Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Excerpt: Never Be At Peace

Chapter 2

A Cooler Shade of Orange

(Belfast)

            On the train back to Belfast, the young Quaker immersed himself into the fantasies about the girl he saw at the Abbey. Her strong neck, glowing shoulders and supple knees appeared before his eyes. In the five minutes spent inside the dressing room at the Abbey he saw more bare skin than he had in the twenty-one years of his life.  McDonald, his comrade from the Protestant National Society, collected continental postcards with half-naked corset models and circulated them furtively after the meetings, but that was not quite the same as seeing a real girl. McDonald frequently spoke of certain establishments where young lads could go not only to look at naked girls but also touch them and have their way with them. Allegedly, those places were good for gaining experience and purging inhibitions.

never-be-at-peace-cover-thumbnail1As for Bulmer, his mother had taught him there was no real pleasure to be found in those filthy dens. Skimming over the moral aspect of going to a brothel, Mary Ann focused on the palpable dirt.  She did not speak of sin, only of infectious diseases that could turn a robust boy into a lump of flesh covered with oozing sores. A clean, enlightened, self-respecting Quaker boy never pays for carnal favors. If he absolutely cannot wait until marriage, he finds a discrete young lady of his own intellectual caliber with whom he could negotiate an interim arrangement. Miss Molony looked like the sort of girl Bulmer could negotiate with. He imagined the two of them sitting in a dusky picture house, holding hands and licking ice-cream from the same cone, their lips and tongues meeting in a vanilla-flavored sea.

The biological response triggered by the conjured scenario made it necessary for Bulmer to shift his briefcase over his lap. He loosened his tie and leaned his burning forehead head against the cool glass of the window. The elderly priest sitting across had no trouble guessing that the young man was not reciting Hail Mary in his thoughts.

***

            The train arrived in Belfast just before dusk. The shrill hiss of the steam drove Bulmer out of his reverie. Inhaling the smell of coal, his beaming face lifted to the sky, he did not see the gap between the train and the platform. He stepped into the void, his right leg getting caught between the concrete and the steel, his left knee landing on the sharp edge of the platform. A few gasps came from the crowd.  Two men rushed to his rescue and pulled him out by the arms just before the train started moving again.

Since rudimentary masculine pride prohibited him from wailing, and Quaker upbringing prohibited him from cursing, Bulmer burst into a song.

So here’s to those great Protestant Men
Who gave their lives to free our land.
All the people sang their praises then
For those brave United Irishmen.

His bewildered rescuers released him in haste. Bulmer was left sitting on the pavement under the lantern, rocking back and forth, still humming the tune.

“You really ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Bulmer heard above his head. It was Denis McCullough, a pub owner’s son from Divis Street. “Those compassionate gentlemen pulled you from under the train, and how do you repay them? With ungodly howling! I tune instruments all day, and my skill has quite improved over the years.  Alas, I cannot tune a human voice. That, I fear, is still beyond my area of expertise.”

Denis’ own voice had a peculiar quality reminiscent of a tightly wound string. He had a habit of speaking through his teeth, which caused his nostrils to flare and veins to swell on his neck. Half of the time he sounded like he was wrestling with pain or stifling back sobs. His gaunt swarthy face was marked with that exquisitely morose beauty that would make him ideal for portraying romantic martyrs on stage. Denis harbored no theatrical ambitions and regarded his own good looks as a minor nuisance.  Seeing no other purpose in life than fighting for Ireland’s freedom, he resented everything that distracted him from his quest.  At age twenty-one he was one of the staunchiest young republicans in Belfast. The only reason why he tolerated the chatty coddled Quaker was because the latter shared his political views.  Denis could take him in small doses.  Unfortunately, Hobson did not dispense himself in small doses, diving impetuously into every cause, every relationship and every conversation. His speeches left one deaf, and his hugs left one gasping for air. Denis would love to keep their alliance strictly vocational, but Bulmer, with his maniacal generosity, longed for a full-fledged friendship.

“Can you walk, Hobson?”

“I believe so. You’re my guardian angel, McCullough, always appearing when I need you. What are you doing here? Waiting for someone?”

“For you, as matter of fact.”

His ominous tone and the steadfast stare alarmed Bulmer. “Is something wrong? Did something happen while I was gone?”

“It’s all good news, especially for you, Hobson. Start walking and I’ll tell you.”

“Splendid! I have good news too, best news in the world. Guess what, McCullough? I saw that girl again.”

That girl … Not another tale of infantile infatuation! The Quaker spoke of the opposite sex with puppyish rapture, which betrayed his utter lack of experience.  It was easy for him to idealise women, because he had never gotten sufficiently close to one.

