in a small village. The fourth chapter focusing on Abbott and Costello, the two old pillars of the cafe, is a gem, so spot on. It will sound very familiar to anyone living in a tiny place in France.

Did you notice that their socks went up to their knees? All you could see was their this!


Socks, in this weather!


Once I caught two of ’em copulating behind a bed of geraniums, asses bright red, I swear. What a gas!


Well, those are the Germans for you, or the Dutch, and maybe the Belgians, too.


Can you imagine? They walk all day long in the blistering heat –that’s what they save up for.


And at night, they don’t even sleep in a hotel, right? They prefer a tent…


No accounting for tastes…

Sedira even highlighted some aspects that were apparently mostly ignored during the trial of the real event. The victims were indeed a Black family, but it seems that the motive of racism was never really taken into consideration. The author didn’t omit that aspect.

Actually, Constant’s jealousy is fueled by his racism: why would the Black man Bakary succeed, and not he, Constant, a White man born and raised in France?

The book does have some glimpses of positivity and hope, in the character of Anna. The very last chapter was a lesson in warmth and kindness.

I’ll tell her See you next time, too, with the same warmth in my voice, the same kindness in my eyes, the same trembling humanity.

The reader will better measure the weight of this sentence when they discover the context.

Ultimately, Sedira is offering a study on human nature. She is very careful at showing that the violence of individuals is rarely happening in a void: so many factors enter into play, what they have personally been through in their childhood, what the country has been experiencing socially (even the weather can have its impact), and people around them. Could Guillot’s friends and relatives have seen it coming, could they have avoided the tragedy?

VERDICT:  With a solid social background, this French thriller offers a study on human nature. When normal people we know commit terrible crimes, are we totally innocent ourselves?

Please go to Criminal Element to read my full review.

GIVEAWAY

My ARC (in perfect condition) is one of the 6 books you can win this month. Come this way

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Book review: Don’t Look For Me

Don't Look for Me

Don’t Look For Me
by Wendy Walker
St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan
9/15/2020
Psychological Thriller
Mystery/Suspense
352 pages
Goodreads

***

These last six years or so have seen a renewed interest in psychological thrillers and a publication of many popular titles, which unfortunately eclipsed some less commercially visible authors. With Don’t Look For Me, Wendy Walker is now publishing her fourth book in this genre. If you weren’t paying attention already, now is certainly the time to invest.

With this sharp and riveting new thriller by Wendy Walker, take your psychological novel reading to a higher and deeper level.

These last six years or so have seen a renewed interest in psychological thrillers and a publication of many popular titles, which unfortunately eclipsed some less commercially visible authors. With Don’t Look For Me, Wendy Walker is now publishing her fourth book in this genre. If you weren’t paying attention already, now is certainly the time to invest.

Walker embarked on her writing career with significant experiences in law and psychology. In her first three psychological thrillers, she adeptly drew from these two toolboxes to craft refined and compelling mysteries with a strong emphasis on what we know about trauma and memory.

In Don’t Look For Me, while still focusing on trauma psychology, she also turns to child psychology, and to the relationship between adults and children.

The book opens in Connecticut with Molly on her way home during a very stormy night. For five years, she has been living with the heavy burden of having accidentally run over her own daughter. She cannot forgive herself, and she believes her husband and other two children hate her for it. So she often entertains the idea of leaving them, thinking they would be happier without her. She stops at a gas station, but it is closed because of the storm, so she accepts the help of a truck, with a man and a little girl inside. And then Molly never gets home.

Then the rest of the book is built in alternating chapters: the odd-numbered chapters start on Day 13 and are from the point of view of Nicole, Molly’s older daughter, who is trying to figure out what happened to her mother. They are written in the third person and in the past tense. The even-numbered chapters start on Day 2, they are in the first-person narrative, and in the present tense, Molly is the narrator. So the only thing you know at that point is that Molly is alive. And this is all I can really tell you about the plot.

I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely efficient narration pace. As the story develops, the chapters get shorter and shorter, making the story speed up and the suspense boil over with intensity. The last twelve chapters have a great number of twists and unexpected turns.

In connection with this point, it was really neat to see the meaning of the title evolve as the plot advanced.

And to add to the suspense, the atmosphere of many scenes is extremely well conveyed.

The road feels like a tunnel, carved between the walls of brown cornfields which flank the road on both sides and go on as far as the eye can see. Darkness now hovers above and below, and from side to side. It’s everywhere…

Neglected farmland, dilapidated houses, abandoned factories–they stand like tombstones. I wonder where people live. Where they buy groceries. Where they work and go out to dinner. Why they don’t leave.

You can feel yourself drive on this road:

Nic hated this road. She hated the way it fell off at the shoulder into dirt and gravel and how the dirt hung in the air long after being kicked up. She hated the thick, brown cornfields that stood high on either side like a scene out of a Stephen King novel.

