Review of “Himself” by Jess Kidd

This combination of murder mystery, James Joyce short story, Irish bar yarn, and folklore is very charming. But what stands out most for me are the occasional soaring flights of Irish-infused prose that have an extraordinary power of both conjuring a place and enchanting the reader.

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Mahony, 26, is a petty thief who grew up in a harsh Dublin orphanage, having been abandoned there as an infant. Upon the death of a nun there in charge of his case, one of the priests gives him a note in an envelope inscribed “For when the child is grown.” It reads:

“Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. . . . For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.”

Mahony decides to skip parole and return to the village of his birth, Mulderrig (an imaginary village set in County Mayo), to find out about his mother and what really happened to her.

County Mayo, Ireland. (Photograph by Michel Gunther, Corbis)

County Mayo, Ireland. (Photograph by Michel Gunther, Corbis)

The plot shifts between 1950, when Mahony was born, to 1976, when he returns to Mulderrig. Mulderrig, the author writes, is a place like no other:

“Here the colors are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?”

And about the town the author asks:

“Didn’t St. Patrick himself admire Mulderrig’s trees whilst chasing troublesome snakes about the place? And didn’t he bless the forest as he lashed through the undergrowth?”

After a storm in Mulderrig, the author writes:

“In the field a flyblown sheep is lullabied by gentle breezes, her rinsed wool lifting. She’s an earthbound cloud! . . . The crows picking over the flooded fields are dancing the fandango and the farmers that applaud them are their biggest fans.”

Grazing Sheep, County Mayo

Mulderrig is magical for another reason. It’s inhabitants include both the living and the dead, and Mahony sees them all. The dead characters are almost as real as those who are living, and just as delightful. They are always close to someone like Mahony, the author writes:

“The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill. For the dead have second-hand stories to share with you, if you’d only let them get a foot in the door.”

The village harbors some evil individuals bent on revenge but also some brave and loving people who are dedicated to justice. The good people in the village are drawn to Mahony just as the dead are, and they all endeavor to help him. When Mahony comes to Mulderrig, the dead know they will finally be recognized: “They only want to be seen.”

Mahony’s primary partner in his quest to find out what happened to his mother is the woman who lives in the boarding house where he takes up residence. Mrs. Cauley is a former actress – “once one of the greatest actresses to grace the stage of the Abbey Theatre” – who still has a flair for drama and performance, and who immediately takes a shine to Mahony. The feeling is mutual; Mahony comes to adore both her and her deceased former lover, Johnnie, who watches over Mrs. Cauley.

The Abbey Theatre circa 1930 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Abbey Theatre circa 1930 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mr. Cauley explains to Mahony, “Orla Sweeney was the wild bad girl of the village. By the time she was sixteen she was knocked up, unwed, and Mulderrig’s dirty little secret.” No one knew who the father was. Many villagers hated her because she refused to live by the rules, and she tempted the men away from their wives.

The village girls all look at the handsome, dark-eyed newcomer in much the way their fathers must have looked at Orla. Even the older women find themselves smiling at him. His charm beguiles them, but not all of them; not the ones who remember his mother and wanted her gone.

Mrs. Cauley decides the best way to ferret out the truth is to question villagers during auditions for her annual play to raise money for the church. This year the play is to be “The Playboy of the Western World” by John Millington Synge. [“The Playboy of the Western World” is set in a pub in County Mayo during the early 1900s. The comedy tells the story of a lonely dreamer named Christy Mahon who wanders into a pub, claiming that he has killed his father.] She tells the villagers that “Mahony here has agreed to grace our stage as our very own Dublin playboy.” The excitement of someone new and the opportunity to be in a play with him brings out the crowds. And when he comes out on stage, they shout: “Here he is now. Here’s himself.”

From a 2011 London production of the play

From a 2011 London production of the play

Sure enough, the truth starts coming out in small bits, as the list of suspects for Orla’s murder shortens. Mrs. Cauley’s “investigation team” is joined by Shauna, who takes care of the boarding house and who is falling for Mahony, and Bridget Doosey, the remarkable woman who works for Father Quinn, the smarmy corrupt priest of the village.

