Sunday, April 29, 2012


Pages: 233
Date: 29/04/2012
Grade: 4+
Details: Dialogues Through Literature title

“That is all there is, really. Not much of a story, I’m afraid.”

Contrary to that quote, taken from the last pages of Shadowstory, there actually is quite a story here. A story about growing up and learning life-lessons along the way. A story about love and loyalty and the ties that bind us to others.

This is Polly’s (also known as baby) story. Born in 1940 when her father’s youngest brother, Sam, is only five years old, Polly lives her life in two places. The main part of her life, but a minor part of the story, takes place in Dublin where she lives with her mother, after her father dies in the Second World War. When her mother remarries and has two further children, Polly feels a bit like an outsider in her own home.
Most of Polly’s holidays are spend in Kildaragh and the house where her father grew up and his parents and youngest brother, Sam, still live.
Polly loves her grandparents, her young uncle Sam and the freedom and peace she experiences while in the west of Ireland.
As Polly grows up this peaceful idyll is slowly disturbed. When Sam decides to disappear from his family’s life without a word to anyone except Polly, he burdens her with a secret and a responsibility that is really too big for someone so young and innocent. With her grandparents desperate to know where Sam may be, it is all Polly can do not to blurb out the little she knows.
At the same time other tensions come to the surface in the house in Kildaragh. Polly has lot of growing up to do in very little time.

On the surface this is, as the quote above suggests, a very simple story. Told in minimal and subdued yet very beautiful and almost poetic language, it is easy for the reader to just flow with the narrative and be seduced by the idyllic surroundings and people in Kildaragh. It is only upon reflection that the reader realises how much is actually contained in this bare story.
This is a book that deals with growing up, first love, death, religion and family loyalty. This is a book that deals with, and is true to, life. It doesn’t offer unrealistic happy endings but it does deliver a very satisfying read.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bailieborough Reading Group Discusses The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman.

On April 26 the Bailieborough Reading Group got together to discuss "The Pianist", our second title in the Dialogues Through Literature programme. Within minutes it became clear that we were all in absolute agreement about this book; this is a very powerful book containing the heartbreaking true story about how one man managed to survive the German occupation in Warsaw, Poland.

Some members commented on the fact that the way in which the story is told seemed somewhat detached, while others pointed out that this was because Szpilman wrote the book almost as soon as the war was over, without allowing time for long reflection on what he had just gone through. And, some members felt, it was probably easier on the reader that the story was told in this way. There are more than enough heartbreaking and horrific aspects to this narrative to think that it might have been next to impossible to read if it had been any less detached.

Special mention was made of the role the one German officer plays in Szpilman’s survival and we all felt that it was a horrible shame that Szpilman didn’t know the officer’s name and wasn’t able to find him again after the war. 

And that thought brought us on to the observation that if we had to point at a similarity between this book and our previous read for Dialogues Through Literature – “Bear in Mind These Dead” – it would have to be that no matter what the conflict, it is never a case of everybody on the one side being completely right with all those on the other side being wrong. While it is tempting and easy to think in terms of “us against them” or “white versus black” in any conflict, that is never the way it really is. A message that will be re-enforced in our next read in this programme: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fear in the Sunlight

Pages: 410
Date: 26/04/2012
Grade: 5+
Details: no. 4 Josephine Tey Mystery
            Received from BookGeeks

“Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight where it is so unexpected – that is interesting”
Alfred Hitchock

London 1954, and Chief Inspector Archie Penrose, about to retire from Scotland Yard, is visited by an American investigator who wants to know about events that took place in the summer of 1936 when Josephine Tey celebrated her 40th birthday in Portmeirion with Penrose and other close friends. Remembering is hard for Archie. Josephine has since died and having to look back means facing the pain of losing his close friend full on again. But the American has come with a surprising revelation about the events that took place during their stay there, and the curiosity that always made him such a good investigator takes Archie back to that shocking holiday in the beautiful surroundings in North Wales.

