#54. Bad Day in Blackrock (Kevin Power)

Book: Bad Day in Blackrock, by Kevin Power

Genre and Year of Publication: “Fiction” based on a real-life unlawful killing; 2008

Where I got it: Chapters second-hand book store

Length: 235 pages

Briefly: In August 2000, 18-year-old Brian Murphy was kicked to death in an alcohol-fired brawl outside a Dublin nightclub.  Four young men, all with affluent backgrounds, were subsequently tried for his killing (read more here).  This book alleges to be a work of fiction based on this incident, exploring the reasons why such a situation came about and why the Irish justice system ultimately failed the victim’s family.

Comments: This book infuriated me.  It is not fiction, and the disclaimer at the beginning that “all of the characters… are fictional, and are not intended to represent actual persons, living or dead” is an utter LIE.  Of course Conor Harris represents Brian Murphy.  Of course Richard Culhane, Barry Fox and Stephen O’Brien represent Dermot Laide, Desmond Ryan and Sean Mackey.  Of course “Brookfield” represents Blackrock College. Why lie about it?

The book explores the south County Dublin private-school*, rugby-playing subculture which definitely exists, and which produced the situation that led to Brian Murphy’s death.  It is definitely worth exploring.  But please, do it as a genuine work of research, of non-fiction, of scholarship, with standards of decency and with respect for the people and families involved.

Kevin Power can write.  Kevin Power understands the dynamics of young adults in a certain section of contemporary Irish society.  What a pity he chose to use his skills in this way.

(* In Ireland, “private school” means what the English call a “public school” – which is, of course, a private school.)

Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge for the category “Contemporary”; Reading Round Ireland (for Dublin).

#43. The Italian Mission (Alan Champorcher)

Book: The Italian Mission, by Alan Champorcher

Genre and Year of Publication: Spy/thriller, 2013 (read in August; reviewed in November)

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 218 pages

Briefly, it’s an action-packed spy drama, mostly set in Italy, involving an ex-CIA agent, now working (unhappily) in the diplomatic service, who is called on to help a Tibetan monk who is on the run in Italy, to escape from the agents of the Chinese government.

Comments: This is a bit outside my comfort zone – spy thrillers are not my favourite genre.  But this one wasn’t bad.  The large cast includes Chinese, Tibetans, Israelis, South Africans, Italians, and Americans.  There are the usual car chases, dramatic escapes, double-crossing agents, governments about to topple based on the success or failure of our hero’s next move, and at the end James Bond, sorry, John Adams Conti, gets his woman.

Part of the story is set on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path from Canterbury to Rome.  I’ve already blogged about three pilgrimage books this year [two relating to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain and one to St Declan’s Way in Ireland], so the theme interests me more than a little.  I had only just heard of the Via Francigena for the first time a couple of weeks before getting this book, and was amazed to find it referenced here, particularly in the context of a spy story!  I’d like to walk part of this route some time (can’t imagine that I’ll ever do the whole thing).  I expect that my journey would be a little less dramatic than the events recounted in this book, but the beautiful Tuscan countryside would surely be at least as good…

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Setting you’d like to visit”; ebook reading challenge

#41. Acts of Faith (Philip Caputo)

Book: Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo

Genre and Year of Publication: War fiction; 2006

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop (read between January and August; reviewed in October)

Length: 688 pages

Briefly, it’s a novel set in Sudan (now South Sudan) during the 1990s, about the ambiguity of foreign (particularly American) aid to the civilian victims of the civil war.

Comments: This book got rave reviews in the press (Caputo was compared to Graham Greene, inter alia), but the reviews from regular readers on Goodreads are more nuanced.  I’m with the latter.  At almost 700 pages this is a giant book – dare I suggest that a more skilled writer might have been able to convey the story and the message in 500?  That the author felt the need to include a two page character list indicates complexity.  I frequently wasn’t sure, especially at the beginning, who was who.  The themes are fascinating, but I was frequently bored, putting the book down for long periods at a time.  The love affairs in particular are unconvincing, and I found the very last scene in the book particularly unconvincing.  There’s violence, sex, mixed motives, death, unforeseen consequences, politics, religion, love, hate, heat and more in this book.  I’m glad I read it, but more for the feeling of accomplishment at having finished it that for actual enjoyment of the reading itself.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Published before 2013”

#40. Leadership is Hell: How to Manage Well – And Escape with your Soul (Rob Ashgar)

Book: Leadership is Hell: How to Manage Well – And Escape with your Soul, by Rob Ashgar

Genre and Year of Publication: Self-help, 2014

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in August; reviewed in October)

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s a book that aims to explode the contemporary myth that being successful means being a leader, replacing it with the saner doctrine that “most talented people would be happier as freelancers, independent contractors or followers, liberated from the burdens of overseeing others” (a quote from the author, from a Forbes piece, here).

