Chris' Fish Place

Thoughts on things, mostly books.




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Say Nothing - Patrick Radden Keefe

When Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries died, some people said “Dreams” or “Linger” was the band’s best song.  But for many people, myself include, it was “Zombie”, the song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  It isn’t that the U2 songs about it are bad – “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is powerful – but “Zombie” is so rare that powerful doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It is the sense of horrible lose and pain.


                And you can’t help but think of that song why reading Keefe’s account of the Troubles.


                Keefe primarily focuses on the family of Jean McConville, a woman who was one of the Disappeared; Dolours Price, a member of the IRA; as well as Gerry Adams and Brenden Hughes.


                To say that the reporting in this book is gripping is an understatement.


                In addition to the personal stories that drive the narrative, the book also considers Boston College’s interviews with both republicans and loyalists.  So, the book isn’t so much a history of the IRA or the Troubles, but of the impact of the Troubles or the effect of the Troubles upon people.


                The most tragic part of the book is the story of the McConville family, whose story is the driving force behind the narrative and opens and closes the book. Jean McConville was abducted on night, her children were ostracized by a community as well, and what happens after treads on several Irish issues.  It is interesting that for some reason I thought the number of Disappeared in the Troubles was higher than what Keefe states.  This speaks to the pain, trauma, and horror of simply having a family member go missing.  His examination of whether McConville (a Protestant who had married a Catholic) was an informer or not is well done.  Memory is a slippery thing, and Keefe is careful when he relies on memory.


                Keefe also looks at the IRA, not so much Gerry Adams, but the foot soldiers who Adams would eventually disavow.  Primary he does with the Price sisters who were somewhat famous.  They are also an example of what happens when young and pretty women do something.  Part of what Keefe notes is the looks of the Price sisters contributed to how the media and people viewed them.  But Keefe looks beyond the media and appearance.  The impact of prison on the women is examined as well as their changing political views.  Dolours Price may not get as sympathetic hearing as the McConville children but Keefe treats her and other IRA members with understanding.


                It is this question of fairness and history that also is used when dealing with Boston College and the interviews.  The project of recording interviews and the various problems this important idea of recording interviews is dealt with but so are the complications.


                This is really a stunning piece of journalism.


Magic Words - Edward Field, Stefano Vitale

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


                This short children’s book is a translation of an Inuit creation story.  The story is told via free form verse, which is quite lovely.  The illustrations are stunning.  The human characters in the story are quite obviously Inuit, and the artwork resembles Inuit style art.  The colors are wonderful but not too bright or overly “hip”.  The illustrations include animals.  Field has a list of animals in the book at the end.


                The other thing that the book has going for it is that it makes use of words.  It showcases the power of words in a rather beautiful way.

Wonder Woman, Vol. 4: War - Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang

We get so much in this volume. We get to discover what happened to Cassandra’s neck. It is so much worse than you could think. We find out the name of Zola’s son. It’s not Wonder Woman’s choice of Steve. Wonder Woman and Co go toe to toe with the First Born, who proves just how scummy and dangerous he is. We find out more about Orion, who faces his own struggle of conscience.

But honesty, that scene where Diana calls Orion out about his sexist behavior, kisses him, and then grabs him by the balls is just awesome. Seriously awesome.

We get more of Hera here to, and it is quite nice. I really do enjoy how this series has dealt with Hera. She is too be pitied but is also bitchy and horrifying.

It is worth noting too that while Wonder Woman is wearing hot pants and boob armor, she isn’t sexualized in the same intense way that she has been by other artists. She is a warrior here, not a sex object. It is nice.

The highlight of this arc is the closing volume which is a battle between Wonder Woman’s crew and the Firstborn. The army that War brings with him is just stunning and a sharp reminder of what just a god of War is. How Wonder Woman decides to end it and the ramifications of her actions is powerful. Especially in the culminating panels of the fight and the last panels of the issue.

This arc is about family, anger, and loss. The use of power, the cost of doing good, and the need to stand for something is here as well. The book focuses on the questions of, not mortality but morality. In many ways, in exploring Wonder Woman’s godhood (she is a daughter of Zeus), we see Wonder Woman at her most human.

