Tag Archives: Irish children’s authors

Book Review Saturday – ‘Beyond the Stars’

Beyond the Stars is a unique book, insofar as it’s a collection of short stories from eleven of Ireland’s most celebrated authors for children (plus one from an extremely talented young lady named Emma Brade, of which more later), sold in aid of Fighting Words, a creative writing centre in Dublin. Each story is illustrated, with one particularly industrious chap, Oisin McGann, not only writing but illustrating his own story, and they are all (stories and illustrations alike) awesome.

L-R: Sarah Webb, Niamh Sharkey and Roddy Doyle, launching 'Beyond the Stars' Image copyright: Brown Bag Films Image sourced: www.brownbagfilms.com

L-R: Sarah Webb, Niamh Sharkey and Roddy Doyle, launching ‘Beyond the Stars’
Image copyright: Brown Bag Films
Image sourced: http://www.brownbagfilms.com

The book is the brainchild of Sarah Webb, who conceived of it and contacted the authors involved, asking them to donate their time and work. She writes about her experience here, taking us through the conception and construction of the book, and her experience of conducting the authors and illustrators from bare outline to fully-finished product. Fighting Words is a cause she is passionately involved with, and many authors – particularly those in Ireland – would be familiar with it and the great work it does in encouraging people who might not have a chance to take part in creative writing classes to do just that. It works with people of all ages, but much of its effort is focused on schoolchildren, which makes Beyond the Stars a particularly appropriate way to raise funds and awareness for the cause.

There are twelve stories here – twelve tales of Adventure, Magic and Wonder, as the cover illustration makes clear – and each of them have a wintry theme, taking place at that time of year or somehow involving snow, or cold weather. It couldn’t be better pitched, then, to go on sale in October, when the year is beginning to get slow and creaky, and the nights are getting long, and the breeze has a bit of a bite in it. The first tale is Roddy Doyle’s The Star Dogs, which – once the intrigued reader has a handle on what’s happening – unfolds into the most wonderful imaginative landscape, at once completely separate and (because it involves dogs, and is written in such a humane and emotional way) intimately involved with a modern child’s experience. It’s touching, and exciting, and it will open the reader up to learning more about the real events surrounding the story.

I loved Judi Curtin’s How to Help Your Grandda, written entirely in letters between a small boy with a cold grandfather and the rich, if inflexible, owner of a home heating business, and the gradual relationship which grows between them. I really loved Celine Kiernan’s beautiful, if heartbreaking, story of a wintry battlefield, The Last Cat, and I read the last few pages of this story over and over because it grabbed me right in the heart and wouldn’t let go. The aforementioned Oisin McGann’s tale Across the Cold Ground is a touching tale of cameraderie and courage in the trenches of World War One, and the lengths to which a soldier will go to keep a tiny piece of home with him in the midst of an icy war zone. But my favourite story by far was Discovering Bravery by Emma Brade, the last story in the collection. Emma is a teen writer, who won a competition to be included in Beyond the Stars. Her story is beautifully written and deeply touching, telling of a young girl named Ruka who must learn, through the example of her older brother Rowan, what the meaning of courage truly is, and I loved it. I was amazed to learn the author’s age; her work easily holds its own among the other stories, and her voice is as engaging as any of her more seasoned co-authors.

Beyond the Stars is published by Harper Collins, who are donating all proceeds from its sales to Fighting Words, and it is available in all good bookshops and/or in your usual online retailers. If you have, or know, a child who likes stories (or even a big child who likes stories!) this book would make a beautiful Christmas present, and the fact that every sale is helping to fund a fantastic project like Fighting Words makes it all the better. Highly recommended.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Back to Blackbrick’

At the recent CBI Conference, I was lucky enough to hear this book’s author, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, speak about her journey to publication and the genesis of Back to Blackbrick. It deals, in a unique and touching way, with an elderly man’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and its effects on his family, particularly his grandson Cosmo, the story’s narrator.

Image: gatheringbooks.wordpress.com

Image: gatheringbooks.wordpress.com

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s father suffered with this cruel disease, and her heartbreaking note at the back of the book dedicating it to his memory was very moving. However, for some reason, I didn’t find her depiction of Kevin (Cosmo’s grandfather) and his struggle with mental decline to be quite so emotionally wrenching. Overall, this is a book I admire and one which I respect, but not one which I love.

