Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

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Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

Reza Courdee is living the typical teenage life in California. He has got his friends with whom he likes to spend time surfing in the ocean and haging around at the beach and he also has his first crush and makes first sexual experiences. He plays soccer and he is highly achieving in school. Yet, with his new bunch of friends, he neglects his former interests and spends more time consuming drugs and doing nothing which does not really agree with his parents’ – immigrants from Iran – expectations for their son. However, one day, his life starts to change: Reza, born in the USA, is suddenly the immigrant, a terrorist and his friends start to question their friendship. He becomes more and more isolated and thus joins a group of Muslims who find relief and support in the local mosque. Most of all Fatima is attracted by the strong believers and the hip American girl, who easily shared her bed with Reza, starts not only wearing a hijab but also following the strict rules of Koran.

I really liked how Laleh Khadivi elaborates the topic of finding your identity on different levels. In the beginning, we seem to encounter the average teenager who does not share his parents’ beliefs and finds his ideas much more mirrored in his peer group. A slight disdain for the elder generation is not uncommon at this age. The fact that his Americanizes his name “Reza” into “Rez” also shows that it is this culture and not his familial background that he identifies with. I also found quite remarkable how the parents cope with their own immigration history and their culture. They eat in the old Iranian style, but try to integrate into the American culture since they are grateful for the lives they can lead there. They do not seem to convey that much of their past to their son. This only happens after Rez is identified as an immigrant, which he apparently is not since he was born in California. His interest in his family life is only born at the moment when he is excluded from the culture he always considered to be his own. His drifting away from the parents now leads to a new rapprochement in order to create the new self and to identify who he is and where he comes from. The most thought-provoking step in this development is definitely the encounter with Islam. As a reader you can effortlessly understand why this is attractive and how and why radicals do not have any problems winning over second or third generation immigrants for their ideas. It is absolutely convincing why Fatima and the others are magnetized and easy comply with the codes.

Yet, it is not only the immigrants’ perspective which is worth scrutinizing in this novel, it is also the behaviour of the “native” population which should be taken into account. When did we start seeing our friends and acquaintances not anymore as whom they are but as “Muslims” or “immigrants”? Which effects do global and local acts of terrorism have on our own life? And to what extent to be transfer personal pain due to the loss of a beloved person onto others who are not at all connected with the incident which caused our grief?

If you are open, as a reader, to question yourself, you will surely find food for thought in this novel.

Martin Walker – The Templars‘ Last Secret

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Martin Walker – The Templars‘ Last Secret

Rural France, St Denis in the Périgord region. Police officer Bruno this time has company: the Justice Ministry has send Amélie Plessis to get insight into basic police work. Before they can really get to know each other, they are called to the Commarque castle where a young woman was found dead. She seems to have been about to write some graffiti on the wall when she fell down. But soon they detect traces of foul play. The place of the crime scene does not seem to have been chosen by coincidence and soon Bruno and Amélie have to realise that they are not dealing with a simple murder case here, killing out of love or the like, but they are in the middle of an international plot of terrorism which threatens the lovely and peaceful region.

In his tenth case, we meet Bruno as we already know him from former novels: down to earth, a weakness for good food and the landscape and in order to solve his cases, he relies on his knowledge of the human nature and his good contacts in the region. Another woman enters the bachelor’s life, but this time she does not immediately win his heart, they have a rather professional relationship which turns over to some kind of friendship and liking. Both protagonists seem to be quite authentic and drawn from life.

The case is much more complicated than most of the others before. This time, the cause does not lie within the region or the people from the Périgord, but Martin Walker constructs a complex case of well-known Templar legends which are always attractive to a lot of people due to the mysteries around the order and any unanswered questions – not to talk of the Holy Grail – combined with international terrorism and threats as we, sadly, have witnessed in the last few years in Europe. I especially liked the development of the plot which made absolutely sense from an investigative point of view and was in no way farfetched in its extent.

All in all, exactly what I would expect in a novel from the Bruno series: an interesting case of murder embedded in the beautiful French countryside with hints at its food and culture.

