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Category Archive for 'United States'

Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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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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When my youngest grandson had his sixth birthday a year ago, he was already telling stories. Full of excitement about everything in his real world, everything he saw and heard, and everything he could imagine, he suddenly decided to write his own books – and these were not one-page books, however much fun those are, also. Modeling his stories on the many stories read to him and which he had begun to read himself, he decided that he would write his own stories – long stories – and that he would illustrate them. Our surprise Christmas present last year was our six-year-old grandson’s first “book,” an eighteen-pager written in often-phonetic spelling, about a young boy trying to escape from a T. Rex. In the first chapter the boy, Jack, and his buddies see a T. Rex but hide in the woods. Soon Jack and the T. Rex find themselves on a bridge, but the T. Rex is too heavy, and when the bridge breaks, the boy escapes with his friends to a tree house. The boys look out as the T. Rex stomps away. Later, when Jack heads for a tall mountain, he sees that the T. Rex is back. Fortunately, there is a handy zip-line on which Jack can escape over the valley. When he gets off the zipline, however, a fire dragon grabs him, but Jack manages to escape and run back to the tree house. The dragon breathes fire on the front gate. A water dragon suddenly appears and squirts water at the flaming gate. Then a Stegosaurus appears. So does the T. Rex. The Stegosaurus “shoots his spikes” and stops the T. Rex. End of story. Whew.

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Ron Hansen, author of several novels set in the Wild West and Mexico, creates familiar pictures of frontier life, with all its extremes – in weather, behavior, and beliefs – and pits individuals against each other and the times as they try to carve out lives. His settings feel real, and the problems faced by his characters as they try to survive in only semi-civilized communities are understandable and sometimes poignant in their limitations. Billy the Kid, subject of this novel is a special case. He is the son of an Irish mother who lived in the New York slums and whose husband, Michael McCarty, joined the New York State Volunteers during the Civil war, transferred to an artillery group from Indiana, and died in battle. She later married William Henry Harrison Antrim, whom she left when she and her two children went to the frontier in Wichita, Kansas. Her husband followed her, but upon her death in 1874, he had no interest in the two boys and disappeared from their lives. Billy was fourteen, at that time, and his brother Joseph, “Josie,” was nineteen. Josie, too, eventually falls out of his brother’s life, and Billy ends up traveling through Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, following the “work” and the gangs with whom he comes into contact. He is known at various times as William McCarty, Henry Antrim (to avoid confusion with his stepfather William Antrim), and William Henry Bonney, Bonney being his mother’s maiden name. Most famous for his sharp-shooting and cattle- and horse-thieving, Billy becomes known throughout the West as Billy the Kid.

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For long-time readers of this website, it will be no secret that I regard James Sallis as far more than the “noir mystery writer” that he is often labeled. A specialist in spare, minimalist writing that is compressed, incisive, and often metaphorical, he is a writer who takes literary chances and whose recent work has been as experimental as it has been insightful. One of the best literary writers in the United States, in my opinion, Sallis has always been concerned with questions of innocence and guilt, strength and weakness, and the past and its effects on the present and future. He creates often sad, damaged characters doing the best they can in a noir atmosphere in which they must fight their own demons in order to have any chance of success. His main characters make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but at heart they have an intrinsic sense of honor despite their closeness to violence. Main character Lamar Hale, a physician who has lived in Willnot for many years, is one of over thirty characters introduced in the first thirty-two pages, illustrating the fact that there are no strangers in Willnot – Hale knows everyone. As Sallis individualizes these characters, Hale’s feelings about them become clear and the reader comes to know the town well. Many have secrets, including Lamar Hale himself. The arrival of a mysterious former resident and the discovery of a mass grave set the action in motion.

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