Nicole’s investigation is more complex than it seems at first glance. She didn’t keep an eye on her younger sister as she was supposed to. So like her mother, she has her own share of guilt about the death of little Annie. This translates into depression, alcohol abuse, and sexual involvement with strangers. When she hears about a possible lead, she goes to find the help of the police and revisit the places where Molly might have been seen the night she disappeared: did her Mum run away? Did something happen to her?

To go back to the author’s professional background, many passages highlight how real-life experiences can be so different from psychology and counseling textbooks. Many interactions in the novel between adults and children do indeed sound very real and complex, and not as clear cut as some diagnostic manuals tend to imply.

I have already reviewed All Is Not Forgotten (2016), Emma in the Night (2017), and The Night Before (2019).

VERDICT: With this sharp and riveting new thriller by Wendy Walker, take your psychological novel reading to a higher and deeper level.

Please go to Criminal Element to read my full review.

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Book review: No Woods So Dark as These

No Woods So Dark As These

No Woods So Dark as These,
by Randall Silvis
Poisoned Pen Press
8/4/2020
POLICE PROCEDURAL
SUSPENSE/THRILLERS
448 pages
Goodreads

***

As I reread the review I wrote for book three in this series, I was struck by the commonalities it shared with book four. No Woods So Dark as These has indeed all the signs and qualities of another masterpiece by Randall Silvis. And yet no two of his books are alike.

The very first chapter grabbed my attention with its beauty and vivid detail:

A light vapor of fog hung in the air between the trees, a subtle graying discernible only when the man looked out one of the pickup truck’s windows but not when he glanced at his sons sitting beside him in the cab. By noon the fog would lift, revealing woods full of leaves startlingly golden and red and orange, but those colors were muted now, the leaves heavy with moisture that dripped onto the truck’s windshield and plunked onto the metal roof like a stutter of typing from a slow-thinking writer.

Considering the woods and the surrounding nature, DeMarco says, “So much beauty, so much pain” (Chapter 63), which is actually a good summary of the book. Like in this opening scene, woods can be a nurturing place for a loving family, or a place of refuge for children growing up in far from the best of environments, or even a place of terrible evil. In this book, woods are all of the above.

It is definitely a hymn to nature and its healing impact on wounded hearts. Without them, “You spend your whole life hiding indoors, you’re going to end up with a soul the size of a raisin” (Chapter 1).

Because of things that happened in the previous books in the series (highly recommended to read before this volume), both DeMarco and his colleague Jayme are broken-hearted and in need of healing. They support each other throughout the book, providing each other with the love they need and finding new life where they least expect it.

And yet, at the very same time, like fog hanging in the air, there’s this Sword of Damocles over them, and the sense of doom permeating every chapter. Will the past catch up with them, just when they are finally learning about the beauty and richness of the present moment?

DeMarco and Jayme reluctantly accept work as volunteer consultants to solve a gruesome case: a man was found nailed to a tree and nearby, two bodies were burnt in a car. On top of it, a young journalist seems to be stalking them, sending bad vibes to DeMarco. And the past never seems to leave our heroes in peace: the psychopath who almost killed them both in the previous book has been seen around, and he regularly leaves them notes.

This is not your usual page-turner: you definitely want to turn the pages, but with dread, because you feel something coming. But at the same time, you want to take time to taste every word; to bask in the ambiance of every scene. Besides the evil and violence stirring below the surface, there is definitely peace and spending as much time as possible with DeMarco and Jayme in their daily life, as they prepare breakfast together or care for their new young companion is a delight.

She wondered why food they cooked together always tasted better than restaurant food or anything she cooked alone. Maybe there was something real to the notion of cooking with love. Maybe love was an additive as real as salt and pepper and the other spices. (Chapter 33)

When you and your dog and a couple of birds are the only living things on the planet, it is possible to forget about the evil afoot in the world. Possible to experience an appreciation and even a sympathy for whomever had created this morning. Any being who could sculpt such serenity in such muted colors was truly an artist. (Chapter 40)

Randall Silvis is great at mixing crime and metaphysics. A few passages witness to it in this book, for instance in Chapter 21 (discussion on consciousness), Chapters 103-104, and all the lines containing life lessons. He also has reflections on the art of writing, for example how the author needs to disappear, let go of his ego, and leave the whole space to his characters (Chapter 93).

To really enjoy the slow pace and the dynamic between the characters, you should start with volume one in the series.

And so after four hundred pages of this slow build-up, when you think the book is over, you have this adrenaline-packed Part V, that will keep you totally stunned. I honestly needed two days to recover. With such an ending, needless to stay waiting for the next book will be close to torture.

VERDICT: Not your usual page-turner: Randall Silvis is great at mixing crime and metaphysics.

Please go to Criminal Element to read my full review.

But there’s an extra quotation I’d like to share:

It was after ten when DeMarco finally stepped out into the yard and saw that the sky was high and clear and cobalt blue, with only two slender streaks of white cirrus clouds above, as if a painter had used the blue canvas to clean his brush. (chapter 15)

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