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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

This Prix Goncourt Winner in France, focuses on the country of Burundi between 1992 and 1995, when the civil war began there. Debut novelist Gael Faye creates a lively account of the life of a young boy and his friends between the ages of 10 and 13, concentrating on their emotions, understandings, their family lives, and their coming of age. Leaving the gruesome aspects of the country’s revolution till later, when the boy is older, he brings Burundi and its people to life. Beautifully organized and developed; sensitively depicted in terms of the human costs, both physical and psychological; vibrantly depicted in its historical setting and atmosphere; enlightening in its insights into the lives the children affected; and grand in its scope and emotional impact, Small Country is now at the top of my Favorites List for the year. It’s a gem!

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Few other recent mystery thrillers have accumulated anything like the number of prizes and awards as The Dying Detective by Leif GW Persson, a former adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, a renowned psychological profiler, and currently a professor at the Swedish National Police Board. This novel, recently released in English, attests not only to Persson’s knowledge of criminal behavior and criminal justice, but also to his ability to create intriguing but decidedly “normal” characters and show them in situations which challenge all their abilities. By using characters who are not exotic, however clever and talented they may be in their knowledge of police procedure, Persson allows the reader to identify with them in a series of conundrums which continue without letup for the entire novel as the main character and his associates try to catch the terrible killer of a nine-year-old girl. This is the best organized and developed mystery novel I have read in years. It is complex enough that I found it helpful to create a character list, but each character has a clear place in the action, which develops in meticulous order. The image of an intricate puzzle, though trite, is unavoidable, as Persson adds little piece to little piece to develop and fill in the story of Yasmine and her murder, along with the people in her life who have survived her. The conclusion is a classic, resolving some of the questions still left with only three pages to go, while also, importantly, leaving some questions without direct answers. Persson trusts that his readers have paid attention. The final scene is not open to question if that is the case.

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In a novel of Nigeria which defies the usual stereotypes for that country, author Chibundu Onuzo tells a story of five individuals who form a surprising “family” in Lagos, and two others from the outside who affect the very lives of this group. Author Chibundu Onuzo’s offering introduces Nigeria as a place in which the people themselves feel familiar to the reader – at least at first. Two former soldiers, a wife escaping her abusive husband, a young rebel dreaming of a life as a radio star, and a young teenage runaway who intends to fight if she is in danger, resemble those one might find in books from many other countries. As the action begins, however, the author, while still writing with a smile on her face, places her characters within the context of their lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Two other men also play major roles in the novel: One is Ahmed Bakare, son of a wealthy financier, who has left a good job in England, where he went to school, and returned to Lagos, where he has founded a newspaper, the Nigerian Journal. The second “important” character is Chief Remi Sandayo, who has recently become the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a post of little interest to most citizens, and burdened with a small budget. A month after one of the characters finds an underground apartment for them all to live in, the novel becomes something akin to farce. It is Sandayo’s secret apartment, and he cannot reveal himself publicly without instant arrest by the police, while the “family,” which wants to live good lives, also wants some of the money to live on. Gives new life to the traditional novel of place and character.

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“If our mother had ever thought to phone us from wherever she was, we would no doubt have lied cautiously and said everything was fine, not mentioning the strangers who happened to be crowding into the house at that moment. They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow moving opera singer…”

As Nathaniel Williams, age fourteen, makes these comments to the reader, he is dealing with the absence of both of his parents as World War II and the aftermath of the blitz are paramount in England. His father has purportedly been promoted to take over the Asian office of a business. His mother, who plans to join him, stays behind with the children in London for the summer, sharing stories with Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel about her early life growing up in rural Suffolk. When the school year is about to start again in September, their mother disappears, supposedly for Singapore to meet their father. The children remain behind with an assortment of characters like those mentioned in the opening quotation. Who these people really are and what they have done during the war become the main questions for the rest of the novel, as Ondaatje explores who we are, how we interpret our pasts, and what we can do about our futures.

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Written in 2007, this collection of twelve short stories by Irish author William Trevor, whom Michael Dirda in the Washington Post once described as “the best short story writer alive,” will restore a reader’s belief in the supreme ability of some writers to capture reality at a very specific moment, allowing all the subtle complications and emotional connotations to evolve for the reader. Trevor sees his characters for the ordinary, flawed people they are as they face seemingly ordinary problems sometimes made more complex by their own decisions made hurriedly, without concern for the possible complications. Major themes of love and loss, guilt and innocence, and good and evil, join with issues of sin and repentance, and selfishness and unselfishness to provide some serious insights within stories which are perfect in their style and structure. Trevor’s characters, their place, and their times come to life, regardless of their ages and their social positions, and the complications in their lives are ones which readers will understand and appreciate. This reader agrees completely with the New York Times Book Review (for an earlier collection, A Bit on the Side) that Trevor’s story collections are “treasures of gorgeous writing, brilliant dialogue, and unforgettable lives.” Reading this collection will restore one’s belief that truly great writing still exists, even in these days of the tweet and the sound bite.

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