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Category Archive for 'Historical'

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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“Over the past few decades, Emily Carr’s reputation has soared so high that it now can be argued she is Canada’s best-known artist, historic or contemporary. Her impassioned paintings of the West Coast of Canada – her depiction of the monumental sculpture of British Columbia’s indigenous peoples and of the towering trees and dense undergrowth of the region’s rain forests, executed during the early decades of the twentieth century – have superseded [every other] claim to Canadian wilderness. And to national identity.” – Robin Laurence, “The Making of an Artist,” Introduction, 2005. In this autobiography, Carr shows her superb talent as a writer and observer, concentrating on her feelings and her intense responses to life’s challenges over the seventy-four years she has lived – including her struggles to acquire the skills she needed as a painter on an island where there were few others, her trips to aboriginal villages and her desire to preserve their unique qualities, and her friendships with the Group of Seven which gave her new impetus to continue with her landscape paintings. Lawren Harris, in particular, became a mentor. Fascinating and enlightening story by a woman whose success almost did not happen.

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Can’t say much about this one without spoiling some of the incredibly dramatic action, but I really enjoyed it. Irish author John Boyne creates several plot lines within a novel that is both gripping for the stories within the story and wildly satiric for its depictions of the writing life. As he reveals the life of loathsome author Maurice Swift from his young adulthood until his fifties, Boyne clearly relishes the opportunity to focus on the writing profession from a new point of view, one in which dreams can become nightmares, and no subject is barred. As he develops some of these nightmares, he mitigates the shock by writing with his tongue held so firmly in cheek that the reader is constantly aware of the satire and dark ironies involved. The result is a novel which, according to the reviews on Amazon and other public sites, appeals to a wide audience, to many critics, and to book prize committees, though it is controversial among a few critics, who have criticized its overly dramatized sentiments and its sometimes wandering plot lines. For me, Boyne shows the remarkable ability to control every aspect of the reader’s attitude toward main character Maurice Swift, an antihero and narcissist, and he does this naturally and efficiently by highlighting those qualities which make the reader want to identify on some level with this struggling writer, even while recognizing that he is a loathsome individual.

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For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most famous ballerina statue as a sweet, romantic symbol combining dreams of the past with dreams of the present, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock. Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its little model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization. In 1880, the girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working as a “little rat” in the Paris Opera, a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money. Harsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas, in addition to working at the ballet. When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics. No one likes it – for many reasons – discussed in detail by the author. Ultimately, she feels sorry for the little dancer, and decides to do additional research on her life. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

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