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.

Karin Slaughter – Pretty Girls

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Karin Slaughter – Pretty Girls

Zwei Frauen, deren Leben kaum unterschiedlicher sein könnte: Claire und ihr Ehemann Paul leben dank eines enormen Einkommens das Luxusleben der Oberschicht von Atlanta. Lydia hat sich nach der Drogenabhängigkeit und der viel zu frühen Schwangerschaft langsam ins Leben zurückgekämpft und führt mit ihrer Tochter ein bescheidenes Dasein. Pauls Tod nach einem nächtlichen Überfall führt die beiden wieder zusammen. Fast 20 Jahre haben die Schwester nicht mit einander gesprochen, das Verschwinden ihrer Schwester Julia hatte damals die Familie zerbrochen. Doch nun bringt ein grausamer Fund in Claires Haus sie wieder zusammen: offenbar war der gute Ehemann nicht der, für den Claire ihn fast zwei Jahrzehnte gehalten hat. Je tiefer sie in sein zweites Leben eintaucht, desto mehr muss sie erkennen, dass sie mit einem Monster verheiratet war. Doch die beiden Frauen ahnen noch nicht, welches grausame Verbrechen auf das Konto des smarten Architekten geht.

Unbestreitbar ist Karin Slaughter eine der weltweit erfolgreichsten Thriller Autorinnen, ihre Serien um Will Trent und Sara Linton gehören mit zu den meist verkauften des Genres. „Pretty Girls“ ist ein Standalone Thriller, der ebenfalls nicht mit Spannung und Brutalität geizt. Zunächst die Frage, was die beiden Frauen verbindet und weshalb Lydia über Pauls Tod dermaßen erleichtert ist, doch dies wird rasch aufgelöst. Etwas länger die Frage, weshalb Claire verurteilt wurde und mehrere Monate eine Fußfessel tragen musste. Man ahnt, dass die Figuren hinter der augenscheinlichen Fassade noch mehr zu bieten haben und wird nicht enttäuscht. Keiner ist der, für den man ihn zu beginnt hält.

Neben den Geheimnissen, die die einzelnen Figuren mit sich tragen, bleibt natürlich der Fall, der immer wieder mit Überraschungen aufwarten kann und sich zunehmend ausweitet. Insgesamt ist dies alles in sich stimmig und glaubwürdig, für mich aber letztlich doch etwas zu viel des Guten. Über weite Teile hielt ich das Doppelleben für durchaus möglich, aber ab einem gewissen Punkt erschien mir manches zu sehr konstruiert, um es für real zu halten. Der Showdown wie immer in hohem Tempo erzählt, die Figuren unter enormem Druck und einmal mehr erspart die Autorin dem Leser keine Grausamkeit, die man von einem Menschen eigentlich nie erwarten würde. Alles in allem ein Thriller, der dem Genre voll gerecht wird.

Dave Eggers – Bis an die Grenze

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Dave Eggers – Bis an die Grenze

Josie steht vor den Trümmern ihres Lebens. Eine Klage hat ihr ihre Zahnarztpraxis geraubt, von ihrem Mann ist sie getrennt und wenig hält sie mehr an der Vergangenheit und in der Heimatstadt. Kurzerhand packt sie die beiden Kinder, den 8-jährigen Paul und die 5-jährige Ana und flieht mit ihnen nach Alaska. Mit einem Camper möchte sie den Bundesstaat erkunden und in der Weite des Landes zur Ruhe kommen. Doch die Reise ist beschwerlicher als gedacht und aus dem Abenteuerurlaub wird bald schon der Kampf ums Überleben: Überleben der Erinnerungen, Überleben gegen bösartige Menschen, Überleben von Naturgewalten.

