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review 2017-11-06 06:08
Mystery and Witches
The Fifth Petal: A Novel - Brunonia Barry

A multiple murder from the past that remains unsolved and a current death that may or may not be murder in a town whose very name is synonymous with witches. Add to that a growing suspect list and a boatload of secrets. Brunonia Barry is quite talented and that shows in The Fifth Petal. The writing is descriptive, the characters are interesting, and the suspense builds as the story progresses. The supernatural element does add something to the mystery, and most of the solving process is done through visions and memories rather than actual investigation. Nevertheless, Chief Rafferty is an engaging character in spite of having little to go on with these cases. I did have trouble warming up to Callie, but she did grow on me as her story unfolds and the author does a good job of eliciting sympathy for her situation. The story does tend to ramble at times with unnecessary information and some chapters end rather abruptly, both of which become a distraction from an otherwise good story. On a positive note, I did enjoy the bits of history from the witch trials sprinkled throughout the book, and the twists and secrets revealed kept me turning pages to find the answers.

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review 2017-10-20 20:55
A Western, a Civil War novel, and a love story whose narrator you won’t forget.
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry

I had not read any books by Sebastian Barry before, and when I read some of the reviews of this book I realised that the author has been chronicling, in some of his novels, the story of two Irish families. One of the protagonists of this story, and its narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a descendant of one of these families. Rest assured that you don’t need to have read Barry’s other novels to enjoy this one (I didn’t find out about this until I had finished reading it) but now that I know I confess I’d like to see how they all relate to each other.

Thomas is a young boy who ends up in America fleeing the Irish famine and we follow him through his many adventures. Very early on he meets a slightly older boy, John Cole, and they are inseparable throughout the story, or almost. In XIX century America they live through many experiences: they take to the stage dressed as girls to entertain miners (who have no women around); when they are old enough they join the army and fight in the Indian Wars. They later go back to the stage, this time with Thomas playing the girl (a part he enjoys), John her suitor and an Indian girl they’ve adopted, Winona, as their side act. As times get harder, they go back to the army, this time fighting for the North in the Civil War. And… it goes on.

The book is narrated in the first person by Thomas, who has a very peculiar voice, full of expressions appropriate to the historical era, some Irish terms, colloquialisms, witty and humorous saying, poetic passages and amateur philosophical reflexions. In some ways it reminded me of novels narrated by tricksters or other adventurers (I’ve seen people mention Huckleberry Finn, although the characters and the plot are quite different and so is the language used), but although Thomas is somebody determined to survive and easy-going, he never wishes anybody harm and seems warm and kind-hearted, even if he sometimes ends up doing things he lives to regret. I know some readers don’t enjoy first-person narrations. Whilst it can put you right inside the skin of the character, it also makes it more difficult to get to know other characters and if you don’t like the way a character talks, well, that’s it. Although I really enjoyed Thomas and the use of language, I know it won’t be for everybody, so I recommend checking it out first. Some reviews say that he is too articulate, but although we don’t know all the details of the character’s background, he is clearly literate and corresponds and talks to people from all walks of life through the book (poets, actors, priests, the major and his wife). And he is clearly clever, quick, and a good observer.

Although the story is set in America in mid-XIX century and recounts a number of historical events, these are told from a very special perspective (this is not History with a capital H, but rather an account of what somebody who had to live through and endure situations he had no saying on felt about the events), and I this is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a historical treatise. Yes, Thomas and John Cole love each other and have a relationship through the whole book and Thomas wears a dress often. There is little made of this and Thomas is better at talking about events and other people than at discussing his own feelings (and that, perhaps, makes the snippets he offers us all the more touching). Although perhaps the historical accuracy of some parts of the story (mostly about the characters’ relationship) stretches the imagination, the descriptions of the battles of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and especially the way those involved in them felt, are powerful and evocative, horrible and heart-wrenching. There are no true heroes or villains, just people who play their parts as cogs in machines they don’t understand. (There are funny moments like when quite a racist character discovers that he’s fighting in the pro-abolition side. His reason for fighting is because the major he’d fought under in the Indian Wars asked him to. He never thought to ask what the war was about). Thomas reflects at times upon the similarities between what is happening there and what had happened in Ireland and does not miss the irony of the situation.

I had problems choosing some quotations from the book as I’d highlighted quite a lot of it, but here go:

If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see.

Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.

Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and at the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.

He is as dapper as a mackerel.

How we going to count all the souls to be lost in this war?

Men so sick they are dying of death. Strong men to start that are hard to kill.

Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul.

I loved the story and the characters and I hope to read more novels by Barry in the future. I recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and westerns, with a big pinch of salt, those who love narrators with a distinctive voice, and fans of Barry. From now on I count myself among them.

Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

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review 2017-09-28 18:00
The Essential Jennifer Johnston: The Captains and the Kings, The Railway Station Man, Fool's Sanctuary - Jennifer Johnston,Sebastian Barry

A quiet, thoughtful book by a writer who is much underappreciated. She deserves a wide audience, although I fear the sort of book she writes -- gentle, interior, full of the depth of ordinary lives -- is much out of fashion in favor of dystopian horrors, angry screeds, and extreme character portrayals. Pity.

 

This novel deals with aging and youth, scandalous talk, resentments, misunderstandings, foolishness, closemindedness and the pain of injustice. Set in Ireland in the mid-20th c, Mr. Pendergast is a man at the end of his life, a solitary man, of few passions. He is a Protestant and, much against his will, finds himself in an unlikely friendship with a Catholic boy. It's heartbreaking and beautifully drawn.

 

I highly recommend it and will be reading the rest of Johnston's work. A fine article about her appears here... https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/11/fiction.rosiecowan

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review 2017-09-18 04:51
TRACING THE LIFE ARC OF AN HONEST, FORTHRIGHT MAN IN WAR & PEACE
Camel Combat Ace: The Great War Flying Career of Edwin Swale CBE OBE DFC* - Barry M Marsden

"CAMEL COMBAT ACE" is a fine, well-written book about a singularly remarkable man, Edwin Swale. Hailing from a middle-class background in Northern England, Swale joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in October 1917. He completed his flight and gunnery training by early March 1918. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped to France and was assigned to No. 10 Squadron, RNAS, which soon became caught up in trying to stem the German offensive. 

Later that spring, with the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the amalgamation of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), No. 10 Squadron RNAS - now redesignated No. 210 Squadron RAF - was very active along the front. Swale was involved in a lot of dangerous, low level attack missions against German troops in the field and other military installations behind the lines. The book provides considerable detail on Swale's combat service, which - aside from one spell of leave in Britain - lasted through October 1918, by which time he had shot down 17 German planes in aerial combat, survived a number of close calls, and had been promoted to Captain and placed in command of a flight of Sopwith Camels. 

After the war, Swale would marry, have a family, and assume responsibility for the family business. The book shows, with the insertion of some excerpts from Swale's autobiography, that he was a restless man with considerable energies and interests. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he rejoined the RAF and spent the war working in intelligence. 

This book was both interesting and easy to read. Plus it has lots of photos showing Swale (at various periods of his life) and his family.
 

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text 2017-09-13 03:41
Thoughts on the Eve of the 2017 Man Booker Shortlist
Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry
Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
Solar Bones - Mike McCormack
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

The Man Booker Prize shortlist announcement is hours away and I've been working hard to read my way through the list. Despite my best intentions, I was only able to completely read seven of this year's nominees as well as three others in part. That leaves three novels that are at this point a complete mystery to me, so I cannot speak on them. Here are some thoughts on who might make the list tomorrow.

I think Home Fire, Exit West, and Days Without End are the three strongest contenders from the ten I've read. I will be surprised if these three do not make the shortlist. I'll be really surprised if none of the three do.

Personally, I didn't enjoy The Underground Railroad much, but I think it also stands a good chance of being shortlisted. I'll be annoyed if wins the Prize given how much attention it has garnered this year, but a shortlist nomination would be accepted.

Rounding out the list is difficult. Autumn and Solar Bones are possible contenders.

I'd love to see History of Wolves on the list as it has been a personal favorite, so far. I know many readers had a very different reaction to this novel, however, so it's a long shot to make the list. (And it has zero chance of winning the Prize.)

If I had to put money on six and only six titles, they'd be
1. Home Fire
2. Days Without End
3. Exit West
4. The Underground Railroad
5. Autumn

6. History of Wolves (anything's possible, right?)

Have you been reading the Man Booker nominees? Have any thoughts on who might be shortlisted?

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