Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

thomas harris cari mora
Thomas Harris – Cari Mora

Cari Mora is not afraid, not anymore. Having been kidnapped as a kid and trained to become a child soldier for Colombia’s FARC, she knows how to survive even the most dangerous situations. She can read people, use weapons of all kinds and she knows that in order not to be killed, she at times needs to shoot others first. She has established a quiet life in Miami, always under the radar since she does not possess the necessary papers. When Hans-Peter Schneider and his crew appear, things become complicated. A war of gangs breaks out, sadist Schneider as well as his opponent Don Ernesto want to dig out some gold barrels which are supposed to be deposited in a house which formerly belonged to Pablo Escobar, leader of the famous Medellin Cartel. Cari soon find herself between the front lines.

It took Tomas Harris thirteen years after his last instalment of the Hannibal Lecter series to come up with a new novel. Having totally adored “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and its successors, I was eager to read this novel. Even though the topic is completely different, I expected some cruel thrill and highly complex characters. Yet, my expectations were not really met and for the rating, it only ranges somewhere between three and four stars.

There were some aspects I found really interesting to read. Cari Mora’s backstory as a child soldier was exciting and appalling at the same time and Harris integrated this part quite well into the actual plot line. She certainly is some noteworthy character and the conflicting traits – on the one hand, the ruthless child who learnt how to kill, on the other hand, the caring woman and her way of treating plants and animals which shows her high capacity of empathy – make her a strong protagonist.

However, the main topic is the fight between the two gangs which is, unfortunately, very poorly narrated. Even though Schneider first appears to be a fascinating character with his tendency to torture, this is not really developed further. Thus, the gang fight remains on the highly superficial “we shoot some of you, then you react in the same way” level. This is a bit uninspired and maybe works better in film than in a book.

It is easy to recognise Thomas Harris’ hand in the novel, but he surely can do a lot better than that.

Mahir Guven – Older Brother

mahir-guven-older-brother
Mahir Guven – Older Brother

They are neither French, nor the typical Arabs you find in Paris who mainly come from the former colonies in the Maghreb countries. So no wonder the two brothers who grow up without their mother do not belong anywhere. Their father left Syria in the hope of a better life for his kids, but the older of his sons got in trouble early, only the younger one who works as a nurse in a hospital seems to have a promising future. Yet, the feeling of being unable to fulfil his dreams – becoming a real doctor, being treated like the French – throws him off the track. With a Muslim humanitarian organisation, he hopes to do something useful with his life at least and leaves the country for Syria and the war. Three years after abominable conditions leave their mark and when he returns, he is not only the same young man he was before anymore but he also has a mission to accomplish.

“We used to just be Syrians. Well, he was Syrian, and we were Maghrebins, Syrians, sometimes French, occasionally Breton; it depended who we were hanging out with. In real life, until the war in Syria, we were all more just banlieusards than anything else. But since the war, everyone’s been calling themselves Muslim.”

Mahir Guven portrays two possible ways of dealing with an undoubtedly highly demanding situation. No matter how much effort Europeans put into welcoming refugees and migrants of all kinds, societies are not easy to actually enter. The boys have a French mother and a Syrian father, thus by nature, do not completely belong anywhere. This makes them not only fragile and prone to all kinds of delinquencies, but also perceptible to questionable ideologies which on the surface seem to provide answers neither the family nor the society can offer.

The debut novel gives the young men not only a voice, but also the reader a chance to look into their heads and get an understanding of their feelings and lacking sense of belonging. It also shows that it is not inevitably the family, the friends or the milieu someone lives in which determine about their life. There are always options, decisions are made and even if you opt for one road, this does not obligatorily have to be a one-way street. Second, the terrorists who threaten our peaceful life are not always stupid idiots, but the intelligent ones who simply were refused their share of happiness and a chance in life.

I was immediately immersed in the novel which is written in a lively and authentic tone. But first and foremost, I find it highly relevant to read about these kinds of perceptions and feelings, by far too long other voices have domineered the discourse and if we want to live up to our ideals, we need to listen to them, too.

Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

ji-min-lee-marilyn-and-me
Ji-min Lee – Marilyn and Me

1954, the war in Korea is over but there are still some soldiers waiting to see their big star come for a short visit: Marilyn Monroe. Alice J. Kim, working as a translator for the Americans, is one of the few Koreans fluent in both languages and who could accompany the blond film star on her tour. But with the arrival of Marilyn also comes somebody else Alice had almost forgotten: Joseph, her former lover who turned out not to be a missionary but an American spy. Alice thought she could leave her past behind, like the war, just bury it all under the ruins and build a new life. But now, it all comes up again.

