C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

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C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

The saga of a family. A family whose life is linked to the soil on which they live and to the horses they breed. John Henry Forge raises his son Henry in the tradition of the white settlers of Kentucky. The supremacy of the white race is never questioned and on the family farm, the roles are clearly ascribed. Young Henry has a dream, already when he is just a small boy, he sees their land as the perfect place for breeding horses, but his father will hear nothing of this. When he takes over the farm, his chance arises and he becomes one of the best in the business. Yet, not only in horses is it important to take care of the blood line, he also chooses his wife with care and thus can produce the perfect white child: Henrietta. Like father like daughter does she grow up learning about the white race’s authority and rule. But times are a changing in the 20th century and creating the perfect race horse and the perfect daughter might not be enough anymore.

C.E. Morgan’s novel has been nominated for most of the important prizes for literature in 2016 and 2017: It has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017, for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize 2016; it was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 and won the Kirkus fiction prize 2017 and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize 2016. It made the second place on the BBC books of the year 2016 list. Coming with so much glory, the expectations were high and the author easily matched them.

To say what the novel is actually about, is not that easy. Quite logically considering its length, there is a lot in it. First of all, the Forge family. The way the children are raised, the relationships between the generations but also between the spouses are interesting to observe in the way not only they are at a fixed moment in time – I really pitied young Henry when he wanted to share his dreams and visions with his stubborn father – but also how they develop over the time, here Henrietta plays the most important role. Even though she is a woman and as such by nature inferior to men, she can take over the male role and successfully lead the dynasty. But there is not much affection between the characters. It is especially Henrietta who realizes that she is lacking love and warmth and since she has never learnt how to express her feelings, she seriously struggles in getting involved with somebody. It is the women who struggle most with society’s expectations and their inner feelings – not only at the beginning, but also after the year 2000:

“The irony was bare and bitter and unavoidable: she was a woman, so she was a slave to life. Never before had she understood the brutal actuality of life in a body she didn’t choose. (…) Women invited death when they let men inside their bodies! Why did they do it? Love couldn’t possibly be worth it.”

Apart from the humans, the breeding of the horses plays a major role in the plot. I am not into horses at all and know almost nothing about these animals. But it is fascinating to see how close the characters get with them, how they observe details and can communicate with and understand them Also the idea of breeding the perfect race horse is quite appealing and interesting. Admittedly, would I have been asked before if I was interested in the description of a horse race, I certainly would have disagreed, but I was wrong.

Last but not least, a major topic is also slavery, resp. the formal abolition of it but the remaining prejudices in the heads – of the whites as well as the blacks. Even in the year 2006, equally has not been established. There have been improvements, but due to inheritance, a family name and the like – unfortunately not only in literature.

Apart from the plot, it is also C. E. Morgan’s masterly writing which makes reading the novel a pleasure. To tell the stories of the different family members, she finds an individual tone for them. John Henry is reserved, unkind and rather factual. Young Henry is full of childish amazement and effervescent until he becomes the head of the family. Strongest are the women, first of all Henrietta, but also her mother Judith and the housekeeper Maryleen and Allmon’s mother. She gives them a voice and especially thoughts they share with the readers which make them really come to life. She finds metaphors as well as comments by the narrator which sometimes even addresses you directly. The tone is serious at times, funny at others, sometimes sad, rarely joyful – just as life can be.

Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

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Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

Two young women in their twenties, two dreams. Emma dreams of working as a writer, she blogs about her life with quite a remarkable success, but actually she is stuck in an advertising company where she has to be creative in the dullest of imaginable ways. Her best friend Clementine Twist has just returned to London from a Year in New York where she attended Columbia film school to become a screenwriter. The feedback to her work is throughout positive, but back home she has to secure her living and moves back in with her parents and accepts a job as a receptionist of a club. Only their friend Yasmin seems to get it all right: she’s got a fancy job that she exerts successfully and the wedding with Mr Right is just around the corner. The more goes right with Yasmin the more seems to go wrong for Emma and Clementine. When does the adult life they always dreamt of finally start?

