Coming of age during The Troubles

Bog Child ★★★★★
Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, 2008

bogchild

Ah Jesus. This really is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. My one piece of advice? If you do the audio thing, then that’s how to do this one. Sile Bermingham is the perfect reader, her soft lilt a gorgeous accompaniment not just to the lyrical prose that will make you shudder when it’s read aloud, but delivering on the Irish accent transporting you to a very particular time and place.

It should have been the Irish history content of this novel that brought it to my attention (more on that later), but it wasn’t. It was its author – Siobhan (pronounced She-von) Dowd. I discovered Ms. Dowd the summer of 2011 when I read A Monster Calls. That book shattered me on a cellular level. The author of A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – describes his collaboration with Dowd this way:

She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.

Siobhan-Dowd-002

Siobhan Dowd (author)

Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to her disease in 2007 at the age of 47. Ness courageously took on the project and the completed novel is both exquisite and a lasting tribute to its progenitor.

So I went looking for something else to read by this woman and came across Bog Child. There was a time in my life when I was marinating in a stew of Irish history. I took an interest in it at University and it became my declared major. My BA Honors essay was on the IRA’s guerrilla tactics during the Irish War of Independence. By the time I hit grad school I was practically obsessed. I knew my next step was an even bigger research project and a trip to Ireland, hence my Master’s thesis which you can read here if you’re ever really desperate for reading material or have a love of the subject yourself.

the-troubles5Even though my subject area was late 19th, early 20th century Irish history, it was unavoidable that I would become consumed by the on-going Troubles that exploded again in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. I eventually did get myself to Ireland on a work/study visa in the fall of 2000 lasting until April 2001, which by pure coincidence coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.

I witnessed a candlelight vigil along O’Connell Street and listened to Gerry Adams (and the sister of Mickey Devine) speak at a public gathering. It was an emotional affair, but at the same time I remember feeling removed from the entire experience. It felt too raw and personal for me to be looking on like that, a Canadian girl who was only seven years old when ten young Irishmen starved themselves to death in political protest.

It’s easy for anyone on the outside of any event to have opinions of it one way or the other — whether those young men really knew what they were doing, or were just desperate and confused by dehumanizing prison conditions, or whether they had been brainwashed and/or intimidated to “the cause”. Some consider their actions a waste and abhorrent, while others see their deaths as an important political event worthy of commemoration as we do for soldiers who die in battle. For me, it isn’t the Strikers I think about (as sad and frustrating as their stories are), but their families. How excruciating and traumatic must the whole process have been to watch a son die slow like that.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The worst part? It’s within your power to take them off the Strike, against their will, so that the doctors hook them up to an IV saving them from certain death. How does any parent make that choice? It seems easy, right? Of course you would save them. It would be mad to let them die. But ten families made that choice. Other families did not, and ended their son’s hunger strike. I’ve always wondered how each family survived the very different choice they made. Is there bitterness? Doubts? What about the men taken off the Strike by their families…did they forgive them? Did they suffer from survivor’s guilt for living when others died in their place? Or was it relief? Relief that they were saved from themselves and the insanity that had taken hold of the times. For a cinematic portrayal of what the families faced I recommend Some Mother’s Son.

I haven’t thought about Irish history in any shape or form in years. I left grad school in 2005 and I was done with all of it. I had been supersaturated, I had overdosed on it. No more! I cried. Then this book.

In Bog Child, the late Siobhan Dowd is not romanticizing the Hunger Strike. It’s not a political book, for or against the Strikers. It’s just a simple story of an eighteen year old boy facing manhood. His final exams are in full swing and his dreams of becoming a doctor have never been so close, yet so out of reach. He’s falling in love for the first time. He’s getting pressured from the local IRA goon to run packets across the guarded border. But most devastating and confusing of all, his older brother Joey is on Hunger Strike in Maze Prison and it’s tearing his family apart.

Fergus stole and then broke my heart. All he wants to do is the right thing, but in a messed up world during a messed up time what the right thing is isn’t always clear. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s light and laughter and hope in these pages too, and an abiding love for the affirmation of life and all the joy and pain that living brings.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

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How many lives could you stand to live?

Life After Life ★★★★★
Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books, 2013
Available Now

lifeafterlife1An Advanced Reader Copy was provided from the publisher through NetGalley.

I’m pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn’t been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the “right” and “wrong” choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we’d go screaming into the night like raving banshees.

For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. What’s the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now…what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?

Ursula is a normal British girl except she’s pretty certain she’s lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don’t do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.

Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.

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A fine mystery and an exceptional piece of historical fiction

The Gods of Gotham ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Lyndsay Faye
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2012

Hope, I’ve discovered, is a sad nuisance. Hope is a horse with a broken leg. ~The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye

gods of gothamNew York City, 1845. Helped by an explosion of combustible saltpeter, a great fire has once again decimated Lower Manhattan, claiming the lives of four fireman and 26 civilians.

Across the Atlantic, a terrible potato blight is beginning to take its toll, and shiploads of desperate, starving Irish pour into the city despised for their race and religion. Despite having traveled so far, work and food continue to be scarce commodities. Gang violence is commonplace as Dead Rabbits clash with the infamous Bowery Boys.

