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Category Archive for 'S'

Swiss author Peter Stamm has made a career out of writing short novels in which characters who seem ordinary on the surface become more intriguing – and sometimes more self-aware – as they try to control change or learn to live with it. Some of his characters are damaged while others are simply out of tune with themselves – lacking self-awareness and often oblivious to what is happening around them. Most of these characters must learn to deal with relationships, especially those involving romance, and Stamm often uses dual points of view to convey two different opinions about a relationship and the characters involved in it. This novel is no exception, except in the nature of the couple which is the focus. Here the two main characters, Thomas and Astrid, are older than the characters in the earlier novels – in their thirties as the novel opens and in their sixties when it closes. At the outset, they have been married for a decade or so and have two young school-age children. Having just returned from a five-week family vacation in Spain, they are tired from all the traveling and the need to open up the house and get settled again. Suddenly Thomas, the father, disappears from home. The novel that results tells the story of his wandering and the story of his wife, who becomes the primary support of the family, as both learn who they really are.

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Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist are back in another thriller, the fifth in the Millenium series with began with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Steig Larsson. Following Larsson’s death in 2004, and the posthumous publication of three of his thrillers, his heirs hired David Lagercrantz to continue the series. This is the second follow-up novel by Lagercrantz, a somewhat new approach from Larsson’s, in that Lagercrantz’s work contains less horrific violence and more inner analysis. Here many of the previous characters play roles, and two dozen or so new ones are added. Lagercrantz thoughtfully provides a character guide for those who may be new to the series and those who may want an update. Lisbeth Salander plays her role from prison, where she is serving a two-month sentence for having refused to testify in her court case for abducting a severely autistic child and spiriting him to safety, an event which occurred in the previous novel. Here Lisbeth is investigating a group which performed some genetic experiments twenty-five years ago, one in which she may have been an unwilling participant. Blomqvist is investigating a hacker attack on the Brussels financial markets, especially one company involving a Swedish firm. Eventually the two investigations begin to overlap. Salander and Blomqvist dominate the action less than in the past, and the novel is less violent. Some plot devices may tire the reader and coincidence plays a big role, but Lizbeth may have discovered something important to her own growth. Time and future novels will tell.

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You may have read many novels in which the two main characters hate each other, but how many have you read in which the main characters, two professional women, are in their eighties and next-door neighbors? Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, will appeal to readers looking for an escape from some of the doom and gloom of contemporary life without escaping into mindlessness, a story with some realistic grit. Setting the novel in Cape Town, South Africa, Omotoso depicts an upscale enclave in which these two women, one black and one white, must deal with some big issues, some of them racial. Though apartheid is outlawed and the neighbors may pretend that the problems are solved, the feelings are not yet gone. This is not a “message novel,” however. For Omotoso, the story and its characters come first, her themes being revealed through their conflicts and the empathy she creates among her readers. Fun and often funny, with unique characters, and strong insights into the racial tensions of South Africa.

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The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.

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Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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