Carolin Hagebölling – Der Brief

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Carolin Hagebölling – Der Brief

Ein seltsamer Brief stellt Marie vor ein Rätsel: ihre ehemals beste Freundin Christine schreibt ihr, jedoch stimmt so einiges nicht. Marie lebt nicht in Paris, sondern in Hamburg. Und sie arbeitet auch nicht im Kunstbereich, sondern ist Journalistin. Mit Johanna lebt sie in einer glücklichen Beziehung, wer soll dieser Victor sein? Und welches schreckliche Ereignis liegt hinter ihr? Zahlreiche Fragen, denen sie auf den Grund gehen will. Aber auch im Leben ihrer Freundin ist einiges anders als in diesem Brief beschrieben, denn sei wohnt immer noch im Heimatort, nicht in Berlin, und hat nur einen Sohn und nicht zwei Kinder. Erlaubt sich jemand einen Scherz mit ihr? Nach weiteren Briefen und einem Zusammenbruch beschließt Marie, sich in Paris auf Spurensuche zu begeben und taucht dort unerwartet in ein ganz anderes Leben ein, das ebenfalls ihres hätte sein können. Wieder zurück in Hamburg bleibt die Frage: was ist real?

Der Roman beginnt mysteriös mit diesem unerklärlichen Brief und zahlreichen Zeichen, die man rational nicht verstehen kann. Sowohl in Hamburg wie auch in Paris ereignen sich für die Protagonistin Dinge, die sich der einfachen Logik entziehen und nicht begreif- und erklärbar sind. Sie scheint zwei Leben zu haben, in denen sie zu Hause und glücklich ist. Aber welches ist das richtige und wie kann dies sein? Schnell schon kommt der Verdacht auf, dass ihre Erkrankung verantwortlich dafür ist, aber reicht dies wirklich als Erklärung? Die Autorin spielt hier mit dem Leser und lässt einem rätseln und Spuren verfolgen, schnelle und offenkundige Lösungen gibt es nicht.

Die Figuren haben mir gut gefallen, sehr authentisch wirkende normale Menschen, die mitten im Leben stehen und in jeder Situation glaubwürdig menschlich agieren. Besonders gelungen war für mich der Abschnitt über Paris, der die Stadt wunderschön porträtiert und dadurch einen bezaubernden Rahmen für die Handlung bietet. Auch der Schreibstil kann überzeugen, Carolin Hagebölling gelingt es gleichermaßen Spannung und Atmosphäre aufzubauen, so dass man das Buch eigentlich kaum weglegen mag.

Der einzige Kritikpunkt ist für mich das Ende. Hier wurden die vorher eher subtil platzierten Anspielung etwas zu vorhersehbar und durchschaubar. Die Auflösung der Geschichte ist zwar durchaus akzeptabel und passend, aber sie wird sicherlich einige Leser unzufrieden zurücklassen. Man würde zu viel verraten, wenn man hier näher ins Detail ginge. Alles in allem aber ein gelungener Roman, der insgesamt überzeugen kann.

Robyn Harding – The Party

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Robyn Harding – The Party

The Sanders are the perfect family: Jeff has a successful career, Kim is the loving mother who takes care of the home and the two children Hannah and Aiden who have the best marks in school and sophisticated hobbies where they also excel. For Hannah’s sixteenth birthday, the parents allow her to party in the basement – yet, with strict rules: no alcohol, no drugs, no boys. But Hannah wants to be part of the IT-crown and then her party turns into a complete disaster: her friend Ronni falls into a glass table after having consumed ecstasy and alcohol. When Hannah looks at her, there is something really wrong. Ronni has seriously hurt her eye and might not recover. Ronni’s mother is furious and knows exactly whom to blame: the wealthy Sander will pay for what they have done.

Robyn Harding’s novel unmistakably shows how your perfect life can turn into a nightmare from one minute to the other. First, I was just expecting some kind of teenage drama where finally all is sugar and spice and everything’s nice. But the author does not offer the easy ending, she goes down to the wire and exhibits all the mean and ugly sides of human beings.

The strongest aspects are definitely the characters and their emotions. E.g. Kim, she does not only pretend to be perfect, she really wants her life to be perfect. When the facade cracks, she is ready to fight even though this means that some people will have to be disappointed and even suffer. She has to readjust her point of view. Hannah, on the other hand, is the typical sixteen-year-old teenager who is caught between wanting to please and to be popular in school and her good heart which tells her to act differently. But sometimes she has to decide for one or the other and she seriously struggles with it. Jeff as a role model and father is really weak, but this is fruitful for the character since he shows an authentic behaviour where people make mistakes and are sometimes lead by emotions rather than by common sense. Lauren is the mean teenager who does not care about anybody. She is definitely interesting for the story, but a bit too stereotypical and one-sided for my linking. It would have appreciated a more complex story about her, yet, she is rather a minor character, so this is acceptable.

