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Book Review Saturday – ‘Alone in Berlin’

This Saturday’s book review is something a little different. Today, I’ll be looking at a book which was originally published in German as ‘Jeder stirbt fur sich allein’ (Every Man Dies Alone) in 1947. It was translated into English only a few years ago, having been already translated into French in the 1960s under the title ‘Seul dans Berlin’; Penguin, the UK publisher, decided to follow the French lead in titling the book, and chose to call it ‘Alone in Berlin’ when their edition appeared in 2009.

Image: shereadsnovels.wordpress.com

Image: shereadsnovels.wordpress.com

This book was a mind-bending read. Its author wrote it in a white heat, finishing it in less than a month; shortly thereafter, he died. The style of the novel reflects, I think, the frenetic pace at which it was created – at times, I rather wished Fallada had had a chance to edit and refine the work, but then I found myself remembering the time at which he wrote it, and the circumstances in which it came to be, and I realised that pausing to edit a work like this would have killed its urgency and power, and diluted its message. This, you see, is a book which not only tells a compelling story, but which also carries a voice ripped from history, and one we’d do well to heed.

The novel takes us through the life of a simple couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in Berlin during the Second World War. Otto is a factory labourer, Anna a housewife; they live frugally, waiting each day for news of ‘Ottochen’, their son, who is fighting with the German army against the Allies. One day, inevitably, news comes that their son has fallen in battle; they are encouraged to think of him as a martyr, a man who gave his life for the regime, and to be proud of him.

They are not.

Otto – ill-educated, uncomplicated, unsociable, hard-working, and a man of good conscience – decides to mount a rebellion against the Reich after the death of his son. Privately sickened by what he knows of Hitler’s regime, but too cautious and afraid of retaliation to publicly renounce what is going on all around him, this decision is a huge and life-changing one. Up to this point, he has manifested his resistance in smaller ways, like refusing to pay a levy to the Winter Relief Fund, for instance. Moneys raised through this Fund were, ostensibly, used to help German families in need, but it was widely known that they were, in reality, put toward the German war effort. The Winter Relief Fund was, in effect, a tax levelled by the Nazi government; payment was voluntary, but if one did not pay, one could expect to suffer. However, Fallada does not depict the Quangels as being ‘perfect’ people, or ideal resistors; at the beginning of the novel, we see Otto recall how his livelihood had been saved by Hitler’s rise to power, and this must reflect the opinion of a lot of ordinary Germans at this time. The Quangels reach their tipping point, however, and their new lives as ‘traitors’ begins.

They – or, rather, Otto – begin to write postcards with seditious messages, words attacking the motivation and methods of the Nazi regime, and they carefully begin to distribute these cards all over Berlin, trying to keep their movements as random as possible. Anna is involved in the scheme from the beginning, but Otto maintains control of the creation and distribution of the cards, as he is afraid for Anna’s wellbeing if they are caught. They know what they’re doing is high treason, and punishable in the severest possible terms, but as time goes by and they remain unapprehended, their desire to continue grows stronger.

As the Quangels attempt to spread dissent, the book takes us through a series of other stories, ordinary lives which intersect with the Quangels’ and which, at various points, are investigated by the Gestapo – for, of course, the existence of the postcards is not long in being discovered, and the Quangels have no idea how much danger they are in. We meet Frau Rosenthal, an elderly Jewish widow living on the top floor of the Quangels’ building, and the risk to her life posed by the Persickes, a family of Nazi enthusiasts who live on the floor below her; we meet the good, kind Judge Fromm, who tries to help not only Frau Rosenthal but also the Quangels themselves. We also meet Emil Borkhausen, a small-time petty criminal who manages to involve himself in the investigation, along with Enno Kluge, a thoroughly reprehensible character who lives his life for himself alone and ends up also being sucked into the Gestapo’s enquiries, despite having no involvement with the postcard scheme. In this way we meet the ‘ordinary German’ of the war, the Nazi enthusiasts and those who hated the regime alike – but, most frighteningly, we also meet those who didn’t care one way or another, and who allowed terrible things to happen in their name out of nothing but apathy and selfishness. What was it Confucius said: All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing…

The book gathers huge momentum as it goes. The latter half is some of the most powerful writing I have ever read; scenes of interrogation, destruction, betrayal and cruelty that had me holding my breath, and scenes of courage and love that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, knowing that this book is based in fact makes it harder to take – there is an appendix in my edition telling the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, the real-life Quangels – but even if the core of the tale hadn’t been mostly true, it would be enough to know that the war actually happened, and the Holocaust actually happened, and that this book was written by a German during 1946. You can’t get more ‘on scene’ than that. As the story reached its conclusion, and I watched the fate of the Quangels unfolding, my heart hurt with every word. I felt sure I knew what was going to happen to them, and I was torn between a sense of fierce pride in Otto and Anna and such sorrow at what they were going through. The circumstances of Anna Quangel’s eventual fate, in particular, are almost unbearably moving, as is the sense of new beginnings and hopefulness in the closing lines.