As they try to come up with the possible guilty party, Bridget asks: “Who would Orla really annoy?” Mrs. Cauley responds with her dead-on powers of observation: “The sanctimonious, the bigoted, and the pious.” A man who embodies all three traits, Father Quinn, tries to lead the villagers to shun Mahony. As Mrs. Cauley explains to Mahony: “Fear, guilt, and superstition, Mahony, it’s a fine way to steer the herd. It always has been.”

She says further: “It is a truth universally unacknowledged that when the dead are trying to remember something, the living are trying harder to forget it.”

Meanwhile, Shauna doesn’t want to be thinking about Mahony all the time, but can’t help it: “She’s put him out like a cat a million times but like a cat he has a habit of slinking back and curling up in the warm corners of her mind.”

As the exciting denouement approaches, you can’t be sure who will make it out of the final confrontation alive.

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Discussion: There are some great characters in this book. Mrs. Cauley – hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, funny, and wise – is unforgettable, as is the surprisingly brave, enterprising, and mischievous Bridget. Some of the dead, including Johnny, a little girl named Ida, and the priest who served before Father Quinn, are also great characters.

Evaluation: I wouldn’t identify this primarily as a crime story, although it certainly is that. But it struck me more as Irish storytelling at its finest (of one of the characters, another says, “Ah, watch it. Half the lies [he] says aren’t true.”); an Irish folktale that conveys exuberant celebration of life, and the enduring power of love, by both the living and the dead.

Note: Jim enjoyed this book a great deal also, which is saying a lot given the inclusion of dead characters.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Review of “Maid of the King’s Court” by Lucy Worsley

This book by the popular British television historian Lucy Worsley was first published in Britain in 2016 as Eliza Rose.

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It tells the story of Elizabeth (“Eliza”) Camperdowne, a fictional cousin of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. The author stated in an Afterword that she wanted to look at Katherine’s history more sympathetically, which she thought she could accomplish by taking the point of view of a cousin/confidant.

Katherine, when 16 or 17, married the 49-year-old Henry VIII in 1540, very soon after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves was arranged. Katherine only lasted sixteen months, however; she was beheaded on the grounds of treason for committing adultery.

Katherine Howard

Katherine Howard

Worsley does indeed come up with a compassionate and interesting explanation for Katherine’s behavior, although she doesn’t quite make her simpatico. But my main problem with the book was the fictional main character Eliza. This girl never reached the level of likable in my opinion. I found her to be spoiled, greedy, jealous, short-sighted, and cruel throughout the story, which began when Eliza was 12 and continued until she was 19. This also made it quite difficult for me to believe that the (also fictional) king’s page, Ned Barsby, would be so smitten with her. She was consistently mean to him, and looked down upon him for his low birth. The outcome between these two seemed quite fictional indeed.

As for the story in general, I thought it plodded a bit. As interesting as the Tudor period was, the author, who apparently is very successful at constructing stories for the BBC, never managed to make this book for young adults into a riveting story, in my view.

Rating: 3/5

Published in the U.S. by Candlewick Press, 2017

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Review of “The Last Quarrel” by Duncan Lay

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This is the first book of a fantasy trilogy that takes place in the lands of Gaelland (loosely, Ireland), and the Kotterman Empire (loosely, the Ottoman Empire). It begins in Gaelland in the sea town of Baltimore. [In real life there is a village named Baltimore in County Cork, Ireland, that was sacked in the 17th Century by Islamic pirates, with more than 100 villagers taken and sold into slavery. Apparently this incident was one of the inspirations for Lay’s story.]

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As this story begins, villagers are disappearing, and the crown is blaming selkies (evil water spirits) and witches. To prevent further depredations, young girls are being burned at the stake, and the villagers are being pressed for more gold to appease “the selkies.” Fallon, the local sheriff of Baltimore, doesn’t believe in supernatural agents, and hopes to prove that it is men behind the attacks. His wife Bridgit, ever protective of Fallon and their ten-year-old son Kerrin, wants him to stay out of it, but he can’t. Not only is it his job to defend his villagers, but he has ambitions to be recognized and promoted.

But what is going wrong is clearly bigger than selkies or even random witches, and reaches right up to the top of the kingdom, where King Aidan, corrupt and licentious, rules with an iron hand, and his two sons, the naive and quixotic Cavan and the malevolent Swane are forced to do his bidding. Fallon thinks the answer lies with supporting Cavan, and ignores warnings that he is mixing into something much too evil and powerful for ordinary human beings to resist.