“Remember that céilidh hosted by Inghinidhe?” Bulmer continued. “Remember that girl who danced with Parkhill.”
“So? Parkhill danced with every girl in the hall that night. He won’t win a medal for monogamy, that’s for sure.”

“Well, one of the girls was Frank Molony’s little sister. Today I spotted her again in the costume room at the Abbey. She looked just like Emer from that book Alice Milligan lent me. Miss Molony is the secretary of Inghinidhe now. And since I’m the founder of Protestant National Society, among other things, it would make us the golden couple of the patriotic movement.”

“This is monstrously romantic,” Denis interrupted him, “but did you manage to convince Madame Gonne-MacBride – or whatever her name is – to intercede for us?”

“Oh, that too! I was about to tell you. That old grouch Yeats is coming, no worries. She’s a grand lady, Madame Gonne!”

“A lady?” Denis smirked incredulously. “I thought she was a general in petticoats.”

“What matters is that she’s bringing Dublin’s theatrical elite to see my play. I hope Miss Molony comes.”

Denis was ready to stick his fingers down his throat. “Women will be the end of you, Hobson. A few minutes ago you almost lost your legs because of your moronic fantasies.”

“You’re right, McCullough. There’re more injuries in store for me. I’ll consider myself fortunate if I survive the next decade without breaking my neck. Now, back to your good news, what were you about to tell me?”

“Patience, Hobson. Just follow me.”

Bulmer sighed and limped along, feeling the blood from his knee trickling down his leg. Denis led him to a hall on Albert Street where the Tír na nÓg branch of Gaelic League met every second and fourt Saturday of the month. Bulmer noticed that the windows were dark.

“So, McCullough, you dragged me here just to show me an empty hall that I’ve seen a thousand times before?”

Denis rattled the keys in his pocket. “It’s not really empty. Some comrades of mine believe you’d make a welcome addition to the organization.”

“Silly old boy! How’s that possible? I already belong to every organization in Belfast. I started half of them, remember?”

“Why, Hobson, your modesty is breathtaking. You think yourself ubiquitous and omniscient, don’t you?”

“Not without a reason! I’m the most ardent activist around here. Who spends all of his free time floating between the branches of the Gaelic League? You mean to tell me there’s some secret body from which I’ve been excluded all this time? Who’d have the audacity to start a club without my knowledge? Everybody knows I’m the chief club-starter in Belfast.”

“That ‘club’ has been in existence since ‘58. The same ‘club’ was behind the Rising of ’67. Any bells ringing in your pretty little head, Hobson? Your candidature was approved at the last meeting, after months of ardent advocacy on my part.”

Bulmer threw himself on his friend’s neck.  “Oh, McCullough, they want me!”

“With reservations, mind you.” Denis freed himself from the Quaker’s embrace. “There’s some concern about your ability to keep secrets.”

“Of course, I can keep secrets!”

Denis came close to kicking him in the bleeding knee.  “See? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re addicted to limelight. You never learned to modulate your voice.”

“It’s not my fault that I’m so popular. God endowed me with superb public speaking skills. Not that I’ve ever used those gifts for any selfish gain. Everything I do is for the benefit of Ireland.”

“It’s your discretion I question, not your devotion. If you blurt something out in mixed company, if you inadvertently compromise the organization, it’ll make me look very bad.”

“I’ll never fail you,” Bulmer vowed.  “I’ll be your right hand.”

“But, you see, Hobson, I don’t need a right hand at this moment. And even if I did, you wouldn’t be my first choice. You don’t need any more notoriety. Learn to observe and listen. Think you can keep your mouth shut for more than five seconds?”

Bulmer ran his knuckles across his lips. “From now on, I’ll speak only when spoken to.”

As soon as they entered the hall, they heard rustles coming from an adjacent lecture room.

“He’s here,” Denis announced in a loud whisper. “I deliver him wounded but alive.”

A small procession emerged from the lecture room. The leader was carrying a Bible and a paraffin lamp that gave just enough light to keep him and his companions from stumbling.

“This is how such things ought to be carried out,” Denis said. “I was sworn in by an obese drunk at the door of Donnelly’s pub. Not a sober man in the room! It sickens me just to think of it. You’re in luck, Hobson. You’ll experience what I was denied.”

Once Bulmer’s eyes adjusted to the semidarkness, he surveyed the faces of the men in the party. He knew some of them from Cumann na nGaedheal that was founded in August of 1900 at the suggestion of Arthur Griffith.

“What do I do now?”

Denis nodded at the leader of the procession. “Kelly, bring out the good book.”

The torch-bearer stepped forth, and his companions formed a semicircle behind his back. Bulmer’s hand trembled slightly as he placed it on the Bible. As a Quaker, he was prohibited from taking any oaths.