Parts of this book are very hard to read. I found myself sickened by some of it, even though I thought there was nothing about the Nazi regime that I had yet to learn. Having said that, I think it’s a book everyone should read, with the caveat that some of it is upsetting; the story of the Quangels, and their personal – if ultimately futile – struggle against darkness, corruption and evil is one that should be widely known.

When you’ve read the book, go and Google Hans Fallada, like I did. His life is almost as interesting and tragic as his work.

Happy weekend, y’all. Happy reading, too.

Book Review Saturday: ‘The Night Itself’

So, it’s time once again for our weekly look at the latest thing to pass across my reading radar. This week’s review is of Zoe Marriott’s new novel, ‘The Night Itself,’ which is the first book in The Name of the Blade series. Here it is:

Image: the-zoetrope.co.uk

Image: thezoe-trope.blogspot.com

One of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it roots itself in a culture and mythology which fascinates me, but about which I know shamefully little: one glance at the (beautiful) book jacket will probably tell you that the culture I’m talking about is that of Japan. The book’s protagonist is a young British woman, Mio Yamato, whose heritage is Japanese. At fifteen, Mio is respectful of this heritage, but she chafes against her father’s oppressive, and rather cold, treatment of her, which she understands to be a consequence of his being Japanese. She loves her gentle mother, and remembers her deceased grandfather – Ojiichan – with affection, but seems to feel as though her brittle relationship with her father overshadows her happiness. As the book opens, we see Mio’s parents leave for a holiday to Paris, during which time she will turn sixteen – she feels as though her father doesn’t want to spend her birthday with her, and has arranged this holiday in order to ensure she is alone on her special day. She pretends not to care, and waves her parents off with the intention of having fun with her best friend Jack (Jacqueline). They plan to attend a fancy-dress party, to which Mio wants to wear her kendo costume, complete with a mysterious sword her grandfather once showed her. This ancient weapon lies in a box in the attic of her house, and has haunted her mind ever since she first laid eyes on it as a child. As soon as she picks up this wonderfully wrought sword, however, strange things begin to happen…

Disturbing the sword’s rest and, particularly, showing it to other people, unleashes a series of ever more terrifying creatures on an unsuspecting London; Mio, of course, is completely unprepared for any of it. She vaguely remembers her grandfather trying to warn her about the sword, exhorting her to keep it secret, hidden, and guarded, but she cannot understand the importance of this warning as he died before he could tell her everything she needed to know. Once it has been disturbed, however, it cannot be put back, and Mio barely has time to realise the sword is at the heart of something very strange before she and Jack become inveigled in a struggle between a terrifying cat-demon (never has the phrase ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ been so at the forefront of my mind!) and a mysterious warrior who appears, apparently from nowhere, to defend her. This warrior seems familiar and dear to Mio, despite the fact that she has never met him before; his identity, and his origin, gradually become clear as the story unfolds. Mio has suffered from restless and disturbing dreams all her life, dreams which seem to make no sense to her, but the more she gets to know Shinobu, this strange boy-warrior, the more the dreams start to click into place.

Soon, they find themselves at the mercy of the horrifying cat-demon, and must rely on the unpredictable help offered by the inhabitants of the ‘other’ London, a magical Otherworld populated by figures from Japanese myth and legend. Travelling between the worlds is not easy, and fighting as a coherent group is even less so, but Mio has no choice: she must trust these strange beings, and her newly discovered yet somehow also ancient friend Shinobu, as they square off against a creature of darkness and horror which intends to steal her blade and use it to destroy the world. So, no big deal.

So much about this book was wonderful. It’s engagingly written, and fast-paced – the 360+ pages zipped by without me even noticing them – and I loved not only the character of Mio but also her friend Jack, a sparkily intelligent and unconventional ‘sidekick’ who is far more than just that. The girls’ friendship is lovely and ‘real’, and Jack’s love for her sister Rachel is touching, forming a huge part of the emotional heart of the story. This book is the first in a series, and so some of the things I didn’t like so much – Mio’s father, the relationship between Mio and Shinobu which comes very close to ‘insta-love’ (though, on this very point, here’s a blog post from the author about the use of this trope in the book), the secret behind the sword – may well be explained and expanded upon in future books. I was left irritated, but intrigued, at the story’s conclusion – I can’t say why, of course – but I’m hoping the sequel will help to soothe my furrowed brow. I only have a year (more or less!) to wait before I get my hands on ‘Darkness Hidden’, the second book in The Name of the Blade series, but let’s not worry about that part.