Comments: This book was very well worth MY while reading.  Here’s part of the blurb, which says it better than I can:

[The book] explores how to identify and overcome the blind spots that may be hurting your career; whether you have the right mindset for the kind of success that you’re seeking; how to develop just the right amount of “healthy ego” to make an impact; and how to make an impact on the world in a way that’s true to who you are (be forewarned, this might involve a completely different path than your current one).

This book will take you on a journey, showing you famous figures from history and the present—some who got it right, and some who didn’t. You’ll look at seven roads to hell within the world of leadership, and seven roads out of hell, to guide you safely to a meaningful legacy.

As a result of reading and reflecting on the wisdom of this book, I think I’ve let go – to a considerable degree, probably not completely – of my dream of being “a leader” within my professional career path, and I’ll concentrate instead on being successful according to the pattern that suits my particular personality and gifts.  It has been one of the elements contributing to my decision to seek a “sideways move” at work which will make me less likely to become a leader (of other people), and more likely to make me happy.  Hurrah for that.

It’s a book I need to read again, if only because it goes against the climate of the profession in which I operate, and where I do not get much support for my choices.  So the more I can interiorize of this, the better.  I’m so glad I chose to read it.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the “Free Choice” category; ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge.

#39. The Murder at Sissingham Hall (Clara Benson)

Book: The Murder at Sissingham Hall, by Clara Benson (Angela Marchmont Mystery #1)

Genre and Year of Publication: Cozy Murder Mystery, written prior to 1965 but not published till 2013 (it seems?)

Where I got it: Free Kindle download (read in August; reviewed in October)

Length: 212 pages

Briefly, it’s a traditional English country house whodunnit.

Comments: Clara Benson, the author, lived from 1890 to 1965.  She wrote several books, but considered writing to be a hobby so did not have them published (according to Goodreads.  I wonder if there’s a deeper story there?)  After her death, her family had the books published. 

The Murder at Sissingham Hall  is the first in a series featuring Angela Marchmont, a woman who just happens to find herself in circumstances which cause her to play the role of detective.  Here, she is one of the guests at the country weekend when the rich owner of the house is murdered… Everyone has a motive… things are not what they seem… her powers of deduction and observation lead to the truth being unveiled at the end…

If you like this genre, you’ll like this.  Personally I will be looking out for more Angela Marchmont books.

Challenges: Full House Challenge for the category “Book from a series”; ebook reading challenge

#34. The Unhappy Medium (T. J. Brown)

Book: The Unhappy Medium, by T. J. Brown

Genre: Fantasy / SF

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 438 pages

Briefly, it’s the tale of a theoretical physicist who is a complete sceptic about the supernatural, to the point of having his own TV show on the topic, who meets his comeuppance and is reluctantly converted.  He becomes an agent of the supernatural… working for the goodies against the baddies, of course.

Comments: I am not a reader of science fiction or fantasy.  I just don’t get the appeal.  But there was enough humour in this book to keep me reading.  Some of the dialogue between the protagonist and the characters from the “other world” provoked me to laughter out loud.  The characters of Newton Barlow, his daughter, his dead mentor, and the ancient Greek were very well developed.  This book won’t convert me to the genre, but it helped me to see that it’s not all bad!

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Paranormal or SF or Dystopian”; ebook reading challenge.

#29. Ravenscraig (Sandi Krawchenko Altner)

Book: Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner

Genre: Fiction: Big House / family saga – the blurb likens it to “Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg twist”.

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 532 pages

Briefly, it’s about the intertwining lives of two families – one rich, the other poor – in Winnipeg, Canada, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Comments: This is a page-turner.  Not only has it an excellent story line , it also contains lots of social history, all of which was new to me.  The situation of poor Jewish immigrants, fleeing Russia and other Eastern European countries, their bleak, unsanitary living quarters, and the discrimination they experienced are vividly brought to life here.  The main characters are very well developed and we can empathise with them: even Rupert, the “rich baddie” was not completely repulsive and we got a bit inside his skin too.  Only towards the 80% mark did I feel that the book fell a bit from its initial high standard, especially when dialogue between some of the characters who are about to embark on the maiden voyage of the Titanic  turns again and again and yet again on the safety and “unsinkability” of the ship.  But afterwards – well, the ending has a double twist that is just superb.  

Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge, for the Category “More than 400 pages”; ebook reading challenge 2014.

#26. Arte Metro Roma (Laboratorio Incontri d’Arte, ed.)

Book: Arte Metro Roma: Il Museo Underground di Roma – I Grandi Mosaici delle Stazione della Metropolitana, ed. Laboratori Incontri d’Arte

Genre: Art book – a guide to the modern mosaics found at the stations of the Rome Underground (Metro)

Where I got it: Borrowed from the local library

Length: 215 pages

Briefly, it’s a coffee-table style book full of gorgeous photos and other information about the 45 major and 46 minor wall mosaics which were installed at various stations of the Rome Metro between 1996 and 2000.

Comments: This is a lovely book.  It’s made up of three main sections.  First there is general information about the project: the decision to install these mosaics, how it came about, who sponsored it, how the artists were chosen, how the mosaics were produced, etc.  Most of this is in the form of speeches which were delivered by various people at the unveiling ceremonies of the mosaics.  These speeches / essays are printed in both Italian and English.

The second, central section consists of photographs, one of each of the 45 major mosaics.  They are excellent.  These mosaics are huge, and difficult to photograph.  Many are flat rectangles, but some follow the curve of a wall or even turn a sharp angle.  It seems that the photographer had special access to the stations because there are no people in any of the shots.  The lighting is also very good.  The mosaics are in a variety of styles,  but form a definite series through the materials used (glass tesserae) and the similarity of finishing.

At the Numidio Quadrato station on Linea A, in a suburb in the south of the city, 46 pillars on the station platforms are covered in mosaics, each one by a “young” artist.  The result is an amazing display of colour and design.  The book includes four photos of the platforms, and they spurred me to go and see this station for myself.

The third section of the book provides a brief biography, again in Italian and in English, of each of the 45 major artists, and the name of each of the 46 young artists together with a small photo of the pillar mosaic which is theirs.  It is gratifying to see that the proportion of women is considerably higher among the young artists (about half) than among the more established artists of an older generation (only 3 women out of the total of 45).

If anything is lacking from this book, it is a commentary on what each of the mosaics individually might signify.  Some are not so easy to interpret.  But the book certainly has prompted me to pay more attention to them in future.

Here is a photo (my own, not from the book reviewed here) of one of my favourite mosaics, by Luigi Veronesi; it is at Stazione Anagnina, the southernmost station on Linea A:

Anagnina mosaic

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the Category “From the Local Library”; I Love Library Books Challenge; Non-Fiction challenge.

#23. Black Market Baby: An Adopted Woman’s Journey (Renée Clarke)

Book: Black Market Baby: An Adopted Woman’s Journey, by Renée Clarke

Genre: Memoir

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 365 pages

Briefly, it’s the story of a woman who was adopted as a baby in Canada in 1940, about her “growing up as an adoptee . . . with its inherent sense of rootlessness, abandonment and denial” (from the blurb).

Comments: This is a sad story.  The author was not just adopted but was a “black market baby”, victim of a system in which babies “were taken out of the arms of young mothers, often without their consent and sold to married couples. They were smuggled across the U.S./Canadian Border. Papers were forged or destroyed.”  Renée Clarke did not learn about her adoption until her teens, when it came as a total shock.  Her relationship with her adoptive parents was not a particularly happy one, and many of the wounds of her childhood carried over into her relationship with her first husband and with her own children.  She has not been able to trace her birth mother.

There are good things in her life too, of course: her love of the outdoors has seen her engaged in many wonderful hiking tours in the USA and Canada, often with her youngest daughter.  She is an accomplished sculptor.  Her relationship with her second husband has been a good one.  The overall tone of the book, however, remains one of unhappiness.

But at times I felt that the author needed to take more personal responsibility for her choices.  Can adoption and one’s adoptive parents be blamed for everything?  No.  There is a little too much “poor me” here for me to remain totally sympathetic.  I also found some of the descriptions of the hiking trips too long and invasive of the main story.  They might have made a better separate travel book.  The frequent recourse to “psychic readings” was a bit alarming, but it did help me to understand the insatiable longing of an adopted person to know her birth mother.

Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge (for the category “Non-fiction”); 2014 ebook reading challenge; non-fiction challenge.