“Ready to proceed, are we?” Denis detected the tremor in his friend’s fingers. “Look, if your heart isn’t in it—”

“It is!” Some inner voice told Bulmer that this was not the last time he would be breaking one of the key principles of his faith. “My heart, my pocket, all I possess …”

“That’s the spirit.” Denis smiled wryly. “Repeat after me: in the presence of God—“

In the presence of God, I, John Bulmer Hobson, do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers and that I will preserve inviolable the secrets of the organisation.

Marina Julia Neary

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Review: Never Be at Peace

One hundred years ago this week…

Today at the blog in this week of remembering two enormous historical events, we look back at Easter Week 1916, when Irish nationalists staged an uprising and strike, in large part roused following the death of Irish Republican Brotherhood founding member Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the words, at his funeral, of noted orator Patrick Pearce: “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

Never Be at Peace by M.J. Neary

never-be-at-peace-cover-thumbnail1Set in the first half of the 20th century, Never Be at Peace tells the story of Helena Molony, an actress who dreams of liberating Ireland from British control. The novel is also the story of the 1916 Easter Rebellion and Molony weaves in and out of it along with a sizeable cast of other personages to whom the author, M.J. Neary, pays detailed attention and manages with impeccable skill. There are few undeveloped characters and one result of that is the intense insider view readers are given to the historical rebellion along with its strengths, foibles, inner squabbling and eventual splintering.

Against a backdrop of the theatre, a telling metaphor superimposed on the plans for a nationwide Irish strike and government shutdown, Molony et al., particularly Bulmer Hobson, with whom she engages in an unsatisfying and drawn-out affair, act out their own dreams. This is despite the conflicts raised in competition with each other’s egos, biases, backgrounds, perceptions, demands and goals—even children are part of the make-up of this production, one in particular representative of Ireland herself, in the aftermath of a clash of wills, disregarded in favor of satisfaction of individual wants.

The novel provides fresh insight into earlier groups and their startups, and we read of bands such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers. While they strike an alliance, they are not a true consortium; instead they are given to poor communication and conflicting orders, most notably regarding the scheduled uprising day and the failed rendezvous with a German ship intending to deliver arms. Moreover, the public does not support them as much as previously believed, but the rebels will themselves to continue.

“Oh but it was frightfully comical: red streamers and paper flowers floating in the air. Flags, draperies, carpets! Red through a grey mist…Most Dubliners, even the destitute, view George as a legitimate monarch. While the carriage made its way through the sea of Union Jacks, I leaped forth with a black flag. The feeble old man standing behind me was so furious he struck me on the back with the stick of his Union Jack. But you know, my back is quite stiff, and the stick broke at once!”

Never Be at Peace moves in time past the rising, until the eve of World War II, when we are witness to the aftermath of forty years of dedication to a cause that appears to be in tatters. One chapter entitled “Potato Theatre” recalls a previous statement of Hobson’s, that the potato is the “prostitute of all crops,” and links the absurdity of situations with compassion for the heartache of loss, portrayed by Neary with a balance that utilizes sardonic and dark humor as well as what has to have been an intensive amount of research to get at the private lives of historical figures.

Murty makes a move on Helena
Murty makes a move on Helena

Neary tells this story of these people through an omniscient narrator who retains its presence as we are transported one at a time into the thoughts of various characters. At any given time it is very clear through whose perceptions we are viewing the world, and it works, even as Molony and Hobson retain their positions in the lead. This technique enables readers to see players as the individuals they are, individuals that history has sort of flitted over for “lack of space,” and we are able to identify them later when they at times are initially unrecognized following the brutal passage of years.

Historically, for example, Hobson’s positions were sabotaged, information was deliberately kept from him and he had to develop strategies of his own in order to detect plans, all part of a swirl of events that counterattack themselves and lead to rumors that damage his subsequent political prospects.

While it might be a tad unfair to state that Neary’s Hobson spirals into a caricature of himself, he does nevertheless retain his insistence upon placing his position at odds with forces mightier than himself, for better or worse—and often worse. Neary portrays the stark reality, never attempting to overlay scenes or actions with glitter of any sort. Hobson is determined if at times naïve, and his humor and bitterness frequently cross paths. As he stumbles upon a Sackville Street in the midst of being looted,

[j]ewelry shop owner Edward Burns watches his premises as it is destroyed. . . The spectacle of urban apocalypse mesmerized him.

A gaunt man in his early thirties entered the scene, limping and holding his stomach. In spite of his wrinkled clothes and tangled hair, it was obvious he did not belong to the mob.