Konnte mich Dave Eggers in der Vergangenheit mit „The Circle“ und „A Hologram for the King“ begeistern, war dieser Roman auch für mich als Hörerin eine Herausforderung. Zwar ist der Plot durchaus interessant und bietet einige spannende Momente, aber die Figurenzeichnung war unsäglich. War Mae Holland in „The Circle“ bereits naiv bis dümmlich, übertrifft Josie sie noch um Welten. Die studierte Zahnärztin, von der man rationales und bedachtes Handeln erwarten sollte, bringt sich und die Kinder immer wieder in größte Gefahr durch ihr blödsinniges und gedankenloses Handeln. Man möchte sie anschreien und ihr zurufen, wie absurd dumm sie sich verhält und wünscht sich geradezu, dass Paul und Ana nicht länger in ihrer Obhut bleiben dürfen.

Was als Selbstfindungstrip angekündigt war, ist eine Tour de Farce einer kopflosen Frau, die vor dem Leben davonrennt und bei all den gestellten Aufgaben nichts lernt. Dass ihr Sohn mehr verstand zu besitzen scheint als sie, ist erschreckend. Leider leidet darunter das Hörvergnügen, denn man kann sich kaum auf die Handlung konzentrieren, ist man so damit beschäftigt, denn nächsten Ausfall dieser Mutter zu verarbeiten.

Adi Alsaid – Let’s Get Lost

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Adi Alsaid – Let’s Get Lost

Ein Road Trip der etwas anderen Art. Leila lässt in einer amerikanischen Kleinstadt ihren Wagen testen und lernt so Hudson kennen, der sofort von dem Mädchen fasziniert ist. Es wird die schönste Nacht seines Lebens, die jedoch auch einen jahrelang gehegten Traum zerstören wird. Leilas Reise geht weiter und unterwegs sammelt sie Bree auf. Die Mädchen finden sich sofort sympathisch, doch die kleine Ausreißerin Bree kann vom Diebstahl nicht lassen und so landen beide im Gefängnis. Für Elliot wird die Begegnung mit Leila zur Realisierung einer nur dem Fernsehen gekannten Geschichte und Sonia hatte schon aufgegeben, ihr Leben in Trümmern, aber Leila kommt ihr zu Hilfe. Vier Menschen, vier Geschichten und vier Begegnungen, die das Leben verändern. Doch wer ist Leila eigentlich und warum hat sie sich auf den Weg nach Alaska zu den Polarlichtern? Auch Leilas Leben wird durch diese Reise verändert werden.

Eine überzeugende Geschichte über das Erwachsenwerden. Die vier Figuren, denen die Protagonistin begegnet sind sehr verschieden, was immer wieder neue Aspekte in den Roman bringt und vier letztlich eigenständige Geschichten entstehen lässt. Alle vier sind an einem wichtigen Punkt ihres Lebens und benötigen genau den einen Impuls benötigen, um weiterzugehen und ein Kapitel abzuschließen. So auch die Protagonistin, die jedoch lange Zeit erstaunlich blass bleibt. Man erfährt sehr viel über die Figuren, mit denen sie interagiert, von sich selbst gibt sie jedoch nichts preis und mehr und mehr fragt man sich, was es mit ihr auf sich hat. Dieses Mysterium wird im letzten Kapitel recht überraschend, aber überzeugend gelöst.

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.

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.

Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

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Joel Dicker – The Baltimore Boys

Already when he was a child, Marcus envied his cousins, the Goldmans from Baltimore. He himself is part of the Goldmans from Montclair, but in Baltimore, so much more was happening and he was only part of the gang during the holidays that he spent in Baltimore. The Baltimores adopted Woody, a sports prodigy and best friend of Hillel who was a frequent victim of bullying when he was a child. When they grow up and become teenagers, the friends turn into competitors for the first time: all the three of them fall in love with Alexandra, the girl from next door. School is over and college is calling. Star athlete Woody will have it easy, just as Hillel who is highly intelligent. But things turn out other than planned and only many years after the catastrophe Marcus manages to fully understand what happened.

Just like in “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”, Joel Dicker narrates his family saga in a discontinuous way but springs back and forward in time. Piece by piece is added to the story and it only integrates into a whole picture at the end. His tone is calm and relaxed, interrupted by the present time and thus creating breaks and delays which increase the tension and the readers’ interest to find out what happened.

