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Category Archive for 'COUNTRIES REPRESENTED'

When I finished reading Arid Dreams, the first of Thai author Duanwad Pimwana’s story collections ever to be translated into English, I was so stunned that I had to wait a day before even beginning this review. To say it is a powerful and dramatic collection of thirteen short stories so understates the collection’s ability to affect the reader emotionally that it would be unfair to characterize it in such a limited fashion. Vibrant characters, intense interactions, and beautifully controlled themes feature in realistic stories about the daily lives of the hard working poor and those who have dreams but little or no opportunity to act upon them. Cultural expectations play a big part in the conflicts and disasters which some of the characters face, and though these may be shocking to American readers, they are taken for granted by the characters themselves. As the reader becomes more and more deeply involved with these stories, which show people both as individuals and as members of a broader society, it is impossible not to care about them and how they live, doing what they must do to survive. A collection which is truly unforgettable.

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Kate Atkinson has rightfully developed a huge following with her impeccably crafted novels filled with ingenious plots, mysteries, and themes highlighted by unexpected ironies and dark humor. This, her twelfth novel, is the fifth in which she features Jackson Brodie, a detective who never seems to get his life together personally. The book requires patience, well rewarded at the end. The first plot, and Atkinson’s whole approach, is exemplified by the ironies involved with the arrival of two girls from Poland to work for a seemingly honest company, which is really a front for the sex trade operating from a small Yorkshire village. Jackson Brodie is busy with his son and working another case as a private eye and has little to do with this one until late in the novel. Many characters and complications illustrate life in this village, as murder and other horrors take place, but Atkinson plans and resolves every question, and the conclusion is a spectacular grand finale.

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In Melville House Publishing’s Last Interview series, Billie Holiday’s own words define her and and reflect her difficult life through eight interviews. The first is given on November 1, 1939, published in Downbeat Magazine, and the last is twenty years later, published in October, 1959, in Confidential Magazine, an interview she granted two days before her death in a New York hospital at age forty-four. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of Clarence Holiday of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with whom she had little contact after the age of ten. According to Khanya Mtshali, who wrote the substantial Introduction to this book, Billie was raped at around age ten and sent to a Catholic reformatory school for about two years, but was released “with the help of relatives” and later moved to New York with her mother, “where they began engaging in sex work to make ends met. Holiday was only fourteen.” In the the book’s first interview by Dave Dexter, with Downbeat Magazine on Nov. 1, 1939, she talks about those early years when she and her mother “were so hungry we could barely breathe.” Then at fifteen she got her chance singing in a “joint” in New York. Eight years later, at twenty-three, she was a giant in the music world. This book describes her ascent, and her difficulties, in her own words.

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Harry Hole, the main character of Knife (and of the series bearing his name), has long been known for his alcoholism, blackouts, and complete lack of control, which he continues to exhibit in his self-destructive rages against the world at large. While I am tired of Harry’s negative behavior after reading all twelve novels in which he exhibits this behavior, this new offering, Knife, is so well written that it has made me regard Nesbo’s work in a new light. The best of the best, it has beautifully developed themes, flawless pacing, intriguing and repeating subordinate characters, imaginative plotting, unrelenting dark atmosphere, and plot twists – one after another – after another – the likes of which I have never seen any other author even come close to duplicating. Most excitingly, Nesbo keeps all levels of his themes on point throughout the action, while adding a whole new level of thematic development.

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Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 “locked room” mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto. From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa. This unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion. The mysteries begin almost immediately. At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow. As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure. The “body,” however, turns out to be one of Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head. When they return to the house, however, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached. Additional crimes occur, and the mysteries become much more complex, eventually requiring the work of a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective to help solve one of the most detailed and complex locked room mysteries ever.

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