Lauren Berry really managed to catch the mood of women at the end of their twenties. Emma and Clementine are full of energy and passionate about what they love, but somehow life is in their way and they are stuck between mundane everyday-life problems. Reality and dreams seem to be many miles away from each other. Even though they are good at what they want to do, the chances just do not come to really show the world what they are capable of. The necessities of the world keep them from just indulging in their creativity, bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, so the need to earn some money is overwhelming and paralysing.

What I liked about the novel is the fact that even though the girls could easily give up and despair, they somehow stick to their dream and they have a certain sense of humour not to take themselves and their lives too seriously. Many scenes are quite funny – as long as you just read them and do not have to live them through. Even though it is at times quite close to being chick lit, the author can keep some seriousness in the story and the fact that her protagonists find themselves in the same situation as masses of young women who can surely identify with them, gives the novel an actual relevance.

Fiona Barton – The Child

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Fiona Barton – The Child

During construction works in London, a builder comes across the dead body of a baby. Angela and Nick hope that they will be finally relieved. For almost 40 years now, they have waited for a sign of their daughter Alice back then abducted from the maternity ward. The police investigate all options while journalist Kate Waters is looking for a story to get her career back on track. She quickly uncovers people who lived around the building site area decades before and who might have witnessed something; yet quickly she has to realize that there is much more behind the story than she initially thought. When another woman claims to baby to be hers, Kate and the police do not know whom to believe and that they are about to uncover much more than they suspected.

Fiona Barton tells her story from different perspectives: first of all, we have Kate the journalist who is looking for some kind of heart-breaking story to report and thus to escape being fired like many others from her team. We only get bits and bobs from her private life, a son who refuses to pursue his studies any further, but that’s it. Thus, this character is mainly illustrated through her actions as a journalist. I quite liked her, she not the hard-boiled reporter who doesn’t care about the people she writes about, but tries find a way between securing a good story and not exposing the people involved. On the other hand, we have Angela the mother who has been suffering for 40 years and who is not willing to give up hope to find her daughter. I am not sure if this character is really authentic, that a family and a marriage can survive such a stroke of fate is rather seldom. Emma, the last of the three protagonists remains incomprehensible for a long time and thus keeps suspense of the novel high. Much of what she says does not make sense and her role in the whole story is rather mysterious.

Even though the end is quite foreseeable, it liked the story. It is fast paced and the different perspectives keep you alert on who says what and who knows what. The mystery around the buried baby is solved convincingly even though I wonder of the subplot about the rapists was really required.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a crime novel or even thriller. It is rather a psychological drama with a lot of suspense to me. And compared to Fiona Barton’s first novel “The Widow”, this is much stronger both in the plot and the characters’ design.

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.

Omar Robert Hamilton – The City Always Wins

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Omar Robert Hamilton – The City Always Wins

The promise of a better life. A fight against an unbeatable enemy. A love in a time of upheaval. Almost 20 years under the dictator Mubarak come to an end when masses of people inspired by revolutions in other Muslim countries gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo and force Mubarak to resign. Social media are the new weapons and Mariam and Khalil are in the centre of the protests. They broadcast what is happening to the world and they treat the wounded always in fear of becoming a victim of the police, the army or any other group. Over months they keep their revolution alive, actually living from it, forgetting to eat, forgetting their own life. They feel their power to change something, but is there really hope for Egypt?

Omar Robert Hamilton, known for his fight for the Palestinian cause, combines the real events which took place in Egypt over 1.5 years with the fictitious story about Mariam and Khalil. Both of them are interesting characters. Mariam, on the one hand, who helps the doctors and could, together with her parents, establish a kind of camp hospital where immediate treatment is possible, who consoles the mothers of those who died in the protests and who is stubbornly following her ideals. Khalid, on the other hand, is not even Egyptian but find in the protests a kind of proxy for his family’s omitted fight for the Palestinian cause. With his American passport, he has no need to risk his life, but he is fully immersed in the revolutionary power and the mass movement and helps with his journalistic and technical knowledge. Their love is strong in the beginning, but the common aim slowly makes them drift apart. This becomes obvious when they talk to Mariam’s father about their plans for the future – marriage and children? No common ground can be found anymore, so what hold them together?