The city forms its first police department. The men are greeted with a mixture of fear, hostility and suspicion. Pinned to the men’s chests is a roughly cut copper star.

Welcome to Gotham, where the streets of Five Points are plagued with filth, prostitution, spilled blood and political corruption. Children are left to fend for themselves hunted by disease, hunger and predators who will draft them into a life of thievery or sexual exploitation.

The Gods of Gotham is historical fiction at its best — filled to the brim with vivid characters, authentic dialogue, and a sense of place so strong you can taste it in the back of your throat. As an audiobook, it is a marvel, drawing you in, caressing your ear, transporting you back in time.

In one fell swoop, Timothy Wilde is left unemployed, disfigured and penniless. In an attempt to save his brother from utter desperation, Valentine gets Tim a job on the newly drafted New York City police force. One fateful evening walking home to his modest lodgings atop a bakery, Tim crashes into a young girl clad in a blood-soaked nightdress. She is frantic, almost delirious, and murmurs “They will tear him apart.” And so Tim is pulled into a tangled and depraved web of conspiracy and unholy murder. It will change him irrevocably, as the streets of New York hold their own council and wait to see what the remaining 19th century has in store.

I loved this story, everything about it. Timothy Wilde is a great character as is his vice-ridden, brawling brother Valentine and the prickly relationship they share, weakened by years of mistrust and animosity. Little Bird Daly, just ten years old, is memorably precocious and heart-breakingly real, a symbol of the abominable acts perpetrated on orphaned children in the years before the law started to identify and protect them in earnest.

And New York City — how grand and tawdry and exciting and perilous you really are. You’ve been romanticized as often as you’ve been vilified. You are notorious, legendary, epic, and any story set in your streets must be all of these things too or become lost in your long shadow. The Gods of Gotham is that story. You two are well-met and well-matched. I cannot wait to return.

This review can also be found on Goodreads.

Stephen King tackles time travel and the assassination of an American President

11/22/63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen King
Simon & Schuster, 2011

The past is obdurate for the same reason a turtle’s shell is obdurate: because the living flesh inside is tender and defenseless. ~11/22/63

112263I may be a mad dog fan of Stephen King, but that doesn’t mean everything he writes gets me foaming at the mouth. Over the years there have been disappointments — but this book is not one of them. I would rank King’s foray into time travel and historical fiction as a rousing, emotional, unforgettable success for in it he is doing what King does when writing at his absolute best – create an epic, original story arc that grips the reader with a serious case of “the gottas” (as in, I gotta know what’s going to happen next) and people it with richly drawn characters with unique pasts and motivations that empower them to walk right off the page.

Kennedy’s assassination may not be THE shot heard round the world, but it definitely qualifies as one of them. For those Americans who lived through it (and other interested observers from afar) it became one of those watershed moments in history (where were you when it happened?) Not just because a President was murdered in cold blood (a rare event if there ever was one), but because he was the youngest President, a father of two small children with a beautiful wife, cut down in the prime of his life. Kennedy carried a mystique around him as a tall, handsome, capable man who was going to steer America into the horizon of a happy ending. He had his detractors (no doubt about that) and those who felt he robbed Nixon of the 1960 election, but his obvious charisma and charm garnered him an equal amount of support and admiration as well.

His death shocked millions and left a generation of supporters to wonder what if? What if Kennedy had lived? It’s easy to build someone into a hero and a saint after they have died too young. It happens all the time. When it happens to a man such as Kennedy? That myth-building starts immediately and never ceases. The “walk on water” Christ mythology that sprouted up around Kennedy since his assassination definitely exists. Baby boomers like to believe that had he lived he could have saved an entire generation, but that’s just wishful thinking. Kennedy was just a man. Not a saint or a miracle worker. He had his flaws and shortcomings like anyone else. Yet the temptation to believe an America where Kennedy had lived would be a better America persists to this day, and King, being the master storyteller that he is, taps into that long held dogma and runs with it as only he can.

At the heart of this story is the sexy question: if you could change history, would you? Should you? It’s nothing but hubris and complete folly to assume that the changes you wrought would guarantee something better. There are no guarantees in this life except for one: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. King is taking one of his country’s watershed moments – the Kennedy assassination – and sending an unassuming English teacher back in time carrying all the “good intentions” in the world. Jake Epping has a mission and his heart is filled with the certainty that what he is doing is the right thing. Such a man can be a fool, a hero, or very dangerous. At his most influential, such a man will be all three.

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Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution ★★★★
Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010

“Because God loves us,
but the devil takes an interest.” ~Revolution

revolutionI find writing reviews for books I love quite intimidating really. I feel overwhelmed with the task of ever doing a book justice that I want everyone to read. And then there’s always the risk that if you gush too much, it’s going to turn people off, or build their expectations so high that when they do pick the book up they can’t help but be a little disappointed. But perhaps I’m over thinking it too much.