[He] exclaimed in a heightened Northern accent, “Connolly, look! This is your noble working class, unshelled, unembellished.” He clapped his hands, cheering the looters. “That’s the spirit! Steal from your fellow Dubliners while you can.”

James Connolly awaits execution

Likewise, Molony dedicates her life to a cause that she herself helps break down by allowing herself to be misdirected, by others as well as herself, despite her intelligence and strong sense of personality. Of course, in fairness it must be said that she does not see all that readers do, and naturally her responses are colored by events as she occupies them. Still, Neary does not provide excuses, though we do at times see Molony nearing the moments when she needs to reconstruct herself. Her often simple dialogue is nevertheless charged with meaning as she simultaneously sabotages a moment, a statement fraught with significance.

“This is Ireland’s hour of beauty. When all the sordidness and sadness slips from her, when she lies around us simplified in the coloured dusk. Look how the seagulls rock on the golden water. Don’t they remind you of pearls scattered over silk?”

Helena exhaled and tucked a frizzy strand behind her ear. “If I don’t have a cup of tea, I’ll surely collapse.”

This is the story of a moment in time, which involves the people who eyed it, waiting for and planning, and what happens afterwards. It rightfully brings to a wider audience the historical figures whose lives were spent in dedication to that moment, and the failures they experience. Some of the cast are recognizable to many readers; some known well to audiences appear but briefly. Many are bent to the brink, giving their lives—in more ways than one—for the chance at freedom, and none are willing to give up in the face of breakdown in whole or part. As written elsewhere by Irish novelist Liam O’Flaherty, who himself makes a cameo appearance in Never Be at Peace, “There is reason to hope that the failure is only partial in some places.”

*********

About the author

A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

MJHer debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.

You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.

Drawings by Alissa Mendenhall, courtesy Marina Julia Neary,
and appear as a separate entity from the novel

A copy of Never Be at Peace was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Excerpt, Saved by the Bang

Chapter Thirteen

The Other Olenski Girl

Gomel – October, 1988

Joseph could really use a friend, even a fake one. His bastard daughter was dying of leukemia at the pediatric oncological center in Minsk. The classical regimen of chemo that had successfully sped up the deaths of so many Belarusian children and teenagers was liquefying Anastasia’s vital organs without doing much damage to the malignant blasts in her bone marrow. After about a week of trying to hammer the cancer into remission, the doctors pulled the IV needle out of her arm. All in all, they felt petty handing her the death sentence along with one free long-distance phone call.

After getting the news, Joseph spent the night pacing around the apartment with his hands locked behind his head.

“Give me your cousin’s number in Smolensk,” he asked Antonia, who was in the process of applying makeup for an upcoming concert.

“It’s no skin off my back, but I don’t see how this can be of any use. Sergei is not an oncologist.”

“But he’s well connected.”

bang“Connections are useless when you are dealing with cellular biology. It’s always the same treatment protocol, and the same outcome. So she’ll spend her final days in a fancier hospital with brand new tiles on the floor. Is it really worth the jostling?”

Joseph yanked the powder puff out of her hand. “Will you stop painting your muzzle for a second? A child is dying here.”

“Children are dying all over the country, in case you haven’t noticed. Still, there are worse things than being dead. Nicholas and Galina had a lobster. Did you know that?”

Joseph looked perplexed. “A lobster…you mean, for dinner?”

“No, you moron. Galina gave birth to a baby with deformed hands that look like lobster claws. There’s a fancy name for it—ectrodactyly. Which is a crying shame, because supposedly the kid has a great musical ear. He’d make a great pianist. I don’t know of any composers who write for lobster hands. What can you do? An entire generation is screwed.”

“Screwed, huh? That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say? Hey, at least I was able to save my child.” Antonia raised her manicured finger like a referee on a soccer field. “Let’s not forget the sacrifices I made. I put my career on hold to get Maryana to safety. Have you done anything for Anastasia? No. Then why does it surprise you that she’s dying?”

Joseph released the powder puff in disgust. “You’ll answer for your words before God!”

“Oh, please.” Antonia resumed grooming her eyebrows. “You were the one who fathered the girl and stuffed her in an orphanage. I tolerated her existence, always turning the blind eye, always taking the high road, without as much as a venomous comment. And now you’re threatening me with your God? That’s Polish logic, I suppose. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get ready for my concert.”

Maryana was sitting in the kitchen, just a few meters away. She could hear every single word. The sound of her parents arguing was music to her ears. They were so busy insulting each other, they would not yell at her for failing an algebra test. With any luck she would end up like the girl next door whose parents were divorced and never checked her homework.