Discussion: This is a good plot with plenty of tension and some good characters, especially Fallon and Bridgit. But some of the writing is pretty bad, such as the dialogue uttered by Aidan (viz., “Silence! I am the King and I am always right!”) and there is a lot of repetition that could have been eliminated by better editing. Oddly, both Fallon and Cavan grow more naive as the story progresses, and the prose seems to be trying to accommodate their lack of intelligence; by the end, the narrative and speeches by Aidan were all but hitting everyone on the head with what was really going on; only Fallon and Cavan were oblivious. I think rewriting would have served this section better as well.

Nevertheless, the story is compelling, and I would like to find out what happens in the next installment.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Momentum Books, division of Hour Media LLC, 2015

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Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “Fannie Never Flinched” by Mary Cronk Farrell

This book, subtitled “One Woman’s Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights” tells the story of labor activist Fannie Sellins.

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Fannie Sellins was born Fanny Mooney in 1872. She married Charles Sellins, and after his relatively early death (when her youngest was just a baby) she had to support her four children. She went to work in a garment factory, one of the two sweatshops owned by the Marx & Haas Clothing Company. Girls as young as ten as well as grandmothers toiled there together, working ten- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week. Their pay averaged less than five dollars a week ($145 a week in today’s dollars). The building was stifling in summer, freezing in winter, and locked all day from the outside; this was a common practice in factories to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft. [This same observance led to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, in 1911, in which 146 garment workers died.]

Fannie heard about the garment workers unions in Chicago and New York, and together with some other seamstresses organized Ladies’ Local 67 of the United Garment Workers of America in St. Louis. Fearing a strike, Marx & Haas nearly doubled workers’ wages and shortened the workday, but they did not improve conditions otherwise.

The air was filthy, and many of the employees contracted tuberculosis. When one tailor couldn’t make it up the six flights of stairs because of his illness, he was docked a week’s pay. To protest, Fannie and other union workers went on strike.

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One month into the dispute, the local union leader died of tuberculosis, and Fannie became the new president. She traveled from city to city, speaking up to six times a day to all kinds of labor unions about the poor conditions at her factory and at other labor sites. She asked for support for the strikers. She also asked her audiences to buy only clothes with the “union-made” label inside them.

The book details the poor working conditions not only in the garment industry, but in the other places of work to which Fannie visited. Fannie was particularly affected by the West Virginia coal miners, who lived in abject poverty. Boys started in the mine as early as age six. The families lived in hovels with minimal food to eat and even without running water.

Coal town of Revere, Pennsylvania around 1910.  The photo shows miners shanties, out houses, coal company store building, and a few of the larger houses for the bosses.  

Coal town of Revere, Pennsylvania around 1910.  The photo shows miners shanties, out houses, coal company store building, and a few of the larger houses for the bosses.  

Fannie helped the miners of Colliers, West Virginia raise funds for a strike. Mine managers promptly evicted families from their houses – they now had to live in tents – and hauled in trainloads of strikebreakers. Fannie was arrested, although the first time, the judge released her with just a warning. Later she spent three months behind bars, during which time her health suffered greatly.

Child Miners

Child Miners

She moved on to help the coal miners in Western Pennsylvania organize, convincing thousands of miners to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and eventually to go on strike. The millionaire Lewis Hicks who ran fourteen notoriously bad mines went to the South to find strikebreakers, bringing up black sharecroppers by train. Hicks never told them they would be strikebreakers, or that they would be in danger because of it, just that they would be getting better wages. Hicks had the train doors locked from the outside [a favorite practice, it seems] so that union workers couldn’t get to the men.

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When the train came to the mines, Fannie ran alongside it, yelling to the men inside through the windows not to break the strike and to support the union. She encouraged the men to climb out the train windows and join them. But the impasse was not broken until America entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The U.S. made a wage deal with coal mine operators to keep the mines working, and Hicks agreed to give workers a 50 percent pay raise, at least until the war ended.