'Why can't I have it NOW??' Image: nittygriddy.com

‘Why can’t I have it NOW??’
Image: nittygriddy.com

‘The Night Itself’ is a quick read, but I was pleased by it. I know a quick read usually means the author has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get the book ‘just right’, so I appreciate the skill on display here. It’s also great to see characters like Mio and Jack, by no means ‘stereotypical’ teenage girls, take centre stage in a well constructed story and kick some butt. I had problems with the book, but they weren’t enough to mar my enjoyment, and if Japanese nightmare demons and beautifully described swords (‘katana’ is the proper name for the sword Mio uses), as well as mythology, folklore, friendship and courage float your boat, then give ‘The Night Itself’ a try. Be prepared for the ending to infuriate you just enough to make you impatient for the sequel, though.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Dark Warning’

I came upon this book while searching for new reads by Irish authors. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a writer based in Co Wicklow, fit the bill perfectly; ‘Dark Warning’ was my first introduction to her work. Since reading it I have also purchased ‘Hagwitch’, another of her books, and I’m on the lookout for ‘Timecatcher’, which I believe is her first novel.

So, you might be able to guess that I’ve become a fan.

Image: marielouisefitzpatrick.com

Image: marielouisefitzpatrick.com

I was intrigued by the premise of this book, which takes place in Georgian Dublin. It’s not a setting I’ve often come across in fiction, and I was immediately interested. The novel is steeped in the language, slang and geography of that period, including places and streetnames (like the wonderful Thundercut Alley and Smithfield Market) and is extremely well written from that point of view. This is helped by the fact that Ms. Fitzpatrick chooses to take a real-life Dublin character of that time, ‘Billy-the-Bowl,’ as a major character in her story, weaving events from his life through the tale of her protagonist, young Taney Tyrell. If you’re going to read this story, and you don’t already know the legend of ‘Billy-the-Bowl’ (sometimes ‘Billy-in-the-Bowl’), then don’t Google him beforehand and spoil the surprise for yourself. Let the story unfold as it should, is my advice.

Taney lives in Smithfield, in the city centre, with her Da, her stepmother Mary Kate, and her (extremely cute-sounding) little brother Jon Jon. Her mother died when Taney was a child, but despite this she is a living, breathing presence throughout the story. Her mother’s life, and aspects of her character, live on in Taney; she resembles her, and shares some of her otherworldly talents. From our first meeting with Taney, we realise that she has gifts which transcend the ‘norm’ – she can see things before they happen, and has the potential to read fortunes, though this is a talent we see her develop as the book goes on. Most frighteningly, she sometimes loses control of her ‘spirit’, drifting away from her body with a sense of tempting freedom, and must struggle hard to control this. Taney is often told how dangerous her gifts are, and is told only that they ‘destroyed’ her mother – she isn’t told why or how. Also, she must keep them secret, though this proves difficult. Ella’s fate is darkly hinted at throughout, though Taney doesn’t find out exactly what happened to her mother, and how it’s connected to their shared gifts, until the end of the story.

Taney meets Billy by the shores of the river Liffey one day after a particularly bad spell of bullying by the other children in her locality. He saves her from their mistreatment, and they become close friends. I got the impression that Taney develops a crush on Billy, though she never says anything to that effect – he is described (in accordance with the historical record of him) as being remarkably handsome and personable, as well as extremely charming and friendly, and well known by all. Billy is noteworthy also because has been born without legs, and manages to get around in his ‘bowl’ – or, a half-barrel, made specially for him by the coopers in Jameson’s Whiskey Distillery. He uses this bowl, together with two ‘clubs’, to speed around the cobbled streets he calls home. Rejected by his mother at birth, Billy was raised by nuns, and is constantly on the run from inspectors from the House of Industry, who want to take him in. Billy knows this will spell his doom – he’ll be condemned to a life of hard labour and grim living conditions, for such is what was done with the differently abled in previous eras – and he wishes to avoid this at all costs. So, he and Taney become a team. He protects her from bullies, and she keeps him from his violent, self-destructive depressions, and from harm.

Where this takes a turn for the dark is when Billy discovers Taney’s talents. He begins to make use of her for his own ends, asking her to help him in his gambling exploits. Soon, they amass a healthy fortune, and Taney dreams of escaping to London, to start anew in a city where neither she, nor her talents, are known. Then, her stepmother starts to bring her to work with her in an attempt to take her mind off her ‘dreaming’ – i.e. her gifts – and so her life as a charwoman begins, working in a ‘big house’ for a wealthy family. Billy runs into some difficulty, and she gives him her savings in order to help him out of it, hoping to earn it back and keep her dreams on track. However, she later finds out that Billy is in bigger trouble than she thought, and begins to distance herself from him.

