Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

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Alyssa Sheinmel – What Kind of Girl

He hit her. Again. But this time, she cannot hide it under her clothes, her eye is visible to everybody in school and therefore Maya goes forward to their principal and tells her what Mike Parker, everybody’s darling and sports superstar, has done. Even though it is quite obvious and Maya has no reason to lie, questions like “maybe she provoked him?” and “maybe it was just an accident?” blame her for being the victim. The school is divided and so are the friends. Yet, not only Maya goes through a hard time, her formerly best friend Juniper does so, too, apart from feeling ashamed for not having been the friend Maya would have needed, her break-up with Tess combined with her psychological struggles already keep her mind busy. But this is something that needs action and that’s what Juniper’s parents educated her for: standing up for those who are in need.

I was immediately hooked by Alyssa Sheinmel’s novel, she brilliantly captivates Maya’s thoughts which oscillate between not wanting to be the victim but speaking out for her rights and being strong on the one hand, and feeling insecure about what happened, questioning herself, her own contribution to bringing her boyfriend so far as to hit her again and again on the other. She is young and even though she knows exactly what is right and what is wrong, emotions are not that easy and rarely only black and white.

Providing different perspectives also adds to underline the complexity of a topic which seems so easy to make an opinion about. At first, however, I was a bit confused by the headlines of the chapters which introduce the respective character talking, I first assumed that wide range of girls would be presented until I realised that it is just the two of them perceiving themselves in different roles depending on their mood.

Unfortunately, after a great start, the novel lost focus a bit for my liking. Of course, it is only natural that all teenagers have their own struggles, that none of them really lives a carefree life where all is perfect. Yet, it was a bit too much here: Maya and the violence, Juniper cutting herself and suffering from OCD, drugs abuse – adding too many big topics quite naturally lead to a very shallow and superficial treatment of all of them. Not only did the author miss the chance to provide some insight in the psychological background of each, she treats them like some small bruise that can easily be overcome by just being friends again with your BFF. Simply focussing on Maya and Juniper also did not seize the extent of such an accusation and what it really does to a small community like a school.

Nevertheless, a great read that I enjoyed and which provides some food for thought.

Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

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Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

When Natasha arrives from Russia at her new boarding school in rural England, she struggles to adapt. Not only the foreign language, but the special language all these year-11 girls from superrich families use. Yet, not only the words, but also the manners are quite unique and the one thing that they are obsessed with is how to lose weight. It is not just to get rid of some rests of baby fat or being in a better shape, the most important thing is being thinner than the others since the headmaster treats those girls differently. But then, their weight-loss competition goes totally wrong and one of the girls dies. Reaction of the school management: let’s not get any information outside and set up an anti-anorexia plan which only gives the girls even more ideas of what to do…

“Oligarchy” starts like some typical boarding school novel. 15-year-olds who do not have any serious worries, who try out the most absurd diets they can find, and modern-day obsession with pictures on the internet. Yet, it does not stop there, on the surface, of course, it is the world of adolescents we are presented with, teenagers who are reluctant to what their parents do and where the money comes from and who rebel against strict rules on their school. However, underneath, there are some much more fundamental questions addressed, first of all, how eating disorders are fired by what we are presented with every day. Secondly, the girls are rich, but most of them actually do not really have somebody to turn to, their parents are simply absent and even times of deepest distress does not seem to trigger any reaction from them.

Even though the novel is a bit stereotypical when it comes to the characters, I think the author did well in combining relevant topics in an enjoyable read. First and foremost, she has found the perfect tone with does neither ridicule the teenagers with their absurd ideas of how to diet and their supposedly secret cheating, nor does she take the serious consequences of their action too lightly. It is a novel that can educate, but fortunately, you do not feel like being educated.

David Owen – All The Lonely People

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David Owen  – All The Lonely People

The last strike by the anonymous bullying group really hit Kat hard. She was never the popular girl with many friends, but at least online she could be the person she saw in herself, but now, that is taken away from her and she just wants to vanish, fade away. Her wish is granted, slowly her body becomes translucent, only Safa, sharing the same fate can see her. She quickly finds out that there are others, not just people who would like to be someone different and forget their old life and be forgotten, but people who actually faded away. However, there is still one thing she needs to do on earth: the bullies have found another target and she must stop them and therefore collaborate with one of them.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really thinking that the act of vanishing in the novel was meant “real”, yet, this unrealistic aspect is the only thing I wasn’t completely happy with. Apart from this, David Owen has really captured the emotions of teenager who feel like they don’t fit in, that they cannot lead the life they would like to have and the hardship of going to school and being exposed to the attacks of bullies.

I found both protagonists – Kat as the good, pitiable girl and Wesley who first seems to be her enemy but then turns out to be in a comparable situation – strong characters for the novel. They are easy to relate to and the problems they face are things most pupils might know from their everyday life. The novel also had some suspense that kept you read on and it surely made you think of how you treat your family members and how attentive you are concerning the people around you that you never really see.