Once again after the war, the UMWA initiated strikes. In August, 1919, Fannie was assigned to the Allegheny River Valley district to direct picketing by striking miners at Allegheny Coal and Coke Company. She was killed by sheriff’s deputies on August 26 who claimed that she led a “charging mob of men and women armed with clubs and bricks,” which was not true; in fact, Fannie rejected the idea that miners arm themselves for protection. Although there were a number of witnesses who gave sworn statements that the attack by the deputies was unprovoked, the local sheriff’s department refused to arrest them. When the case was reopened in 1923, again the deputies were acquitted. The author speculates that fears of communism – growing since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, colored the attitudes of the juries.

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As the author writes:

“Today, both Fannie Sellins’s death and her passion for the welfare and rights of working people have been largely forgotten. But her name remains hallowed among union people in Western Pennsylvania, and her spirit lives on whenever someone stands up for the American ideals of equality and justice for all.”

At the end of the book, there is a glossary (words such as arbitration, lockout, and sweatshop), a detailed timeline of select events in the American labor struggle from 1877-1935, notes, sources, and a list of websites and books for further information.

This book for young readers is not a picture book, although the format is similar. Rather, it tells the story of Fannie Sellins with a great many photographs and reproductions of relevant documents.

Evaluation: This thoroughly researched book for ages nine and over includes an excellent selection of historical photos that brings the story to life in a way words could not, especially the depictions of poverty among mine workers. The story of Fannie Sellins’ belief in justice and personal sacrifices against the tenacious greed of factory owners is a lesson we still can learn today.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of ABRAMS, 2016

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Review of “The Expats” by Chris Pavone

This very cleverly-plotted espionage thriller is quite entertaining; Jim and I both enjoyed it. Besides this book having an incredible amount of fun plot turns, the author includes a great deal of astute commentary on the nature of friendship and marriage.

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Most of the book takes place in Luxembourg, where Dexter Moore has moved with his wife Kate and two young kids, Ben and Jake, after receiving a job offer with a large increase in salary he was loathe to refuse. Kate quits her own job of fifteen years, thinking it was time anyway. But she is bored in Luxembourg, where she cleans, shops, does child care, and joins other expat wives for coffee klatches.

Soon the two are befriended by another expat couple, Julia and Bill Maclean, but Kate suspects they aren’t who they claim to be. For that matter, neither is she. Has her secret past finally caught up to her? As she begins to dig, she realizes nothing and nobody is who she thought they were.

Discussion: I loved the ongoing dialogue about the nature of relationships, as when Kate thinks about what she wants to say to Dexter:

“As much as Kate had been resenting Dexter, and this new life of hers, he was still her best friend. But she was worried – no, it was beyond the uncertainty of worry; it was awareness – that this would cross some line in their marriage, a line that no one acknowledged until you were on its precipice. You know the lines are there, you feel them: the things you don’t discuss. The sexual fantasies. The flirtations with other people. The deep-seated mistrusts, misgivings, resentments. You go about your business, as far away from these lines as possible, pretending they’re not there. So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it’s not only shocking and horrifying, it’s banal. Because you’ve always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would.”

As Kate acknowledges:

“…all people have secrets. Part of being human is having secrets, and being curious about other people’s secrets. Dirty fetishes and debilitating fascinations and shameful defeats and ill-begotten triumphs, humiliating selfishness and repulsive inhumanity. The horrible things that people have thought and done, the lowest points in their lives.”

But living with secrets takes a toll:

“What complete loneliness is this? Surrounded by people, suffused with untruth, unable to tell anyone anything real. Vague acquaintances, casual friends, intimates, even her single soul-mate, the one person in the world, her partner, her ally, her everything. His head was thrown back in carefree laughter, his eyeglasses askew, hair mussed, crooked smile. She loved him so much. Even when she hated him.”

Evaluation: This is a delightful book with elements of both intelligence and inanity that keep you turning the pages in wonder at the ingenuity and ineptness operating simultaneously in the protagonists.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, 2012

Note: This book garnered a number of awards, including:

Edgar Award (First Novel, 2013)
Thriller Award Nominee (First Novel 2013)
Anthony Award (First Novel, 2013)
Dilys Award nominee (2013)
Macavity Award Nominee (First Novel, 2013)
Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist (Mystery/Thriller, 2012)

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