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.

Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

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Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

The revolution and following turmoil made an orphan of Zoya Andropova. Therefore, she like so many other kids comes to the USA as an orphan and is welcomed in a New Jersey boarding school. She never belongs even though she quickly acquires the language and gets good marks. After her schooling, she can stay on the premises and work in the newly built greenhouse where she fully immerses in her work with the plants. Neither does she have friends, nor a lover. It is just her work and the love for literature that keep her going. There is one author she has worshipped for years, Leo Orlov, another Russian émigré whose works she devours. When Leo comes to teach at the boarding school, Zoya seems close to happiness, but even though Leo returns her love, there is one person in the way of their luck: Vera, his wife.

Adrienne Celt’s second novel “Invitation to a Bonfire” is set in a complicated time and therefore offers several layers of narration. The book can be read against the background of Russian-American confrontation and distrust. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a girl who struggles in her new surroundings. The story provides a good example of group dynamics, of exclusion and bullying, of rich vs. poor. It clearly also broaches the issue of being forced to leave your country, forced to leave behind everything from your family, to your belongings and even your language. And, after all, it is a story about love and being loved and about what people are willing to do for the one they have fallen for.

With such an abundance of topics, it is hard to find a beginning. Let’s start with the protagonist. It really liked Zoya, she is a decent and modest character, she humbly accepts her status in the new school and avoids attracting attention. Even though the other girls play tricks on her, she remains loyal and keeps quiet. She can endure a lot and does not expect life to be fair. After what happened to her family, she knows that justice is not something you can rely on in this world. This is a truth she has accepted and thus, she can follow her ideals.

When she falls under the spell of Leo, you want to shout at her to run, far far away from this man and his wife. You can see that nothing good can come from this relationship – but: what else could she do than immediately fall in love? He is the first to see her, to show her affection and to love her. Her free will is gone and the is easy to manipulate.

The story is not fast paced, actually the love story comes at quite a late point in the novel considering its relevance. What made the narration really lively was the fact that Leo’s letters to his wife and other documents were integrated which allowed you a glimpse at a later point and thus added to the underlying suspense. The author has cleverly constructed the novel and her writing is adorably poetic and multi-layered, is starts with the first sentences which immediately drag you into the novel and don’t let you out before the finishing dot:

“Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. No—let me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly.”

Frederik Backman – Us Against You

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Frederik Backman – Us Against You

Is there a future for the small community of Beartown in northern Sweden after all that happened last season? Summer is almost over, but how should life go on without a hockey team? The best players have left and taken the coach with them. Peter Anderson, the ice hockey club’s GM, is left behind with a mess; when the club presents the new coach – a woman – this seems to be the last nail in his coffin. But Beartown is not a place where people give up, they all fight, for different goals, with different motives. And slowly a new team forms and life comes back to the community. Hockey is not all there, hockey is everything and for the sake of the game, you sometimes have to cut back your own interests.

I have read several novels written by Frederik Backman, also the first of the Beartown series which I find absolutely necessary to understand this one, and I still do not know how he manages to drag you so completely into the novel and to make you want to cry several times.

Even though in this instalment, there is not the big culminating point to which the plot inevitably heads like in the first one, you can feel the suspense throughout the whole novel. After what had happened before – the rape, the hatred, the taking sides – the characters now need to adjust their lives, somehow get back to a kind of normal which isn’t the normal they had known before. This is where the greatest strength of the author lies: he manages like hardly any other to portray the nuances in the feelings, contradicting emotions and strong convictions which cannot be explained since they have always been there and are true therefore.

His characters walk on brittle ground, any second, it all could explode and the whole community could end in total chaos. They move carefully, but sometimes also like a bull in a china shop, but they are aware of each other and especially of the other’s needs. What is so special about Beartown is the strength of the people when they are needed. They all have a good heart, the fight hard, but they also know that as humans they have to take care of each other and that life is not always fair but that they can balance the unfairness with their actions.

No, life is never easy in Beartown, many suffer a lot and you wouldn’t want to change places with them. Yet, on the other hand, what more could you hope for than a place like this small town and its inhabitants?

Again, it is a novel about hockey. But also about love and hate. Life and death. Violence and peace. Just about everything that matters. And above, wonderfully written so that you can hardly put it away once you’ve started reading.

Andrew Sean Greer – Less

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Andrew Sean Greer – Less

Arthur and Freddy have spent so many years together, but now, Freddy is going to marry somebody else. This already would be enough, but Arthur’s situation is even worse: he is about to turn fifty, thus, officially old. How to avoid the dreadful wedding and his birthday? The solution is close at hand: he accepts several invitations bringing him first to New York, then Mexico, afterwards across the ocean to Italy, Germany and Morocco before returning home via India and Japan. However, leaving behind your everyday life does not mean that your worries also stay at home. They follow Less around the word as constant companions at his side.

