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Category Archive for 'S'

Set in Berlin and Tokyo in the 1930s, Swiss author Christian Kracht’s latest novel offers an unusual fictional vision of the prewar years in Germany and Japan – one in which the primary focus of the author – and ultimately of his two main characters – is not that of reality as much as it is of cinema: Life and the future can be controlled in a film, even if they can not be controlled in real life. Emil Nageli, a young Swiss film director nearing his thirtieth birthday, has been in Berlin talking with the Reich Minister, who believes that a well-made horror film – “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread” – would attract much attention, even in America. He also wants to involve the Japanese, however, since he believes that they “will sooner or later subdue the Asian continent.” Masahiko Amakasu, a Japanese film maker and admirer of Nageli, hopes to establish a relationship with the Germans. Amakasu, too, envisions film changing the world, hoping that a Japanese film will “counteract the seeming omnipotence of American cultural imperialism.” A thin plot connects some well developed characters as real characters mix with fictional characters and the action fades to a conclusion.

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Everyone is familiar with the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson. In this book, however, Conan Doyle does not appear as an author inventing a story, however clever and astute those novels may be. Here, in a beautifully presented and carefully developed study of a murder case from 1908, Conan Doyle becomes a participant in the real life events. Like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle must carefully examine all aspects of a confusing case, the motivations behind the actions of all the people involved in it, and the end results, even when those differ from what he believes they should have been. Conan Doyle becomes human here, a man involved in trying to help an immigrant he believes has been used as a pawn by the police and public officials, one who has been the victim of false testimony by “witnesses,” and one who will eventually serve eighteen years of a life sentence before he is released from Peterhead Prison where he has spent his life at hard labor, mining granite. Conan Doyle was largely responsible for his release.

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Few other recent mystery thrillers have accumulated anything like the number of prizes and awards as The Dying Detective by Leif GW Persson, a former adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, a renowned psychological profiler, and currently a professor at the Swedish National Police Board. This novel, recently released in English, attests not only to Persson’s knowledge of criminal behavior and criminal justice, but also to his ability to create intriguing but decidedly “normal” characters and show them in situations which challenge all their abilities. By using characters who are not exotic, however clever and talented they may be in their knowledge of police procedure, Persson allows the reader to identify with them in a series of conundrums which continue without letup for the entire novel as the main character and his associates try to catch the terrible killer of a nine-year-old girl. This is the best organized and developed mystery novel I have read in years. It is complex enough that I found it helpful to create a character list, but each character has a clear place in the action, which develops in meticulous order. The image of an intricate puzzle, though trite, is unavoidable, as Persson adds little piece to little piece to develop and fill in the story of Yasmine and her murder, along with the people in her life who have survived her. The conclusion is a classic, resolving some of the questions still left with only three pages to go, while also, importantly, leaving some questions without direct answers. Persson trusts that his readers have paid attention. The final scene is not open to question if that is the case.

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Unusual and perhaps even unique for an American audience, Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter follows three generations of several interconnected families as they move though Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and eventually Israel, following their dreams and their hopes for their families over the course of a century. Narrated in the present by Tom, much of the novel is a metafictional account of his life and his involvement in events surrounding a magnificent blue diamond which has been in the possession of members of his extended family for several generations. The diamond, however intriguing its story, is not the main story here, however. Rather, it is the belief of those who possess it, that the diamond has a mind of its own and that it can affect their lives in unexpected ways. An unusual novel with a casual, almost relaxed attitude toward major issues, The Diamond Setter is, nevertheless, a difficult and challenging study of the places all of us regard as home, especially when others, very different from ourselves, feel just as passionately that the same places are their homes, too.

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Alan Parks lived for years in Glasgow, Scotland, the place where he has set his debut novel – and the same place where revered author William McIlvanney set his three famed Laidlaw novels between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. McIlvanney, credited as the founder of “Tartan noir,” casts a wide shadow with his Scottish writing, not only as a novelist, but also as a poet, a writer of literary fiction, a journalist, and a writer of screenplays, and recent publishers and critics have drawn comparisons between McIlvanney and Parks, whose style, when examined, is quite different in approach. It is 1973, and Det. Harry McCoy, just thirty, has been summoned to Barlinnie Prison, a Victorian building which houses many more prisoners than it was ever built for. “No wonder the whole prison stank. The smell of overflowing slop buckets and stale sweat was so thick it caught in the back of your throat as soon as the big doors opened; stuck to your clothes when you left.” He is meeting Howie Nairn, a convict confined to the Special Unit who wants to tell him that a girl named Lorna will be murdered the next day. All he knows about her is that she works in a “posh restaurant,” possibly Malmaison, and “someone’s gonnae do her tomorrow.” He doesn’t know her last name, but he feels that if he can do a favor for McCoy that his own position in jail might improve. What follows is an examination of the depths of Glasgow during the 1970s, when the city was dying and its poor were often desperate.

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