Other than the title suggests, the novel is not really about Marilyn Monroe and her visit to Korea. She appears as a character, yes, and I found she was nicely depicted, a sensitive woman lacking all kind of allures one might assume. However, first and foremost, it is a novel about Alice and the two loves she had: first, Min-hwan, a married man working for the government, and second, the American Joseph. None is the loves is meant to last and the political developments in the country add their part to these unfulfilled loves.

What I found interesting was the insight in the possible life of a Korean woman at the time of the war. I have never read about it and this part of history is not something I know much about. Nevertheless, the book could not really catch me. Somehow I had the impression that the two stories – Alice’s one the one hand and Marilyn’s visit on the other – did not really fit together and especially the last seemed more a feature to make the story a bit more interesting by adding a big name.

„These sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past.“

Parallels between Marilyn and Alice are evoked: a past they want to forget, well-known lovers who in the end always decide against the affair and for their wife, the change of name to start anew – but the link is too weak to work for me. Unfortunately, Alice also remains a bit too distant, too hard to grasp and to really feel sympathy for her and her fate.

Nico Walker – Cherry

nico-walker-cherry
Nico Walker – Cherry 

2003, Cleveland. He has just arrived at uni when he meets Emily and falls for her immediately. They love each other passionately, just as they love Ecstasy. When Emily moves back home to Elba and splits up, he loses control and is expelled from college soon after. The army promises an interesting future – or better: a future at all. As a medic he is briefly trained before they send him to Iraq. A year in the Middle East, a year in the war. What he sees is unimaginable and to avoid the pictures in his head and to deal with the everyday loss of comrades, he needs more and more pills. When he returns, he cannot find a way back in life. With Emily, he’s got an on-and-off relationship which is mainly marked by their common use of heroin. A normal life seems possible, but the constant need of money for more drugs and the fact of passing out frequently hinders them from actually having it.

“Cherry” is the story of an average young man whose life spirals down into the abyss. It’s not the one big event that throws him off course, it’s a bit here and there, a relationship that breaks up, not getting enough credits at college, simply losing the aim in life. Of course, the experiences made in the war are a major event and it is hard to imagine that anybody can live through this without serious psychological disturbances or PTSD. The novel brings out the worst that drugs can do to somebody and it underlines how long this can go on without people around noticing anything, how long they can keep up appearances before wreaking havoc.

Yet, it is not only the topic, the narrator’s life that is shown bluntly by Nico Walker. What he does masterly, too, is to adapt the language to the situation:

The car bomb did what car bombs do and four were dead in the market. It would have been more but the sheep took most of the blast. So you had flesh and blood and wool on the pavement. You had bloodstains on the pavement, little lakes of blood.

There is no reason to embellish anything, it’s just the blunt reality that Walker describes in the most brutal and direct way. Most of the soldiers were “Cherries” which gives the novel its title: soldiers who have never been in a fight and whose behaviour is unpredictable and therefore a danger to the whole platoon. They were ill prepared in every possible way, but the worst is that they were ill prepared to return to a life in the civilian society. Walker doesn’t beat about the bush, his novel accuses their treatment, as well as the way drug addicts are taken care of, or rather: not taken care of. He shows a reality that nobody wants to see but which exists among us. The style of writing might not be for everybody, but it is perfect for this novel.

Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

rachel-rhys-fatal-inheritance
Rachel Rhys – Fatal Inheritance

England, 1948. When Eve Forrester is informed that a certain Guy Lester has mentioned her in his last will, she cannot make any sense of it. Her husband is not very happy about the news, especially since it means his wife will have to travel to southern France to attend the opening of the will alone since he cannot leave work. Mr Lester’s notary Bernard informs the unhappy housewife that she together with Guy’s three children is the heir of a Villa in Cap d’Antibes. None of them is very happy about this, especially since nobody understands how Eve relates to the rich and famous of the Côte d’Azur. Eve prolongs her stay there to find out what had happened and it is obvious from the start that there must be a link to her mother who refuses to talk. The longer she stays and the more she mingles with her new acquaintances, amongst them a famous film star, the farer away Eve gets from her old life. But still, what was Guy Lester’s motivation, what is the secret that had been kept hidden for so long?

Rachel Rhys’ historical novel is the absolutely perfect summer read. Escaping the heat to the south of France to a time long ago and a gorgeous place with villas and parties and people living a life which you don’t find anymore. Added to this, the story comes with a certain mystery which slowly unfolds and finally bursts with a big bang.

First of all, I really liked the protagonist Eve. She is quite a lovable, modest young woman who is fascinated and appalled by what she sees at the Riviera at the same time. The peoples’ lifestyle is so far from her own life that she never really adapts and sticks to her own values and convictions. Even though she is greeted with a lot of hostility and rejection, she doesn’t forget her upbringing and manners. Just like at home, she feels a bit lonely and forlorn which make the reader stay on her side and support her against all the rest. The longer she is away from her husband, the more confident and independent she grows and I really appreciated the woman we see at the end of the novel.

