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.

Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

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Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

When the young aspiring painter arrives in New York to become a real artist, she encounters the already famous quintet that calls itself “Pine City“ after the place they work. Jes, Marlin, Jack, Tyler and especially Carey are the up-coming big names in the art world and all that the unnamed narrator dreams of: self-confident, relaxed, comfortable in themselves. A couple of years later, she is at the threshold of making herself a name when her apartment burns down and with it several pieces of work that were meant to be shown just a couple of weeks later. She had stored them at home, not at safe place as she tells her curator, thus, she has to act quickly and rebuild them. An impossible task, even more so if you do not even have a work place anymore. She luckily finds an interim solution: a friend brings her at the heart of the circle she once admired and which has been reduced to a quartet after Carey’s suicide. It was her especially that she looked up to and felt connected with. Maybe staying there might give her some insight in why she decided to end her life.

I really dived into the novel and was immediately hooked by Barbara Bourland’s novel. The young artist who is insecure and admires those who already succeeded. I also appreciated the insight in a painter’s work, how her emotions lead to results when she manages to channel them into the art. Interestingly also to glance behind the façade of the art and culture circus – you get the impression that it is just this: a façade, a cover-up to please, a pretence – without any solid foundation or walls. However, I got a bit lost when the plot developed too much into a love story.

I enjoyed the author’s style of writing and the combination of the art world with a touch of mystery. Yet, apart from the protagonist, it was hard to support the characters who were nor only shallow but pretentious and affected, and who took themselves and their work by far too serious. Just like the characters, the overall plot was also a bit trivial and lacked the depth and analysis or insight in the art work I had expected. The mystery surrounding the suicide of Carey, too, did not really show any suspense. An interesting read with a very strong beginning but a bit lengthy from the middle on.

Emma Rous – The Au Pair

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Emma Rous – The Au Pair

After her beloved father has died, Seraphine Mayes digs into her family’s history. When she finds a photograph of her mother, her older brother Edwin and one baby, she is astonished: it must have been taken on the day of her birth, but which one is the baby? Seraphine or her twin brother Danny? And why does the mother look so happy, only hours before she committed suicide? The photo must have been taken by the au pair who was then looking for Edwin, a certain Laura. When the young woman starts her search for the former babysitter, memories of rumours surrounding her family home Summerbourne also come back to her mind: why did everybody in the small village always say that twins do not survive in that house? When Seraphine tracks down Laura and tries to contact her, she inadvertently sets in motion a series of events.

Emma Rous’ mystery starts as a simply family story and then develops into a suspenseful crime novel. The story is told alternatingly between Seraphine’s search for Laura and the latter’s experiences as an au pair 25 years before. Two young women full of distress who cannot foresee what they run into. The plot is carefully crafted and to sort out the complex connections takes some time thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

“The Au Pair” clearly lives on the two protagonists. I liked both of them dearly, Seraphine’s stubbornness is quite convincing, she does not give up even when being threatened, actually this only spurs her curiosity and fervour to uncover the events surrounding her birth. On the other hand, Laura had to flee from her evil stepfather and tries to regain control over her life. Both women are created multifacetedly, especially their relationships are complicated which makes them authentic and believable. Apart from the characters, I especially liked the atmosphere of the novel and the spooky tales that circle around the two family homes which give you the impression of old gothic homes which have some secrets buried that are never meant to come to the light.

Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

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Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

Catherine Simpson’s memoir is not a book easy to review. First of all, it is of course non-fictional, second, it is a very personal report on a sister’s emotions and thoughts after her younger sibling committed suicide. This makes it difficult to use phrases like “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” since they simply don’t work here. It is also somehow out of question to discuss the tone of writing as while reading it, I had the impression that it was much more written for Simpson herself than necessarily for a reader. It seemed to me to be her way of coping with the situation and sorting out her thoughts and feelings.

I appreciated her openness in sharing her sometimes contradictory emotions, in not embellishing her own role in her sister’s life. She presents episodes where she was nasty as a kid or where she simply did not pay enough attention to Tricia’s needs. This surely is not easy to talk about. But this is exactly the point she is making: in their family, they never talked. The girls were taught to be silent, not to ask too many questions and best not to be seen at all. They did not have a poor childhood, they had good times and fun on the farm, too, but the family’s way of coping with emotions certainly played a role in the development of Tricia’s illness and final suicide.

The book definitely gives a good insight in living with depression and how the loved ones who are left behind after someone chose to end his or her life feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more. I don’t think there is much you can actually do to protect and help people with serious mental health issues, but you can certainly work on talking more with the people around you.

Ryan Ruby – The Zero and the One

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Ryan Ruby – The Zero and the One

Owen is full of fear. He hates flying, maybe because he hasn’t done it quite so often. But there was no way of avoiding his best friend’s funeral, he has to go to New York to attend the service. How could he end on this plane? Owen Whiting has fought his way from his non-academic family up to Oxford where he spends his first months mostly alone and an outsider. Only when Zach approaches and befriends him do things change. The young American has seen something in Owen that was hidden to the others, Owen is his equal, he can share his thoughts and is ready to transgress the boundaries of life. Still, Owen cannot fully comprehend how it all could have ended like this, maybe he will find answers across the ocean.

