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Category Archive for 'England'

Stories both new and old surround the often wild river which flows through North Yorkshire, exerting an almost incalculable force on the lives of the residents of the village of Starome. Good and evil, happiness and sadness, all begin and end with the unnamed river, which becomes almost a character in The River Within by Karen Power. A body is floating near the village, and it belongs to a resident and recent army recruit, on vacation, who has been friends with three other late teens in the village. Telling the story from three points of view – the victim, a female friend, and the mother of another teen – the relationships among these characters become clear. Dramatic events occur, and some critics have pointed out similarities between some of the plot and Hamlet. Those who love romances, dark melodrama, and psychological studies will have great fun reading this one, which celebrates the emotions, feelings, and self-focused behavior of many of its characters.

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If Jeremy Olson’s arresting cover art does not inspire new readers to investigate this book, the descriptions in the novel’s epigraph certainly will. Here July, the sister of September, describes her sister as, among other things, a black hole, a falling tree, the last packet of crisps, and a bricked up window. It takes little imagination to appreciate that this book is about to become a dark, perhaps horrific, psychological novel involving two sisters and, at a distance, their mother. Quickly involving her readers in the narrative, author Daisy Johnson depicts the disturbed family arriving at a decrepit house in the North York Moors. The sisters and their mother have moved there from Oxford, where the girls have lived all their lives to date, and none of them have any real expectation that they will be leaving this remote location anytime soon. Sheela, the mother, promptly disappears into a neglected but unoccupied room which will be hers for the expected duration, while the girls will be on their own in their own area of the house. Hints about the past and references to something the girls have done in Oxford may have been responsible for the mother’s silence and isolation, and July suspects that their real crime is having been born at all. A suspenseful can’t-put-it-downer.

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Ten pages into this novella, which Muriel Spark claimed was her favorite among all her novels, the fate of main character Lise is not in doubt. Lise will be dead before the book ends. Since the reader will suspect who the murderer is well before the murder happens, the author has always preferred to refer to this book not as a “whodunnit,” but as a “whydunnit,” a term she uses within the book. From the outset the reader observes surreal, alarming, and clinically insane behavior from Lise, the victim. At the same time the person who seems to be her murderer appears to be a just bit wacky. Unexpected ironies throughout turn the novel on its head, creating a mood in which dark humor and bizarre surprises keep a smile on the face of the reader almost all the way through the novel – until the reader discovers the truth, that the person in “the driver’s seat” throughout the novel’s action is actually neither of the two main characters. It is Muriel Spark herself, whose ability to play with the reader’s sensibilities, control them, and then reveal the extent to which they have been manipulated turns the “whydunnit” into an unparalleled tour de force.

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In entitling his latest book Here We Are, Graham Swift announces in advance that all the clues to understanding the people whose lives are the subject of this story are here, already present within this narrative. Jack Robbins, known on stage as Jack Robinson, the “compere” of a variety show on the Brighton Pier, enjoys spending time sitting in the audience at the back of the theatre watching the magic act – seeing and appreciating all the illusions and the role-playing that are going on but recognizing that they are all part of a giant “sham” controlled by the magician. His co-workers, Ronnie and Evie, the magician and his assistant, who are the other main characters here, lead lives which have obviously made them who they are, too, though all lack the kind of insight which allows them to connect and resolve their present lives with their past. As author Graham Swift develops all these characters over time, the reader’s appreciation of the author’s themes of how one’s reality, responsibility, and ultimately identity are affected by the imagination expands in surprising – and satisfying – ways, as seen in the dramatic conclusion. In what may be his most compressed, thematically dense, and intriguing novel in recent years, Graham Swift, too, may have followed the old theatrical adage and “saved the best till last.”

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On May 5, 1840, Lord William Russell, a quiet, elderly member of the aristocracy, was found in the bedroom of his unpretentious London townhouse with his throat slit so severely that his head was almost detached. Other wounds to his chest were equally horrifying. The shock of the murder reverberated throughout the city, especially among the upper classes, who well knew his prominent family and that of his deceased wife. This was a period of social change, and London was “teeming with immigrants, the unemployed, and a burgeoning working class who were more literate and organized than ever before.” The winter of 1839 had been one of “mass rallies by Chartists demanding universal suffrage,” and in some places had turned into bloody riots. Over two hundred Chartists had been convicted of high treason for their actions and were transported out of the country. Several fiction writers of the period came under fire for “writing fictions that glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals.” Popular books now were seen by some as “pandering to the lowest…full of violent excitements and vulgarity that could all too easily lead susceptible readers astray,” and a whole genre of “Newgate books,” for the masses, evolved. Claire Harman’s careful research and her eye for telling details, even as she focuses on the broad theme of murder in 1840 and the controversy over whether that is an appropriate subject of fiction, make this an absorbing study. She draws in the reader with her selection of facts and her elucidation of the goals of literature as seen by famed authors of the day, making them almost as compelling as the gruesome realities of real murder.

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