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book review

The Winter War
By Philip Teir, translated by Tiina Nunnally, Anansi International, 304 pages, $19.95

A four-month border conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union subsumed by the larger story of the Second World War, The Winter War is an apt reference for a subdued domestic drama about the dissolution and redrawing of lines within a liberal, middle-class Helsinki family. Philip Teir's subject is the Pauls – sociology professor Max, civil servant Katriina, their adult daughters, Helen and Eva – seemingly successful and reasonably happy until the cold, dark days of winter set in and fault lines emerge. Almost 60, Max is not yet in his life's winter, but he can see it on the horizon. Then a young female journalist writes a flattering profile on him. The Winter War asks how well we see past our noses to know our nearest and dearest for who they really are. It's also funny in the way families are funny: The death of a hamster marks a pivotal event.

The Star Side of Bird Hill
By Naomi Jackson, Penguin Press, 294 pages, $28.95

After falling into a catatonic depression, the result of her work as a nurse during New York's AIDS crisis, Avril is no longer capable of looking after her two girls. So it is that in 1989 she sends Phaedra, 10, and Dionne, 16, to live with her mother for the summer in the small community of Bird Hill, Barbados, where Avril grew up. Naomi Jackson's lyrical debut begins with a clash of cultures: The city-raised Americans are out of place in slow-paced, conservative Bird Hill. Headstrong Dionne misses her boyfriend and soon butts heads with Hyacinth, her unyielding grandmother. Then tragedy strikes and the story swerves to take on themes of matrilineal inheritance. Jackson's strength is in avoiding cliché: Hyacinth, community midwife and obeah practitioner, is capable of some magic but cannot cure all. A sharp take on 1980s Barbados and the difficulties of finding home.

The Capacity for Infinite Happiness
By Alexis von Konigslow, Wolsak and Wynn, 317 pages, $22

Alexis von Konigslow's novel of connectivity is about two nodes at opposite ends of a social graph trying to fill in the blanks. At one end is Harpo Marx, who in the wake of Duck Soup's flop in 1933 visits the Kogan family's Jewish resort with his brothers Groucho and Chico. The brothers Marx intend on a bender, but once there, Harpo becomes captivated by Ayala, the somewhat unbalanced mistress of the resort. At the other end is Emily Kogan, who in 2003 is attempting to graph social influence for her doctoral thesis in mathematics. She's researched a small online network at a U.S. college, but she feels drawn to graph the network of her own family tree, where she senses something missing around her great-grandmother Ayala. At this novel's heart is a mystery, one that can sustain propelling the story forward and back. It's Arcadia for the connected age.

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