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.

Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

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Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

Ravine and Marianne are best friends. Friends 4ever, the two 8-year-olds believe. Ten years later, Ravine is suffering from chronic pain syndrome and can hardly leave her bed. However, it is not only the illness that makes her suffer, but also her memories and now that her 18th birthday has come, she seems to be ready to confront the past. She is writing to Marianne, narrating what she recollects about their time together and with Marianne’s brother Jonathan, about both their dysfunctional families – Ravine’s father who ran away before she was even born and Marianne and Jonathan’s mother who was an alcoholic and didn’t really care for them – about Marianne’s uncle Walter coming to live with them and disappearing again and about that one evening which changed the lives of all the three of them.

“The Things We Thought We Knew” is an unusual coming-of-age novel. First of all because the protagonist who narrates the story is seriously ill and bedridden – how can a major event happen to such a character and change her life? Well, this happened already years before and thus we get a teenager’s view on the things which happened when she was a child. This is quite uncommon since we do not encounter the grown-up, rationally thinking adult who analyses what happened and has reflected on everything. Ravine is still in this process of becoming an adult, unsure of how to proceed and where her life will lead her. She is struggling with her mother and you can still at times see the child she once was in her.

The flashbacks, her memories of the past, the childhood which should have been carefree and was everything but are narrated in a child-suitable tone somehow as if Ravine could really slip in her former self and tell her story from the 8-year-old’s point of view.

The plot, alternating between the present and the past, has some suspense to offer. You surely want to know about the whereabouts of Marianne and about her family’s story developed. And there are secrets of the past to be revealed by Ravine. Yet, also the 18-year-old Ravine is at a crossroad of her life and it is not obvious which way she will decide for and is she is ready to make a decision at all, apparently, something needs to trigger her so move on, so what could this momentum be for a girl lying in bed?

What I appreciated most was the tone of the novel which made the characters come alive and which was well adapted to their age. All in all, a noteworthy debut novel.

Adi Alsaid – Let’s Get Lost

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Adi Alsaid – Let’s Get Lost

Ein Road Trip der etwas anderen Art. Leila lässt in einer amerikanischen Kleinstadt ihren Wagen testen und lernt so Hudson kennen, der sofort von dem Mädchen fasziniert ist. Es wird die schönste Nacht seines Lebens, die jedoch auch einen jahrelang gehegten Traum zerstören wird. Leilas Reise geht weiter und unterwegs sammelt sie Bree auf. Die Mädchen finden sich sofort sympathisch, doch die kleine Ausreißerin Bree kann vom Diebstahl nicht lassen und so landen beide im Gefängnis. Für Elliot wird die Begegnung mit Leila zur Realisierung einer nur dem Fernsehen gekannten Geschichte und Sonia hatte schon aufgegeben, ihr Leben in Trümmern, aber Leila kommt ihr zu Hilfe. Vier Menschen, vier Geschichten und vier Begegnungen, die das Leben verändern. Doch wer ist Leila eigentlich und warum hat sie sich auf den Weg nach Alaska zu den Polarlichtern? Auch Leilas Leben wird durch diese Reise verändert werden.

Eine überzeugende Geschichte über das Erwachsenwerden. Die vier Figuren, denen die Protagonistin begegnet sind sehr verschieden, was immer wieder neue Aspekte in den Roman bringt und vier letztlich eigenständige Geschichten entstehen lässt. Alle vier sind an einem wichtigen Punkt ihres Lebens und benötigen genau den einen Impuls benötigen, um weiterzugehen und ein Kapitel abzuschließen. So auch die Protagonistin, die jedoch lange Zeit erstaunlich blass bleibt. Man erfährt sehr viel über die Figuren, mit denen sie interagiert, von sich selbst gibt sie jedoch nichts preis und mehr und mehr fragt man sich, was es mit ihr auf sich hat. Dieses Mysterium wird im letzten Kapitel recht überraschend, aber überzeugend gelöst.