Wonder Woman, Vol. 3: Iron - Tony Aikins, Amilcar Pinna, Cliff Chiang, Brian Azzarello, Dan Green

This third volume of the Wonder Woman New 52 series concerns Wonder Woman struggling to adjust to several things.  First there is the fact that she is the last Amazon, then there is what happened to her mother, but she is also adjusting to the fact that she has a whole slew of siblings (they share a father-Zeus), but the newest one of those siblings has been stolen by Hermes.  Diana has promised the child’s mother, Zola that she will find and return him.


                Oh, and Hera is human.


                But has discovered ice cream, so there’s hope there.


                Yet, there is this First Born of the gods running around trying to kill everything.  He hangs with Cassandra.  Or to be more exact, she hangs with him, and what is with her neck?


                One thing I love about this series is the way that the Greek gods are portrayed.  There’s War, who is an old man; Aphrodite whose face we never see; Hephaestus, who has cool arms; the twins Apollo and Diana are quite wonderful.  And Hades.  Hades is awesome.


                Orion and the New Gods also make an appearance.


                In one sense, this story ARC is a quest story, the object being finding Zola’s baby, whose sex Zola doesn’t even know for the child was snatched at birth.  The story is really about relationships.  This collection includes the story of Diana’s training at the hands of her uncle War.  It is a pretty good short story about teacher and student.  The story is important for what occurs later in the ARC.


                One of the relationships that is centered is that of Wonder Woman and Zola.  Zola might be a woman in distress, but she is far from helpless.  Diana might be a kick ass super-hero but you would also want Zola in your corner.  She also stands up to Hera, asking why Hera attacks the children and lovers of Zeus instead of Zeus himself. 


                The most powerful though is the story of Sicora, a child of Zeus whose help Wonder Woman must get if she is to find the child.  Sicora’s story and actions, and Wonder Woman’s response to them is just heart-rending.  The use of the cost of being a child of a god is so starkly shown multiple times in this volume.  It is quite nice to see that aspect of Greek myth being used.

Gotten as a Kindle freebie

The Magic Three of Solatia - Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen has been called America’s Hans Christian Anderson.  It is an apt comparison.  Most of her work is either for children or young adults, yet the work has that quality that can also attract adults.  There is much going on there.


                Magic Three of Solatia functions in part as a reply to Andersen’s Little Mermaid.  Not the Disney version with its happy ending but the dark original tale.  In that one, the prince is, perhaps, not truly deserving of the mermaid’s love.  Yolen looks at what comes next, both above and below the surface of the sea.  It isn’t a novel, but a series short novella that are interconnected.  The first two involved Sianna, a young woman whose mother was loss to the sea, and the last two stories concern her son Lann.


                The four stories together are an examination of the uses and the abuses of power as both mother and son struggle with questions about when it acceptable to use magic and how magic should be used.  This done though the use of other fairy/folk tale themes – the struggle to kill a wizard, the noble seeking a bride, the hidden bridegroom.  The last two novellas are quest tales in form of having to undo curses. 


                The charm of the stories isn’t so much in the characters but in terms of the style.  The novella has the power and rhythm of oral tales, and it is quite easy to imagine Yolen herself reading you the tales.  The lesson, if there is one, is that the greatest magic is love.


Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe - Serhii Polkhy

I vaguely remember the Chernobyl disaster.  I remember hearing about it on the news and being scared.  That’s about it.  Plokhy’s history rectifies that.


                The book opens with the Swedish discovery of the disaster and includes a detailed account of the disaster itself.  Not only the events leading up to it but the human cost of those who fought the faire without knowing fully the risk they were taking.  The first tragedy is what happens to the firefighters.


                But the book isn’t just a detailed account of the day of.  Plokhy traces the development of the plant, the conflict between local and Soviet authorities, the impact on literature, and, of course, the lives of those who lived in the immediate zone, who were forced to leave home for what turned out to be forever.


                Chernobyl is now more commonly seen as a place that has gone back to nature, but Plokhy’s book shows us the terrifying reason why that happened.  The story is part politics, part science, part accident, but tragedy for those who lived through it. The fallout also occurs when an intrepid reporter discovers that the resettlements are quite as safe as they should be.