In 1936 celebrating her birthday with friends wasn’t Josephine’s only reason for staying in Portmeirion. She was also meeting Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma, to talk about selling the rights to her novel “A Shilling for Candles” to the already famous director.
During a dinner party Hitchcock decides to play a rather cruel game with his guests. A game that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth of those involved as well as those witnessing it and a game which will have horrible consequences.
The next day the bodies of two women, a leading actress and a local girl working in the resort, are found. Both have been murdered in horrible, although different, ways. When shortly after the discovery a third person dies, it appears that the case may have already solved itself. However Archie can’t help having niggling doubts about the solution and also has strong reservations about the way in which the case has been, barely, investigated. But since this is neither his case nor his jurisdiction, there is nothing he can do about it.

It is only in 1954 with the arrival of the mysterious American investigator that all the threads of what exactly was going on in 1936 come together and Archie at last finds the answers to all the questions. Answers that will lead him back to Portmeirion and to him making a decision he didn’t think he would ever be able to make.

This is the fourth book in a series featuring Josephine Tey and it is, once again, a wonderful book.
Yes, it is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. In fact, we are almost 200 pages into the story when the first murder occurs.
This is first and foremost a book about Josephine Tey and her life. We see her struggle with the decision whether or not to sell the rights to her book. And we are witness to her dilemma when it comes to her love life.
This is also a story about the relationships between people and the tangled webs those create. About the ways in which people hurt and fail each other, hide parts of themselves as well as the lengths people will go to in order to protect someone they are close to, despite knowing better.

This author has a way with words. Her sentences flow, her conversations are natural and her descriptions are vivid. She takes her time describing surroundings, moods and thoughts and yet she maintains the suspense that keeps the reader turning the pages.

While Upson obviously likes and admires her main character, she doesn’t idolise her. Tey, as described in this book is a human and rounded character. She’s is mostly a very likeable person to read about, but she has her less beautiful sides and there are moments that the reader would like to shake her and tell her exactly what she should be doing. All of this makes her very real and leaves me willing to believe that the Josephine Tey described on this pages is as close to the real thing as anyone could come. In fact, there were times when I had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction featuring real historical figures. There is such detail in the descriptions in this story that it is quite possible to believe that all of it really happened.

The fact that the author has part of this book set after Josephine’s death worries me a bit. Does this mean Upson does not intend to write anymore books in this series? I certainly hope that is not the case.
On the other hand, the mystery in this book is set in 1936 when Tey still had years to live, which should leave room for several other instalments. Books that will be fictional while also giving the reader an inside into Josephine Tey’s life. Books that I very much look forward to reading.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Pages: 150
Date: 25/04/2012
Grade: 4.5
Details: Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011

Tony Webster and his friends Colin and Alex form a tight clique during their final year of secondary school and don’t think there’s room for anybody else. But new pupil Adrian fits right in, without ever actively trying to befriend them. Typical teenagers and products of the 60’s the four boys are sex-hungry, philosophical, well-read, convinced that they will succeed in changing the world where their parents failed and sure that their friendship will last forever.
Forty years later Tony has retired and finds himself reflecting on his life. He didn’t change the world or achieve anything remarkable. In fact he led an unremarkable, quiet life consisting of a career that didn’t set the world on fire, a single marriage and a calm and friendly divorce. He may not have achieved anything special, but neither did he ever harm anybody, or so he likes to believe.
An unexpected and mysterious bequest from a person he hasn’t seen or even thought about in 40 years leads Tony to reconsider his memories and the way he has defined his past and himself. Suddenly what he always thought to be true about himself and the people around him isn’t so clear cut anymore.  The apparently innocent and easy to explain actions during his student years suddenly take on a different meaning. And it is quite possible that he has drawn wrong conclusions about people, their motives and the outcomes of actions.
As he revisits his past and his memories he tries to discover if and where his recollections are wrong only to discover that his wrong assumptions in the past result in wrong conclusions in his present.