The strongest aspect of the novel, however, is the description of the fight. The risks the protesters take are impressively narrated. Their belief in a better country is strong and passionate. Some pieces were scary for somebody who was never close to such a situation: the young people writing the phone numbers of their nearest of kin on their arms so that the beloved can be informed in case of serious injury or death. I can only imagine people not really being ready to die, but accepting a possible death as a necessary danger to take for the cause.

Additionally, the narrative structure is remarkable. Omar Robert Hamilton has structured the novel in thee chapter: Tomorrow, Today, Yesterday. This diametrically opposes the chronological order and makes you wonder. Furthermore, the narrative is accelerated by frequent insertions of newspaper headlines, tweets and the like. The author thus managed to create an atmosphere of tension and excitement, you are really drawn into the plot and the characters’ emotional state of thrill.

Even though the plot is highly political, it is not judgemental at all. We get the uprising from a very personal point of view which I found most interesting and fascinating and important for outsiders. All revolutions are backed by ordinary people who risk everything. This novel most certainly gives them a voice and, most importantly, hints at a critical situation of a country which we tend to forget due to even more serious problems.

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.

Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

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Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In Old Delhi, the hijra Anjum sets up her life in a graveyard. She is joined by a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussein. Another outcast joins them, Tilottama, and there is a baby who seems to have appeared from nowhere and belong to nobody. This group’s fates are narrated through time and in different places of India and Kashmir. All of the characters face struggles due to the political situation, either protest in Delhi or the long-lasting conflict in the Kashmir region and thus portray India in a very special way – India of the people at the fringe of society.

Arundhati Roy’s second novel might be the most awaited book of 2017. It took her twenty years to write it after her debut success “The God of Small Things” and the yardstick has been set very high for the successor. Admittedly, I struggled with the novel which is mainly caused by the plot’s structure. The story is only in party narrated in a chronological way, other sections are meandering and at times the different characters and setting were not always easy to link with each other for me. Second, the novel is highly political and if you are not familiar with India’s recent history and political struggles, a lot might be lost for you as a reader of this novel (at least I assume so).

Nevertheless, there were also a lot of aspects that I really liked. Arundhati Roy definitely is a master of words. In subtle ways she finds possibilities of expressing what happens and thus adding second or even third meanings. When Anjum has set up her small guest house in the graveyard, she is regularly inspected by municipal officers who are not “man enough” to chase her away. Considering Anjum’s situation as hermaphrodite, this is quite interesting to observe. Then her permanent resident who calls himself “Saddam Hussein”, another outcast who chose this name in admiration for the former leader’s courage in the face of death. Or when Tilo ponders about some men killed in a car accident and their fate and whom this actually concerns since they would have died anyway and wonders about “how to unknow certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know” (pos. 3095). Summarising the stat’s situation in political upeheal best are the following two quotes:

“There were rumours and couterrumours. There were rumours that might have been true, and truths that ought to have been just rumours”. (pos. 3681) and “Life went on. Death went on. The war went on.” (pos. 3835)

How can one survive in this situation, especially as an outcast? You have to fight for yourself and accordingly, it is the two women who become strong and leaders – quite a surprise in the country’s strict caste system.

The insight in how India’s society works is for me the most remarkable aspect of the novel. Not considering it as a whole, there are many stories within the novel which give you an understanding of the country’s culture and are thought-provoking.

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.

Robyn Harding – The Party

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Robyn Harding – The Party

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

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

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

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

Kevin Kwan – Rich People Problems

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Kevin Kwan – Rich People Problems

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

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

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

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