As Taney tries to build her future, and her friendship with Billy starts to fade into her past, talk of a dangerous individual known as the ‘Stoneybatter Strangler’ starts to zip around the streets of Dublin. Taney finds it harder to keep her talents under wraps as she begins to have visions of the women being targeted by the Strangler, including the most unfortunate of the lot, who dies as a result of his attack. She cannot see his face in her visions, but she is torn between wanting her visions to tell her more (so that she might help to apprehend the Strangler) and less (because the visions frighten her, and she worries that they put her in danger, too). When she has a vision of the Strangler attacking a woman she knows and is fond of, Taney cannot control herself any longer, and rushes to intercept him – thereby coming face to face with her own greatest fear.

I was gripped by ‘Dark Warning’ from the first page to the last – it is very well written, and the voice is engaging and fresh. Taney is a wonderful character, and I particularly loved that the book is told in her first-person perspective, so we learn along with her about her talents and their uses, and about the identity of the fearsome Strangler. I found her to be believable, warm, and realistic, no doubt helped by the setting and my own familiarity with Dublin city, but also because of Ms. Fitzpatrick’s use of language and dialogue to describe her, and bring Taney and her family to life. ‘Dark Warning’ is a historical novel which wears its history lightly, a supernatural novel which doesn’t overdo the paranormal aspects, and primarily a story about a young girl finding her way in the world and learning to come out from under her mother’s shadow. It’s a great book, and I hope you check it out.

Happy Saturday! Get out there and read!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’

There is one *tiny* spoiler in this review, about the structure of the book, so if you want to skip reading it until you’ve read the book, I won’t mind! Now – on with the show…

So, I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for the legend of the selkie, and also I love books which take myths and legends and get inside them like a hand inside a glove, bringing them to life. Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is a book like that, a book which explores what it would be like to live on an island where ‘seal-wives’ are a reality, what it would feel like to be the one with the power to call them, what it feels like to love them, and how dearly guarded they must remain.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Rollrock Island is a place battered by the sea. Life depends on the water, both for sustenance and employment, but also for the safe passage of the ferry to Cordlin, on the mainland, a place which is as important to the book’s setting as the island itself. The book is told through the eyes of several different characters, each of which gets his or her own section, and whose voice is allowed to speak to the reader directly – each of these sections is connected, of course. Our first narrator (and a figure whose presence, for good or ill, is central to the whole book, mentioned in every section) is the wonderfully named Miskaella Prout, a stout and ungainly girl, the youngest of her large family. Taunted and unbeloved by the people of Rollrock, men and women alike, she possesses one thing which sets her apart from her fellow islanders – her ability to communicate with and summon the seals which live in the waters all around the island. As she grows, we see her power develop to the point where she is able to call forth the human form from within the sealskin, and this is the cornerstone upon which not only our story, but also the community of Rollrock, is built.

Men begin to approach Miskaella with the intention of asking her to call them forth a wife from the waves; they pay her handsomely, and so she complies. This is the only value she has for the islanders – belittled and looked down upon for her appearance and her lack of perceived ‘beauty’, her only power lies in her ability, and so she uses it. Miskaella’s own relationship with the seals is a tormented one, in some ways, and she is deeply connected to them while also hating, on some levels, their very presence.They represent something painful to her, something she hates because she cannot possess it, and this dictates the way her life unfolds. Her story is extraordinarily compelling and affecting – I found my opinion of her switching back and forth as I read, and as I grew to know her more and more; by the end, Miskaella’s fate had me on my knees, emotionally speaking.

The sea-wives, the enigmatic heart of this novel, are beautiful, and exotic, each of them tall and slender and dark-haired by contrast to the shorter, rounder and more red-headed islanders. There is no mistaking them – clearly, they are not of the land, not of our world. Their song, their slippery language and their loveliness endear them to their men, but the one thing that seems to be most lovely about them is the most troubling: their pliancy, and complete reliance on their husbands. As one character, Dominic Mallett, puts it in his chapter:

Kitty [his human fiancée] herself never looked at me this way; always her own next purposes and plans moved somewhere in her eyes and readied words behind her lips. This girl [the sea-wife, at this point unnamed] only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me. (pp. 166-67)

This chilling reality is one explored by Lanagan, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The women are purchased for one reason only – to be wives, and hopefully mothers; the men do not consider the idea that in ripping them from the sea they might be destroying their first family, in other words their seal-pups, whom the women love as much as their human children. The idea that the seal-wives are individuals with their own will, agency and inner life isn’t seen as important. Their power to return to the sea, to go where they will, is removed from them and kept secret – we are told the women themselves ask for this to be done, so that they are not tempted to go back to the water, but this comes second-hand, as reported speech. As well as this, the men must name their wives; the women, newly emerged from their sealskins, cannot speak until they are given a land-name by a man, and their own seal-name is unpronounceable with a human tongue. It takes them a long time to get used to life on land, but for all that they are quiet, temperate, obedient and delicate women, undemanding wives and agreeable mothers, all of which is in contrast with the island-women. The human women are depicted realistically, with faults and bad tempers and imperfect lives, all things which make them unique – but, in comparison to the sea-wives, all things which cannot be borne by the men. These ‘poles’ of femininity – the unknowable ideal, and the familiar Everywoman – are held up throughout the book, never finally being reconciled. The story makes no judgements, leaving that up to the reader.

