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I Refuse
I Refuse
by Per Petterson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.66
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Your conscience is like a cogwheel, or even like a circular saw, whirring round, and its sharp teeth bite into your soul.”, April 26, 2015
This review is from: I Refuse (Hardcover)
I Refuse is, I believe, Norwegian author Per Petterson’s most powerful - even overwhelming - novel yet, a novel which, even now, three days after I finished reading it, still has hold of my heart. I have read and reread passages just to be sure that they really do happen the way I thought they did, hoping that if I could just reread them one more time with a new vision that maybe I could keep the sad inevitabilities from happening in quite the same way, this time around. A novel about hardy and determined folk who live in Norway, I Refuse is full of stark reality, sensitive in its depictions of the way this reality affects the characters who live there.

Petterson begins the novel in 2006, as Jim, an unemployed man in his fifties who has been in a hospital, is on his way to go fishing, and he is shocked when someone in a new Mercedes recognizes him on the bridge. Tommy Berggren, his dearest friend from childhood, with whom he has had virtually no contact for almost thirty years has suddenly discovered him. The two have, in essence, “switched places” in terms of their lives and sense of self, and as Petterson revisits the pasts of jobless Jim and successful businessman Tommy Berggren, through flashbacks and several different points of view, the reader feels the dramatic contrasts which they and their families have had to confront.

The novel operates on many levels at once, but Petterson never loses sight of his major themes, all associated with one’s values and the actions they inspire – or prevent – over time. For some, the value lies in the refusal to do something, and for others it is in the refusal to believe something. For still others it is the refusal to admit something, while for the rest it is the refusal to accept something. Petterson has carefully crafted this novel, his talent seen even in his choice of the smallest details – the favorite books of Jim and Tommy, the book Tommy gives his sick guardian, the name of the restaurant he visits late in the book.

For Petterson, the inevitabilities of someone’s life journey are nowhere nearly as important as the journey itself, no matter how difficult or how bleak. Ultimately, the novel creates a world in which ordinary people keep on trying, even as they often fail. Ironies abound as the main characters are often tossed around wildly by fate, but somehow they continue on, even if they do not always make peace with their destinies or their decisions. In the stunning conclusion, Tommy’s older sister Siri visits Singapore and discovers something about a family member, then makes her own choice to accept or refuse what has found, a perfect conclusion to this profound and unforgettable novel.


The Tusk That Did the Damage: A novel
The Tusk That Did the Damage: A novel
by Tania James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.60
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “He would come to be called the Gravedigger... the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak…”, April 19, 2015
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In this stylistically unusual novel about the environmentally disastrous ivory trade in India, author Tania James looks at some of the many factors involved in this gory business, while keeping her focus on the individual, the small, the personal. To develop her broad message within a manageable scope, she creates three unique stories which evolve simultaneously - the third-person story of the Gravedigger, a lone elephant without a herd and without the grounding in elephant lore which young elephants need to survive; the story of a poacher, told by the poacher's younger brother Manu, who is naÔve regarding his brother's motivations; and the story of a film-maker, in which cinematographer Emma Lewis describes her efforts to document the work of Dr. Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian of the Kavanar Wildlife Park, who works to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves.

These stories develop in parallel during the novel, adding new information gradually and not necessarily in chronological order. Some time after an attack on the Gravedigger's herd, we learn that the Gravedigger is in chains twice a day and that he must perform for tourists, though he escapes every night in his dreams. Fascinating stories of elephant lore, such as how the elephant got its tusks, and how a boy turned into an elephant, add depth to the novel, and the vision of the elephant graveyard becomes a symbol. As the Gravedigger endures torture by one of his keepers, whose behavior recalls some of the Gravedigger's traumatic childhood memories, he is overcome by fury, and the novel works its way to its inevitable climax. Beautiful passages of natural beauty contrast with descriptions of the horrors of poaching to bring the novel to its conclusion.

Author Tania James walks a fine line here as she develops her story, wisely avoiding the problems of trying to recreate an elephant's point of view by telling the elephant's story in the third person and in short paragraphs of realistic detail. Brief sentences in a straightforward, uncomplicated sentence pattern reflect the point of view of an objective observer who is young - in keeping with the young age of the elephant - but the observations are trenchant, crucial to the development of the novel. The Poacher sections reflect both the thoughts of Manu, the younger brother of Jayan, and Manu's innocence of what older brother Jayan has been doing, which makes Jayan's behavior a personal betrayal. The Film-maker sections present narrative commentary and provide transitions among the various points of view in the total story.