As soon as Antonia was out the door, Joseph went into the kitchen to open the bottle of vodka he had gotten as a birthday present. He noticed that the table was covered with modeling paper, sequins, sparkling streamers left over from the New Year’s celebration and magazine cutouts. There was no paper glue in the house, so Maryana was using the pungent industrial kind.

“I’m making a get-well card for Anastasia,” she explained. “What should I write on it?”

That was when Joseph lost it. He grabbed the bottle with glue and squirted the content over his daughter’s head, rubbing it into her hair.

“She’s not going to get better, you troll! You’re saying this fucked up shit to mock me. You and your mother are two heartless kikes!”

Maryana grabbed a pair of crafts scissors and pointed them against her father’s navel.

“Stop it, Papa Josey, or I’ll spill your guts.”

Joseph dropped the empty glue bottle and crawled into a corner, covering his face and bawling. Maryana stood over him, with sparkles and shreds of color paper stuck to her hair.

“Take me to see Anastasia.”

Marina Julia Neary

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Review: Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy

An examination and review of Marina Julia Neary’s

Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy

 Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is Marina Julia Neary’s self-described semi-autobiographical dystopian novel, so getting into characters’ heads is a bit of a different process than doing the same in some of her other works—which she does with radiant results—such as those concerned with the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. Having experienced the acerbic wit of those who populate Never Be at Peace and Martyrs and Traitors, I expected more of the same in this Neary go-round, and the author most definitely did not let me down.

bangPossessing any background knowledge at all about the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s horrific 1986 explosion that released plumes of radioactive fallout into the skies over the adjacent Soviet area and on into Europe, readers might be expecting some calamity at the outset. The novel’s opening line—“If Vladimir Ivanych had any hair left, he would be pulling it out right about now”—however, is Neary’s little teaser, confirmed by that chapter’s date stamp, the day before the catastrophe. As readers progress through the story, they also begin to understand that alongside the theme of tragedy runs another to do with the comedic reactions society and individuals often have in response to particular events.

For the Olenskis, these events relate to their lives as Soviet communism affects and informs them, as well as the rapid succession of minor explosions that punctuate their days. Joseph, serial philanderer and father of Maryana—and another, illegitimate daughter, Anatasia—is of Polish-Belarusian stock and lives with his wife, Antonia—of White Russian and German-Jewish extraction—and their daughter in Belarus. Their ethnic background is important to the story as it links to the Otherness they feel and live in a land not entirely their own and controlled by a central government not that country’s own.

Pianist Antonia, “a transcendent creature without a nationality” plays emotional footsie with Nicholas Nichenko, a Belarussian tenor who works with her in the Gomel Music Academy, the pair of them contributing to the aforementioned inclination on the part of their director to destroy his own head of hair (if it existed). The academy is staffed by elite and supremely talented but entitled and privileged people engaged in degrading, offensive behavior, sexual politics and the resultant scandals. Neary is adept at portraying the webs these behaviors weave, as well as the fraying relationship between the diva and her husband, and their on-again, off-again devotions to one another.

800px-Pripyat_sign
Pripyat marker, courtesy Tiia Monto

Maryana, eight, is a lifelong observer who represents a way forward after the disasters that befall her country—a post-Soviet report states that 60% of the radioactive fallout landed on Belarusian soil—and her family. However, her parents’ behavior toward her is destructive—neglectful and emotionally abusive—and she contemplates her misfortune in being born both ugly and in the wrong place. Wise to the manipulative manner of the state, she sarcastically muses that she would just as soon live in a place like Northern Ireland or Somalia.

Right out of the gate Neary seductively depicts her characters, the telling wrapped around a gooey, delicious center of rolling inner monologue and stream of consciousness prose the author is so supremely suited to. We learn so much about the characters, information given to us that goes beyond them individually, but also hints at conditions relating to society at large. Remembering his initial attraction to Antonia, we learn that “[h]er uterus was not scarred from venereal diseases and frequent abortions, which was a major attraction for Joseph.” This hints at the astronomical rate and normalization of abortion in the Soviet Union, a response to strict czarist ban on the procedure, followed by Bolshevik legalization of it at a time when birth control was unheard of.

Soon after initial scenes featuring mother and daughter, our third major character is introduced on a midnight express train as we move closer to the fateful explosive moment less than two hours away. As Joseph ruminates the Russification of the satellite states and current near-extinction of the Belarusian language, sexual tension seeps through the scene like melted chocolate in a toddler’s pocket. Neary’s subtle and crafty teasing out of tragedy continues as two emergencies are in the making, both caused by the application of false remedies—emergency shutdowns in response to positive systems reactivity, as it were.

perestroika stamp
Wikimedia Commons–Image of Perestroika stamp 1988 from personal collection of Andrei Sdobnikov (click image)

Upon Joseph’s arrival at home he senses something amiss and readers momentarily wonder, Has it happened? Alas, not yet, though Neary expertly fuses our knowledge with the Olenskis’ own tale, resulting in almost explosive tension. Reactor number four’s night shift just over the border, as history now reveals, are at that very moment scrambling to sort out the instructions being reported to them, and Antonia lay on the floor, bleeding out from an ectopic pregnancy triggered by the aspirin she’d been taking for abdominal pain. At 01:00 Dr. Mihalych prepares to remove the lodged embryo before it bursts, just minutes in advance of pressure channels sending shock waves through the reactor core as it too prepares to rupture.