The plot was meticulously constructed what I found quite fascinating after having finished to novel. The next strike always comes, not completely unexpected, but sometimes the direction is a surprise.  That such an incident, or rather an accident, has an influence on all areas of life and does not leave any of the family members unaffected is quite natural and that’s what Robyn Harding makes use of. Their lives are devastated to the full extent, not omitting a single aspect. So, no sugar and spice and everything’s nice but the blunt reality.

Kevin Kwan – Rich People Problems

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Kevin Kwan – Rich People Problems

If you always though the poor have it hard, come and meet the newly rich Asians and see how hard life can really be. When Su Yi, head of a family of a rich and famous Singapore clan is about to die, the whole family rushes to her mansion not only to pay their respects but also to seize the chance of inheriting some of her wealth, first of all Tyersall Park. Children and grandchildren alike start an open fight, first of all Eddie who feels betrayed because his mother just married a renowned doctor and not a prince or billionaire. He fears that the grandmother’s beloved grandson Nicholas will get the mansion. When Su Yi finally dies, her last will has some surprises for all of them.

Kevin Kwan’s novel is just hilarious. His characters are uniquely drawn and his masterly way of narrating the story is just great fun to read. One can easily picture that the story to be quite authentic even though I personally was never in contact with those superrich, the way their life is portrayed here is just what I would imagine.

First of all, his characters. Even though Kwan might make use of some cliché – having a personal plastic surgeon, the big tabloids and popular magazines fighting for portrays about their fancy life etc. – nevertheless, when it comes to basic traits of character, they are all quite realistically drawn: Eddie, full of envy for his cousins and always fearing that he comes last and does not get what he deserves. Astrid who becomes the victim of her ex-husbands hatred and who is blackmailed and in the centre of a scandalous affair. Kitty who married one of China’s richest businessmen but suffers from her stepdaughter’s fame and popularity. And of course Su Yi who is only awake for minutes but immediately understands which ploys her descendants try.

Yet, apart from the character study there is another story underneath which comes quite unexpectedly and is linked to Singapore and India’s past and connection to the former coloniser England. There are secrets buried which come finally out and can actually add a lot to the superficial life most characters lead. All this is told with Kevin Kwan’s fine ironical tone which is highly entertaining.

Sharon Solwitz – Once, in Lourdes

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Sharon Solwitz – Once, in Lourdes

Lourdes, Michigan, summer of 1968. Four friends make a pact: in exactly fourteen days, before the sun’s first rays hit the lake, they will leap together into death. They are outsiders, all the four of them, for different reasons. Kay Campion is fat, as a child she found her mother who committed suicide and her father re-married only a couple of months later. Vera is beautiful and gracile, but she was bullied due to her crippled fingers. CJ is searching for his identity: does he love boys or girls? And last but not least, Saint who comes from a very poor and highly dysfunctional family. They are looking for someone who loves them just as they are and found each other. Since life does not seem to have much in offer for them, why should they continue living? Will their last 14 days on earth make a change?

The story is told from Kay’s point of view. Only step by step do we learn why she is struggling so much with life. Not just that she has lost her beloved mother and had to see her hanging in the basement, it is also the permanent question what she is to her father. Her emotions are expressed in her dysfunctional relationship with her own body – quite an authentic and typical reaction for teenage girls. Yet, for me even stronger was the character of Vera. She is really lost and without any stable ground to walk on. She seems to be highly gifted and is a perfect example of what bullying can make of a child: turning the talented dancer into a drug addict who confounds physical closeness with love. But also the boys are highly interestingly drawn. CJ who is constantly digging in his father’s past in a concentration camp and Saint who seems to have several personalities reflected in the different ways his name is used.

As shown before, the most stunning about the novel are the characters who are elaborated in every detail and thus really come alive while reading. You can easily imagine them in reality and also their pact make absolutely sense. The title – hinting at Lourdes in France with its famous Marian apparitions – promises a wonder, a sudden and unexpected healing from the things the four teenagers suffer from. But wonders do not happen that often and apparitions and inspiration are reserved for the selected few, not the average boy or girl.

A noteworthy novel which, however, I would not recommend to teenagers with emotional troubles.

Dan Mooney – Me, Myself and Them

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Dan Mooney – Me, Myself and Them

Everything is at its best in Denis Murphey’s life. As long as things go as he plans them and as long as there are no odd numbers. His days are highly regulated: waking up at exactly the same time, the amount of minutes he needs in the bathroom, his breakfast. Once a week, he visits his friend Eddie who is in hospital and also once a week, he sees his mother. Everything is at its best. But then Rebecca reappears in town. His ex-girlfriend. How could she? And how can he avoid meeting her? He cannot and soon his life and the life of his four housemates is turned upside down.