                Plokhy’s description about how the Soviet and international press reported the incident is also very interesting.  Part of the response comes with from a competitive drive with the US and the rest of the West, but also to fit into a larger Soviet narrative.  This is true when it comes to every aspect of the incident and how the government and the people responded to it.


                Ralph Lister’s narration is excellent.

Fred & Rose - Howard Sounes

I first heard of the Wests when the Appropriate Adult mini-series/movie came on cable here in the US.  It had Dominic West and Emily Watson, so it was good.  Therefore, when the eBook version of this book came up for sale, I brought it.  After reading a mystery that used the Wests as a plot point, I decided to read this book.


                The Wests, Fred and Rose, were murderers and rapists who targeted younger women and buried some of the victims in the yard of their house.  One of the murdered victims was their eldest biological daughter, and it seems that they were abusive to all their children.


                Sounes covered the story when it first came to light and this book looks not only into the case itself but also the background to both the Wests.  There is, also, background on their victims – which included a relative of Kingsley Amis.  With a few exceptions, most of the victims of the West faced similar living circumstance – abusive homes, issues with authority, and lower class.


                One wonders if this had anything to do with how long the Wests were able to carry on their murders.  Because while Sounes explains who the Wests were (he doesn’t really try to argue why they did what they did), he also details the failures one many levels of government systems and policing that contributed to the span of time the Wests were able to enjoy freedom.


                Part of the reason has to do with how Britain at the time saw victims of rape.  One of the victims of the couple survived and escape, she even pressed charges, but well, the result of the trial was maddening.


                When Sounes covers the background of the Wests, he does so with a sense of detachment.  He gives details of their past but does so with a lack of sympathy.  This does not apply when he is discussing the victims, which, quite clearly and understandably, get his sympathy.  His anger at the various institutions who should have done something is also palpable.


                At times, it does almost feel like Sounes is making too much of the Wests’ various sexual fetishes.  This seems particularly true about Rose, who because of her mental issues and change of behavior in the relationship seems to interest the author more than her husband.  The sexual issues are not described in a titillating way, but there is almost a sense of well, since they are deviant in sexual taste than it is almost nature that they became murderers.  I don’t think this feeling is intended and it could be just me.  Though I did fine myself wondering why if the Wests had such a vast collection of sex toys as noted late in the book, it wasn’t mentioned earlier (at least in terms of acquiring such a collection).


                The police who eventually collared the West do not get as much “page” time as the couple or even the victims.  This actually works for the best because it does not become the story of the dogged cop who kept to her guns.  Instead, the book functions in part as a memorial for all those victims of the couple.

Surroundings of the New Barracks - Mario Savard, Jacques Guimont

This is an excellent history of the New Barracks.  There are detailed illustrations and a glossary.  It is really well done and imparts much knowledge.

Basilique-Cathedrale de Notre-Dame de Quebec  - Daniel C. Abel

Wonderfully illustrated booklet about the Cathedral in Quebec City.  There is much history packed into this little book.  

Local Bookclub read

The Last Hours - Minette Walters
Walters’ historical novel is a stunning look at how people reacted when the Black Death came to town. Or came to country and tried to come to town, but you burned down the bridge and kept away anyone who looked sick.

There is historic precedent for a similar story – see the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.
In terms of the fear of people living at the time, Walters does a very good job. The change in society – the rebellion of the serfs – is well played as well.

However, the characters are either good or evil, with no real in between. For instance, there is Lady Anne, who might be a bit more educated and opened minded than women of the time usually were, but Walters gives her a believable back story. Yet, she is too perfect while her husband is too evil. Anne’s reactions and ability to foretell how the ending confrontation would play are true, and not surprising, but one does want her to be wrong, to not be so perfect and modern in her political thoughts.

Furthermore, Lady Anne is the only good woman of note (a woman who has more than a handful of lines). Most of the other movers and shakers are men. The only other woman who has more than a handful of lines, is the villain of the story. Whereas with the men you have several who perform heroic roles. While this, at least in the terms of movement of events, might be historical true, it does make the novel a bit uneven in character usage.

Yet, the setting and fear are stunningly conveyed in the story.
Boudicca - Neal Romanek, Johan Sward

A graphic novel retelling of the story of Boudicca you ask. Sign me up, I say.