It starts out well – Cosmo’s voice is funny and engaging, and some of the scenes with his grandfather, though narrated in a deadpan way, are clearly terribly sad. Kevin is spotted talking to a lamppost by some of Cosmo’s classmates, and word gets out at school that the elderly man is crazy; Kevin mistakes the dishwasher for the toilet, causing the family to start ‘…putting the super hot cycle on twice (p. 2). His relationship with his wife – Cosmo’s Granny Deedee – is wonderful, particularly in an early scene when she describes the beauty of his hands, a beauty that Cosmo cannot see. Cosmo’s family structure is complex: his mother has left Ireland for Australia, leaving her son behind (which I found a bit troubling), his brother Brian died in an accident at the age of ten, and his uncle Ted is living in the US. So, his grandad Kevin and granny Deedee are all the family he has. For the most part, Cosmo is happy at home, despite the fact that he will not speak to his mother when she phones; he and his grandfather share a love of horses, and they are very close until his illness begins to get in the way.

Social workers descend on the family, attempting to take Kevin away and place Cosmo in care, and amid the tumult Kevin has a moment of urgent clarity during which he gives Cosmo a key and tells him where to bring it – the South Gate of Blackbrick Abbey, a place in which Kevin spent a lot of his youth. He doesn’t explain why, but Cosmo makes his way there anyway, enters by the correct gate, and meets a young man whom he seems to know, in some strange way. He quickly works out the young man’s identity, and ends up staying in Blackbrick for what seems like a year.

And here’s where the book started to lose a bit of its urgency, for me.

I never really ‘got’ the sense of place in the book. Blackbrick Abbey didn’t come alive for me, for a few reasons – I didn’t think it was particularly historically accurate (not that historical accuracy is the point of the book, but still), and there’s a scene between Maggie (a character Cosmo meets shortly after his arrival) and Lord Corporamore, the owner of Blackbrick, which almost made me put the book aside. I understand the point which was being made but I feel it could have been handled differently, in a way which would have taken nothing from the power of what happens to Maggie.

Image: beanmimo.wordpress.com

Author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. Image: beanmimo.wordpress.com

The book has a lot to say about several important things, including the role of memory in the formation of identity, the terrible toll of grief and the bonds of love between family members, no matter whether geography or ill-health come between them. I loved the scenes where Kevin is teaching Cosmo how to care for horses and the depiction of Kevin in general – even though I wasn’t moved to tears, I still found his character compelling and enjoyable to read. I also loved, and was very moved by, the story of Crispin Corporamore, the son of Blackbrick, whose premature death has also left his family devastated. Having said that, I do feel the narrative voice loses some of its hold over the reader as the book comes to a close. I was bothered, a little, by the time-slip elements in the book too – some of what Cosmo does in the ‘other’ Blackbrick should have had knock-on effects in his own world, but they don’t seem to – but all the same I admired the way in which it was realised and the way in which Moore Fitzgerald ties it in to the theme of memory loss and the fragmentation of identity.

Also, I liked Cosmo (except for one scene near the end of the book when I felt he was needlessly being a brat, but that might be a personal thing!), and I loved his grandparents. Except for the slight loss of voice at the end of the book, I felt drawn into Cosmo’s world and I was with him in his adventure. He was a strongly-drawn and interesting character with plenty of depth. Some parts of the setting didn’t work for me, but the story was clever. Certainly, I’ve never read anything like it before, and I’m impressed by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s imagination.

As I’ve said already, though – this is a book I admire and respect, but it’s not one I love. For some reason – perhaps an entirely personal one – it was missing emotional heft for me. It’s strange, because I had a beloved great-aunt who suffered with dementia in her latter years, and so I do know the effects such an illness can have on a family. Back to Blackbrick is an important book, and its descriptions of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease are unflinching. I’d definitely recommend it to other readers, and I’ll look forward to Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s future work.

Edit: Sarah Moore Fitzgerald has a new book, The Apple Tart of Hope, which is being published soon. It sounds wonderful. Check it out.