Feb 11 2010

Bog Child

The last few days I’ve been holed up at home, watching the snow fall and drift. Other than pulling on some jeans and a top layer or two to go shoveling, I’ve stayed inside lounging about in my pajamas, working through a store of microwaveable dinners, talking on the phone about the “snow”, and reading. Last night, I started reading Siobhan Dowd’s 2008 novel “Bog Child“. Today, I finished it.

The book was published posthumously, following the author’s death in 2007. The book is intended for teenagers and is not a difficult read. I’m not even sure who turned me on to this book; something tells me it was an old friend who is both a rapacious reader and school teacher but I can’t be sure–it’s been sitting on my “to read” shelf for far too long.

The story takes place in Ireland during the summer of 1981. It begins when Fergus, the 18 year old main character, discovers an Iron Age bog body outside his hometown. While the discovery and unfolding secrets of the bog child are interesting, Dowd is not content with a single brushstroke. The book also deals with family dynamics, friendships, loyalties, hopes and sacrifices, young romance, and religion, all painted on the tattered canvas of the “Long War” between the IRA and the British Army. Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Bobby Sands until last night and there I was learning about him all over again in a book aimed for teenagers. I think that’s great.

Again, the book isn’t particularly challenging but it is assembled very well. It gives readers (especially teenagers who may not be familiar with the Troubles) important insight into what life may have been like (I wasn’t there) and how asymmetric (or fourth generation) warfare affects everyone, at all levels. This was a good and compelling read.

“We sin, Fergus, more by the sin of omission than of commission.”

4 out of 5


Feb 1 2010

The Three Musketeers

Today, I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic “The Three Musketeers” (in English). I bought a copy of this book about 18 years ago and made a number of failed forays into the first chapter or two. Recently, I picked-up a better copy (I’m partial to hardcovers) and committed myself to seeing what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t hard. In fact, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble starting the book in the first place. Like all good adventure books, the story soon is pulling you along and before you know it, it’s over. Well, not completely over… There are two follow-up books to the d’Artagnan Romances (e.g., Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne) and three further stories (e.g., Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, The Man in the Iron Mask) but I have too much else on my list before I even think about embarking on those.

The book itself was a strange blend of familiar characters involved in unfamiliar circumstances. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising having seen innumerable adaptations in cartoons, television, movies, abridged children’s books, etc. Anyone who has read a version of the story in elementary school should revisit the book again. I was expecting it to end with a huge mêlée between the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, but nothing like that ever manifested. Maybe in a later book? Instead, the story tacks back and forth between a number of villainous characters before settling on one and pursuing that storyline to the finish. As I was coming to the end I began to seriously doubt how the story-lines could ever be wrapped-up in the number of pages left. There is a large and confusing cast of characters, all addressed as M. or Mme., Count this, Countess that… It wasn’t as bad as “Crime and Punishment” where everyone has three names that could be used interchangeably as the narrator saw fit, but it still took some reprogramming every time I put the book down for more than a day at a time. Whining aside, the book was a good deal of fun.

For those unfamiliar with the story (how is that even possible?!), the book revolves around three mysterious Musketeers (who have changed their names to escape their respective pasts) and a young Gascon swordsman who travels to Paris wishing to  join the Musketeer ranks. The story mostly follows d’Artagnan’s adventures, friendships, and romances. In the process he crosses swords and wits with a number of villains ranging from the the Countess de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Man from Meung while professing his love, honor, and service to every lady he meets (married or not… such is the French way?). Despite a wide network of characters, plots, intrigues, and twists the story wraps-up satisfactorily (which is amazing). I will read it again should I ever find the time.

“You are young,” replied Athos; “and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”

4.5 out of 5


Nov 24 2009

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like AliceLast night I finished Nevil Shute‘s 1950 novel “A Town Like Alice“. I had very little idea what the story was about before opening the book, which is perhaps the best way to start any read. I’m not even certain how I found my way to this book. It might have been something as stupid as having heard the catchy 1982 The Jam song, “Town Called Malice” (which has nothing to do with the book). Whatever the reason, after seeing a great deal of positive reviews on Amazon.com, I got a copy and proceeded to read. I’m glad that I did.

The story revolves around a woman named Jean Paget, who comes into a large some of money when an uncle (that she met once as a child) dies alone in Scotland following WWII. The trustor, an older gentleman named Noel Strachan (who drapes a melancholy pall over the entire book), finds the sole heir and takes her under his wing. As the paperwork is settled, he befriends the young woman and learns about her harrowing past during the war, where she partook in a death-march around Japanese-occupied Malaya. It was during this period that she met an Australian prisoner-of-war named Joe Harmon, who did his best to steal food for the starving women and children on the march, but ultimately paid the price for his efforts.

There is a great deal more to the story, but I’d be doing readers unfamiliar with the book a disservice by revealing anything more. I will note however that the book wanders a bit. I guess this is inevitable since it follows a person’s life across a number of years but there are long sections (it’s not a very big book) that had me wondering “how does this add to the story?”. I can only assume that Shute included more than he needed as a testament to the real-life people that he’d met and modeled the characters after, e.g., Carry Geysel and Herbert Edwards. The hardships endured by the story’s main characters are impressive; the fact that they fall shy of the events that inspired them are astonishing.

“You won’t know if [your time] was wasted until you come to the end of your life,” I said. “Perhaps not then.”

4 out of 5