At first, there were a lot of things I was wondering about. First of all, of course, Denis’ strange behaviour. That there is a kind of over-control impulse which limits him in his life is quite obvious. He has a fixed plan and he cannot tolerate any variation from it. He seemed to me to suffer from autism spectrum disorder due to his repetitive behaviour patterns and his restricted range of activities and friends. Soon, however, it becomes obvious that something has triggered this behaviour and that he certainly was not born with it. So, the big question arises: what has happened?

Second, the housemates. There are four of them, very singular creatures with distinctive features and somehow destructive traits of character. The fact that they talk to Denis all the time did not necessarily mean for me that they were humans, I guessed at times that they were cats, but this assumption did not really fit with everything in their description and behaviour. When I finally sorted out who or rather what they were, it all made sense.

It is not revealing too much of the story when saying that the protagonist is suffering from a serious mental health problem. A lot of what happens only happens in his brain but he cannot cope with it or even fight it. The demons that haunt him are real for the time being and what is in his head cannot get out or be explained to anybody. He is alone with his fight and several times prone to give up the war he is waging. I really appreciated the metaphor of the four housemates who inhibit Denis and who tell him what to do since this renders it possible for people who have never been in close contact with such an illness to understand not only how those affected feel but first and foremost how difficult it is for them to get back to a “normal” life and to be in command over their life.

All in all, a difficult topic masterly transferred into literature and thus a valuable contribution in the fight for understanding mental health problems.

Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

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Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

Already when he was a child, Marcus envied his cousins, the Goldmans from Baltimore. He himself is part of the Goldmans from Montclair, but in Baltimore, so much more was happening and he was only part of the gang during the holidays that he spent in Baltimore. The Baltimores adopted Woody, a sports prodigy and best friend of Hillel who was a frequent victim of bullying when he was a child. When they grow up and become teenagers, the friends turn into competitors for the first time: all the three of them fall in love with Alexandra, the girl from next door. School is over and college is calling. Star athlete Woody will have it easy, just as Hillel who is highly intelligent. But things turn out other than planned and only many years after the catastrophe Marcus manages to fully understand what happened.

Just like in “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”, Joel Dicker narrates his family saga in a discontinuous way but springs back and forward in time. Piece by piece is added to the story and it only integrates into a whole picture at the end. His tone is calm and relaxed, interrupted by the present time and thus creating breaks and delays which increase the tension and the readers’ interest to find out what happened.

Strongest in this novel are definitely the characters. None of the three is just the average boy with an average life. They all have their flaws and weaknesses which makes them quite interesting but not that singular that you could not imagine them in reality. Their friendship is deconstructed piece by piece thus shading a different light on what young Marcus perceived and felt.

Jonas Lüscher – Kraft

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Jonas Lüscher – Kraft

„Theodicy and Technodicy: Optimism for a Young Millennium“ – diese Fragestellung ist es, die den Rhetorikprofessor Richard Kraft aus seiner finanziellen Not retten soll. In einer guten Viertelstunde soll in der ehrwürdigen Stanford Universität von den Bewerbern die Frage erörtert werden, dem Sieger winkt eine Million Dollar gestiftet von einem Internet Milliardär. Da er sich in seinem Tübinger Zuhause nicht in der Lage sieht, angemessen konzentriert an die Arbeit zu gehen, fliegt Kraft schon zwei Wochen vor der Veranstaltung nach Kalifornien und wohnt dort bei seinem Freund István, mit dem er einst in der Westberliner Enklave das Leben studierte und die Politik diskutierte. Bei der Suche nach der Frage, weshalb alles, das ist auch notwendigerweise gut ist, kehrt Kraft gedanklich auch immer wieder in seine Vergangenheit zurück und lässt seine Zeit mit István ebenso Revue passieren, wie die Zeit mit den drei Frauen, die sein Leben geprägt haben. Je näher der Tag der Präsentation rückt, desto weiter entfernt sich Kraft von der Überzeugung, dass in seinem Leben und in der Welt alles zum Besten steht.

