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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

Each new book by Jane Gardam is an homage to her own love of ink. Though a small number of other fine authors may come close to her in terms of prizes, awards, and even titles bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, Jane Gardam may stands out among them for the sheer joy of writing which is so obvious in her novels. In The Flight of the Maidens, Jane Gardam is clearly having fun, and no matter how beautifully crafted her characters, how clever her use of irony, how accurate and often unique her descriptions, and how much empathy she may show for those who are having problems coping with the uncertainties of life, it is the “smile” which appears in her work which many of us love and celebrate. The Flight of the Maidens, written originally in 2000 and recently republished by Europa Editions, begins in 1946, as Britain begins its recovery after World War II, a time in which women’s issues began to become better recognized. Three young women, all aged seventeen, prepare for college during the summer and grow up in important ways.

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In 1984 twelve-year-old Pietro Guasti and his parents arrive in Grana, a quiet mountain village in northern Italy between Turin and Milan. Both parents love climbing the mountains, and though his father, who is at heart a loner, routinely climbs to the peaks of the higher mountains which attract him. Grana, a tiny farming village, has been losing its population, but it is adjacent to Monte Rosa, a well-known climbing location, which makes it attractive as a vacation site, far different from Pietro’s home in Milan. Pietro becomes fast friends almost instantly with Bruno Guglielmina, a local youth his age who is in charge of his family’s cows. Together they explore the mountain, the abandoned farms, a former school, and other places testifying to the decline of the village economy but fascinating for the images they conjure for the boys. The action throughout is quiet and thought-provoking, leaving the reader to sort through the various subplots and what they mean to both Pietro and Bruno as they try to find personal, emotional success – a sense of achievement based on effort and care for others. As this coming-of-age novel expands its themes and its characters, some face a future which they may not have been expecting. A surprising and very satisfying novel certain to appeal to those who appreciate understated, leisurely writing with much of value to say, and certainly to book clubs.

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“Dawn breaks over the horizon. It moves across the sea, soaring over the empty beach….It reaches the top of the hill and lingers there, gray and hazy for a moment, before suddenly plunging down the far side. It sweeps over houses, streets, trees, and flowers asleep on balconies. Down in the valleys it seems to dance, lightly, discreetly. It seeps into the forest and spills across the lake where no one ventures now since Adele drowned there four years, five months, and thirteen days ago.”—from the opening paragraph. In approximately six hundred words in the first two pages of this novel, author Nathacha Appanah provides the entire conclusion of the novel, telling of three additional personal disasters, taking the chance that the reader will become more interested in the circumstances which caused these disasters for her characters than in the ultimate results. It is a big chance. It does, however, give the author the opportunity to develop the characters – and interest in them – in what might otherwise appear to be a melodrama. The drama here is powerful and moving in its effects, as the reader cannot help but revisit the action to see if, or how, the details of the conclusion could have been avoided. Nathacha Appanah writes with passion and concern for her characters, and she develops that same concern in the reader as the characters meet their fates.

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A caveat. I almost did not read this book. Our current political situation and all the anger generated daily in the news and on TV had me longing for something fun and funny to read, something to break the monotony of our nasty political reality. I started it, however, and as I became involved with the very real – and very naïve – main characters as they faced the terrifying, life-changing situations of World War II in Germany, I found myself emerging from the stupor of TV reality into a much bigger, more comprehensive world view. The subject matter is harrowing, but this sensitively written book generates so much empathy for its very human main characters as they come to terms with who they are, where they are, and how they must cope with a war they know is already lost, that I was able to escape the pettiness of the latest news cycle and appreciate the confidence with which the author develops big ideas for a world audience. Ultimately, I felt the much-needed thrill of having read something that was sadly enlightening and presented on a level way beyond anything I could have imagined if I had looked for something “fun.”

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On the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to “Budapest Street Scene,” painted in 1925 by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis. Author Mark Sarvas involves the reader from the outset of Memento Park as Matt spends a long night delving into memories going back three generations, considering whether they reflect truth or merely his interpretation of it based on his own experience. At the same time he also reflects on his present life in Los Angeles, where he has been working as a “reliable, drama-free,” B-list actor and living with his model fiancée, who spends her free time working on social causes. Ultimately, Matt relives his very recent trip to Budapest, describing what he has learned about the artist, and exploring his own Jewish roots for the first time. Staring at the painting in the auction house, he admits, “I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything I thought I knew.” For the reader, it is equally an epitaph on the self-centered, disconnected life Matt Santos has been living to date. As he shares his life and thoughts with the reader, the novel develops into a complex personal story, at the same time that it is also a story filled with mysteries.

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