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Category Archive for '2-2015 Reviews'

Though Modiano has insisted many times that his novels are fiction, they all have direct parallels with his own life, and as he visits and revisits his own difficult and tormented childhood and teen years in the plots of his novels, he often introduces events in one novel and then returns to them again and again in other novels. Pedigree, his autobiography (in which he confirms the reality of specific events and traumas which dominate his novels), remains a straight-forward presentation of his real life up to his early twenties, almost journalistic in style, with little elaboration and even less emotion. Ironically, it is his “novels” – like this one – which most clearly reveal the horrors of his early life, his emotional torments, his incredible resilience, and his amazing ability to come to terms with his past and use these events to provide insight not just for himself but for his legions of fans. After the Circus begins when the narrator, identified as Jean, not yet of legal age, is interrogated by the police regarding any knowledge he may have about two people engaged in criminal activity, not the experience of a typical college student, but then, Jean’s father, like Modiano’s, has been involved in big-time crime syndicates throughout Europe, so it is not surprising that the police investigate Jean when his own name is found in an address book belonging to this couple.

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One out of Two, an early (1994) novel by award-winning Mexican author Daniel Sada, has just been published in English translation for the first time – a tragicomic classic by an author whom both Roberto Bolano and Carlos Fuentes have highly praised for his “contributions to literature in the Spanish language.” It joins Almost Never (2008) as one of only two books by Sada available in English, to date. Though the book appears, at first, to be a simple morality tale, Sada is an adventurous novelist who endows his main characters with more than the flat, stereotypical behaviors and thoughts which one usually associates with stories written to illustrate a moral lesson. While keeping his style uncomplicated, he shows his characters as they live their ordinary lives and make some remarkable decisions which cause unexpected complications for them. The mood is light and the action often very funny, though equally often, it is ironic or edgy. The cumulative result is farcical rather than pedantic, serious rather than lightweight. The story revolves around a pair of forty-year-old identical twins who are invited to a wedding which only one can attend, and she meets a suitor. What the twins do to meet their joint needs becomes the focus of this farcical but sensitive novella with a surprising ending.

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In his newest novel, Simon Mawer continues the story of Marian Sutro, whose wartime exploits he introduced in Trapeze (2012), and whose difficulties dealing with the complex aftereffects of World War II become the focus of this novel. In Trapeze, Marian was a composite character representing the women who served as members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) between May, 1941, and September, 1944. Though she survived, over a dozen of her fellow SOE members were murdered by the Germans following their capture. All were bilingual in English and French, and all performed under extraordinarily dangerous conditions. In 1943, Marian, after training in England, was dropped by parachute into France to help get a former flame, Clement Pelletier, away from his research lab in France and aboard a small plane to England. In Tightrope, by contrast, Mawer focuses more on the development and detail of Marian’s character, and as he continues the story of Marian, he makes her come very much alive here as an individual recovering in England, rather than as a symbol of the larger group of SOE. The action is complex, with many characters, but the novel is intelligent and thought-provoking, filled with tension and with beautifully drawn and developed settings, both physical and emotional.

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Maurizio de Giovanni just keeps getting better and better. With this seventh novel in his series featuring Baron Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi di Malomonte, Commissario of Public Safety at the Royal Police Headquarters in Naples, he creates a new mystery which takes place during the reign of Benito Mussolini in the early 1930s. At the same time, de Giovanni also continues to develop the stories of the many repeating characters throughout the series to date. It is the new developments in the personal, very human stories of these characters – who represent all aspects of Neapolitan society, from the saintly to the criminal – which make the series so much fun to read. The most highly developed and complex novel of the series to date, The Bottom of My Heart is also one of the liveliest and most satisfying, though de Giovanni does save a number of questions to be answered in the future.

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Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin. Marra is not writing a political history, however. Instead, he concentrates on the ordinary people who live in three different parts of the former Soviet Union during this time period, recreating the atmosphere of everyday life during this period, with all its fears and privations. In the later sections of the book, especially in the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau, his sense of satire and dark humor rise to the fore, showing the absurdities which the main characters themselves recognize as they are determined to rebrand Chechnya, the most devastated city on earth, as “the Dubai of the Caucasus.” Equally important in this story, however, are the stories of some characters whose future the reader comes to care about. Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin.

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