This is a book about memories and how about how what we remember isn’t necessarily true. Tony, the narrator keeps on running into the fact that the things he remembers don’t correspond with truths held by others and as such are unreliable. This is expressed in various statements and thoughts about the past and the way in which we approach our memories at various stages during our lives, such as:

 “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age; when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

“Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty as to what you are or have been.”

This is a beautifully written book. It is also quite deceptive. What at first appears to be a rather simple story turns out to be a deep, almost philosophical, study of memory as well as a forensic investigation of the past.
Although rather short, there is a lot to this book. This is not a book to read quickly, or a story that will be easily forgotten. I know that I will be thinking, not so much about the story itself but about memory and in how far I can trust my own, for a long time yet.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Pages: 328
Date: 22/04/2012
Grade: 3.5
Details: Book club read
            Copies received from Eason & Son 

This is the story of a man called Jacob or Jake. When we first join him he is in a small plane. His son, Henry, has given him a flight over the land where he lives as a birthday present. From the sky he sees the prison he designed where Henry is incarcerated at the time. Jacob’s thoughts aren’t completely coherent and there are a lot of things he is not entirely sure about.
It soon becomes clear that Jacob suffers from Alzheimer’s and during the rest of the story we follow him as both his memories and his present become ever more confused. We are witnesses to his irritation, fear and anger as the disease robs him of more and more of the things he knows. While he remembers certain events from his past the reader has no idea whether what he remembers actually happened or was only imagined. But then, neither does Jacob. And while initially he is aware of the fact that his memories are not necessarily to be trusted, it isn’t long before he loses that knowledge.
“He doesn’t know if he remembers or not; he doesn’t know the difference between what you remember and what you think you remember, or worse still, what others remember for you. He doesn’t know who he is.”

As the disease takes over more and more of Jacob’s brain, he continues to lose who he is, what is happening to him and who the people around him are until finally he has lost so much of himself that he appears to be at the start of his life rather than its end; without his memories his life surely hasn’t begun yet.

This was not an easy book to read, quite the opposite in fact. I always have a problem when reading a book about Alzheimer’s because this is a disease that scares me more than any other. This book was difficult for another reason as well though. In this story the reader rarely knows what is real and what isn’t because all of it is told from Jacob’s perspective. And Jacob's is the most untrustworthy perspective possible.

In this book Alzheimer’s seems to be a character as well as and instead of something the main character suffers from.
I wonder if the author aims to make the reader experience the Alzheimer’s experience as she leaves them wondering whether they’re looking at the past or the present, reality or fantasy, no more certain of what is real and what isn’t then Jacob is.

As much as this book is about a man losing his memories, his past and slowly also himself to Alzheimer’s this is also a book about the unreliability of memories in general. Can they ever be trusted? Or does the passage of time and the way we want the world and our lives to be colour them to such an extent that we can never be entirely sure whether what we remember is actually what happened?

When it comes down to it, there are only a few memories to which Jacob keeps on returning. Is that because those were moments that stood out in his life, had special significance? Or is it because there is a certain randomness to what the brain retains and what just disappears into nothingness?

I can’t help feeling that I missed a lot of references in this book; that a lot of it went right over my head. There must have been more to all the mentions of religion, the human-skin bible, to Jacob being a Jew and Helen’s Christian fate than just mere mentions in a story. The duality between the fates is even reflected in the main character’s name; is he Jake or is he Jacob and does that matter, does it make a difference? However, if there is more to this story, I have no idea what that “more” could possibly be.

