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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

In a book that will delight lovers of stories and art, Lawrence Block, editor and writer, presents stories written by himself and sixteen other authors in response to seventeen paintings by American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967). Most of Hopper’s paintings are quiet, with little, if any, action and few, if any, characters. The overall mood for most of Hopper’s paintings is bleak, and his characters appear to be lonely, immersed in their own thoughts, and alienated from the society. Though Hopper specializes in the play of sunlight and shadow (hence, the title of the book), he does so with dramatic effect, and most of his major paintings show isolated characters dealing with the darkness, the light being just beyond them. All of the seventeen writers who have contributed a short story to illustrate a Hopper painting clearly catch the mood of depression and withdrawal which seems to characterize so many of these paintings, and anyone familiar with the work of these writers, most of whom are mystery writers, should also know what to expect: Only two writers create stories that can be said to have even slightly “happy” endings, and one of those occurs on a deathbed. Great fun!

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With an introduction written by Jhumpa Lahiri, Domenico Starnone’s TIES gets a warm endorsement for this short but densely thematic novel about the ties and connections among four members of one family after the father decides to leave home to live with a much younger woman. Following the family through three plot sections which move from the children’s early childhood until the parents are in their 70s and the children in their 40s, the novel deals with the fact that we can put into “boxes” many aspects of our past and sometimes our present, but our ability to keep those boxes closed and “tied” depends on our emotional health and determination. Additional themes are concerned with aging, with making commitments, with planning for the future (as opposed to living for the moment), with how we define love and its connection to freedom, and with our search for contentment and whether it can be construed as a kind of love, adding density to the themes. Even the relationship between parents and children and how those are tied by a complex relationship that involves elements of both love and obligation is illustrated here. Though this novel is short, it feels much longer and much broader, without becoming tedious or turning into an allegory. Starnone, aided by his sensitive translator, makes every word count in this domestic novel of big ideas, and he keeps the story exciting at the same time.

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British author Andrew Miller creates a unique novel, one which breaks all the “rules” of structure, character, and plot but still manages to engage and involve the reader. In The Crossing, Miller maintains the clean prose and stunning descriptions for which he has always been noted, but here he accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of keeping the main character herself a mystery for the entire novel, a person with seemingly no personality or observable feelings for other people and no commitment to those around her, a “heroine” who is in no way heroic. Following a serious accident to Maud Stamp, main character, while she and Tim Rathbone are both working to restore a boat, as members of the university sailing club, Tim brings Maud to her apartment. In this first part, a domestic drama, Maud and Tim eventually set up housekeeping in a small house near his parents, and she remains committed to her job doing medical research out of town while he works on a concerto at home. Years pass, and gradual changes occur in their lives. Then a horrific accident upsets their world. Maud’s response is to take the boat which she and Tim have restored, a Nicholson 32, and set out to sea. This middle part of the novel is an exciting adventure story of Maud against nature as she battles huge storms at sea while heading south in the Atlantic from England, emulating a heroine, Nicolette Milnes Walker. She eventually lands somewhere in South America and is found by orphan children living in a kind of religious commune, adding a symbolic element to the novel which introduces some feelings to Maud. The conclusion may leave readers thinking about all the possible meanings of the ending.

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“Deep in Honduras in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area…of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, mountains…and the thickest jungle in the world….For centuries, [it] has been home to one of the world’s most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a “lost city” built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” also referred to as the “Lost City of the Monkey God.” No one knows whether this place actually exists and, if it does, whether it was built by the Mayas or some other, unknown indigenous group, but Mosquitia’s thirty-two thousand square miles, filled with rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, mountains, ravines, waterfalls and roaring torrents have been virtually impassable throughout modern history, and early maps have labeled this place “Portal del Infierno,” or “Gates of Hell.” Any adventurer willing to test himself against these natural barriers would also have to be willing to deal with deadly snakes, jaguars, catclaw vines, with their hooked thorns, and hordes of insects and flies carrying unknown, possibly virulent diseases. And if someone were still determined to look for this lost city, s/he would also have to deal with equally dangerous human problems: Much of the area surrounding Mosquitia is ruled by drug cartels. In February, 2015, an expedition of researchers decides to investigate this area, fearing that the on-going clear-cutting of the land could lead to the inadvertent discovery and destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts from the “lost cities” in Mosquitia. Author Douglas Preston joina a small group of researchers headed into a part of the jungle which “had not seen human beings in living memory.” This is their story.

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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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