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Category Archive for 'Italy'

This superb historical novel focuses on the power of words to change lives. Curon, a tiny town a few kilometers from the junction of Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, is the setting, and its inhabitants are officially Italian, but they all speak German, instead. When they are forced to learn Italian, and punished severely if they do not, they find themselves caught between Mussolini on one side, and Hitler on the other, as both are coming to power at the same time. Author Marco Balzano tells a dazzling history, and he does so by keeping things simple, letting the action tell most of the story, and keeping his characters and their problems very real. One of the best – and most unpretentious – novels I’ve read all year.

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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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With the latest entry in his crime series set in Pizzofalcone, a precinct high atop a hill in Naples, author Maurizio de Giovanni adds another layer to the characters who have made themselves so intriguing to readers of the previous four novels in this series. With a title like Puppies, this latest Pizzofalcone mystery sounds more like a “cozy” than a noir mystery. De Giovanni, however, is clever. He draws in readers with the action here, starting with the last thoughts of a dying woman, followed by a section in which two people are talking about leaving something – not identified as human or animal – outside in an alley where it will get noticed without delay. The novel then focuses on officer Romano, a hulk who has trouble controlling his temper. As Romano leaves for work, he passes the alley with garbage cans, just as a “broken doll” starts to cry. A newborn baby has been left with the trash. By the time the police get to the scene of the baby, Romano has opened his shirt and placed the baby on his chest to warm it and help it breathe. Before long, he has been asked to give the weak baby a name to help it be “real” while in the hospital. No puppies are mentioned at all until about fifty pages into the book, by which time several plot threads and all six characters are being featured. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that “puppies” are symbolic of lives that cannot survive without help. De Giovanni has done it again.

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In his darkest and most “noir” novel yet, Massimo Carlotto continues his “Alligator” series, featuring Marco Buratti, a man haunted by the evil which consumes the society in which he tries to live. In touch with members of organized crime and its violence throughout Europe, he also understands crime on a local scale among the people he knows in his home of Padua, Italy. The local police department knows Buratti well for many reasons, and they sometimes ask him for help on their most challenging cases – some of which feature crimes within their own department and the implication that their request for help is something he must not refuse. With over thirty characters, some of them known by aliases, a complex plot which is developed in Padua, Bern, Vienna, and Munich, and two narrators giving conflicting information regarding crimes and responsibility, this is a challenging novel. The violence is fully described and sometimes shocking, and there are no people here who can be considered true heroes. Buratti occasionally gets twinges of conscience regarding deaths he has witnessed, but he is, he says, very aware of “the difference between justice and vengeance.” His own idea of justice “didn’t involve cops and courts,” especially when he and his parters were “playing multiple tables at a time.”

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“I let myself be guided…by what I write. I create a setting, characters, and themes, then watch them interact. I become a secretary, jotting down what happens in the strange laboratory that is a work of fiction. It’s a bit of role reversal. I become a witness to this world I’ve made, I listen in with an ear for what I’d call the music, I pay attention to echoes, repetitions, the whole system of internal harmonics that I didn’t deliberately put in to begin with, but which I notice in hindsight and then decide whether to not to bring them into sharper relief…”—author Celia Houdart, in Interview introducing the novel.

In this experimental novel by French author Celia Houdart, the action mimics, to some extent, a crime novel, though in keeping with the above quotation, the style of the narrative is unique. Some characters who appear to be power players here turn out to be almost irrelevant, while others prove to be significant players. Ultimately, the MacGuffiins are identified and vanish quietly, and the reader, too, begins to enjoy the new understandings which appear almost without warning, establishing this novel as not only unique but carefully crafted in its literary style. Author Celia Houdart takes some big chances with her approach to this novel, which grows on the reader as s/he spends more time with the author and her perspective.

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