These three separate points of view provide unusual depth to the subject of poaching without leading to didacticism and preachiness. By rotating the focus, the author keeps the suspense high, constantly adding new information to each individual story while leaving other mysteries undeveloped till the end. This is an imaginative presentation of the issue of poaching and ivory sales and the damage done to the environment for all species, both human and animal.


My Documents
My Documents
by Alejandro Zambra
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.50
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter. I was a blank page, and now I am a book.”, April 13, 2015
This review is from: My Documents (Paperback)
In what appears to be a series of autobiographical episodes, Chilean author Alejandro Zambra creates eleven stories so firmly grounded in reality and filled with lively detail that they seem to be from his own life, though it is impossible to know for sure. In several stories, the author conveys the feelings at the heart of parent-child relationships, from the points of view of both, while political revolution and trauma lurk in the background throughout all the stories. As he wrestles with his stories and how to present the life in Chile during this tumultuous period in the late twentieth century, the author also contributes much to our understanding of the art of writing itself. Ultimately, these intense, compressed, clear, and unpretentious stories breathe with quiet life, focused on reality as a simple, if sometimes heart-breaking, concept.

The long opening story, “My Documents,” clearly establishes the time, place, characters, and atmosphere by introducing the main character at age five, when, in 1980, the speaker sees a computer for the first time, an enormous machine used by his father, quite different from the black Olivetti on which his mother does her typing work. He continues describing his childhood, from playing at the computer trying to imitate drumrolls, to his Catholic education, the music of Simon and Garfunkel, and local competitions in kite-flying. When he is eleven, he learns of Augusto Pinochet’s human rights abuses of citizens who were arrested, tortured, murdered, or disappeared, a trauma which echoes throughout all the stories.

The story “Camilo” follows a similar pattern in that it begins when the speaker is very young and ends decades later. The speaker is nine when Camilo shows up at their gate and explains that he is the speaker’s father’s godson. Though Camilo and the speaker have little in common, Camilo is a gregarious teenage friend who soon becomes “a benevolent and protective presence,” helping the speaker with some personal issues. Moving and thoughtful, the story carries a message about time and chance which will resonate with readers. Subsequent stories illustrate the fact that most of us are alone most of the time. “True or False,” concerns a divorced man whose son visits every two weeks. The boy considers his father’s house to be the “false house” and his mother’s house to be the “true house,” an issue which leads to a surprise conclusion. “I Smoked Very Well,” one of my favorites, is about a writer who decides to give up smoking and discovers that it affects his whole writing process. “Family Life” and “Thank You” deal with situations in which women become victims, sometimes by chance and sometimes because they allow it.

In the six stories told by a first person narrator, Zambra’s characters speak intimately, as if the author is addressing his reader directly, while in the five third person stories the author is more distanced, expanding his themes, ideas, and images beyond the realm of his own life into the wider world. This extraordinary and profound collection makes writing look easy. As the author himself says upon finally completing the collection, “I was a blank page, and now I am a book.” If you love good writing with an unusual series of unpretentious voices, don’t miss this.


Blood on Snow: A novel
Blood on Snow: A novel
by Jo NesbÝ
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.79
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “I’m no good at driving slowly, I’m way too soft, I fall in love far too easily, I lose my head when angry, I’m bad at math.", April 12, 2015
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This review is from: Blood on Snow: A novel (Hardcover)
Winner of countless prizes, Norwegian author Jo Nesbo has written ten novels in the Harry Hole series, and three stand-alone novels, Headhunters, The Son, and now Blood on Snow, a novel quite different in length, focus, and tone from all that have gone before. Readers of the Harry Hole novels have come to expect complex, multi-layered plots punctuated by action scenes of almost unimaginable violence. This short novel about a hired killer introduces a newer style, however – leaner, cleaner, and more introspective, with wonderful ironic humor.