The Colin Farrell movie, 'Ondine', a scene from which is shown here, also features the legend of the selkie. In this case, Farrell, a fisherman, finds a selkie woman in his net, and becomes bewitched by her. Image: ilovewildfox.com

The Colin Farrell movie, ‘Ondine’, a scene from which is shown here, also features the legend of the selkie. In this case, Farrell, a fisherman, finds a selkie woman in his net, and becomes entranced by her.
Image: ilovewildfox.com

The book explores what it is like to be bewitched by a sea-wife, what it is like to have one as your mother, and how it feels to have them rip apart your family. One particularly wrenching scene, again involving Dominic Mallett, sees him describing the feelings he has for his newly-found sea-wife, Neme, as ‘real’ love, despite the fact that his human fiancée Kitty is in Cordlin waiting for his return; this question of what ‘love’ means hangs over the whole book. We see love (and the lack of it) between siblings, parents and children, friends and companions, and we see marriages both happy and sad. The undercurrent to the story is that no matter how much the men love their sea-wives – or perhaps, think they love them – it is, of course, not enough. For the selkie, the call of the sea will always be stronger than the call of the land, and any reader familiar with the legend will know what must happen. Despite their attempts to rein the women in, to name them and tie them to the hearth, the men of Rollrock cannot keep their once-malleable wives from what they wish for most, and it is love – not from their husbands, this time – which gives them back their power.

Having said that, the book is far from predictable – the manner of the sea-wives’ leaving, and what they take with them, is unexpected, and the final chapter exposes a secret which left me speechless with emotion. Ms. Lanagan’s writing is exceptional – rhythmical, poetic, imaginative and memorable, it makes the book, and the story, flow like the seawater she so beautifully describes, full of bubbles and light and hidden depths. The only thing I hoped for as the book progressed was that she would devote a chapter to one of the sea-wives, and allow her to have her say; I was disappointed when this didn’t happen. However, looking back on it for the purposes of this review, I now realise: that was the whole point. The sea-wives are unknown and unknowable, visible only from the outside, their minds as alien to us as ours are to the seals’. We see them described from many viewpoints – some loving, others hateful – and that is as much as we can, and should, expect. We are left understanding them as much as their husbands do, and that is fitting.

‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’ is a novel which is structured and written beautifully, and left me finishing the final page with a deeply satisfied sigh. It’s a definite recommendation, for me.

Happy weekend – and may you read well!

While the Sun Shines

And so, just in time for July, I’m back from a busy weekend spent at the inaugural Hay Festival Kells. Happy new week, happy new month, and hope you’ve missed me a little – but not too much. How’ve you all been? It’s great to be back.

Thank GOODNESS you're back! Image: ourpeacepath.com

Thank GOODNESS you’re back!
Image: ourpeacepath.com

You know, I used to think that being surrounded by books would be the best thing ever. I mean, ever. Better than being surrounded by piles of money or rivers of gold or whatever else you might want to think of. Lakes of beer, possibly. Anyway, now, I know it’s true. From Friday morning to yesterday evening, that’s pretty much exactly the situation I found myself in. Except it was even better than I’d imagined, because my husband was there, which always makes a fun thing even more fun. Also, as well as all the books, we had plenty of historical-stroke-archaeological things to look at, too, on account of Kells being well over a thousand years old, all told.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more amazing, do you know what the most exciting and wonderful bit, out of all the exciting and wonderful bits this weekend held, was? We got to see this lady here:

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her! Image: guardian.co.uk

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her!
Image: guardian.co.uk

I still can’t quite believe I managed to find myself in the same room as Jeanette Winterson, for it is she in the wonderful image above. But it happened. And all for the rock-bottom bargain sum of €8.00. How cool is that?

Jeanette Winterson gave a talk on Friday evening, one of the definite highlights of the festival overall, where she spoke about her writing life and her childhood and read some sections from her recent novel ‘Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal?’; my husband, who has never read a word of her work, was pretty much won over by the charming warmth of her presence and the power of her prose (well, at least he was on Friday evening – I’m not sure how long the effect lasted.) I think he may even read one of her books, but whisper it in case he gets spooked. He doesn’t generally ‘do’ fiction, so I’ve tried to sell ‘Why Be Happy…’ to him on the grounds that it’s pretty much an autobiography, and largely non-fiction. I’ll wear him down, never fear.

