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Category Archive for 'Historical'

This magnificent, accessible, humane, and thoughtful book by Alice McDermott concerns itself with the highest levels of universality for all people, not specifically the Catholic doctrine which sometimes permeates her novels. Following three generations of a single family, the novel opens with a handsome, thirty-two-year-old man named Jim, who sends his wife out to buy food one afternoon, then seals up the flat, turns on the gas, and kills himself in a fiery explosion. His pregnant wife is left devastated. She goes on to work in the laundry of the convent of sisters who have helped her, as the novel goes back and forth in time. Throughout the novel, as the past and present are revealed, the action keeps the reader totally engaged, but it also keeps the reader thinking, pondering decisions and outcomes and the position of the church in evaluating right and wrong. Here she treats the grand subjects of life and death, innocence and guilt, voluntary good works rather than unavoidable obligations, the rewards, if any, which come from leading a “good” life, the penances one self-imposes for actions which feel like crimes, and the decisions one sometimes makes with the most honorable of intentions, even though they may violate the boundaries most of us consider sacred.

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Set in the aftermath of World War II in the southwestern countryside outside of Oslo, Gaute Heivoll’s emotionally engrossing novel involves big themes, a sense of involvement by the reader, and some lingering questions at the end. The novel draws its action from life in an extended family, where both the mother and father, parents of the unnamed young narrator, once worked as nurses and caregivers at a psychiatric hospital for eleven years. When the father’s old family home in the country burned to the ground before the war, the parents looked on the bright side and decided to rebuild, creating “their own little asylum in the midst of the parish where Papa was born and grew up.” Starting with three adults, they later add five disabled children from the same family. The five Olsen children range in age from Lilly, age seventeen, to Sverre, age four, and all live together in one spacious upstairs room of the home asylum. The writing is remarkably simple in style and often lacks elaboration. As the reader fills in the blanks, his/her involvement with the novel becomes even stronger. The book has little real plot, other than the daily lives of these people, yet I could hardly put it down, wanting to know whether the characters will find happiness, despite some of the complications and tragedies in their lives. Ultimately, the reader cannot help but be drawn in by the force of the writing and the emotions the author creates on the subject of what it means to be human.

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On the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Gray Borden and her husband, Andrew Jackson Borden were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both brutally butchered with an axe or hatchet. Borden was a highly successful merchant, maker of caskets, and owner and developer of commercial property, a wealthy man who nevertheless lived a frugal life and kept his daughters and his wife totally dependent on him. His body was found reclining on the living room sofa by his younger daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two, and the body of his wife Abby was found shortly afterward. She, too, was hacked to death and was found lying beside her bed upstairs. The only people in the house at the time were Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, who was up in her room resting after having been assigned the task of washing the outside of the downstairs windows in the August heat, though she was still recuperating from a violent stomach upset. Lizzie claimed that someone must have broken into the house to kill her father. As Australian author Sarah Schmidt recreates this famous murder and its aftermath, she delves into all the psychological complications surrounding the individual characters, gradually providing other imaginative possibilities regarding the murder. An iintriguing structure and four points of view, including that of Lizzie, make this novel both inventive and memorable.

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Set during immediate aftermath of Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975, this novel by Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa reflects the conflicts involved in setting up a new government under the Marxists and Leninists who helped during the revolution. With the war for independence from Portugal over, and many who fought in that war are getting ready to fight anew against the one-party Leninist state which has taken its place. Ludovica Fernandes Mano, the fifty-year-old main character and speaker, has been living in Luanda with her sister Odete and brother-in-law Orlando, who works in the diamond trade, and they now fear the future and their roles in Angola. Originally from Portugal, these residents have found that all allegiances and alliances are now in question, and no one knows, for sure, whom they can trust. One morning, without warning, Ludo wakes to find herself suddenly alone in the family’s comfortable apartment. Her sister and brother-in-law have escaped to Portugal, leaving her behind. Ludo takes surprisingly forceful action, and she does it alone. Using materials left behind the apartment, she bricks up and plasters over the entire entrance to her apartment. Once she has finished, she closes herself in and does not leave for twenty-eight years, essentially disappearing from the earth, and it is no surprise that much of her mental energy is concerned with other disappearances and the memories and the forgetting that are associated with them.

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Just when you might think Maurizio de Giovanni’s Neapolitan mystery series cannot get much better, he outdoes himself, building on everything he has been doing in the past seven novels in this series and creating this one, further developing the most delightful aspects of his characters and their relationships to date, and adding to them in complex ways which I suspect every fan will celebrate. In this novel, author Maurizio de Giovanni retains all the characters and relationships which fans of the series already delight in, and his sense of humor is more obvious here than it is in several of his previous novels. Though the nature of the murder in question (that of a loan shark), its victim and killer, and the motivations for it are well developed, many readers will become more interested in the psychological and social interactions of the characters than in the mystery itself, a situation common in de Giovanni’s work. De Giovanni, consummately aware of the need to provide background information to new readers, dedicates a page or two to each of the major players, and In the course of the novel, several favorite characters also make the equivalent of “guest appearances,” including Dr. Modo, the irreverent coroner who will say anything, the transvestite prostitute Bambinella, who often serves as an informant, and Don Pierino, the tiny priest from I Will Have Vengeance, the first novel in the series, who becomes a counselor both for Enrica’s father and for Commissario Ricciardi. Great fun.

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