Though the novel certainly has its excitements, much of the novel capitalizes on the ironies which exist between the thinking of Olav Johansen, the young, dyslexic main character, and his actions as a “fixer.” It is through Olav’s running commentary that the reader understands the narrative, and one cannot miss the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the author who is controlling this character. The opening sentences are classic: With a lyricism uncommon to Nesbo, we learn that “the snow was dancing like cotton wool in the light of the street lamps. Aimlessly, unable to decide whether it wanted to fall up or down, just letting itself be driven…” As the romantic language continues, the speaker suddenly shifts gears to a hard realism - revealing a body on the scene - and creating an irony so unexpected that it left me awestruck - and smiling.

Nesbo takes full advantage of the smaller scope of this novel, and while he does not develop complete characters in the two hundred, wide-margined pages of this book, his focus on the characters’ inner worlds is far greater than one finds in his longer, action-based, multi-layered thrillers. Olav’s role working for Daniel Hoffman is limited by all the things that Olav cannot do, but he is a good “fixer,” and despite the murders Olav commits, they are almost always of people who do evil things. Olav believes he has a good heart, and the reader does, too. When Olav receives his biggest assignment from Hoffmann – to murder Hoffmann’s wife Corina, he takes the job seriously, then finds himself falling in love with her and committing a murder he does on his own initiative, leaving him fearful for his life.

As the complexities increase, Olav also becomes more complex, and he soon tells about his family background and his childhood reading experiences, however difficult reading has been for him. The twists and reversals which occur at the conclusion, while a “convenient” way to end the novel, bring to mind some of the great, ironic stories of H.H. Monroe, writing as Saki. I have always enjoyed Jo Nesbo's novels, and have also admired his ability to go in his own direction, wherever his stories take him. Here the prolific Nesbo explores new directions, suggesting the possibility of a more ironically humorous and more literary approach for some future novels.


The Distant Marvels
The Distant Marvels
by Chantel Acevedo
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.60
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Love, in its full measure, is a kind of swirling tempest, and in its eye, there is stillness and comfort and peace.", April 8, 2015
This review is from: The Distant Marvels (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) It is 1963, as the novel opens, and the devastating Hurricane Flora, “bigger than all of Cuba,” is now lashing the island, having already caused devastation throughout Haiti, where it killed five thousand people. Main character Maria Sirena, age eighty-two, has been forcibly evacuated from her small seaside house and, with seven other women, taken to safety on the top floor of Casa Diego Velazquez, the sixteenth century home of the first governor of Cuba, now a museum. For the couple of days, Maria Sirena rides out the storm with these seven other refugees at the Casa Velazquez, keeping her companions occupied with stories from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents as they lived through Cuba’s various wars for independence from the late nineteenth century to 1963.

Author Chantel Acevedo, a second-generation Cuban American, focuses intently on the lives of “ordinary” people like Maria Sirena and her fellow guests of the Casa – hardworking folks, often poor, who have struggled all their lives – showing how they survive and what they have had to do to live. It is through this personal focus and the stories the women tell, rather than any detailed historical focus, that three-quarters of a century of Cuban revolutionary history emerges for the reader. We learn, for example, that Maria Sirena was born aboard a ship in 1881, when her parents were sailing back to Cuba from Boston, after meeting with the exiled leaders of Cuba’s revolutionary movement, and that she and her family were involved in the revolution that became the Spanish-American War. The novel develops in kaleidoscopic fashion, with small colorful episodes and stories from various time periods appearing seemingly at random, mixing with other episodes and events from other periods to broaden the reader’s understanding of the characters and their lives.

Maria Sirena has had much experience as a story-teller, having been for many years a lectora, a reader hired by a cigar factory to read stories to the workers so that they will not become bored as they make cigars. As she tells stories, she reveals far more about her own life and its traumas than she has ever told anyone else. We also learn more about Agustin, Maria Sirena’s father, and his imprisonment during the revolutionary period in the late nineteenth century; about her mother Lulu’s involvement with Antonio Maceo and famed poet Jose Marti, heroes of the first Cuban revolution; and eventually, still more about Maria Sirena herself - her loves, her life, and her difficult decisions.