All in all, I liked it and would surely recommend it to young people who are searching for their identity and place in the world.

Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

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Adib Khorram – Darius the Great is not Okay

Darius Kellner has never really fit in into Chapel Hill High-School, not just because he is half-Persian but also because of his depression which makes it hard for him to make friends. When is grandfather gets seriously ill, his whole family is flying to Yazd for the first time: his father, whom he considers an “Übermensch” because he is perfect in every respect, his beloved mother and his 8-year-old sister Laleh. Even though Iran is much less different from his home than expected, Darius, or Darioush as he is called there, makes masses of new experiences. He finds a good friend in Sohrab, plays football successfully and with fun, he tries out great Persian food and the family relationships somehow shift and allow him another look at how things are between himself and the rest of his family. When he returns, he is not the Darius he was before anymore, a bit of Darioush the Great has come with him to the US and he accepts that at times it is ok just not to be okay.

Adib Khoram’s novel presents a very different perspective on many things we know from novels. First of all, it is not an immigrant who comes to the US and has to adjust, but vice versa, an American boy, who even though he has a Persian mother is not speaking any Farsi, who discovers a country and its people of the Middle East. Khoram doesn’t play on clichés here, luckily, Darius does not come with too many ideas about his mother’s native country and enters it rather open-mindedly. Additionally, Darius is at the age where he could have his first girl-friend, but it is not a girl he meets and falls for, but a boy with whom he makes friends. And thirdly, the novel does not present a happy-end where everything is cured and everyone is fine. Darius still suffers from depression and has to fight for every little step in his life. Just travelling to Iran and back does not change everything.

I really enjoyed reading to book. Most of all because it gave a lot of interesting insight in the life in Iran, but also because it doesn’t pretend that life is easy and that everything can be fixed. None of the characters is perfect, they all make mistakes and they all feel awkward at times. In this respect, it is very authentic and convincing. I think it is great for teenagers who struggle with fitting in since the main message for me was that we all at times feel like outsiders and it is absolutely ok, not to fit in and to feel sad at times.

Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

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Ariel Kaplan – We Regret to Inform You

Mischa Abramavicious is the perfect student: she has all the grades it needs to get into the best colleges, her list of extracurricular activities is impressive and her single-parent mom will be proud of her. But on Admission Day, she only gets rejections. None of the schools has admitted her, not even the local safety college. But how come? Mischa doesn’t dare to tell her mother but starts investigating instead. Together of the Ophelia Club, a bunch of tech-wise girls of her school, and her friend Nate, they discover that marks and letter of recommendation have been changed – but why, and especially: be whom?

“We Regret to Inform You” is a well-written novel about today’s teenagers and the pressure they are under. Only when the whole world falls apart for Mischa does she realize that she actually has no hobbies, not even an interest but that she has spent the last for years only working for her résumé and to fulfil her mother’s expectations. The later, too, also put much in her daughter’s future, invested money she didn’t have to get her into an expensive private school which promised the best starting point for an Ivy League University.

I really liked Ariel Kaplan’s style of writing. Even though a major catastrophe is happening to the protagonist, the novel is not really depressing but quite entertaining since there are many comic situations and ironic dialogues. The novel concentrates on the positive side which I liked a lot, Mischa doesn’t give up, but her focus shifts and she finally gets to understand herself better. She makes the best of it and fights for her rights – but not at the expense of everything else. So, it still is a young adult novel even though there are some underlying very serious issues.

R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

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R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.

Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

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Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.

Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.

The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.

“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.

A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.

Kim Fu – The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

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Kim Fu – The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

A summer camp for young girls aged nine to twelve. Mostly rich, but there are also some poor ones granted scholarships so that they can take part, too. The rules have been the same over decades, everything in Camp Forevermore is as it has always been. Part of the camp experience is a kayak tour which the girls complete in small groups and which leaves them on isolated islands for a night. Siobhan, Nita, Andee, Isabel and Dina thus are assigned to the oldest and toughest camp supervisor. Yet, unexpectedly, the girls do not end in the spot they were destined to but find themselves on a different, much larger and completely isolated island, their chaperone dead and they themselves running out of food. Now, the real survival lesson begins.

The idea of a bunch of girls having to face raw nature and survive in unknown territory sounded quite intriguing to me. I anticipated it to be a bit like a girl version of the “Lord of the Flies” and I was curious to read how a group of girls develops under those conditions. Yet, the story of the lost girls is just a part of the novel. Their adventure is broken up by narrations about what happens to the girls later in life, their fate after surviving Camp Forevermore. This not only came a bit unexpected, but also shifted the focus away from the actual story to what such an experience makes with people and how they can never really get over it.

Kim Fu has a very lively style of writing. The characters seem authentic and you quickly get a good idea of their different personalities. I liked her writing most in the parts where the girls struggle to survive, she is great at portraying their fears, hate and desperation. Without any question, the girls’ later lives are also interesting and the author actually did a great job in developing the girls further as adults. However, I would have preferred to read more about Camp Forevermore and the girls desperate situation.

Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

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Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

An awful accident brings a bunch of teenager together in the waiting area of a hospital: a Boston bridge collapsed during busy traffic and now they are waiting for news. Scott is afraid that his girlfriend Aimee might be amongst the dead. Skyler was on the telephone with her sister when Kate suddenly broke away. Jason and Alex fear the worst about their parents who were on the way to Alexa’s school. And Morgan already knows that her father is not alive anymore. While they are condemned to wait in the sterile area without any information, they all recall the last couple of months, what they went through with the loved ones, the good sides and the bad ones. But sharing this feeling of utmost anxiety also brings out things which were long buried and in the morning, they are not the same anymore.

“All we can do is wait” has the classic drama setting: all characters in one place, waiting for the moment when they are either relieved or their biggest fear is confirmed. There is nothing they can do to change the situation, they have to sit and wait for the verdict. No matter what they wish or pray for, their fate is already sealed but they do not know about it.

Richard Lawson makes his young protagonists alternate in the narration. Each chapter is dedicated to one of them and slowly their lives unfold. Thus, we are not constantly in the situation of extreme stress in the waiting room, but look back also on happy moments full of joy and love. But the sword of Damocles of looming over them all the time and inevitable we return to the hospital.

The story is full of emotion, positive and negative ones, and the author created authentic and lovable characters who are credible in their fears and hopes. They already show whom they are going to be in a couple of years and yet, they are still adolescents with great hopes and wishes. Apart from this, there is obviously a lot of suspense because you just want to know what happened to their friends, sister and parents. This just makes you read on and on and on. I really loved the novel even though it is a rather melancholy story that is told.

Robin Wasserman – Girls on Fire

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Robin Wasserman – Girls on Fire

Hannah Dexters Leben ist ereignislos, wenn man es positiv ausdrücken möchte. Langweilig, wenn man es realistisch betrachtet. Sie hat keine wirklichen Freunde und wird weitgehend ignoriert. Das ist nicht schlecht, denn so vermeidet man auch alles, was einen verletzten oder später im Leben schaden kann. Nachdem ein Mitschüler sich das Leben genommen hat, sucht Lacey Champlain Kontakt zu ihr. Die neue, wilde Mitschülerin, von der man noch nichts weiß, obwohl sie schon seit Monaten in dieselbe Klasse geht. Die beiden Mädchen könnten kaum verschiedener sein: Hannah das brave, wohlerzogene Mädchen, Lacey äußerlich wie innerlich rebellisch. Lacey zeigt Hannah, wie sie auch sein kann, bringt ihr Musik nahe, vor allem Nirvana, und trinkt zum ersten Mal mit ihr. Langsam wird auch dem gehorsamen Teenager ein eine aufsässige junge Frau, die in einen Strudel von Lügen und Betrug gerät, ohne es zu merken. Das Mädchen wird zum Spielball und für hinterhältige Zwecke missbraucht. Aber ist es wirklich Lacey, die hinter allem steckt?

Robin Wasserman hat ihren Roman in die Anfänge der 1990er verlegt und den Ursprüngen des Grunge und der aufstrebenden Band Nirvana so ein kleines Denkmal gesetzt. Ihr Roman ist bezogen auf das Genre nicht ganz einfach einzuordnen, einerseits geht es um zwei Mädchen, die langsam erwachsen werden – mit allen schönen und hässlichen Seiten, da liegt Young Adult nahe. Gleichzeitig schildert sie aber auch sehr drastisch psychologische „Kriegsführung“, emotionaler Missbrauch und Gewalt, was nicht wirklich für Jugendliche geeignet ist. Ein interessanter Genremix, der sich am Ende zu einem wahrhaftigen Psychothriller entwickelt.

Die beiden Protagonistinnen sind glaubwürdig gezeichnet und könnten verschiedener kaum sein, was von Beginn an die Frage aufwirft, was sie verbindet. Das Band wird erst ganz zum Ende sichtbar, zwar deutet sich einiges an, aber clever wird immer wieder eine leichte Variante erzählt, andere Aspekte kommen hinzu und indem Robin Wasserman die beiden im Wechsel erzählen lässt – immer wieder kurz unterbrochen von Einwürfen anderer Figuren – dauert es, bis man als Leser durchschaut, welches Spiel gespielt wird und welche Koalitionen sich im Hintergrund bzw. vor der eigentlichen Handlung gebildet hatten. Vor allem die psychologischen Aspekte, die Motive und die erkennbaren Störungen der Mädchen sind der Autorin glaubwürdig gelungen.

Ein spannendes Buch über ausgesprochen destruktive Figuren, spannend geschrieben und mit einer cleveren Handlungsführung, die die amerikanische Provinz zum Tatort hinterhältigster Verbrechen macht.