Neal Romanek and crew do an excellent job of bringing the story to life.

First, the artwork is stunning. I mean, look at the cover. The lack of coloring in the novel works. The use of black and white only makes the already powerful story even more powerful. There is wonderful detailing in some of the characters, and the scenes where nudity is involved are not those “let’s make the female character into a sex object scene”, if you know what I mean.

The plot is good, though the edge has to go to the art. In part, this is because of the frame used to tell the story. Quite rightly, the druids are brought in. Yet, telling the story in large part though the filter of a young druid, a man, shifts the emphasis away from the fact that a woman did it. Part of this is because there are men talking about how the Queen is grieving and not in her right mind. Of course, she isn’t, but discussing her that way cheapens the story as does the suggestion that she brought it on herself. It isn’t quite “grief drove her mad and she brought it on herself” trope, but at times it is uncomfortably close. Additionally, making it something of almost a romance at the end doesn’t quite work either.

However, those objections, though real, are not enough to ruin the story. While the fate of Boudicca’s daughters is slightly different here than the norm, it is still a very possible fate. (The rape is implied and happens off panel). The rage and pain that Boudicca feels at various points in the story are brilliantly portrayed both in the terms of writing and of the artwork. The battle scenes are awesome. There is even Roman politics at play and those are always fun to read about.

Black Widow Volume 1: The Finely Woven Thread - Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto

Meh.  Artwork is really wonderful.  Plot is meh.  I miss the fun Black Widow that was in a Marvel Team Up with Spider-Man.  

Out Now

Women Warriors - Pamela D. Toler

Disclaimer: I won a copy via a giveaway on Librarything.


                My brother reads quite a bit of John Keegan.  I’m not entirely sure if he has read every book Keegan wrote, but it must be close.  Every so often I think I should read Keegan, but then I read something and go, “yeah, he might be a brilliant dude, but he sounds like a bit of a dick”.  Years ago, it was his comments during the case Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin books.  Recently, it is the comments of his that Dr. Toler quotes in this excellent book about women warriors.  Apparently, Keegan cannot conceive of women ever fighting.


                Yes, it made me gnash my teeth too.


                Dr Toler’s book is, in part, a rebuttal to those like Keegan or those, as Toler points out more than once, that presume one thing about warrior grave goods in a grave of a woman and make a totally different presumption about the use of weapons in a man’s grave.


                But it is also an analysis of why women who fight got written out of history in some cases.  So that bit about the Viking warrior that was really a woman, is in this book.


                The women that Toler writes about come from across the world, except for Australia for some reason.  The number of women mentioned by name is a vast, and Toler covers Asia, Africa, and South America as well as Europe.  When she deals with North and South America, Toler includes Indigenous women.  Therefore, we have a discussion about Molly Pitcher but also Nanye’hi (White Rose) who lead a Cherokee victory against the Creek.  (Don’t worry Buffalo Calf road Woman is also here).


                But the book isn’t just about women warriors, it is also about how cultures and society saw them.  For instance, the motivation for a woman warrior in China, say, would be different than that of a woman of Europe.  Japanese warrior women also composed poetry after fighting in sieges.


                And the footnotes, Toler’s footnotes are a joy to read.


                The book is divided, loosely, into type of warrior and type of popular warrior in history.  So, there is a chapter on Joan of Arc and her sisters, but then on women in siege warfare.  The book covers the ancient world tilt the end of the Second World War, and serves as a history to illustrate that women in warfare isn’t something new.


                While famous women warriors make appearances, such as Queen Ninja, Joan of Arc and Mulan, Toler includes lesser known women such as Kenau Simonsdochet Hasslaer and Cathy Williams, the first African-American woman to join the Armed Forces.  She disguised herself as a man and then they refused to give her a pension.


                When dealing with woman of color who exist in a white society, Toler does not forget to include racism as a factor for the treatment of the women in terms of historical texts.  This is particularly true when she is discussing Buffalo Calf Road Woman.


                Toler presents an entertaining, informative read that cements women’s place on the battlefields of history.

Out on the 19th

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old - Hendrik Groen

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher.