Der Roman des Schweizer Autors Jonas Lüschers ist vom Feuilleton direkt nach Erscheinen begeistert aufgenommen worden. Es ist vermutlich die erstaunliche Verbindung, die Lüscher in „Kraft“ schafft zwischen der philosophischen Frage nach der Gerechtigkeit Gottes, der politischen Lage eines geteilten Deutschlands, das dem angloamerikanischen Neoliberalismus zu Beginn der 80er Jahre nur Helmut Kohl entgegensetzen kann, den weltbeherrschenden Internetgiganten des Silicon Valley und dem Leben eines einzelnen Mannes, der immer dann beruflich auf der Karriereleiter emporsteigt, wenn gleichzeitig die Frau an seiner Seite den Abstieg hinnehmen muss. Hierin Sinn zu finden und zu begründen, dass dies die bestmögliche aller Welten ist – kein leichtes Unterfangen, wie der Protagonist zunehmend verzweifelt feststellen muss.

Der sprechende Name des Protagonisten dient hervorragend als Ausgangspunkt zur Dekonstruktion des Romans. Richard Kraft – steht der Vorname für die Eigenschaften reich, mächtig und stark, fügt der Nachname diesen Einfluss, Wirkungsfähigkeit und Veränderungsfähigkeit hinzu. Sieht man sich die Figur an, so ist Kraft zunächst einmal finanziell abgebrannt. Zwei Ehen und vier Kinder haben ihn ruiniert, er ist dringend auf eine Geldspritze angewiesen. Macht und Stärke hat er eigentlich qua Profession, er war im frisch vereinten Deutschland eine Größe auf seinem Gebiet, scheint aber seine große Zeit hinter sich zu haben und nur wenige ergiebige Gedanken produzieren zu können. Mit dem Vortrag in Stanford erhält er die Chance seinen Einfluss geltend zu machen, eine positive Wirkung auszuüben und etwas an den bestehenden Verhältnissen zu ändern. Doch statt in der Ferne neue Gedanken zu kultivieren, sinkt er Grübelei und hängt der Vergangenheit nach. Eine Lücke klafft zwischen dem, was ist und dem, was sein könnte; ein Riss, der den Protagonisten selbst durchläuft und sehr passend auch auf dem Cover stilisiert ist.

Der eigentlich leistungsstarke und intelligente Mann wird überrollt – so wie in seinen Gedanken San Francisco von einer mörderischen und zerstörerischen Welle erfasst und zerstört wird, kann auch er den globalen Trends gesteuert durch die Ökonomie der Internetfirmen nichts entgegensetzen. Hat Gott den Menschen nach seinem Bild erschaffen, so erschafft nun der Mensch den Roboter, der alsbald droht die Macht zu übernehmen und als das bessere Wesen zu regieren. An dieser Stelle wird Kraft zum Sinnbild des modernen Menschen, der sich machtlos ausgeliefert fühlt und für den sich nicht erschließt, weshalb diese Welt, die bestmögliche sein soll.

Ein starker Roman, der sich nicht einfach nebenbei weglesen lässt, sondern immer wieder komplexe Diskurse mit dem Leser führt und ihn so mit der Ausgangsfrage konfrontiert.

Ein herzlicher Dank geht an den C.H. Beck Verlag für das Rezensionsexemplar. Mehr Informationen zum Buch finden sich auf der Seite des Verlags.

Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

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Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

Five students of Bayview High School have to go to detention for having a cell phone with them. They all swear that the mobiles do not belong to them and that they don’t have the least idea how they ended up in their backpacks. Bronwyn, the perfect student with a flawless record and surely a place at one of the Ivy League colleges; Nate, the constant loser who is currently on probation for drug dealing; Cooper, a promising baseball player; Addy, the girlfriend of one Bayview High’s most wanted boys; and Simon, on the one hand an outsider, on the other the creator and head behind the school’s gossip app who seems to know all the secrets of his class mates. Just a couple of minutes later, Simon is dead and the four remaining students are the prime suspects. Actually, all of them have something to hide as the police soon finds out and their secrets might have lead each single student to murder. They all plead innocent, but apparently one of them must be lying.

I really enjoyed this combination of young adult with crime novel. Karen McManus’ four protagonists are interestingly drawn, very singular characters which – of course – show some stereotypical features but which I think is normal for their age where you try to play some role and fit in. The author plays with the reader in bit by bit revealing more about the teenagers and their individual flaws and weaknesses. I did not really expect all of them having these secrets which, in fact, are everything but harmless and could really destroy their lives – well, that’s what happens when they are a finally revealed.

I liked the arc of suspense a lot. First of all, there has been a murder quite at the beginning of the story and of course you want to know who committed the crime. But then, all protagonists one after the other tell you that they have something to hide without immediately illuminating you. So apart from the search for the murderer, there is much more you want to find out and which makes you keep on reading.

For me, “One of US is Lying” can easily equal novels such as Jay Ashers “Thirteen Reasons Why”, Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” or E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars”.