After the dizzy heights of a Jeanette Winterson reading, then, the weekend had a lot to live up to – it managed admirably, of course. Saturday was spent going from pop-up bookshop to pop-up bookshop, wherein several gems were unearthed; most of the bookshops were selling second-hand books, however, which you may remember me spouting off about only the other day here on the blog. I managed to keep my purchases to a minimum – for me, at least – and I did my best to buy sensibly and with conscience, bearing in mind that all the money raised through second-hand book sales was going to some form of charity. I hope I managed to strike the appropriate balance, most of the time.

Hay Festival Kells also showed me an important truth about my marriage, believe it or not. I’ve never really had cause to wonder whether my husband and I are a good match, but just in case there was any chance that a hint of doubt could ever start to grow in my mind, this weekend put paid to it. We are, of course, two peas in one pod. Nothing tests a union more than spending hours doing something that other people would probably find deathly boring, and not only enjoying it, but completely losing track of time while enjoying it – and not even caring. We spent hours trawling through books, completely happy to beaver away – he in the non-fiction sections, I up to my eyes in the children’s, usually – and topped all that off with trips to each of the town’s historical sites. Kells was founded by monks in the eighth or ninth century, so it has plenty of those. We spent time in the house of St Colmcille, rebuilt in the eleventh century (and absolutely amazing to look at – the stonework is mindblowing), and we gazed upon the huge Market Cross, a Celtic cross probably made in the tenth century and re-erected in the seventeenth by no less a figure than Dean Jonathan Swift. I didn’t learn until after I’d visited it that it was used as a gallows during the 1798 Rebellion; on reflection, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.

I may never have mentioned this before, but I’m addicted to cemeteries – not in a ghoulish way, but in a historical-enthusiast way. My husband isn’t always as intrigued as I am, but he’s usually happy to let me have my fix. This weekend he showed great forbearance and patience, for Kells is full of historical burial grounds; he didn’t once complain, but just dived in and joined me in my explorations (further proof that he is the man for me, I think.) I love looking at old tombstones, admiring the workmanship of the lettering, marvelling at the age of the burial, wondering about the people who’ve passed away and what their lives were like. I do, admittedly, tend to get quite emotional at times, particularly when I encounter graves wherein entire families are interred, and/or a list of children’s ages are spelled out on the headstone. Sadly, this is not uncommon, particularly during times of plague or famine, to which Ireland is no stranger. One of the sites we visited was a Famine graveyard – I’m using the capitalised form because I’m talking about the Great Famine of the 1840s here – and it was, pretty much, a blank field with a stone cross memorial in it. No markers exist for individual burials, no gravestones, no names. I admit I wept, and I prayed for the souls of those who’d died.

It’s amazing to think the Famine happened something like 170 years ago, but the pain of it still sears across the heart of Ireland. Anyway.

So, we trudged home yesterday evening with our books and our thoughts in tow, and now we’re facing into another week. My husband has a few more days holiday from work, and I’m trying to spend as much time with him as possible while still thinking about everything that’s on my schedule for this week and this month – more competitions, more entries, more agency submissions, more ideas to sketch out, more dreams to form and shape and plan for – more amazing things ahead, I hope.

I hope you’re looking forward to July, and that you’re planning holidays or thinking of taking some time out. I recommend going to a book festival, you know, just in case you’re looking for something to do…

Image: rte.ie

Image: rte.ie

Book Review Saturday – ‘Heroic’

Sometimes, it’s the books you buy on a whim that can turn out to be the most meaningful, and the ones you’ll treasure for years. ‘Heroic’, by Phil Earle, is one of those books for me.

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

It wasn’t actually me who chose this one – it was my husband. We were browsing through the children’s and YA shelves in a large bookshop a few weeks ago, and he handed it to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ he said. ‘I might actually read this myself.’

Well. That got my attention. My husband, read fiction? This must be some book!

I added it to my pile of to-be-purchased titles without really looking at it; I checked out the cover image, saw that it was a Penguin title (it’s great to have such trust in a publisher!) and was quite happy to fork over the money for it. Then, when it arrived back home with us, it took me a little while to get around to reading it; when I did, though, I wondered what had taken me so long.