The second installment of the later life of Hendrik Groen finds everyone’s favorite Dutch hairy-eared Dutch pensioner returning to his diary after taking some time off. He is now 85.

The Old But Not Dead club is still going strong, even after the closing events of the first book. In fact, a new member Leonie, fits right in. She even makes Evert blush. The residents of the home are still a bit of odd bunch. There is still also a slightly merry war between the director of the home and certain residents. There is also a performance artist who moves into the home. The home itself might be facing some type of restructuring. And like the first book, there is the potential of a death in Groen’s ad hoc family.

So, to say that there is some repetition in plot points from the first book would be a fair criticism. But it would also be fair to point out that you don’t really notice until the end of the book, and then you don’t really care.

This is partly due to the emotional connection that one feels to the characters. It is just Hendrik that one feels connected to, it’s Leonie, Ria, Antoine, Graeme, and everyone else – even those in the home who are spiteful biddies. There is an interest in the life that exists in this novel. There is also the relationship between the members of the Old but Not Dead club. It isn’t a romantic relationship (except between the married couple) but true friendship even though they all come from relatively different backgrounds. It is also hard to not swear to be like the members of the club now and in future, even if you are not anywhere near the age of being a member.

The book is also a little more nuanced in character than the first one. More is hinted at about the director, so she becomes something more than just a “no” party pooper. Hendrik himself finds a new friend that reveals new facets about his person as he shows the reader that it is possible to never stop growing as a person.

Another charming facet of the book is the reactions of Hendrick and his home mates to the various new events of 2015, when the diary is being written. There is the reaction to the new king of the Netherlands and the changes made to certain traditions. There are the residents verily reactions to the attacks in Paris, which include a redesigning of the Dutch flag. There are comments about tourists. An analysis of the Tour de France. Football talk. The comments about the various governments spying on each other is quite amusing. Hendrik’s reflections about the refugees arriving in Europe are biting.

The book works because it is so achily human. It charms readers of all ages

Wuthering Heights

The Lamp of the Wicked (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 5) - Phil Rickman

In this installment of Merrily Watkins, Rickman makes use of the real-life murders committed by Fred and Rosemary West.  The couple raped and murdered several young women.  There is a two-part mini-series called Appropriate Adult that details the case against the couple.  There are several books about them as well.  Part of what Rickman is addressing is the always questioning of more – were all the bodies found.  (If you are an American, a recent example would be the Grim Sleeper).


                But to say this book is simply a mystery involving a real-life murder case would be misleading.


                The art of the novel is the question of relationships.  Not so much marriage, though that is touched on as well, but romantic relationships and family relationships.  There is Jane who not only faces a crisis of faith but also suffers through romantic problems with Irene as she worries about whether or not her mother is throwing away a relationship with Lol.  Lol, Jane thinks, is spending too much time with a singer who really resembles Kate Bush.


                So that’s another reason to like this novel.


                There is the new woman in the village who is a bit too famous and a bit too interested in Merrily, as well as her husband.   There is Bliss’ marriage, which may be falling about.  There is the woman whose sewage semester needed to be dug up and oopsie there’s a body.


                Merrily gets brought into the case because of Gomer and because, well, her nose.


                But the murder almost feels secondary to the tangle of interconnect personal relationships and changing towns that consumes the novel.  In addition to the issues above, there are also questions about what, if anything, you owe the dead, abuse, and sexuality.  The pacing is almost wandering, but engrossing.  A reader will wonder how Rickman can take all the threads and weave them together.  Never fear, he does, quite well in fact.


                The one thing I did miss in the book was more interaction between the Watkins women.  I can understand the reasoning for it, but Merrily and Jane work best when they speak to each other.


Audible Freebie

Have A Nice Day - Billy Crystal,  Annette Bening, Kevin Kline

This audio book was a freebie at Audible. The cast, which includes Crystal, Benning, and Kline (as well as some Disney movie alum) read the play in front of a live audience. It was a reading not a full performance. There are sound effects.

The president discovers that he only has one day left on Earth, and the plot moves on from there. Kline is the president, and Crystal is an angel of death. The plot itself is a bit predictable.

The acting, however, more than makes up for the ability to know exactly what is going to happen next. There are also some beautiful one liners from the president's aides.