Sarah Vaughan – Little Disasters

sarah vaughan little disasters
Sarah Vaughan – Little Disasters

Jess is the absolute role model of a mother, her friends have always admired her diligence and devotion to care for her two sons. When she unexpectedly gets pregnant with a third kid, her husband is over the moon but she does not really share his enthusiasm, she knows how demanding kids can be even for a home-stay-mom. When Betsey indeed turns out to be a rather challenging child, Jess loses her temper, the less she can control the girl, the easier she freaks out until she even gets close to wanting her dead. Her friends Liz, a paediatrist, senses that things do not go too well, but with her own kids and her job, she does not have the time to really take look into the situation. When one evening Jess turns up in the emergency room with Betsey showing obvious signs of neglect and being severely hurt, Liz is trapped between being a friend for Jess and informing the police. How well does she actually know what is going on at her friend’s home?

Sarah Vaughan masterly plays with truths, half-truths and all the things her characters consider truths. Told from different points of view, the reader over and over again gets caught in a trap by making sense of what you know and deciding on what and how the tragic incident happened. Forget it, you are completely wrong since – just as in real life – there is so much more.

Even though the main focus is on the one big question around Betsey’s injuries, the author addresses a lot of questions going far beyond the crime plot. The struggle of women who feel pressure to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, have a successful career and who easily prepare parties with exquisite food is palpable throughout the novel. The four women at the centre all struggle with complying with expectations and their very own goals and ideals. Showing weakness does not seem to be an option, just like asking for help and thus, precarious and even dangerous circumstances are silently endured. Additionally, the question of how far a friendship should or must go is tackled. Liz’ remorse is easy to understand and certainly nobody could ever wish to get into such a situation.

I totally adored the novel, after “Anatomy of a Scandal”, another thoroughly convincing plot with authentic characters and a lot of suspense.

Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

frances macken you have to make your own fun around here
Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

Since their childhood, Katie, Maeve and Evelyn have been friends and it was never a question who was the leader of their gang. Admired by the other two girls, Evelyn decided on what and who to like or dislike. When a new girl moves to their small Irish community, she immediately knows that Pamela is arrogant and stupid. Due to her mother’s interference, Katie is prone to become Pamela’s friend, but before they could really get to know each other, the girl vanishes and is never to be seen again. Rumours go from her being killed by one of the trio’s friends, over being abducted to her having run away. When school is over, Katie and Evelyn plan to move to Dublin together, but when her friend is not accepted at university, Katie for the first time is on her own and cannot rely on her friend anymore.

What a great beginning of a novel. I totally adored to careless and adventurous kids who then developed into typical teenagers. Unfortunately, the novel lost a bit of its spirit when the three separate. Even though this is necessary for Katie’s development, from this point on I struggled a bit with the reading, first and foremost because I found it hard to endure Katie’s naivety and her inability to become an independent person, to develop her own ideas and tastes, she is totally dependent on others and their opinion, thus just bounces somehow in her life without goal. Her return to her small hometown is a logic consequence which even makes things worse for her.

In my opinion, the protagonist is well developed and throughout her life, the decisions made are well motivated by her personality and point of view, yet, she is certainly not a character to sympathise with or to take as a role model. In spite of that, I found it quite realistic to see how she struggles with her future, not having really developed but play but only a mere vague dream, she cannot succeed and must end up being totally disappointed. Similarly, her blindness when it comes to her friend Evelyn is well portrayed, she ignores all warnings and other views and is thus left to learn it the hard way.

A wonderful first part and some great aspects, nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed in the end, as I think the author could have made more of her plot and character.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.

Felicity McLean – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

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Felicity McLean – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

It’s been twenty years that Tikka Molloy fled her Australian home. Now that her sister is seriously ill, she returns not only to her family but also to a secret that the girls have kept for two decades. They have always been friends with the three van Apfel girls who just lived across the street, Cordelia, Hannah and Ruth were their closest friends that they confided in. And so did the Molloy girls. This is why they shared their plan of running away. But something went totally wrong. Tikka’s older sister Lauren was to go with them, but somehow they miss each other at their agreed meeting point and a few days after they ran away, only 8-year-old Ruth turned up again. Dead. Returning home brings back all the memories of the weeks before the van Apfel girls’ disappearance.