I can’t say I liked this book and I did have a hard time reading it, almost having to force myself to get back to it every time I put it down. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have forced myself if this wasn’t a book club read. Continuously feeling as if I was missing vital plot points made me feel a bit inadequate, a feeling I don’t enjoy and which may explain why this book was such hard work for me.
On the other hand, a book that leaves me with this much to wonder about can’t be all bad, may in fact even be good. Maybe it is just a case of this not being a book for me in which case I shouldn’t judge it too harshly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Date: 18/04/2012
Grade: 5
Details: no. 4 Harry Potter
            Audio Book / 18CD’s / 20 hours, 55 mins / Narrated by Stephen Fry

After his usual miserable summer with the Dursleys Harry is delighted when he’s invited to spend the final days before going back to school with the Weasleys. While time spent with Ron and his family is always a treat, this year it is even more special since the family have tickets to the final of the quidditch world cup between Ireland and Bulgaria.
The match itself is a spectacle to make Harry marvel, especially the stunts the Bulgarian Seeker, Krum, manages to pull off. The night after the match turns into a nightmare though, when someone puts the Dark Mark, Voldemort’s sign, up in the sky leading to panic among the assembled wizards.
After the excitement, fear and confusion resulting from this attack Harry, Ron and Hermione are glad to get back to Hogwarts and normality. They soon discover however, that this year it won't quite be business as usual in their school. After a gap of several years it has been decided that a Triwizard tournament will take place. A tournament which is a contest between students from three different schools for wizards; Hogwarts, Beauxbatons in France and Durmstrang in Bulgaria.
Because the tournament is only open to students in their final years it shouldn’t affect Harry and his friends too much, until that is, to everybody’s surprise, Harry’s name is the fourth one to emerge from the Goblet of Fire. Since Harry didn’t enter himself for the competition and nobody owns up to having put his name forward, it is a mystery how he ended up a contestant, but now that he has been named he has no choice but to compete.
Harry manages to get through the first two tasks with relative ease. The third task however puts him into the enchanted Triwizard maze, and takes him from there to a place and a situation he couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares. Harry will need all his strength and magic to get himself out of this deadly situation and safely back to Hogwarts.

This was a wonderful story. I enjoyed catching up with Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the other familiar characters once again.
The adventures in these books are heart-stopping and highly imaginative and ensure that these stories are pure page-turners and/or compulsive listening. What I really like about Rowling’s’ books though is that she also takes the time to tell the story of everyday life in Hogwarts’ school. We witness our three heroes growing up; we are part of their friendship, feel their pain when they fall out, and smile as they discover infatuation for the first time.
J.K. Rowling manages to combine the magical, with the normal then throws in some mysteries and danger for good measure and delivers her readers something which comes very close to the ultimate reading experience.

Finally a word about the narration on this audio book. I can’t praise Stephen Fry enough. He does an absolutely wonderful job telling this story. Apparently without trying, he manages to give every character their separate voice. His voice is capable of evoking every emotion. Between Rowling’s’ writing and Fry’s narration I could almost see what I was listening to before me. Listening to this book was utter joy and I can’t wait until the fifth instalment will be available.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Pages: 224
Date: 17/04/2012
Grade: 4.5
Details: no. 33 Hercule Poirot

I needed a lighter read after Arcadia and before starting on The Wilderness for my reading group read, and this Hercule Poirot mystery fit the bill exactly.
The story starts in the Middle Eastern Sheikhdom of Ramat which finds itself on the cups of a revolution. The young Sheikh knows his life is in danger and asks his friend, a British pilot, to find a way of smuggling a small fortune in jewels out of the country. The pilot’s sister happens to be in Ramat with her young daughter, Jennifer, and he hides the jewels in their luggage without having a chance of telling them and while being secretly watched.
Next the story switches to Meadowbank, a posh and well respected school for girls in England where Jennifer is a new student when the summer term starts.
The term is only a few weeks old when one of the teachers is shot and murdered in the sports pavilion and although the police get assistance from a, for them unexpected, source, they have no idea who may have committed the crime or why exactly.
There a few interesting characters in the school though. There is the Middle Eastern princess, a cousin of the former Sheikh of Ramat, a few new staff members and Julia, whose mother worked in the secret service during the war and who quickly becomes fast friends with Jennifer.
When a second murder is committed, it is Julia who puts a few clues together, finds that which had been hidden and travels to London to ask Hercule Poirot for advice. And with Poirot on the case it isn’t long before the various mysteries are solved.

