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Category Archive for 'Historical'

As soon as I saw the announcement that Australian author Peter Carey had published a new novel, his fourteenth in thirty six years, I knew I would read it, just as I have read and enjoyed six other Carey novels. I have just finished reading it, and I did, eventually, enjoy and even admire much of it, but I read the first twenty-five pages three times before I was able to get a sense of who the initial speakers are, how they are connected, and where this book will be going. Even now I see the plot as consisting of several loosely connected parts, instead of reflecting several different aspects of the same themes and a strong sense of direction and interconnection. When I finally read some of the professional reviews today, I saw a similar dichotomy among professional reviewers. The first plot line, lasting for almost half the novel, begins when car salesman Titch decides to gain publicity for his incipient car dealership by participating in the Redex Trial, a competition involving almost three hundred participants who plan to circumnavigate the whole Australian continent – all sixty-five-hundred miles around it. The winner is the team with the highest number of points gained and the fewest penalties. No big prize results, except for the immeasurable positive publicity for the winner. Titch and his wife Irene will be the two drivers for their team, and their new neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will, with his map-making expertise, become the navigator as they prepare their Holden sedan for the long trip and the hazards they will face. The Redex Trial dominates the first half of the novel, and the plight of the indigenous black community dominates the second half. Many aspects to admire, and some to regret.

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Written in 1936 and out of print for thirty years, A Puzzle for Fools has now been resurrected as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series – and what a classic it is, with one of best and most surprising conclusions ever. The novel – hugely successful when it was initially published – established “Patrick Quentin” as a popular writer, quite different from some of his contemporaries in that he was more interested in the psychology of his characters than many of his contemporaries, who were still following a predictable formula for their plots. For Quentin, a pseudonym for Hugh Callingham Wheeler, in collaboration with Richard Wilson Webb, this is the first of nine novels featuring main character Peter Duluth, a Broadway director whose wife died in a fire at the theatre, and who became an alcoholic as a result. Admitting himself to a sanitarium to dry out, he becomes involved in the search for a patient who has been tormenting other patients in their sleep. Eventually, he is involved in searching for a murderer. One of the best and most surprising conclusions ever.

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On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation. The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast, and was so powerful it would go on to affect even the coasts of North and South America. Most frighteningly, the rush of sea water had the immediate effect of creating meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which then released terrifying amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and precipitated the evacuation of over three hundred thousand people. With a succession of disasters like these – a powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster – and all the cleanup and social management involving the population of the area, life in the Fukushima area was frantic – people displaced, many deaths, families torn apart, livelihoods gone, and the earth itself contaminated. In the eight years since then, life has been in “emergency mode,” with so much of immediate importance being faced every day by the people of the area that few former residents, service organizations, or concerned citizens have been able to go there, stand back, and see the results of this emergency in any kind of universal perspective. Until now. These two novellas, recently translated into English, provide the first real glimpses of life in this area of Japan in the aftermath of the disasters.

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Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who found his metier early in life, bridged the gap between pulp and literary fiction during the 1940s and 1950s, and THE CASE OF THE CARELESS KITTEN is one of his best. A lawyer for fifteen years, he has said that while he enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, that he was bored by the day-to-day work in the office. He soon began writing stories for pulp magazines, setting as his writing goal over a million words per year, and using some of his cases as inspiration. Beginning in 1933 with his first novel, he eventually developed the Perry Mason series, which, alone, consists of eighty novels. Gardner quickly developed a style which fit his legal experience and interests, and modern readers discovering him for the first time, and older readers who have not read him in years, will be intrigued by the obvious formula which governs his work. In every case, the characters are introduced briefly, and their upcoming roles in the book are quickly established. Gardner is interested in the facts and has no interest in developing personal psychologies or complex motives. He keeps the character list simple and the action moving quickly. Ultimately he creates a puzzle, rather than a plot: Something terrible happens, and the reader is supplied with every piece of information s/he needs, along with a few red herrings, leading to a grand climax in which the evil-doer is revealed as a surprise. The reader’s objective is to figure out the guilty party ahead of the author’s revelation.

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Returning to Prague for the location of this novel, after setting The Glass Room there in 2009, author Simon Mawer uses his familiarity with Prague, and his obvious love for it, to create this stirring novel of political history and intrigue. Set during the almost magical Prague Spring of 1968, a time in which Russian influence had waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms were being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague, Mawer focuses on “the fleeting nature of presence” as the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union, which went on to occupy the country for the next twenty-three years. A writer who focuses primarily on people and their lives, rather than on politics or cultural movements, Mawer brings the Prague Spring to life by focusing on two couples who come together in Prague, live and love, engage in adventure, and find their lives permanently changed by the arrival of the Soviet-led troops. The couples represent different backgrounds, and they experience the Prague Spring in different ways. Each has connections with people from Prague who help them during the danger which evolves, providing a broader picture of the events as they affect all the people of Prague, instead of the more limited focus which might have occurred with fewer main characters. This is a carefully developed novel, filled with fascinating history and sidelights involving literature, music, and popular culture, a fine addition to Mawer’s bibliography.

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