Marina Neary is wont to remind audiences that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the twain consistently keep each other’s company, as evidenced both by universal response to the horrific events at Chernobyl and her portrayal of the Olenskis’ aftermath. They are a microcosm of the Soviet Union and, like that collection of diverse nationalities, fractured and emotionally far flung. In an era of Gorbachev perestroika seeking not to end but rather improve socialism, Joseph, in terms of his marriage, works in much the same way.

Joseph knew of his mother-in-law’s aversion to anything that had to do with flesh and made it a point to make love to Antonia frequently and loudly. He was secretly hoping that Lily would have a heart attack from disgust and he would finally have her apartment at his disposal.

 Lily is the stereotypical old-school guard against blasphemers, the charwoman figure who either hastily reports or energetically shushes those who speak against the state. She dismisses Nichenko’s reports about the disaster as “science fiction” and utters the standard line one is by now accustomed to hearing in films set in the Soviet era.

“For goodness’ sake, have some faith in the system.” The sight of a terrified male disconcerted Lily. “If something was truly wrong, don’t you think the authorities would’ve informed us?”

It is classic Neary, her subtle ability to utilize cliché, so often dismissed, to deconstruct and wrap it back up as a statement pointing toward, amongst other implications, the marriage of comedy and tragedy she so often speaks of. Certainly there is the gallows humor or lottery tickets using tragic dates; so too do people recognize the absurdity of faith in a secretive government. Yet somehow we fear the open discussion of the tragic side of that realization, but Neary boldly grabs it like a sweetmeat and tears it open to show us what is inside.

What is inside is a government that would not only keep such a deadly and treacherous secret from its own citizens, but also lure them outside for food and advance May Day celebrations for greater exposure to the graphite floaties beneath a drifting plume of radionuclides. Irradiation? Have at it, there’s a Ferris wheel to ride!

The evacuations started at two pm. [. . .] It felt as if the city was going on a spur of the moment field trip to Kiev. An explosion? Way cool. Radiation? Far out. A spontaneous change of scenery, a random chance to escape the drudgery of the daily routine. They were all extras in a direct-to-video, end-of-the-world movie. Cheese sandwiches, bottles of juice and condensed cans of milk were being passed around. Who doesn’t like free food? The children visibly rejoiced over the school year ending one month early. [. . .]

 The euphoria started wearing off when the first symptoms of radiation poisoning set in, with vomiting, nosebleeds, fainting spells and episodes of blindness. The half-eaten cheese sandwiches started coming up in foul-smelling mush. The sentiment went from “Free food—yay!” to “Holy shit, we’re screwed!”

Implicit within is also Neary’s caveat about trust and the at-times tragedy of its consequences. Even more so, of a state that gains this trust by seizing control of citizens’ lives, including their very thought processes. When those processes are directed, especially if from birth, by a specific set and standard of behavior and absorption of approved information, we end up with people who dismiss reports of tragedy and danger, such as the wife of a nuclear physicist who refused to believe her husband’s insistent demands they leave Pripyat, even after he shows her the graphite droplets on her strawberry plants.

Used with kind permission of Pawel 'pbm' Szubert
Abandoned Pripyat Ferris wheel, perhaps the most well-known symbol of the once-thriving town. Used with kind permission of Pawel “pbm” Szubert (Paweł “pbm” Szubert / Wikipedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The author, however, never engages in preaching: she tells one family’s tale during an era that seems apocalyptic and the normalcy they try to engage in, often to hilariously absurd effect. It remains true that life marches on and nuclear disaster or not, the bills still have to be paid. For Antonia’s conceits, these include beauty products and having been away from the region for the summer endangers her position at the academy, triggering thoughts of financial dependence upon her husband. “The thought of having to beg him for seven rubles to buy lipstick frightened her more than all nuclear disasters put together.”