Felicity McLean’s novel mixes different topics and genres. On the one hand, it is a coming-of-age novel, the girls all have to face the fact that adults can be evil and that sometimes are not to be trusted. On the other hand, it is also a mystery novel, you don’t know what really happened, if the girls might still be alive. And it is a study in how to live with the knowledge that behaving in a different way in a certain situation might have made a big difference.

As other reviewers have pointed out before, yes, while reading you have the impression of having read it before. There are certain parallels to other novels such as “The Suicide Sisters” and much of the plot has been treated in similar ways before. Yet, I liked to read it anyway especially because McLean manages to convincingly get the tone of eleven-year-old Tikka who is at times naive but always good-hearted and well-meaning. A perfect beach read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

annie-ward-beautiful-bad
Annie Ward – Beautiful Bad

When the police is called to a crime scene, they are prepared for the worst: a child’s voice could be heard during the 911 call. Flashback to a time fifteen years before. Maddie works as a teacher in Bulgaria while her best friend Jo is based with a NGO in Macedonia. During one of her visits, Maddie gets to know Jo’s British friends, among them Ian to whom she feels immediately attracted. Times are hard for the two young women abroad and not everything runs smoothly, misunderstandings, too much alcohol and words that better had not been said. Their friendship does not last in contrast to Maddie’s love for Ian, but their love was not meant to be immediately and now the big question if it ever was meant to be looms over them.

Annie Ward’s is a psychological thriller in which nothing is what it seems, in which you have to re-assess all relationships, all events narrated and all characters again and again to get a complete picture which differs a lot from the first impression you had. The fact that different characters’ perspectives are given alternately and that the story is told at different points in time, all mixed up so that you spring forward and backward and sometimes get the same event two times, does not make it always easy to keep an overview. Even though this to a certain extent supports the suspense that is created, for me it also contributed to some lengthiness.

There are two strong aspects in the novel that I found quite remarkable and authentic. First of all, it clearly shows how detrimental bad relationships can be. Being literally addicted to a person never is a good basis for a partnership since it easy opens the door for abuse and oppression. Second, the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder should never be underestimated. There are experiences that you will never forget and you never really come to terms with. They shape your personality if you want or not and have an impact on your behaviour, relationships and whole life.

“Beautiful Bad” could certainly surprise me with all the twists and turns and was cleverly crafted to lead you in a lot of wrong directions.

Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

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Tayari Jones – An American Marriage

“How did we end up here? My key works, but you won’t let me in.”

Celestial and Roy are made for each other, even though their relationship is not without fights. But they always manage to get together again. Some issues are hot topics – their different backgrounds, their families, having a child – so they try to avoid them. But sometimes these things come up nevertheless and one evening, their quarrel escalates. Fifteen minutes should be enough to cool down. But these fifteen minutes will change their lives, their fates and all the dreams they had for their future together. Nothing will be anymore as it was the next morning.

Tayari Jones’ novel hits you like a hammer. You cannot read it without getting involved deeply and asking yourself the question: how would I react in their place? What I loved utterly was the author’s way of foreshadowing: telling you that a meteor was to crash their lives or that this was their last happy evening for a long time; this creates an almost unbearable suspense, you absolutely want to know what is going to happen and thus, you surely cannot put down the book.

All in all, the story is a quite unique ménage à trois. On the one hand, Celestial and Roy, wed for some months and still somehow at the beginning of their common life. On the other hand, there is Andre who has been a friend of Celestial since their days in kindergarten, who befriended Roy in college and who actually made them acquainted with each other. Long hidden feelings for Celestial can no longer kept buried when she is in need of a shoulder to lie on. Reading the story as it is, you cannot really blame anyone for what they do. It just happens, but it doesn’t make you really happy either. Especially when compared to their parents’ marriages: a deep affection that lasts over decades and that survives even the biggest crises.