‘Heroic’ is the story of Sonny McGann, primarily, though his brother Jammy is the other main narrative voice in the book. We read three or four chapters in Sonny’s voice, and then three or four in Jammy’s, and so on – the story unfolds through both their perspectives. Sonny and Jammy have grown up on the Ghost, a high-rise housing estate somewhere in London, the focal point (and only un-graffittied part) of which is a large statue of the soldiers at the centre of the housing units. This outsize memorial was raised to commemorate the men of the area who’ve given their lives, down through the years, in the service of the Army, and it’s often mentioned – as a meeting point, as a reference point, as a grounding image, and, finally, as an emotional focus – throughout the story. Life on the Ghost is not easy – fathers are absent or abusive, mothers are worked to exhaustion, unemployment among the young is rife, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. In order to escape his life, and earn some money to help his mother keep the family together, Jammy enlists in the Army, and is deployed to Afghanistan along with his best friend and neighbour, Tommo.

Sonny is left to face the cauldron that is the Ghost. His sections of the story tell us of his struggles to keep away from crime and drug abuse, his love for Cam (the sister of Tommo), and his everyday life, full to the brim of frustration and rage. He wants to help his mother by trying to get some sort of job, but she wants him to stay at school; they both know, in any case, that being labelled as ‘a kid from the Ghost’ will make him unemployable, so their arguments are, in some ways, moot. His future looks grim, and his life is hard – it’s leavened only by the presence of the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Cam, whom he loves deeply. However, Cam – as a sister of one of ‘the gang’ – is supposed to be out of bounds; her relationship with Sonny must therefore be kept secret, and it is a huge source of stress for them both. Sonny’s friends are struggling as much, or more, than he is, particularly the enigmatic and troubled Hitch, and their efforts to carve out a living for themselves is painfully described.

Interspersed with this brutal vision of life, we read about Jammy’s experiences in Afghanistan. He does his best to take his friend Tommo under his wing, trying to keep him safe and sane amid the dust and terror, and he struggles with the reasoning behind their presence in Afghanistan to begin with. He learns the hard way about the drawbacks of trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people, the brutality both of the war and of the regime they are, allegedly, there to fight, and how risky it is to become close to the people you’re trying to protect. A scene in the middle of the book involving Jammy and an Afghani child almost literally stole my heart out of my chest and broke it; I had to close the book, put it aside, and weep for a good ten minutes. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read, made even more harrowing by the fact that similar events happen every day in reality. Eventually, Jammy returns from Afghanistan, but what he’s been through, and what he’s seen, mean that the man who comes back to the Ghost is not the same man who left. Jammy’s struggles to reintegrate, to slot back into life with his family and community, are unashamedly examined. The book particularly takes us into the heart of his relationship with Sonny, and how the brothers seem to have lost something precious that once bonded them to one another.

Cam, Sonny’s girlfriend, becomes a pivotal character in trying to heal the brothers’ relationship despite the fact that she is dealing with her own unimaginable loss. The boys’ mother, driven to distraction by the life she is leading and the future that faces her sons, is a strong and loving figure, but it takes her love and Cam’s together to have any impact on Jammy and Sonny. They have to realise how much they share and how deep are the ties that bind them before they can reforge their relationship, but their attempts to do this are almost too much for either of them to take.

‘Heroic’ pulls no punches. It is a visceral novel, full of pain and anger; the characters’ rage spills forth from the pages and their tightly-bounded lives struggle to break free from between the lines of text. I didn’t just read this book – I lived it, I breathed it, I felt the strictures of the Ghost and the front-line both. I willed the characters on, frustrated by Sonny’s immaturity and pigheadedness as much as by Jammy’s inability to admit he needed help, horrified by Hitch’s struggle with heroin and Cam’s experiences at the hands of her father, and deeply moved by the love between them all, and their willingness to do whatever it took to save one another from destruction. Having said all this, I don’t mean to imply that ‘Heroic’ is a bleak book – it isn’t, really. The desperation and pain of the characters’ lives is always counterpointed with their love for, and devotion to, one another. You could almost say this is a book about brotherhood – not just the blood ties that bind Sonny and Jammy, and which end up, in a way, being weaker than the ties between Sonny and his friends, and Jammy and his comrades – but the brotherhood, or the family links, that bind all of us together, wherever we live or whatever we face in life.

In short, this book is a marvel. I’m so pleased my husband spotted it, and that I bought it, because it’s probably not the sort of book I’d have picked up for myself. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking out for the rest of Phil Earle’s books, and recommending them highly to everyone I come across.

Happy Saturday, y’all. Get reading!

Once More Unto the Book Review – ‘ACID’

How on earth is it Saturday already? *Shakes clock* *peers at it peevishly*

I'm not *this* desperate to slow down time - not yet, anyway! Image: dailymail.co.uk

I’m not *this* desperate to slow down time – not yet, anyway!
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Oh well. In any case, Saturday is the day it appears to be, and so it must be time for this:

The Book Review Post!