If Neary’s characters are portrayed with nuance and a compassionate directness (despite their numerous flaws), her exploration of Maryana’s growth is downright inspiring. Disregarded by her parents, Maryana in the beginning walks on eggshells around Mama Cat and cowers from her father. Later, when visiting with her anti-Stalinist aunt on a day they are en route to the market, the group are stopped at the border and about to be arrested for trespassing when the young girl waves a tempting jar of her aunt’s marmalade—a smaller jar no less—under the border guard’s nose, distracting him with the smell and subsequent taste of vodka. Neary cleverly utilizes this episode as a turning point for Maryana, who up until now has been watching people, fully understanding many of the implications of her observations, and at last gaining confidence in herself, enabling her to put her self-reliance to work, to persevere through another terrifying situation.

If only she would close her eyes and listen to the sleepy murmuring of the Neris River, she could engage in amicable discourse with the city where the inanimate objects had more soul than the people.

 The spasm in her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since that morning. Four rubles could buy her a mediocre meal at a bistro or a really kick-ass dessert.

Having learned to weigh her options, Maryana takes charge and begins to make events happen rather than allowing them simply to happen to her. She learns to play along, but is this a symptom of assimilating to the dominant deceptive nature of the society she lives in as governed by “the callused Muscovite claw”? Or does she speak truth in coded language to people too programmed to listen at other levels? As her family is in upheaval—like the union of republics itself, though they do not know this at the time— will reform keep them united, or will they go the way of the union?

Saved by the Bang is a luscious concoction of many flavors wrapped up in one novel: historical fiction, coming of age, literary fiction, memoir, tragi-comedy. Dystopian in nature, it is delectably offensive and the raw power of the characters’ acute observations and many of its outcomes render it an examination of society that also functions as a cautionary tale to be interpreted on individual, familial or societal level. The author’s brazenness occasionally acts as an object we have accidentally tread upon, and Neary challenges us to choose how we respond—wherever we are.

Raw in intensity and simultaneously smooth like chocolate, Saved by the Bang is a meticulously-researched work packed with historical details and written as a novel that will set readers on fire. For those who have never read Marina Julia Neary, this is a fantastic place to start. Prior Neary fans will recognize her style, but with the freshness of different characters that shake it up. All will contemplate what it means to be alive.

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About the author

Studio1A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.

You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.

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Photos courtesy Marina Julia Neary unless otherwise noted. 

Grateful thanks to Pawel “pbm” Szubert for his kind reply. 

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Remembering Chernobyl: “If We’re All Still Alive in the Morning”

What happens when you turn on the radio at one part of the day and classical music is playing, then continues for several hours? If you’re a Soviet citizen, you know something already did; you just have yet to figure out what terrible event it is. On this day thirty years ago, the worst man-made disaster in history occurred when reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, undergoing systems testing, experienced a power surge, subsequently exploding, spitting a plume of radioactive fallout that was to drift over the western USSR and Europe. In true Soviet fashion the government attempted to keep the catastrophe under wraps, but ended up making the announcement the following day after an alarm system at a Swedish nuclear power plant was tripped. Paul at The Chernobyl Gallery writes that “[a]ccording to official post-Soviet data about 60% of the radioactive fallout [was found to have] landed in Belarus.”

It’s hard to overstate the insanely horrific anomalies that began to occur without delay. One minute’s worth of exposure during an attempt to lower control rods sent such a large dose of radiation into three men they were among the first to die in a Moscow hospital. They were buried in sealed coffins made of lead. Another who had leaned against the door to hold it open for them leaned into radioactive dust; after years of skin grafting operations and other after affects, he says he’d been advised not to have any more children as he may have received DNA damage.

Comrades! What heat is so intense it can harm your DNA? Nuclear fuel that burns for 10 days, that’s what. Fuel so intense that sand deposited atop to cool it actually creates a greater danger owing to the compressed conditions. Even fire doesn’t like to be stifled and the threat of it exploding, the results—unimaginable. Well, they can be contemplated, but the process will curl your hair. And if yours is already curly, prepare to buy a wig.

There were, of course, rescue crews. The firemen who arrived first on the scene by protocol were not permitted to go near the destroyed reactor, but they had a moral obligation. They would not leave people to die, especially alone.

Anatoli Zakharov, from the night crew and who had worked at Chernobyl long enough to have seen the reactor built from the inside out, recounted 10 years ago: “I remember joking to the others, ‘There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We’ll be lucky if we’re all still alive in the morning.’”

Tomorrow: A review of Marina Julia Neary’s semi-autobiographical novel,   Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.
Image: VOA/Wiki Commons

Sources:

Higginbotham, Adam. Chernobyl 20 Years On.” The Guardian. March 25, 2006. Web. April 23, 2016.

Lallanilla, Marc. “Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster.” Live Science. September 25, 2013. Web. April 24, 2016.

Paul. The Chernobyl Gallery. c. 2010. Web. April 24, 2016.