Andrew Sean Greer had been quite successful with his short stories before he started writing novels. His sixth, “Less”, was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer prize for Fiction, after he had already received the California Book Award and the O. Henry Award among others for his works.

It is hard to find words to adequately describe the novel. I simply adored it every minute. First of all, there is this extraordinary protagonist Arthur Less who is, in his own view, so plain, ordinary, normal and uninteresting and yet seems to fascinate everybody he meets, makes them fall in love with him instantly and puts a kind of spell on them they cannot escape. The reader also falls for him at once – albeit I cannot explain why this is exactly the case. It is surely not because he is outstandingly good-looking or especially witty, he seems to have some kind of charisma that attracts people.

Second, the narrator. He seems to be acquainted with Less, even though he merely hints at when and how they met and what their relationship is like. Often he recedes and just tells the story, but now and again, he talks to the reader, comments and readjusts the reader’s perspective. Even though a lot of disasters happen to Less on his journey and despite the fact that the two major loves of his life are lost, his life isn’t too bad.

Watching Less stumble through his journey, his anxiety about ageing – his is 49, not 50! – his being mainly known for having spent years at the side of a successful writer while his own work did only find small recognition – all his little flaws make him even more likeable. His modesty, his shyness – he is not less, but much more. A wonderfully written novel, full of love and compassion.

Gunnhild Øyehaug – Wait, Blink

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Gunnhild Øyehaug – Wait, Blink

It is a random and unexpected encounter that brings the student Sigrid and the author she has been admiring for years together. They are mutually attracted immediately and in a café try to get closer without revealing too much of them at first. Trine, however, is ready to reveal a lot as a performance artist who works with her body. But she is struggling with being a mother. Another couple is somehow trying to imitate a film scene which is originally set in Paris but transferred to Copenhagen by the director Linnea. It is just a short glance at their lives, but we see the decisive moment that has to potential to transform everything.

I was eager to read “Wait, Blink” since I usually like the Scandinavian way of telling stories. However, I couldn’t really get into the novel. I assume this is due to the fact that there is not one story, but several quite independent stories are told alternatingly and I was always waiting for the moment in which they connect and form a whole which I didn’t really find.

The scenes about Trine were hardest for me since this character is quite unique and I could hardly follow her thoughts and actions. I liked Linnea and her idea of reproducing “Before Sunrise” – “Before Sunset” in her own life. Sigrid is not really a sympathetic character, but I could link with her thoughts and her struggle to appear as a strong and independent woman while she is actually insecure and afraid of human beings.

Even though the content did not really convince me, I adored Gunnhild Øyehaug’s style of writing. She has found an exceptional tone for her narration and the way of the narrator to talk to you as the reader like he was a good friend and his slightly ironic undertone were great to read. Øyehaug shows what she is capable of and I am looking forward for another novel by her.

Aminatta Forna – Happiness

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Aminatta Forna – Happiness

They meet by accident, but somehow they have known each other forever. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, has come to London to give a speech at a conference. He is a specialist in post-traumatic stress and has seen the worst the world has to offer. But this is not the only thing he has to do there. First of all, he has to find the daughter of some of his friends who hasn’t called for a couple of days and who, together with her son, seems to be missing. Another thing task waiting for him is to visit Rosie, his former colleague and lover. She is in a home, not aware of the world anymore, waiting for her life to come to an end. While Attila is occupied with the humans around him, the American biologist Jean cares a lot more for the animals. Especially foxes around town. She is fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to kill them all and do not understand that this is not how things work with wild animals.

Aminatta Forna’s novel has a title which could hardly fit better: “Happiness”. The whole story is about happiness and the question what you need in life to be happy and what happiness means after all. But maybe it is not happiness that we are looking for, but rather – as one of the characters puts it – hope. Without hope, there is not future, but you can have a whole lot of future without happiness.

Both Jean and Attila are most interesting characters in their very own ways. The author has done a great job in creating them and in opposing them, their view of the world and the way they approach life. They have some similarities, too, their principles and beliefs and the fight for what they believe is the right thing – it is not easily nowadays to find people with such strong convictions.

Yet, what I loved most about the novel were the really poetic ways of unobtrusively talking about life and love in a philosophical way. She captures the fragility of love and our existence in a way that is hard to excel. I really fell for the language in this novel and was waiting eagerly to find more of those passing comments that capture so much truth in this unassuming, shy way:

The reckless open their arms and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.

It is a bittersweet story, full of love and loss, life and death. And certainly one of the most remarkable novels of this spring.