Image: nosegraze.com

Image: nosegraze.com

This week, it’s all about fighting The Man, as I’m feeling the love for Emma Pass’ marvellous début novel, ‘ACID’. It’s not exactly a comfortable read, but that – in essence – is what makes it so good. And it is, indeed, so good.

I read ‘ACID’ pretty much in one sitting – no mean feat, considering it’s over 400 pages long – and when I tell you it gripped me from the first sentence, I mean it. ‘ACID’ has one of the most arresting opening chapters of any book I’ve ever read; Pass’ grip over language and character doesn’t relax for one second for the rest of the book, either. I felt like Jenna Strong’s story was dragging me by the nose. I had to find out what happened to her, because her voice was so compelling and urgent. The book is tight, well-written, expertly paced and so very clever – it’s almost too much to believe that it’s Emma Pass’ first published novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and my hat is off to her for that alone.

‘ACID’, set in 2113, is the story of the aforementioned Jenna Strong. At the time of the novel’s opening, Jenna is incarcerated in Mileway Maximum-Security Prison, having, we’re told, murdered her parents at the age of 15. She is (perhaps a tiny bit implausibly, but I instantly forgave it) the only female inmate in this prison; as a result, of course, she is sexually and physically victimised by the male inmates. Or, at least, the male inmates attempt to victimise her – Jenna, easily the most kick-ass heroine I’ve read this side of Katniss Everdeen, does not take their maltreatment lightly, and learns very quickly how to defend herself. After the breath-holding tension of the first few chapters, where we learn all about the prison, Jenna’s past, and her painful present, the story quickens into a rescue mission, mounted by persons unknown, to break Jenna out of Mileway.

The book takes us through Jenna’s new existence outside of prison, her efforts to stay under the radar and away from ACID – the Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence, i.e. the most brutal, merciless, and omnipresent police force you can imagine – and her growing involvement with an underground resistance movement which is dedicated to freeing the population from ACID’s iron grip. In the course of this, she must assume a new identity, start living a different life (including being forced to take a LifePartner with whom she cannot see eye to eye – the breakdown of their clandestine relationship brings her entire existence into danger), and eventually, inevitably, go on the run. This identity-swapping is done in order to try to evade ACID’s terrifying, all-seeing surveillance; later in the book she is forced to assume yet another identity, against her will this time. All these layers are deftly handled, giving Jenna’s character such satisfying texture and complexity.

The story describes daily existence in a country which was once the UK and is now the IRB, a walled-off, segregated totalitarian state. It is a chilling vision. Everything is monitored – ACID knows who you talk to, what you read, what you think, who your friends are – marital unions are state-sanctioned (everyone is assigned a LifePartner in their late teens, and any sign of deviance from this is severely punished), and couples may not become pregnant without a permit from the state. It’s not a new idea that total power brings total corruption, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea – Emma Pass makes such excellent use of the trope that it seems new and fresh in her hands. The gradual uncovering of the truth behind Jenna’s early life, as well as her own origins, gives the story an emotional punch and makes you care deeply about Jenna and the pain she has been forced to suffer.

The secondary characters are also excellent, particularly Max – he’s almost the ‘heart’ to Jenna’s ‘muscle’, which is a refreshing reversal of expectation – and his kindness and compassion show us exactly how hard Jenna has had to become in order to survive. She is, however, hiding a painful secret from him for a large part of the book, and the strain this causes is made very clear. As well as excellent characterisation, another of my favourite features of the novel is the use of reproduced newspaper articles and komm readouts (‘komm’ being a device worn in the ear, and monitored by ACID, which allows you to ‘link’ to other people – almost like a smartphone, but with a heads-up display), which give us another perspective on Jenna’s first-person narration. I enjoyed the disparity which sometimes occurs between the way she views the happenings in her world and what ACID is actually thinking or doing – it’s nicely used to rachet up the tension where necessary. Plus, it looks really cool.

In short, everything about this book is top-notch – the writing, the characters, the narrative voice, the concept, the action sequences, the world-building (which feels sickeningly plausible!), the technology, and the emotional arc our characters travel. I did have two tiny quibbles, one of which I’ve touched on above (Jenna’s being the only woman in the prison), and another which occurs near the end of the book (where Jenna is handed an opportunity to achieve one of her goals, instead of creating her own means of getting what she wanted, which would have been more satisfying to read). However, these quibbles are swept away in the overall force of nature that is ‘ACID’.

Just to note: ‘ACID’ is probably considered a YA novel by publishers and librarians and booksellers, and so on, because Jenna is in her late teens, but I’m sure it would be relished by fans of crime writing, SF and speculative fiction, too. An excellent piece of work, which is heartily recommended.

Happy weekend, all! May the books be with you…