Apart from this, the novel is also highly critical in several respects: the American legal system, the way blacks are still treated today and have to fight harder than others and also the question of what makes a man a man and a father a father. A lot of food for thought written in a light style which is full of splendid metaphors that I absolutely adored.

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

ariel-kaplan-we-regret-to-inform-you
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.

Michael Donkor – Hold

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Michael Donkor – Hold

Belinda knows her place in the world, when her father cannot pay for her anymore, her mother sends her away to work in the household of people she calls Aunt and Uncle in accordance with Ghanaian customs. She is not the only maid there, also 11-year-old Mary works for them and quickly becomes something like a sister Belinda never had. When Belinda is sent to England to take care of Amma, a girl her own age, the two have to part which isn’t easy for either of them. Yet, they manage to stay in contact over the thousands of kilometres that now separate them. Mary wants to know everything about Belinda’s posh life in London, but the older sister cannot tell everything that she experiences in England. Her role is different now which is hard to get used to and people behave in a different way. She misses her home town, but also sees the chance that she is given since she can go back to school and study. When a tragic incident calls her back to Africa, Belinda realises that only a couple of months were enough to change her completely.

Michael Donkor was born in England to a Ghanaian household and trained as an English teacher and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He was selected as a “New Face in Fiction” by The Observer in January 2018. “Hold” is his debut novel in which also autobiographical elements can be found even though his protagonist is female and he has lived all his life in the UK.

What I liked about the novel were the different perspectives on life that you get and the difficulties that living between different cultures can mean for you personally but also for the people around you. First of all, I hardly know anything about Ghana so the beginning of the novel when we meet Mary and Belinda, young girls who work full time as maids, gives a short glance at what life in other parts of the world might be. They were not treated especially bad, quite the contrary, but the fact that the lack of money in their family leads to giving up education is something which is far away from our world in Europe.

Most interesting also Belinda’s arrival in London and her awareness of being different. She has brown skin, but this is different from the Asian brown of the Indians or the skin of the girls from Jamaica. It is those slight differences that are of course seen by the members of those groups at the margin but often neglected by the majority society. Even though she shares the same cultural background with Amma, the two girls could hardly be more distinct. The most obvious is their sexual orientation where Belinda sticks to a romantic understanding of love and where Amma has her coming-out as homosexual. Belinda can easily adapt to a lot of things, but this clearly transgresses a line that she will not cross. The girls’ friendship is nothing that comes easy for both of them, but it splendid how Donkor developed it throughout the novel.

Without a doubt, Michael Donkor is a great new voice among the British writers who themselves have made the experience of belonging – but not completely, of being trapped between cultures and having to find their identity while growing up.

Heather Child – Everything about you

heather-child-everything-about-you
Heather Child – Everything about you

21-year-old Freya is not very happy with her life as it is: she is still living together with her ex-boyfriend Julian, her job just serves to earn money but is not actually promising a career and she still misses Judy who first was a friend and then moved in with Freya and her mother and became something like a real sister. When Julian is not interested in the latest technological device from his father, Freya accepts to use the high-tech personal assistant. Since she is still longing for Ruby who went missing without any trace, the assistant is modelled according to the young woman’s features: it can copy her voice, react just like Judy reacted and knows everything about Freya and Ruby. Can this virtual version of her sister also lead to the one in flesh and bone?

Since technology becomes more and more present in our everyday life and since we rely increasingly on our smart phones to do the thinking for us, the idea of this futuristic personal assistant was quite intriguing. Especially since we tend to ignore the negative side effects of handing over more and more data to these uncontrollable technical devices.

However, the novel did not hold up to the high expectations. I liked Freya’s first steps with her new assistant; her incredulously questioning where this machine got all the information from and how she slowly loses control over her life were portrayed in a really authentic way that is easy to imagine in the very near future. Then, however, the more the plot progresses and the more the whole story becomes a kind of computer game in a virtual reality environment, it was a bit too much for me. I am all but into computer games and not at all interested in any virtual realities where completely different rules apply and the unthinkable is possible.  Thus, the moment we lost the track of reality I was more or less out. This might work better for those readers who are really into VR.

All in all, an interesting concept, yet a bit too unrealistic for my liking.