S. K. Ali – Saints and Misfits

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S. K. Ali – Saints and Misfits

Janna Yusuf is an ordinary teenager who sometimes has fights with her single mother, who loves to read and works hard for school. But she is also the girl who wears an hijab, who does voluntary work with her elderly neighbour and who is in love with a non-Muslim boy named Jeremy. Her life is already complicated enough, but then her brother moves back in and courts Saint Sarah, the perfect and angelic girl of the community. And then there is Farooq who has been memorizing the Quran and is the preferred wunderkind of the community. But this is just one side of him, Janna also knows the other face of him: Farooq the stalker and molester who tried to rape her. Caught between those extremes in her life, Janna tries to find out who she is and which values she wants to follow in her life.

This is not just a typical coming-of-age novel of a young girl struggling with typical teenage problems. What is most interesting in S.K. Ali’s novel is the fact of living between two cultures or better: between two worlds which collide from time to time and which expect different codes to be obeyed from the people walking in them.

Janna is a really lovable character. She is neither the perfect nor the rebellious teenager, she shows different moods and has good days and bad days. She is a caring person, but nevertheless admits that taking care of her neighbour is paid which is an advantage. Yet, she enjoys spending time with the old man who triggers her reflection about herself and life. She is also quite attentive and a minute observer of the behaviour of her classmates and the people around her. She knows the rules of the Quran and follows them, but at times, she also wants to be free and live the life according to her own standards. The author portrays those contradictions in the girls really convincingly and thus paints a multifaceted picture of Janna.

Apart from the question which or rather whose expectations a believing young woman will fulfil, there was one aspect which I myself as a Christian found pretty noteworthy. Janna has a friend who wears a niqab. She herself has only decided for a headscarf which she only takes off for her all-girl sports lessons or at home. But when she feels increasingly stalked by Farooq, she begins to wonder about wearing a niqab which could make her disappear from the people’s sight. A completely covered woman becomes invisible and she would like to be unseen at times. From her story it is easy to follow and understand this thought and I think it is an important aspect in the discussion about Muslim women and their covering.

Even though I highlighted the religious ones, there are many more interesting and remarkable aspects in the novel which make it for me an absolutely outstanding book in the mass of coming-of-age novels. The cast of characters is unique and none of them is flat and one-dimensional, the plot itself offers much food for thought and is all but the typical off-the-rack foreseeable novel of the genre.

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.

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”.

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

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Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Garden Heights – ein Vorort, der sich überall in den USA befinden könnte. Die sechzehnjährige Starr und ihre Stiefschwester Kenya sind auf einer Party, auf der sie besser nicht wäre. Wie erwartet kommt es zu Ärger und als Schüsse abgefeuert werden, verlässt Starr mit ihrem Kindheitsfreund Khalil den Ort des Verbrechens. Auf dem Weg nach Hause werden sie von einem Polizisten gestoppt – grundlos. Oder ist ihre Hautfarbe etwa schon Grund genug? Starr hat von klein auf gelernt, wie sie sich in einer solchen Situation zu verhalten hat: nicht schlauer sein wollen, als man ist; kooperativ zeigen; keine schnellen Bewegungen. Sie hofft, dass Khalil diese Regeln auch beherzigt, doch seine Frage nach dem Warum lässt den Officer schon ausrasten. Er holt den Jungen aus dem Wagen und kurz darauf passiert das Unglaubliche: mehrere Schüsse durchsieben Khalils Körper. Starr traut ihren Augen nicht, wie konnte das passieren? Und wird Officer 115 zur Rechenschaft gezogen werden?

Man kommt im englischsprachigen Raum derzeit kaum an Angie Thomas‘ Roman vorbei. Mit Lobeshymnen wird die Autorin für ihren Debütroman überhäuft. Ohne Frage trifft das Thema des Jugendromans den Nerv der Zeit. Die Black Lives Matter Bewegung prangert völlig zurecht den Umgang der überwiegend weißen Polizisten mit den jungen Schwarzen an und selbst diejenigen, die wie Starr ein redliches und friedfertiges Leben führen, geraten schnell ins Visier.

