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Category Archive for 'England'

In this novel, the sixteenth of his long career, author William Boyd is at the peak of his game, creating a trio of stories within stories involving overlapping characters and all the tumult involved in the ongoing production of a film. Set in Brighton, England, in 1968, the novel is both a comedy and a serious contemplation by individual characters, of who they are, where they are going, and whether it matters. Three separate, individualized narratives feature the three main characters and their friends – Elfrida, an author who has had writer’s block for ten years; Talbot Kydd, the producer of a film in progress; and Anny Viklund, the film’s female star with her series of lovers. An overall narrative connects the making of a film with these characters. Though the film’s action and its script are in a state of constant flux, author William Boyd, who has been a screenwriter for over a dozen films, is firmly in charge. Every detail, every absurd action, and every surprise contributes to the overall mood and direction of the novel, and at the conclusion, which has surprises of its own, every question will be answered, and satisfying resolutions will have taken place in the lives of all the characters – and within the reader.

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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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