As always with Christie’s mysteries, this was a very enjoyable read. The mystery is well plotted and the characters, although they tend to be a bit stereo-typical, are well drawn and easy to picture.
The reader has a lot of inside information that the investigators in the book don’t have, but that didn’t make the mystery any easier to solve for me. Although I had a few suspicions with regard to a certain character in the book and was proved right in them, most of the mysteries stayed just that for me until Poirot unveiled the solution in his usual manner not in the least because of one or two well placed red herrings.
This book was exactly what I expected and needed it to be; easy to read, light, interesting and entertaining. It won’t be too long before I’ll bring another one of Christie’s books home with me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Pages: 289
Date: 15/04/2012
Grade: 4+
Details: Received from BookGeeks

It is the 1970 and a group of idealists, lead by Handy, a charismatic musician, establish a commune near an old and dilapidated house called Arcadia. Here they want to create their ideal community free from commercialism and violence.
Ridley Sorrel Stone is born to Hannah and Abe, two of the original Arcadians. Since he is a tiny baby he is called (little) Bit, a name that sticks and will be with him for life.
Bit grows up in Arcadia and flourishes in the close-knit community where he knows everybody, is close to nature and feels safe. For 14 years he has no contact with the outside world, a place that scares him, and watches as Arcadia grows, flourishes and then falls victim to its own success, growing too big with too many people who have their own ideas of how the commune should operate. Just before Bit’s paradise falls apart Bit discovers his love for Helle, the troubled girl he grew up with who now takes over his thoughts. A girl he finds himself loving and loathing at much the same time.
It is one night of out of control partying when Bit is 14 that ends with the police raiding the commune and ending Bit’s life in the only place he has ever known. One night the consequences of which force him and his parents out into the big world Bit is not sure he is ready to face, away from the people he grew up with, knows and loves.
Thirty years later Bit still doesn’t feel at home in the world he now finds himself living him and his obsession with Helle stays as strong as always now that there are new ties that bind him to her although she is as vulnerable and self-destructive as always.
The question is if Bit will ever realise that he can’t recreate the past or live there? Will he ever grow up enough to give the rest of his life a real chance or will his idealised past continue to hold him under its spell?

This is a story told in parts, with huge jumps in between. While the missing years are mentioned as memories, the narrative concentrates on the pivotal moments in Bit’s life. While this makes sense because the book would have been way too long if all of the 50 or so years covered in this book were described in equal detail, there are some times I would have loved to hear more about. I especially longed to hear more about the culture shock Bit must have experienced when he went from living in the commune to living in New York City, although it is clear from the story that it is a transition he never successfully made.
I guess this is a story about growing up, and how for some people that process doesn’t end until they reach middle age, or maybe even a process that goes on for as long as we live.
The story takes us from the 1970’s to the near future, and the picture painted of that future is not a pretty one, although one that sounds scarily realistic.
It is fitting that Bit should grow up to become a photographer as some of the descriptions in this book provide clear word portraits of people and places, so clear that the reader can see them with ease.
This is a beautifully written book. The language is almost lyrical, full of hidden depth and meaning. This makes it a book that can’t be read quickly. There is so much detail, so much attention for feelings and descriptions of places that it forces the reader to take their time and allow for the slow absorption of all those images.
It is a satisfying read though because Bit is a very interesting protagonist to follow along. He is a character I found myself getting completely invested in, hoping that he would find his place in the real world and come out if not on top then at least in charge of his own life.