Interessant sind vor allem die Kontraste, die im Roman geschaffen werden. Zum einen die überwiegend von Schwarzen bewohnte Nachbarschaft, in der der raue Ton der Straße bestimmt, wer und was man ist. Wo niemand wirklich frei ist und Gefängnisaufenthalte zum Alltag gehören. Dagegen steht Starrs Schule, 45 Minuten entfernt in einer rein weißen Umgebung, die von typischen Teenagerproblemen und relativer Sorglosigkeit geprägt ist. Das Mädchen kann die beiden Welten nicht unter einen Hut bringen, sie sieht sich selbst als gespalten und völlig verschiedene Personen, je nachdem, wo sie sich gerade aufhält. Dass ihre Schulfreundinnen ihren Alltag in Garden Heights nachvollziehen könnten, erwartet sie nicht, weshalb das, was sie dort erlebt, außen vor bleibt und sie wie nach einem langweiligen Wochenende montags wieder die Schule besucht, obwohl sie weniger als 48 Stunden vorher mit angesehen hat, wie einer ihrer besten Freunde erschossen wird.

Es ist jedoch weniger Starrs Umgang mit den Erlebnissen und die Trauerarbeit – das kennt sie schon, hat sie bereits einige Jahre zuvor ihre beste Freundin durch einen Schuss verloren – als die Frage, ob es in diesem Fall Gerechtigkeit geben kann und wird. Bezeichnend ihr verhör bei der Polizei. Obwohl die befragende Polizistin selbst als Latina beschrieben wird, macht sich doch das unangenehme Gefühl breit, dass der Fall bereits abgeschlossen ist und einmal mehr die Welt ein wenig besser wurde, weil ein junger schwarzer Gangster weniger auf den Straßen rumläuft.

Der Roman ergreift nicht einseitig Partei. Khalil ist nicht der ganz unschuldige Junge, auch Starrs Familie kann mit einige Straftaten aufwarten. Dennoch zeigt der für unsereins groteske Verlauf der Polizeikontrolle, in welcher Situation sich gerade die Jugendlichen befinden und wie sie versuchen, zwischen Akzeptanz der Gegebenheiten und berechtigtem Hinterfragen des Handelns, einen Ausgleich zu finden, bei dem sie jedoch am Ende die Verlierer sind.

Ein kurzes Buch, das viel Food for Thought bietet und sicherlich die nächsten Monate noch berechtigterweise im Fokus stehen wird.

Sara Taylor – The Lauras

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Sara Tylor – The Lauras

After a fierce fight with her husband decides Ma to wake up Alex and to leave their home in Virginia. The two of them go on a trip into the mother’s past. She has got a map on which stations of her life are marked. People she met, places she lived, events that shaped her life and character. During their trip, Ma tells Alex about the “Lauras” she has known. Her first real best friend, the girl from the foster home, her flatmate at college. They drive criss-cross through the states, sometimes they stop incidentally, sometimes the mother has a duty to fulfil or to settle an old bill. She accepts any job offered to make some money and to continue their journey. They actually do have a final destination, but it takes more than a year for Alex to finally understand where they are heading to.

Sara Taylors novel “The Lauras” is a mixture of genres. On the one hand, we have a classic road novel. Alex, the narrator, and Ma cross several state borders and stop here and there, meet people, leave them again, always on the run. On the other hand, it is a coming of age novel. Alex is only 13 in the beginning and hardly knows anything about the world. But most of all, Alex is struggling with her/his identity, sometime she feels like a girl, sometimes he is much more a boy. And thirdly, it is a novel about relationships, not just between parent and child, but also between grown-ups and how living on a limited space can change your bonds.

There is some lesson to be learned for Alex. In their encounter with Anna-Maria, it becomes obvious how your environment decides on your view of the world and the development. In a reclusive sectarian world, most of our world simply does not exist. Additionally, mistakes in your life can be corrected at a later point. And sometimes the journey is the reward, not the goal you are heading for or as Sara Taylor puts it: “I realized that what I felt was a sort of anti-homesickness, a sick-of-home homesickness, that home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy.” (Pos. 2935).

Jason Rekulak – The Impossible Fortress

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Jason Rekulak – The Impossible Fortress

Bill Marvin is a typical 14-year-old in the year 1987. When the Playboy publishes photographs of Vanna White, presenter of the famous „Wheel of Fortune“ show, Bill and his friends Alf and Clark are discussing strategies of how to buy the magazine at their age. Their master plan includes the security code to a small store owned by Mr Zelinsky. But how to get hold of it? The owner’s daughter Mary is the key. Bill is to befriend her to acquire the code from her. But when Bill gets to know Mary, he finds out that they both share the love for computer programming and that Mary is an expert in operating a C 64. She can help him to finalize his computer game The Impossible Fortress, Billy’s submission to an important competition. They more the two work on the programme, the more their mutual affection grows and Billy has already forgotten his initial mission while slowly falling in love. But then he is reminded of it and he takes an important decision.