I had never read anything by Jennifer Donnelly before and didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up Revolution. I thought the cover quite beautiful, and the historical aspect of the story called to me, so I had no qualms about giving it a try. What can I say about a book that totally swept me up in its pages and consumed my every free thought when I wasn’t reading it? The sheer beauty of some of its prose squeezed my heart. Donnelly does such an amazing job writing about music that I swear sometimes I heard the notes wafting up from the page. I’ve never claimed to be a music aficionado of any age or style, I don’t read music, I’ve never taken a music appreciation class – but I listen to music. It has an undeniably important place in my life, as vital as reading, and there is just something so simple and honest about the way Donnelly threads music throughout this novel that left me totally captivated.

Then there’s the story – about a defeated young girl undone by tragedy who has lost her way, and her will to live. Andi is angry at herself, at the world, and the depth of her grief and rage is like a sharp and vicious thing that she carries in her chest. Andi is definitely a young woman spiraling out of control.

I love how this novel unfolds, that it is two stories with two narrators – one contemporary one historical. The detail is so vivid, the sense of place so strong, you walk the streets of Paris and run through the catacombs that haunt the modern city to this day. French Revolutionary history is filled with brutality, intrigue, betrayal, hope and disillusionment. As a novelist, you don’t have to exaggerate any of the historical details, you simply stand out of the way and let the story tell itself. I feel that’s what Donnelly has done here; she’s taken her fictional creation – Alexandrine – and written her into the pages of history. Through Alexandrine’s diary, we get an intimate look at the scale of human barbarity it takes to pull off a Revolution.

Andi becomes consumed with the diary and with Alexandrine’s fate and the fate of the boy King locked in a tower to rot. She can only hope that the diary can give her the peace and understanding she seeks to save her own life. This book is gorgeously textured and layered like an 18th century French painting, or a beautiful piece of composed music. It is also a pulse-pounding page-turning adventure, an enigmatic historical mystery shrouded in intrigue and speculation. It’s a love story about the bonds between parent and child, brother and sister, lovers and friends. What else can I say? Read this book.

Random House has done a sumptuous book trailer for Revolution. Enjoy!

The Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the Wind ★★★
Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day”.

shadowI so wanted to love this book, but alas I was left exhausted by page after page of intrigue and misdirection, undone by dense passages describing streets, buildings, and sub-plot upon sup-plot. While there is a colorful cast of characters, make no mistake that Zafόn’s protracted plot is the star feature of The Shadow of the Wind. That is not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t; in places it is wonderfully charming and whimsical. Zafόn has a delightful humor that comes out in some great passages on the human condition, delivered by the book’s most memorable character – Fermin Romero De Torres.

If you are a fan of Dickens and other 19th century writers of his ilk, then I would imagine this is the book for you. I’m not a fan of Victorian novels which I find too heavy on plot that’s driven by external forces rather than by the choices and behaviors of the characters. I do love a good gothic mystery however, and am a huge fan of Jane Eyre, but the mysteries embedded in The Shadow of the Wind take too long to fully unfold, and by the time they do two things have probably happened: 1) you’ve likely guessed everything way before now (I did and not because I’m good at that) and 2) you’re so exhausted by the entire journey that you just don’t care all that much anymore. By the end, I was crying “Uncle” and couldn’t take one more “twist”. For me, the pay-off isn’t worth the time and effort I put in.

My other disappointment is that “The Cemetery of Lost Books” plays such a small part in this 500 page novel. I was charmed by the idea of such a thing, so much so it’s what drew me to the book in the first place.

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands (The Shadow of the Wind).

If only such a place existed! Then maybe I wouldn’t feel so guilty every time I weeded a novel from my library’s collection. I always feel so bad for these non-circulating books that are no longer held or read. I have to believe that someone somewhere would love them, if only I could find that person. Some of these books get saved (at least temporarily) by book sales, but how many end up in land fills? Too many to count I fear, and how much better would it be if they ended up on the labyrinthine shelves of The Cemetery of Lost Books?

A book like no other

The Book Thief ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery…

The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you. ~ The Book Thief

the book thiefThis book left me gutted and absolutely speechless.  It is the kind of book that we can only hope to see once or twice in a generation. And that’s if we’re lucky.

Narrating The Book Thief is Death, who confesses he is haunted by humans — our beauty, our savagery, our contradictions. I, on the other hand, will remain haunted by Liesel’s story for the rest of my life (and little Rudy Steiner). There is really no way to describe this book that will come anywhere close to doing it justice. It defies all regular categorization and usual comparisons.

There are only a handful of books that after the reading is done I want to run out and buy copies for everyone I know and plead with them to drop whatever it is they are doing and read it immediately (before they get hit by a bus or a comet smashes into the Earth) — this is one of those books. The words lyrical and profound, spiritual and uncompromising are quite often overused, to the point where we’ve rendered them almost meaningless and that’s too bad, because I want to use them here and have them mean something.

Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews. When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.

Zusak’s prose is staggeringly gorgeous both in its simplicity and in its complexity; his choice of words is flawless and inspired. I am humbled by such immense talent. The Book Thief is a gift for the ages, a love song to words, books, and what it means to be human.  It is a story that will steal (and break) your heart.

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