“Sometimes you have to let time carry you past your troubles.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Pages: 313
Date: 11/04/2012
Grade: 4
Details: no. 1 Nina Borg
            Received from BookGeeks

Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse working in a refuge centre in Copenhagen where she tries to keep the vulnerable safe from those who would use and abuse them. A job that is often futile and frustrating, especially since Nina is in the habit of taking every case personally and getting involved with them on an emotional level.
She has just witnessed a young Ukrainian woman go back to her Danish fianc├ę who almost certainly abuses her, when she receives a call from her old friend Karin. Although contact with Karin has been limited for a few years now, Nina can’t say no when her friend asks her for a meeting because she needs help. When the two women meet Nina is given a token to a storage locker with the request to look after the contents of the locker. Karin is obviously deeply distressed and leaves Nina rather abruptly. Against her better judgment Nina picks up the token, goes to the locker and opens it only to find an old suitcase with a small, sleeping boy inside.
With no idea who the boy is, where he came from and who left him there Nina is at a loss to decide what to do. When a little later she makes eye-contact with a dangerous man looking very angry after finding nothing in that same locker, Nina knows she’s landed herself in a perilous situation, but still has no idea what that situation is.
Looking for answers Nina goes to find Karin, only to discover her brutally murdered. If she had any doubts before, Nina now knows for sure that both she and the little boy are in serious danger and decides to flee, leaving behind her husband and her own two children.
While Nina tries to stay ahead of the man who is hunting her and the boy, in Lithuania a desperate mother is trying to figure out what happened to Mikas, her young son, who was apparently taken by a couple while she was unconscious.

This is what I would call a literary thriller. While it has all the aspects a good thriller has – a mystery, scary villains, a vulnerable hero, violence and chases – the book also spends a lot of time inside the various characters giving the reader the opportunity to really get to understand them, their thought-processes and their motivation. And it manages to give the reader all this information without giving away too much too early in the story. As a result the reader only very gradually finds out exactly what is going on which is very gratifying and keeps them turning the pages.
How much a reader will enjoy this book will for a large part depend on how well they are able to buy into Nina Borg’s habit of throwing herself into other people’s causes while completely ignoring her own needs and those of her own family. While her way of dealing with the situation she found herself in made me want to shake her – I mean why didn’t she just go to the police with the little boy and why did she keep her husband in the dark- it may well ring true for others.
On the other hand, this is a very well written book. The pacing is almost perfect with descriptions and action alternating at exactly the right times.

Once again, as seems to be the case with most if not all of the Scandinavian thrillers I’ve been reading recently, there is a strong political context and message to this story which gives the book a bit more depth than most thrillers tend to have.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Date: 09/04/2012
Grade: 4-
Details: Graphic Novel / e-book
            Review copy

“Nuncio and the Gypsy Girl” tells the story of Ezra a young composer entranced by the gypsy life-style and their music and Neci  a wild and single-minded gypsy girl who decides that Ezra is the man for her.
Ezra however feels that Neci it too young for him and leaves the gypsies to further his musical career.
While away Ezra meets Marlene, a young woman and talented pianist and soon the two become very close, much to Neci’s despair. Ezra and Marlene work their music in the company of some of the inspirational men who would make America into the great power it turned in to, like Elbert Hubbard and Orville Wright.
Although it seems to Ezra that he and Marlene are made for each other and the two get engaged, there is a much darker side to this woman, a side that could cost Neci dearly.

This is a fascinating story set at the start of the 20th century while the world is preparing for war and big changes both in technology and in the structure of society itself.
Being a love story with gypsies at its heart, this story contains both mystical aspects and historical fact, which gives it an added dimension.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the fact that the story is told by Nuncio, a parrot belonging to Neci. While it facilitates a wider point of view, it also takes the story into the realm of fairytales. Since this story is based on the lives of real people, I’m not sure how effective it is to present it as a fantasy tale.
The drawings in this graphic novel are wonderful. They tell the story as much as the dialogues do and in a very successful way.
Overall I have to say I enjoyed this reading experience, and since the story ended on a massive cliff-hanger I can see myself reading the sequel as well in the future.

On a side note: I read somewhere that you should never start a review with the words “I don’t usually read …” but in this case that is actually true. I rarely if ever read graphic novels, which made it a bit harder for me to rate Nuncio since I have nothing to compare it with.
Like I said above, I enjoyed the story in this book and loved the drawings. In general I have to say though that I prefer my books with far more words and background information than this graphic novel could provide.