The mystery was also very well played. It is all but obvious what had happened in England long time ago and the small pieces of information you get, just refuse to fall into place. It’s a riddle which takes the complete novel to be solved but when all is finally revealed, it makes perfectly sense and puts everything in a completely new picture.

All in all, an absolute joy to read and to indulge in on a hot summer day.

Akil Kumarasamy – Half Gods

akil-kumarasamy-half-gods
Akil Kumarasamy – Half Gods

What is decisive for your character: your upbringing? your parents? the place you grow up? your friends? your skin colour? Your ancestors? And can you ever overcome the lives that your fathers and grand-fathers lived, the experiences they have had? Akil Kumarasamy’ debut “Half Gods” is a collection of ten stories some of which are linked since we encounter the same characters at a different stage of their life, one time as the protagonist, next time as a minor character. What links them, too, is the characters pondering about who they are, where they belong, where they go to and who the people are they call family.

I really liked some of the stories, others were a bit more difficult for me. The situation of immigrants who want to fit in, make an effort, try to assimilate but never really get the same status as the natives, that’s something I found a lot more interesting than those war scenes in Sri Lanka. It is especially the grandfather, remembering his life in Asia and who had never really arrived in the USA that I could identify with and that I felt pity for.

Even though the short stories are wonderfully written, with many beautiful metaphors and many phrases that are perfectly to the point, they only party worked for me. I appreciated that some are connected and that characters reoccur, even if this wasn’t in chronological order, but then there are also stories that stand completely alone which make it all a bit strange for me. Also the fact that there wasn’t a clear red thread recognizable was something I did not especially appreciate.

Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

michael-ondaatje-warlight
Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

Rachel and Nathaniel were still teenagers when immediately after WW II their parents packed to leave the country. The kids were supposed to attend boarding school after summer break, but only a few days after the school had begun again, they left and went completely to live with a man they named „The Moth“ who was supposed to be their caretaker while the parents were away. Even though they at first felt left behind, it was a time of freedom and carelessness, the house often full of interesting and mysterious people and both, Nathaniel and Rachel, became somehow used to the situation. When their mother suddenly showed up again, they understood that things were not what they had thought them to be. It was only after their mother’s death, when Nathaniel is approached by special operations, that he gains insight in who his mother had actually been.

“Warlight” – during the time of the second world war, when there were frequent blackouts in London, there was only the so called “Warlight”, dimmed lights to guide emergency traffic, the rest was covered in black and you could only sense movements in the shadow but not see them. This is the perfect title for Michael Ondaatje’s novel: a lot of what happens remains somewhere in the dark for the protagonist to see. He can only assume things from the quick glances he is granted, but he cannot be sure if his hypotheses are correct. It also represents quite well the atmosphere which is always a bit gloomy and melancholy and certainly never joyful.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader just as the protagonist and narrator is quite irritated by the parents’ behaviour. They leave the country, neither telling their children where exactly they are headed too or why after all they have to leave. The teenagers stay with people they hardly know and not to forget: the war has just ended and the memories of the bombings are still fresh. How could ever parents do such a thing? It becomes even more infuriating when they find their mother’s luggage which she obviously didn’t take with her. It takes some time to figure out the mother’s real role and thus to understand her behaviour. This is also when the novel becomes the most interesting.

This is also where Michael Ondaatje’s virtuosity becomes evident: none of the characters, no matter how random he or she seemed, was introduced without a reason and they all have their specific role in the novel. It all makes sense and culminates in much greater questions than the nucleus of a single family we are presented with at first can ever offer: how far would you go for your country? What are you willing to sacrifice? And it clearly shows that the two categories of “good” and “bad” are simply inadequate for the world we are living in.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

lisa-halliday-asymmetry
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.

Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day

review, novel, war, London,

1942, the war is raging in London, but Stella Rodney did not flee the city like so many others. Her son is a solder and she is in constant fear of losing him. She finds some hours of relief with Robert, her lover. When a man, Harrison, approaches her, she does not really know what to think of him. When he tells her that her lover is a double-agent handing over secrets to the enemy, her world crumbles. Harrison warns her not to tell him that he has been uncovered since this would have serious consequences. Stella does not know whom to trust anymore – just like her son who uncovered the truth about his father.
Even though the novel is labelled as a thriller of suspense, I did not really perceive it as that. Of course, we do find agents and double-agents and the bombing of London is in full course, but for me this was much more a novel about a woman in a complicated situation and the question of whom to trust, what to reveal about yourself and family secrets. I appreciated Elizabeth Bowens unagitated tone which made the novel run smoothly gave you some feeling of security before the big secrets were revealed. It is obvious that she is a master of making use of ambiguous language and of close observance – she knows that everybody has secretes and she is interested in opening Pandora’s box and letting them free.