In this novel filled with exciting and multilayered action, Acevedo ultimately reconstructs the country’s atmosphere from the 1880s to 1963. Her sensitivity to the personal nature of each story as it is revealed by someone who has lived and felt and suffered, and her appreciation of the grandeur of life – on the monumental scale which individuals so seldom appreciate – make this novel unusual and very special. The chronology of the personal stories, regardless of the actual time period in which they occurred, keeps the narrative tension high, and the interest in the characters at their peak. One cannot help wondering how these same women fared in the years following the takeover by Fidel Castro.


The Dream of My Return
The Dream of My Return
by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.05
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “Finally I was going to [carry] out an act that would consolidate my masculinity on many different levels…”, April 3, 2015
This review is from: The Dream of My Return (Paperback)
In a novel which defies genre, author Horacio Castellanos Moya takes paranoia to new and often darkly humorous heights as Erasmo Aragon, a journalist who has been living in exile in Mexico, tries to fulfill his dream of returning to his home in El Salvador, now that that country is beginning to seem less dangerous. The author’s own real-life experience as an exile adds verisimilitude to the novel, and his sense of perspective regarding his own life allows him to depict Erasmo's over-reactions and his chronic dithering with a kind of humor rare in a novel about revolutions and revolutionaries.

Unmarried, Erasmo has been living with Eva and their little daughter Evita for several years, but he is now looking forward to returning “home” for a journalism project. Eva and Evita will remain behind in Mexico, not for idealistic reasons on Erasmo's part, but because Eva has had an affair with another man, and the speaker is outraged. His past, detailed here, certainly has not been without its own traumas, and Don Chente Alvarado, the retired physician treating him, suggests acupuncture to relieve his anxiety, and later hypnosis. When Don Chente refuses to tell Erasmo what he has said under hypnosis, he imagines “crimes” he fears he may have admitted, and these lead to even more agitation.

The depiction of Erasmo Aragon's high anxiety and his imagined conclusions about his health and his life ring true for the reader, who quickly becomes involved in the psychological “action.” As he is thinking about the past and the political activities of some of the friends and family with whom he is still involved, the reader, too, begins to imagine all the ways in which Erasmo may be being “set up” for disaster by these “friends.” Soon the reader becomes as pre-occupied with Erasmo's problems as he is, worrying about his decisions and his plans to return to El Salvador. As complications and danger develop, the novel races to its conclusion, a wickedly sardonic ending which makes complete sense but comes as a huge surprise.

Of the four novels by Castellanos Moya which have been translated into English, this is the lightest, and though it has some serious ideas, it is also the funniest and most seductively involving. Translator Katherine Silver, who keeps the stream-of-consciousness style running nonstop in colloquial English, also makes the details so lively that the story is both compelling and full of fun. Though Castellanos Moya speaks out in his novels about human rights, political crimes, repression, dictatorships, and executions, he clearly realizes that there is a limit to how much horror a reader can process at one time, and he often uses his sense of irony and dark humor, strategically employed, to highlight his themes and plots in new ways, making them palatable and far more memorable for their irony. A short novel with a big impact for the reader.


The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel (Philip Marlowe Series)
The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel (Philip Marlowe Series)
by Benjamin Black
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.97
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars “People get hurt unless they keep a sharp lookout.”, March 31, 2015
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It is no secret that “Benjamin Black,” author of nine noir crime novels, is the pen name used by highly esteemed Irish author John Banville for the crime novels he writes in tandem with the prize-winning literary novels that he writes under his own name. The Black-Eyed Blonde, his ninth noir mystery, is his first novel written from the point of view of Philip Marlowe, the popular hard-boiled detective featured in six novels and a series of short stories by one of the earliest noir novelists, Raymond Chandler, between 1939 and 1958. Hard-drinking and often down-on-his luck, detective Philip Marlowe is shown as a loner who says what he thinks, a man with few friends and no long-term love in his life.

As The Black-Eyed Blonde opens, Marlow is looking out the window of his office, near the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood. In straight-forward and smart prose he establishes the setting and the mood, noting that “it was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched.” The loneliness and the bleak setting, conveyed through offbeat observations by Philip Marlowe, change briefly when Marlowe gets a surprise visit from a beautiful woman who wants to hire him. The “black-eyed blonde,” Mrs. Clare Cavendish, wants Marlowe to find Nico Peterson, a movie agent who disappeared mysteriously two months ago.

