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Category Archive for '0-2020 Reviews'

In entitling his latest book Here We Are, Graham Swift announces in advance that all the clues to understanding the people whose lives are the subject of this story are here, already present within this narrative. Jack Robbins, known on stage as Jack Robinson, the “compere” of a variety show on the Brighton Pier, enjoys spending time sitting in the audience at the back of the theatre watching the magic act – seeing and appreciating all the illusions and the role-playing that are going on but recognizing that they are all part of a giant “sham” controlled by the magician. His co-workers, Ronnie and Evie, the magician and his assistant, who are the other main characters here, lead lives which have obviously made them who they are, too, though all lack the kind of insight which allows them to connect and resolve their present lives with their past. As author Graham Swift develops all these characters over time, the reader’s appreciation of the author’s themes of how one’s reality, responsibility, and ultimately identity are affected by the imagination expands in surprising – and satisfying – ways, as seen in the dramatic conclusion. In what may be his most compressed, thematically dense, and intriguing novel in recent years, Graham Swift, too, may have followed the old theatrical adage and “saved the best till last.”

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Debut author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle adds a whole new element to the Native American novels published in recent years. Her main character, Cowney Sequoyah, in his late teens, has recognized an opportunity improve his life beyond what he experiences on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, by working for the summer at the Grove Park Inn, an elegant hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, several hours’ ride from Cherokee. Cowney dreams of completing his college education, but he is in desperate need of funds if he is to do that. Author Clapsaddle moves back and forth in time and place creating vivid pictures of daily life on the reservation and the contrasts to Asheville, establishing some of the pleasant, even important, memories Cowney has brought with him. At the inn, he learns that some German and Japanese diplomats are being held there as “guest” prisoners until they can eventually be deported. His job is working on the grounds, helping to maintain the barbed wire around the property to prevent escapes, while Essie, a young Cherokee girl, whom he has transported with him from the reservation to the inn to work, has a job inside the inn. Foreshadowing plays a large part in much of the action here, as does the use of flashbacks to connect sections from Asheville (and Essie) with other sections, often involving the greatness of nature which Cowney notes when he returns to Cherokee, occasionally, on weekends. Suddenly, Cowney finds himself the subject of an investigation into the disappearance of a young girl, and his life and viewpoint change.

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Very much in the tradition of her previous Neapolitan Quartet, author Elena Ferrante delves deeply into the psychology, culture, and social and romantic goals of characters whom the reader comes to know from within. In the course of the novel, she first presents Giovanna, age twelve, her family, and their friends – those living elegantly at the top of the hill in Naples – and sets up contrasts between their lives with those who live at the bottom of the hill, a much poorer area in which life is far more difficult. When Giovanna decides she wants to meet her mysterious aunt Vittoria, the family pariah, considered a “demon” living at the bottom of the hill, the family’s interrelationships become more complex. Over the next five years, they meet several times, and when the marriage of Giovanna’s parents begins to crack, Vittoria tells Giovanna to pay close attention to their arguments and actions to learn what is happening behind the scenes. Complex details involving all of these characters give new meaning to the “lying lives” of the adults. While these revelations are occurring, Giovanna herself is growing up and feeling her own sexual interests come alive, adding intensity to the atmosphere and more tension in Giovanna’s life. Those who have loved the Neapolitan Quartet will find this novel a good counterpart with its emphasis on psychological development, the inner thoughts and quandaries of its main character(s), and the constant reliving of the past and its mistakes. Book clubs will have a fine time analyzing the “adult” Giovanna as she makes a life-changing decision on the last pages.

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The Glass Kingdom, a large high-rise community in Bangkok, has seen better days. A once-fashionable community built in the 90s, consisting of four towers connected by glass walkways, gardens, and a swimming pool, today it is “a corner of upperclass affluence hidden within a forgotten ruin.” Into this scene comes Sarah Mullins, a thirty-something American who left New York just a week ago on business involving the theft of $200,000, and she intends to make herself invisible in Bangkok. Once established there, Sarah tries to remain aloof and avoid questions, but she quickly becomes friendly with Mali, a woman whom she meets at the pool, and two other woman, each of whom also has some secrets. Author Lawrence Osborne uses these women’s lives at the Kingdom as a microcosm of life in Bangkok, freely shifting points of view back and forth among the women and establishing in more detail the atmosphere of the Kingdom and of Bangkok, in general. Then a murder takes place, and Sarah is at the heart of it.

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Everything I have learned about Mumbai, over the years, I have learned from books, but this is the first time that I have ever felt that I have been given real insights into the nature of this dense and vibrant city and its multitudes of people of all cultures. Author Jayant Kaikini, who obviously loves Mumbai, presents dozens of characters who live their lives on these pages, sharing their inner thoughts with the reader, living through often stressful moments, and supporting their friends in times of difficulty. His characters are so fully drawn and so “human” that many readers will simply sit back, settle into their reading, and let the stories tell themselves – as if socializing with a group of friends – however different the characters’ lives and conditions may be from our own. Presenting a broad picture of daily life in Mumbai for those who must make their own way – often from childhood – author Kaikini shows the inherent thoughtfulness, kindness, and care which these neediest of young people have for each other. No trace of self-pity arises here as the characters must often change their plans, find new directions for their efforts, and experience satisfaction within the narrow limits of their environments and lives. Written between 1986 and 2006, these stories reflect inspiration and hope for the future, and readers of this unforgettable collection cannot help but be inspired and hopeful along with them.

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