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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

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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Set during the last summer of World War II in Europe, The Turncoat, Siegfried Lenz’s second novel, humanizes war and its soldiers in new ways. Concentrating on a group of young German soldiers who obey orders, even at the cost of their own lives and sanity, Lenz shows their vulnerability as they begin to reject the myths and propaganda they have been fed and do the best they can simply to survive. Focusing primarily on Walter Proska, a young man in his late twenties who has been at the front for three years, the author allows the reader to know him and his fellow soldiers as people, young men who once had dreams and who now have mostly memories – many of them horrific. They go where they are marched or transported, and do what they are told to do, often with a secret eye to escape. Lenz shows these soldiers as they really are, without demeaning them, sentimentalizing their emotional conflicts, or excusing their crimes. He makes no judgments, depicting the war as it was for this group of young German soldiers and illustrating a point of view very different from what Americans may expect. Written in 1951 but never published, it was rediscovered after Lenz’s death in 2014, and published in Europe and now the US. A masterpiece!

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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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Very much in the tradition of her previous Neapolitan Quartet, author Elena Ferrante delves deeply into the psychology, culture, and social and romantic goals of characters whom the reader comes to know from within. In the course of the novel, she first presents Giovanna, age twelve, her family, and their friends – those living elegantly at the top of the hill in Naples – and sets up contrasts between their lives with those who live at the bottom of the hill, a much poorer area in which life is far more difficult. When Giovanna decides she wants to meet her mysterious aunt Vittoria, the family pariah, considered a “demon” living at the bottom of the hill, the family’s interrelationships become more complex. Over the next five years, they meet several times, and when the marriage of Giovanna’s parents begins to crack, Vittoria tells Giovanna to pay close attention to their arguments and actions to learn what is happening behind the scenes. Complex details involving all of these characters give new meaning to the “lying lives” of the adults. While these revelations are occurring, Giovanna herself is growing up and feeling her own sexual interests come alive, adding intensity to the atmosphere and more tension in Giovanna’s life. Those who have loved the Neapolitan Quartet will find this novel a good counterpart with its emphasis on psychological development, the inner thoughts and quandaries of its main character(s), and the constant reliving of the past and its mistakes. Book clubs will have a fine time analyzing the “adult” Giovanna as she makes a life-changing decision on the last pages.

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Though D. A. Mishani employs all his talents and experience as a detective story writer in pacing this novel and its complications, his primary focus for the first hundred pages is on the psychology of three women seeking companionship from a man who is looking for a change of scenery without serious commitment. Each has her own secrets. Gradually this psychological study turns into a dramatic action novel which speeds along as it absorbs elements from all the accumulated action and combines it into a carefully constructed and un-put-downable mystery novel. The book, though different from what it appears to be, at first, is an exciting crime story with well-developed characters, several climactic scenes related to individual women, and a more-than satisfying conclusion.

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