As the novel develops, Marlowe becomes better acquainted with Clare Cavendish, the daughter of a wealthy perfume designer. When Clare tells Marlowe that she saw Peterson a week ago but that she was also present when he was “killed” months earlier, Marlowe realizes that something is terribly wrong. He goes to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office to view scenes of Peterson’s death, then meets with a friendly cop to discuss the case for more information. He is concerned because everyone seems to know he is working on the case, and he suspects he is being watched.

However “pulpy” Black’s writing may be, in keeping with that of Chandler, it certainly ranks with the best of pulpy, involving the reader and immediately setting up Marlowe’s latest adventure without using obvious clichés. At the halfway point, the novel changes from being a lightweight period mystery, however well written and however much fun, to much darker fare. The mood of the first love scene in the novel changes without warning when Marlowe learns that a body has been discovered at the Encino Reservoir. Overlaps occur among the different subplots, and before long, Marlowe himself is in danger. The investigation broadens into drug running, the dangerous backgrounds of some characters, and a suicide. The dark twist at the end of the novel may surprise even sophisticated fans of noir. Critics and most fans of Raymond Chandler have celebrated the closeness of Black’s version of Marlowe to that of the original, though the novel’s cold aloofness may put off some readers.


The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
by David Stacton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.94
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Murder was murder, no matter how praiseworthy the cause.", March 26, 2015
In 1963, author David Stacton was listed byTime Magazine as one of "the best American novelists of the preceding decade," his name ensconced among luminaries like John Updike, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud. Stacton's novel of The Judges of the Secret Court, the story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath, had been published to great acclaim in 1961, when the author was only thirty-seven. A prolific author, whose Wikipedia page lists an incredible twenty-three novels published in only eleven years between 1954 and 1965, Stacton has now, sadly, almost completely vanished from American literary history. He died in 1968, at the age of forty-four, when he was just getting started.

Stacton's The Judges of the Secret Court, the only one of his novels currently in print, is filled with real characters acting like real people as they deal with the aftermath of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and the ensuing tumult. Several characters share their personal points of view to give verisimilitude throughout the novel, and the author provides much background for Booth, from an acting family, whose own father was mentally unbalanced. Wilkes Booth's older brother Edwin, the most successful actor in the family, had been the primary support of the family, and Wilkes was clearly jealous. His assassination of President Abraham Lincoln feels like the natural result of his disturbed mind and self-absorbed motivations.

Part II begins as Booth, with broken bones in his leg after his leap from Lincoln's box after the assassination, works his way through the countryside, trying to reach the South. The newly sworn President, Andrew Johnson, tries to maintain order during the emergency, but he must jockey for power with an unusually aggressive Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, whom we watch as he immediately establishes martial law, giving himself unprecedented powers to pursue the murderer and all those he considers to be "co-conspirators." As the search for Booth evolves and continues, the author develops all the characters and their backgrounds.

In Part III Stanton's craven machinations, his determination to have show trials, and to have military trials instead of civilian trials, all affect the reader's understanding of what has happened. The novel becomes more compressed and more involving as the action comes to its conclusion. Part IV is a moving commentary on military justice and the power of those in control. The trials of several well-developed characters, innocently caught up in the swirl of events, people who have no real evidence against them and who would undoubtedly have been declared innocent if civilian trials were held, become victims of Stanton's ambition. The author is careful to keep his well-researched details accurate and his portraits of the Booth family true-to-life. Sensitive and well-researched, this is a do-not-miss historical novel with a big impact on the reader.


The Discreet Hero: A Novel
The Discreet Hero: A Novel
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.77
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The earth is round, not square. Accept it and don't try to straighten out the crooked world we live in.", March 23, 2015
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In The Discreet Hero, the author writes for the sake of the story itself and the lessons it provides, an old-fashioned story in that we read it to find out what happens to Peruvian characters with whom we can identify as they act like ordinary people solving problems which reflect the reality of their settings - in this case, Piura, a village in the northwest corner of Peru, and Lima, Peru's capital and major city. The "story" here is actually two parallel narratives, running in alternating chapters and involving two characters, each of whom tries to be "discreet." In the first plot, Felicito Yanaque owns and manages fleets of buses and trucks which operate throughout Piura, and he takes great pride in his work. When he leaves for the office on this most important day, however, he finds, attached to his door, a letter demanding $500 a month for protection against "being ravaged and vandalized by resentful, envious people and other undesirable types." He must, of course, be discreet.

