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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

On a New Year’s Eve in rural England, one would expect the cold to keep most people inside doing their celebrating, but Becky Shaw, a thirteen-year-old whose family has come to town for the holiday, has decided to go out. Leaving one of the “barn conversions” in the village, where she is staying, she suddenly vanishes. At dusk, her family comes running into town, shouting for help, and by the time the New Year is ushered in, a helicopter has been out searching for hours. The mountain-rescue teams, the cave teams, much of the village, and the police have found nothing, and a “thick band of rain [i]s coming in.” With this dramatic opening, author Jon McGregor paves the way for his primary story – the more internal, domestic activity which accompanies the search for Becky Shaw. The whole town is involved in trying to find her, but as time passes without any clues, her disappearance gradually becomes a backstory to the life which continues within the community, a story which features many characters each of whom is trying to make a living and find happiness, despite sometimes ominous odds. Love stories blossom and glorious descriptions of nature provide both irony and context for the lives of the characters here, as McGregor refuses to elevate humans and their lives above animals and their instincts.

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Jacob Rigolet is attending a 1977 auction of photographs on behalf of his employer, Mrs. Esther Hamelin, a well-known collector of vintage photographs – literally doing her bidding at auctions of antique photographs around the world. Suddenly, he is horrified to see his estranged mother, Nora Rigolet, walk up the aisle of the auction hall. Without warning, she throws a pot of black ink at a photograph taken by photographer Robert Capa during a World War II battle, “Death on a Leipzig balcony.” Jacob’s mother, the former Head Librarian of the Halifax Free Library in Nova Scotia, had been “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, following a breakdown three years previously, and Jacob has not seen her for over a year. He himself has been busy working part-time at the Free Library and, for the past two years, living in a cottage behind Mrs. Hamelin’s Victorian home. In one of the novel’s many ironies, it is Jacob’s fiancée, Martha Crauchet, a detective with the Halifax Regional Police, who is in charge of Nora Rigolet’s interrogation at the police station. With no sense of fear, Nora answers their questions but provides little insight into why she destroyed this photograph. As the novel develops and the lives of the characters unfurl, the author maintains an air of fun and good humor for most of the novel, even as universal themes of right and wrong, and good and evil, begin to appear throughout, and it is not until the conclusion that the novel’s “noir” elements become more obvious. Norman is a clever author who does not tie all the details into a bow, leaving the reader to solve the mystery surrounding Nora with the clues provided.

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Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist are back in another thriller, the fifth in the Millenium series with began with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Steig Larsson. Following Larsson’s death in 2004, and the posthumous publication of three of his thrillers, his heirs hired David Lagercrantz to continue the series. This is the second follow-up novel by Lagercrantz, a somewhat new approach from Larsson’s, in that Lagercrantz’s work contains less horrific violence and more inner analysis. Here many of the previous characters play roles, and two dozen or so new ones are added. Lagercrantz thoughtfully provides a character guide for those who may be new to the series and those who may want an update. Lisbeth Salander plays her role from prison, where she is serving a two-month sentence for having refused to testify in her court case for abducting a severely autistic child and spiriting him to safety, an event which occurred in the previous novel. Here Lisbeth is investigating a group which performed some genetic experiments twenty-five years ago, one in which she may have been an unwilling participant. Blomqvist is investigating a hacker attack on the Brussels financial markets, especially one company involving a Swedish firm. Eventually the two investigations begin to overlap. Salander and Blomqvist dominate the action less than in the past, and the novel is less violent. Some plot devices may tire the reader and coincidence plays a big role, but Lizbeth may have discovered something important to her own growth. Time and future novels will tell.

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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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