Strongest in this novel are definitely the characters. None of the three is just the average boy with an average life. They all have their flaws and weaknesses which makes them quite interesting but not that singular that you could not imagine them in reality. Their friendship is deconstructed piece by piece thus shading a different light on what young Marcus perceived and felt.

Howard Jacobson – Pussy

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Howard Jacobson – Pussy

Prince Fracassus, son of the Duke and Duchess of Origen, grows up in the Republic of Urbs-Ludus. This small republic is famous for its high skyscrapers (which do not even let you see the moon) and for its casinos. The boy hardly has any contact with people outside the palace, most of his time he spends in front of TV where he watches reality shows and history lessons on emperors such as Nero. His teachers try to bring the world to him and especially to enlarge his vocabulary, but this is not very successful. Therefore, they go on a trip, maybe the direct contact with the real world might have an impact on him. In the meantime, the old Duke dies, the republic is slowly crumbling and Fracassus will be the one to save his dukedom.

Howard Jacobson’s novel is a satire which makes you laugh out loud and want to cry at the same time. He did not even try to convey his message very subtly, no, he openly holds the mirror up to the electorate and asks them: What have you done? So far, many have criticised President Trump, this is not very difficult since he provides you with so much to attack every day. This is quickly done. Jacobson, however, has a very elaborate way of confrontation.

First of all, the protagonist’s name. “Fracassus” reminds me of the French adjective fracassant which has two meanings: on the one hand, it comprises the idea of spectacular and surprising, on the other hand, it is destructive like a wrecking ball. Both significances go well with the current POTUS. The dukedom was also provided with a telling name: a very original idea to call it the capital of play. The surroundings of the small prince match somehow the Trump tower and the fact that he is famous for building houses and known due to his TV shows is not that very subtle.

Second, the prince’s attitude towards life and people. Even though he has a very limited vocabulary, he knows many words for women, or to be more precise, for prostitutes – which equals women from his point of view. He’d like to reign like an ancient Roman emperor, feeding underlings to the lions, building walls to keep out the unwanted and destroying any kind of protest with strong and quick police intervention. He wants to fight terrorism even if there is none.

Third, his use of twitter – just hilarious. His electoral campaign and the fight with his female opponent and the sharp analysis of her weaknesses – I have hardly ever had to laugh that much while reading. All this is accompanied by Chris Riddell’s charming and funny illustrations of the prince.

Fracassus’ return to his home country to make it great again on the basis of all that he has learnt – e.g. to lie to the people, so they will never expect the truth from you –  it is all very funny to read. Until you realise that this satire of this novel is a reality.

Megan Miranda – The Perfect Stranger

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Megan Miranda – The Perfect Stranger

Leah Stevens has to leave Boston and wants to start a new life as a teacher somewhere in Pennsylvania. Together with Emmy Grey, who already had been her roommate after college, the two women move to the small town which makes an idyllic impression. Yet, this idyll does not last long, soon after their arrival a girl is assaulted and Leah finds herself in the middle of the investigation around one of her colleagues. When Emmy does not show up for several days, she is just a bit concerned, but when the police find out that there is no person of the name Emmy Grey and when Leah realises that her friend did not leave any trace, she gets more and more scared.

I was really looking forward to reading this novel, but actually I am a bit disappointed. First of all, I could never really bond with the protagonist. Neither did I find Leah especially sympathetic nor did her behaviour make any sense to me. Had we known more about her, this might have been different, but equipping her with y mysterious past, too, did not really help to like her, because as a reader you always suspect her of false play and not of being the pitiable victim. For me, it was hard to believe that a clever investigative journalist can turn into a shallow, trustful teacher who only believes in the best of people. Moving in with somebody without knowing anything about that person is rather unlikely with such a past.

The plot itself had some suspense to offer, there were also some unexpected twists and turns, but here too, a lot was just too flat and unimaginative to convince me. The affair between Leah and Kyle, for example, who did not see it coming? Police rummaging the house just after a mysterious box with relevant information has been found hidden in the basement and secured from their eyes. These are mere props you can find in any second rate mystery novel.

All in all, it was ok, the knots were undone in the end.