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Category Archive for 'A – B'

On a New Year’s Eve in rural England, one would expect the cold to keep most people inside doing their celebrating, but Becky Shaw, a thirteen-year-old whose family has come to town for the holiday, has decided to go out. Leaving one of the “barn conversions” in the village, where she is staying, she suddenly vanishes. At dusk, her family comes running into town, shouting for help, and by the time the New Year is ushered in, a helicopter has been out searching for hours. The mountain-rescue teams, the cave teams, much of the village, and the police have found nothing, and a “thick band of rain [i]s coming in.” With this dramatic opening, author Jon McGregor paves the way for his primary story – the more internal, domestic activity which accompanies the search for Becky Shaw. The whole town is involved in trying to find her, but as time passes without any clues, her disappearance gradually becomes a backstory to the life which continues within the community, a story which features many characters each of whom is trying to make a living and find happiness, despite sometimes ominous odds. Love stories blossom and glorious descriptions of nature provide both irony and context for the lives of the characters here, as McGregor refuses to elevate humans and their lives above animals and their instincts.

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Set during immediate aftermath of Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975, this novel by Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa reflects the conflicts involved in setting up a new government under the Marxists and Leninists who helped during the revolution. With the war for independence from Portugal over, and many who fought in that war are getting ready to fight anew against the one-party Leninist state which has taken its place. Ludovica Fernandes Mano, the fifty-year-old main character and speaker, has been living in Luanda with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works in the diamond trade, and they now fear the future and their roles in Angola. Originally from Portugal, these residents have found that all allegiances and alliances are now in question, and no one knows, for sure, whom they can trust. One morning, without warning, Ludo wakes to find herself suddenly alone in the family’s comfortable apartment. Her sister and brother-in-law have escaped to Portugal, leaving her behind. Ludo takes surprisingly forceful action, and she does it alone. Using materials left behind the apartment, she bricks up and plasters over the entire entrance to her apartment. Once she has finished, she closes herself in and does not leave for twenty-eight years, essentially disappearing from the earth, and it is no surprise that much of her mental energy is concerned with other disappearances and the memories and the forgetting that are associated with them.

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Written by Jean-Christophe Rufin, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and former president of Action Against Hunger, Checkpoint provides a new look at the whole idea of humanitarian service, in this case during the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995) which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The author, both a doctor and writer of popular novels, puts all his talents to use in this novel in which a team of four young people and one middle-aged man joins La Tete d’Or in Lyon, France, to deliver food, clothing, and medical supplies to people stranded without resources in the war zone. Each of the five volunteers has his/her own reason for risking all in the name of humanity, and none of them are acting purely out of altruism as they work their way through Bosnia on their way to Kakanj, a place where the Muslim, Croat, and Serb populations are so integrated that some adjacent areas within the same community have become enemies. As the two-truck convoy heads into the Bosnian war zone, they must pass regularly through checkpoints, operated by local warlords, where “the only true subject, the ultimate motor of all behavior and all thought, was fear. Would make a good film.

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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 the 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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