At the same time, in Lima, Don Ismael Carrera, the aging owner of an insurance company, is meeting with Rigoberto, his assistant, to try to delay Rigoberto's retirement. Ismael has twin sons who have lived lives of complete dissolution, involving car crashes, rape, debts in Ismael's name, forged receipts, and even the emptying of the petty cash box, and Ismael now plans to disinherit them. The person who will inherit everything will be the young woman Ismael unexpectedly plans to marry, at the age of almost eighty. Rigoberto will be a key to making all this possible. He, too, must, of course, be discreet.

Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa is clearly having fun as he develops these two story lines, which alternate happily between farce and soap opera. Complications arise, and unexpected twists and turns send one or both of the plots careening. Eventually, coincidences bring the two plot lines together. Though the emphasis is on plot, the author does bring in issues of marriage, the "comfort" of affairs outside of marriage, and occasionally even love. He illustrates the universal issues of parents and children, and the class differences among his characters. The moral complexities of living in a culture in which bribery and extortion are common practice add to the difficulties of survival.

In a style in which he sometimes shifts points of view and time periods without warning as characters remember the past, Vargas Llosa develops all the complications - then, unexpectedly and coincidentally, combines the two plot lines, bringing Piura and Lima together, happily resolving the problems. The last scene, in which Rigoberto, his wife, and his son take off for a European vacation provides the final resolution and the final laugh in this novel written for the pure pleasure of writing it, an entertainment on all levels for a reader looking for pure enjoyment, a rare commodity these days.


Young Skins: Stories
Young Skins: Stories
by Colin Barrett
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.22
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “So much of friendship is merely…the saying of nothing in place of something.”, March 17, 2015
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This review is from: Young Skins: Stories (Paperback)
Colin Barrett, a thirty-two-year-old author from County Mayo, has already won three major prizes for this wonderful collection of short stories, his first book. Setting these in the fictional town of Glasbeigh, located near the Atlantic and “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline,” he tells the stories of “young skins” who have been born and bred and probably will always live in Glasbeigh, stories which not only ring true but come alive in surprising and often darkly humorous and ironic ways. His main characters, young men in five of the stories, and only slightly older in the last two, have the same urges and needs of all young people, but these youth are limited in their outlooks by the paucity of opportunities, and while some may have dreams, they are most often the small dreams of people who lead constricted lives.

“The Clancy Kid,” which establishes the tone and the themes for the entire collection, opens in a pub, where the speaker, Jimmy Devereux is sitting with his friend Tug, whose real name is Brendan. “Brendan” was the name of Tug’s older brother who died as a thirteen-month-old toddler, and Tug “was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen,” never able to shed the vision in the cemetery of “the lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.” Within brief descriptions, the author conveys important themes and ideas and sets up the conflict that will erupt in the story, though the author lets the story unfold in surprising ways that change the focus from exterior plot to a study of character.

This perfect introduction shows the first of many characters dealing (or not dealing) with their lives and their environment. Most are, by nature, limited in their abilities to handle problems. “Bait,” the second story, shows two more characters, the protective and thoughtful Teddy and his cousin Matteen. As in the case of Jimmy and Tug, one character, Teddy, is the “minder” of the other, less thoughtful one. Here, however, the characters’ roles change, moving in ironic directions. Though Matteen has a real skill as a pool hustler and is able to earn money, the girls they meet have devious plans of their own. “The Moon,” a story about Val, a bouncer, and his right-hand man Boris, shows them also coming under the spell of women who have more insights into the world than they do.

Fate and the accidents which occur as a result of a character’s choices, misjudgments, or lack of insight create unexpected twists in the story lines, often leading the reader to feel sympathetic to these characters even when they bring on their own disasters. “Calm with Horses,” the ninety-page novella, has two main characters, Dympna and Arm, both minor dealers in marijuana, who, like the other characters live on the edge, physically and emotionally. Here an act of fate – or miscommunication –leads to disaster and horrific violence. The final story, about two men trying to decide whether to attend the funeral of a woman they both loved provides an appropriate ending and vision of hope. Straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, Barrett creates consummately Irish characters and crises, bringing the whole collection alive.


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