“The Zero and the One” keeps the secrets about Zach for quite some time; the structure of narrating the events surrounding the funeral and disrupting them with narratives of the past, postpones the clear picture and the full understanding of the events repeatedly. The beginning was rather slow, nevertheless I liked Owen’s background story, his family, his own expectations of life and his fight for a higher education. After the boys have met, the focus shifts a bit and the whole novel becomes a lot more philosophical. Their treasure hunt for the not so famous author of “The Zero and the One” already provides some suspense, however, it is only in the third part that the action really accelerates and Ryan Ruby can surprise the reader. Never would I have imagined such a story as the one that lies beneath it all.

To some extent, it is a classic coming-of-age novel, on the other hand, we also have quite a typical story of an ambitious young person from a poor background who suddenly enters a completely new sphere where he does not fit in at all and where intelligence and thirst for knowledge just aren’t enough. Thirdly, there is a psychological thrill particularly towards the end which I found most intriguing and fascinating. Zach is the character who can enthral the reader and who is not easily tangible, but here, the protagonist has to offer much more than some well-known cliché.

For quite some time I thought “The Zero and the One” was a good and entertaining novel. The closer I got to the climax and the end, the more I was drawn into it and spellbound.

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.

 

Marieke Nijkamp – Before I let go

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Marieke Nijkamp – Before I let Go

For sixteen years, Corey and Kyra have been friends. Together they roamed the forests of Lost Creek, Alaska, went to school together and spent their free time together. Then, six months ago, Corey moved away with her mother and younger brother and left Kyra alone. Alone in a town who hated the girl because she was different. Her maniac-depressive behaviour irritated the 250 inhabitants of the small city; she was at best invisible, at worst an outsider. Two days before Corey is due to visit, Kyra is found dead. Beneath the ice of a lake in mid-winter. For Corey this is not only a shock, but unbelievable. Kyra cannot be dead and she would never have killed herself so shortly before her arrival. Her suspicion grows the closer she comes to her former hometown and finally there, she is not greeted with unanimous joy.

Marieke Nijkamp’s novel is set against the Alaskan winter which perfectly reflects the mood of the novel. The atmosphere is gloomy and often spooky throughout the story and at times it actually gave me the creeps. It is a wonderful merge of a young adult novel and a thriller.

Yet, first of all, it is a novel about friendship. Corey remembers her time with Kyra, the good ones and the bad ones and she is ruminating about the question if she has left her friend, left her alone with the ill-natured people of Lost Creek who resented her with her escapades. Could she have prevented a possible suicide or even murder of her friend? A tough question for a sixteen-year-old girl alone and face to face with a whole hostile town.

On the other hand, it is a novel about life in a reclusive community who considers people who moved away outsiders after only a short time and who are hard to anybody who does not fit in their world-view. Where people do not talk much to somebody who does not belong to the inner circle. And a community who lives to its own laws and values. After only a couple of months, Corey does not understand them anymore, does not recognise the people she once loved anymore.

Looming above all this is the question what happened to Kyra. Did she really change after Corey left? Did the people actually change in the last couple of weeks? Or is this just the story Corey is told to hide the truth.

The author has a great talent in making you feel with the protagonist, I experienced this when I read her novel “This is where it ends” about a school shooting, too. “Before I let go” is a quick read that I enjoyed a lot.

Sharon Solwitz – Once, in Lourdes

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Sharon Solwitz – Once, in Lourdes

Lourdes, Michigan, summer of 1968. Four friends make a pact: in exactly fourteen days, before the sun’s first rays hit the lake, they will leap together into death. They are outsiders, all the four of them, for different reasons. Kay Campion is fat, as a child she found her mother who committed suicide and her father re-married only a couple of months later. Vera is beautiful and gracile, but she was bullied due to her crippled fingers. CJ is searching for his identity: does he love boys or girls? And last but not least, Saint who comes from a very poor and highly dysfunctional family. They are looking for someone who loves them just as they are and found each other. Since life does not seem to have much in offer for them, why should they continue living? Will their last 14 days on earth make a change?

The story is told from Kay’s point of view. Only step by step do we learn why she is struggling so much with life. Not just that she has lost her beloved mother and had to see her hanging in the basement, it is also the permanent question what she is to her father. Her emotions are expressed in her dysfunctional relationship with her own body – quite an authentic and typical reaction for teenage girls. Yet, for me even stronger was the character of Vera. She is really lost and without any stable ground to walk on. She seems to be highly gifted and is a perfect example of what bullying can make of a child: turning the talented dancer into a drug addict who confounds physical closeness with love. But also the boys are highly interestingly drawn. CJ who is constantly digging in his father’s past in a concentration camp and Saint who seems to have several personalities reflected in the different ways his name is used.

As shown before, the most stunning about the novel are the characters who are elaborated in every detail and thus really come alive while reading. You can easily imagine them in reality and also their pact make absolutely sense. The title – hinting at Lourdes in France with its famous Marian apparitions – promises a wonder, a sudden and unexpected healing from the things the four teenagers suffer from. But wonders do not happen that often and apparitions and inspiration are reserved for the selected few, not the average boy or girl.

A noteworthy novel which, however, I would not recommend to teenagers with emotional troubles.