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Category Archive for 'A – B'

In 1874, the island of Tasmania, one hundred fifty miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is boiling with rage. Once a penal colony filled with the hardest criminals, and the site of almost total genocide of the original aboriginal inhabitants by the British, Tasmania, in 1874, is a seething cauldron of hungry men and the toughest of women, many of them homeless, trying to survive the only way they know – by using whatever weapons they have at hand to gain what they need to stay alive. The action and points of view alternate among William Toosey, age twelve, and the life he is leading after his mother’s death; Thomas Toosey, his estranged father, who is trying to reach his son William from another part of the island so he can help him; Fitheal Flynn and a “hooded man” who are trying to get back the money that Toosey has stolen from them; and Beatty and Webster, the local constables who are trying to capture any and all of them. Additional connections between Toosey and Fitheal Flynn and his hooded accomplice explain why Flynn’s hatred of Toosey is so visceral and unyielding and why he is willing to fight Toosey to the death. One more character, Jane Eleanor Hall, whose head is shaved and is thought, at first, to be a man, adds to the complexities and mysterious identities when she finds Flynn and his companion hiding in her house and offers to help them find Toosey if they pay her for her help. As in other gothic novels, the action here comes fast and furious, with elaborate descriptions bringing it alive, and violence the usual result of interactions of characters. Interestingly, the “hero” here, young William Toosey, and the anti-hero, Thomas Toosey, are from the same family and have some love for each other, adding a humanizing, if not sentimental, touch.

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One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.

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In this dramatic and thought-provoking novel, Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian writer, displays his enormous gifts of both narrative and character development while also examining serious themes and social and psychological problems. Creating three characters from three different time periods, all of whom are native to Mexico or South America and all of whom are in the US for various reasons and for various periods of time, Paz Soldan explores their lives and creates comparisons and contrasts before making connections among them. Jesus, a young man from Northern Mexico in 1984, is a boy/man who responds impulsively to situations as they arise in his life and does not hesitate to be violent. In contrast to Jesus, Michelle, a graduate student in South Texas who appears as the second main character, is working hard to establish herself as a writer/cartoonist working on a comic book about a librarian with special powers who is bent on revenge. The third main character is Martin Ramirez, living illegally in Stockton, California, in 1931, trying to pay off some debts and help his family back in Mexico by working as a migrant worker. Paz Soldan rotates the action through these three characters’ lives, developing themes as he goes, and the reader cannot help but become involved both in the action of their lives and in the psychological crises they face. All are dealing with issues of identity and a sense of belonging/ . One becomes a killer. Throughout the novel, the author shows the inner conflicts of people who are from one country but live in another, exploring their personal predicaments, their sense of displacement or their sense of hope.

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Within a swirling time frame and several settings which change suddenly through unexpected flashbacks, Italian author Erri De Luca creates a character whose life breathes with subdued passion and the tragedy of sudden terror. Now fifty, the unnamed speaker is working as a gardener/landscaper on a large estate in Italy owned by Mimmo, a filmmaker, someone the speaker knew when they were youths in Turin. Leading a solitary life, the speaker is surprised one evening when an attractive younger woman flirts with him while she is eating lunch with another man at a tavern. After she’s gone, he plans what he might say if he were to see her again. He has had little social contact with other people in recent years, using his gardening skills and his connection with nature for his satisfaction – “caring more about it than about people.” For twenty years he lived in Argentina, participating in the “dirty war” there, “days filled with trouble, ruined by death that tears away clumps of us folks, stuffs thousands of the living, freshly plucked, into its sack.” As he tries to sort out his life, the reader learns of his marriage there, his traumas, and his wandering life since then, and as the speaker contemplates the meaning of his present condition, the novel works its way up to a grand climax and startling finale. Themes related to life and death, war and peace, fear and commitment, and responsibility and self-preservation combine to affect the conclusion. Erri De Luca has been described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now.”

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In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally’s prodigious imagination was captured by a special exhibition of “Napoleon’s garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations, and memorabilia” on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition catalogue featured the name of Betsy Balcombe, age thirteen, and information about her family, people Napoleon knew during his exile on the tiny island of St. Helena (1815 – 1821), halfway between South America and Africa. Betsy’s journal of her experiences with Napoleon inspired Thomas Keneally to write his own “journal” modeled on Betsy’s – this novel. Thirteen-year-old Betsy, as she emerges in Keneally’s captivating novel, is a perfect foil for Napoleon Bonaparte, who has brought with him all his war-time memories, a few furnishings, some assistants, two French ladies (the owners of the clothes on display in the Melbourne museum), and a strong need to adapt to a new life. Betsy, energetic and uninhibited, has no awe of Napoleon, a characteristic which charms him – she talks back, argues with him, and acts without fear as his life plays out in exile. Though the novel is character-based, rather than action-filled, an intense and dramatic conclusion occurs after Betsy creates a social disaster which permanently affects the lives of everyone she knows. Keneally never says whether the dramas of this conclusion are real or fiction. By the time the novel ends, the reader is so charmed that he does not have to. Elegantly written and old-fashioned in the best possible ways, this novel is my favorite so far this year.

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