I liked Jason Rekulak’s story immediately because the author sends you straight back into the 80s. I have rarely read a novel set in the not too far away past in which the setting is that well established and plays such an important role. It is the music played in the shop, the TV programmes the boy watch, the heroes they discuss – and especially the Stone Age of computers that made me remember the time 30 years ago. All the small bits and pieces work well together to create an authentic setting for the plot.

The characters are also well drawn and interestingly designed. Both Billy and Mary are outsiders without being the typical misfits. They are under the radar somehow, inconspicuous in a way but remarkable when you take a closer look. The nerd girl who is interested in typical boyish pastimes, the boy raised by a single mom who is clever on the one hand, but maximum negligent of school and his marks and even running the risk of having to leave high school without any degree. Seeing both of them immerse in programming, teaching themselves and pursuing their goal of the perfect programming for the computer game without realising what is happening to them, is a joy to read.

Besides the story which is convincing and quickly captivating, it is Jason Rekulak’s style of writing which I genuinely enjoyed. He has a subtle humour and a way of describing situations that made me grin more than once and adore reading the novel.

Even though the protagonists are young teenagers and the story somehow is a kind of love story, I would not call it a classic of the genre since particularly the setting could make the novel also interesting and appealing to people who remember the 80s and who would like to indulge in their memories of that time.

Tamar Verete-Zehavi – Aftershock

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Tamar Verete-Zehavi – Aftershock

Bevor Ella sich mit ihrer Freundin Jerus für den Abend zurechtmachen kann, soll sie noch kurz für ihre Großmutter einige Besorgungen tätigen bevor der Schabbat beginnt. Plötzlich durchzieht ein Knall die Luft, ein Selbstmordattentat vor dem Supermarkt, der Ellas Freundin in den Tod reißt und sie sowie unzählige andere verletzt. Ella hatte Glück, denn sie hat keine allzu schweren Verletzungen und ist noch am Leben – aber ist das wirklich ein Glück? Schon im Krankenhaus drehen sich ihre Gedanken nur noch um die Attentäterin, ein 18-jähriges Mädchen aus Palästina. Sie will nicht wie die extremen Rechten anfangen die Araber zu hassen und doch verspürt sie eine enorme Wut, dass man ihr die Freundin genommen hat. So zu leben wie vorher ist nicht mehr möglich, denn alles hat sich verschoben.

Tamar Verete-Zehavi schildert glaubwürdig aus der Sicht eines jungen Mädchen das einschneidende Erlebnis. Zunächst die unmittelbaren Gedanken bezogen auf sich selbst, bevor sie den größeren Zusammenhang erfassen kann. Die kritische emotionale Lage zwischen dem eigenen Überleben und dem Verlust der Freundin, der bedeutungslos gewordenen Umwelt und den immer tiefer eingrabenden Gedanken um die Motive der Täterin werden intensiv und nachvollziehbar geschildert. Man kann die Reaktionen des Mädchens verstehen, der Wunsch einerseits nach Rache, aber auch danach zu verstehen, warum so etwas passieren kann und gleichzeitig doch auch der Wille nicht noch mehr Hass zu säen, sondern Frieden zu suchen. Die langsame Annäherung an die palästinensische Realität, wo sie ebenfalls auf Schmerz und Wut trifft.

Die Autorin schafft es, eine individuelle Geschichte, wie sie sich leider täglich ereignet, exemplarisch zu erzählen ohne in stereotype Muster zu verfallen und allzu einfache Erklärungen zu geben. Die Zerrissenheit ob der komplexen sachlichen wie emotionalen Lage kommen hierbei gut zu tragen und bieten auch keine schnellen Lösungen für diesen andauernden Konflikt. Sie zeigt auch, dass der Blick nicht nur auf die Täter gerichtet sein darf, sondern die Überlebenden ebenfalls Aufmerksamkeit verdienen in ihrem Kampf zurück ins Leben.