Clarissa Goenawan – Rainbirds

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Clarissa Goenawan – Rainbirds

When the news of his beloved sister’s death reaches Ren, he hurries to the small town of Akakawa where she had been worked as a teacher for the last couple of years. The police do not have many cues about the young woman’s crucial death, she fell victim to a merciless murderer and was heavily mutilated. Ren starts to ask questions himself, first the landlord where his sister had stayed and with whom she seemed to have had quite a delicate agreement. But also at her work place, there are interesting people who might know more than they would admit at first. In his dreams, Ren is haunted by a young girl with pigtails who obviously wants to tell him something, but he needs time to understand the girl’s message.

Clarissa Goenawan’s novel is set in 1990s in rural Japan and thus the atmosphere is far from the Tokyo rush that you might have in mind when thinking about young people on the Asian island. The plot moves at a moderate pace; modern media simply does not exist so people need to talk to each other to get information or to – very conventionally – send letters. Even though the motive that drives the action is an unsolved murder case, the novel is far from being a real crime novel. It is much more about the brother’s loss, a rather dysfunctional family (or rather: families since none of the families presented can be considered functional in any way) and in a way also about love or different kinds of love. It is a quite melancholy book with some rather dark and even mystical aspects.

I felt sorry for the young protagonist most of the time. He is quite lonely and now with his beloved sister gone, he got nobody to rely on anymore. His childhood memories were quite depressing and it is a wonder that from what he and his sister experienced they didn’t develop any serious mental illness. There is something intriguing about the other characters, too, albeit I assume that this is also stemming from the fact that they are portrayed in a fairly typical Japanese way, eccentric to some extent, which is rather unknown or unusual for Europeans. What I found quite interesting is the fact that the writer herself isn’t Japanese, but for me, her novel is thoroughly Japanese concerning the atmosphere and the characters.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

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Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.

Amy Bloom – White Houses

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Amy Bloom – White Houses

Life does not endow much to young Lorena Alice Hickok. When her mother dies, her father sends her away and she has to make her way on her own. Thanks to her stubbornness and perseverance, Lorena becomes one of the first woman journalists of the United States. In 1932, she works for Associated Press and reports on Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s electoral campaign. This is when she meets Eleanor for the first time. They women fall for each other immediately and this, Lorena gets closer to the famous couple and finally becomes Eleanor‘s lover.

Based on the known facts, Amy Bloom tells the story of two unorthodox and progressive women of the 1930s. It is especially Lorena who is an extraordinary character. She is not particularly charming, nor very attractive at the first glance, nevertheless, there is something fascinating about her, her independence makes her stand out and her courage and self-confidence irritate the men around her.

On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt is an outstanding first lady. Educated in the best boarding schools and acquainted with the manners of the high society, she moves smoothly around the rich and famous. When she entered a room, all eyes were on her. Yet, this did not prevent her husband from betraying her and obviously, she was aware of this. His lovers lived under their roof and Eleanor could watch them closely. But, had Franklin and Eleanor lost interest, they could be awful, nasty people.

Amy Bloom unveils a scandalous affair and tells the story of a woman, or rather two women, who followed their instincts and thus were quite ahead of their time.

 

Nicola Mostyn – The Gods of Love

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Nicola Mostyn – The Gods of Love

Frida McKenzie has exactly what she wanted in life: a successful divorce lawyer at a very young age, her career is speeding up and the meeting at NeoStar is going to secure her place at the top. Yet, the encounter there does not go as planned and she finds herself locked in a meeting room. A mysterious message in her handbag and a hidden cell phone lead her to Dan whom she already met the days before and identified as mad. However, what he has to tell her now appears in a completely different light: Dan is actually the Oracle and Frida a descendant of Eros, the god of love. And, not to forget: she is destined to combat Anteros, the old enemy.

“The Gods of Love” is quite a unique mixture of a treasure hunt, a love story and masses of Greek mythology. This sounds a bit weird and it actually is, but I had a lot of fun reading it. Well, of course, the story is all but realistic and far from credible, but leaving this aspect aside, the gods that show up are more than human in their characters and possess all the vices you can find in any human being.

Frida, the protagonist, can easily carry the burden of the action – well, there is godly blood running in her veins, so there must be some hidden strengths after all. She appears to be strong and determined in her role as a lawyer. Rather cynically she condemns the naivety of her clients. Yet, when you look under the surface, the fragile and lonely Frida appears who is herself susceptible to affection and easy to seduce and deceive. However, she is becoming stronger throughout the story, not only because the gets aware of her heavenly ancestry. I liked her a lot, even though she appears to be arrogant at the beginning, she is actually quite lovable.

Nicola Mostyn cleverly integrated the Greek mythology and the gods that show up are more than just decals of the ancient myth. Nimbly their stories are told in passing so even if you are not too familiar with them, you know everything you need to get an idea of their role. I liked Psyche especially, her first appearance is simply hilarious just as the narrative tone.

All in all, a wonderful and funny novel best read close to February 14th.