This post has been updated to reflect correction of a quote in its title. 

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary: Book Excerpt, Martyrs and Traitors

Chapter 19

Dublin Suffragette Logic

(Abbey Street, Dublin)

January 14, 1910

Bulmer celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in bed with Helena. The blizzard kept them trapped inside her flat. The gramophone was broken, so they had to make do without any musical accompaniment.

martyrs and traitorsWhile Helena was undressing, Bulmer noticed bruises and scratch marks on her hips and shoulders. The gradation in color also suggested that they were left over the course of several days. He knew better than interrogate her about the origin of the marks.

“I hope you haven’t been bored or lonesome,” he said. “Those Dublin winters can be depressing.”

Helena picked up her clothes from the floor and folded them methodically. She proceeded to remove her comb and her earrings lest they should get damaged, blotting the gloss from her lips and examining the circles under her eyes.

Bulmer, growing impatient, tapped the blanket twice. “Hurry now. You’re starting to behave like a reluctant wife.”

Their lovemaking had already begun losing its spontaneity. At the dawn of their affair they would initiate foreplay in the presence of onlookers and then seek a secluded spot. Often the consummation would happen before they even had a chance to remove their clothes. Now they would take the time to undress themselves side by side, sort out the garments, making sure that nothing of value fell out of the pockets, slip under the covers and only then begin kissing. They had not grown bored yet, but they had certainly grown complacent. Once the initial fervor of their reconciliation had abated, once the terms of their alliance had been renegotiated, the two settled into their version of ‘ever after’. Bulmer was no longer afraid of disappointing Helena, having made his peace with the fact that she, in spite of being younger than him, possessed more experience. Silencing his insecurities, he freed himself to indulge his curiosity—and Helena, her ingenuity. Her instructions and compliments were equally blunt.

“Blessedly, you’re not a smoker, Hobson. They taste horribly. This gent I knew before you—nice as can be—went to bed with a pipe between his teeth.”

“Men like him keep Tom Clarke’s business afloat.”

“I’m all for supporting local shopkeepers, but that gent was portly and sweaty and had red dots under his skin. I only tell you this to demonstrate how vice, gluttony and poor hygiene can undermine one’s amorous prospects. Of all my friends, you have the firmest, healthiest body. Even your sweat smells like pine sap. Animals use scent to choose their mates.”

Still from cover shoot
Still from cover shoot

The topic of mating and procreating kept rising with intriguing frequency. Helena never asked Bulmer to exercise caution and welcomed him into her body wholly, which left him both alarmed and flattered. If a beautiful woman wanted to bear his offspring, even out of wedlock, who was he to protest?

“I’m spoiling you, Hobson,” she said, looking up at him. “You aren’t learning to exercise self-restraint. That may become an obstacle should you decide to marry.”

“You mean, not all women are like you,” Bulmer said in all innocence.

“You’d be astonished to learn how many married men lead lives of sensual deprivation. Their wives still perform their spousal duties in complete darkness, in the only acceptable position, for the only acceptable purpose. And once those women decide they don’t want any more children, they leave their husbands in the cold altogether.” Helena enjoyed the look of horror on Bulmer’s face. “I hear frightful tales from my married gentlemen-friends, whose wives constantly complain of headaches and fatigue. Sometimes they grow fat on purpose, just to repulse their husbands. Consider yourself warned. Even if your future wife doesn’t torment you in this manner, you still may find yourself feeling deprived, after all the piquant little sins we’ve committed.”

“Then I’ll never marry!” Bulmer laughed and pulled Helena on top of himself. “I’ll remain your jester, your playmate, anything you want.”

With every round of lovemaking, as he noticed, the sensations were less acute but deeper and broader, engulfing the entire body. Both had to work a little harder to reach the peak, but it also lasted longer.

The repeated rising and dropping of the blood pressure left Helena drowsy and her lover famished. Bulmer knew that in her flat there was no food except for intellectual. Helena had an impressive collection of old books and treated them in the most irreverent fashion. A rare copy of the William Barrow’s 1846 English translation of The Three Musketeers was lying open on the damp floor amidst shoes, which could not possibly be good for the leather binding. Bulmer thought of giving Helena a lecture on the proper treatment of collectible prints, but in the end he decided not to provoke fate. Instead, he picked up the abused book, blew the dust off the cover and began reading it.

Helena took a few sips from a whiskey bottle that she kept by her bedside, yawned and laid her head on his shoulder. “Ah, this is heavenly. “Hobson, stay for another day. Belfast can wait.”

Bulmer thought it would be even more heavenly if the woman sharing his blanket was Isabel. Oh, it was unforgivable piggishness towards Helena, the mother of his unborn baby, and possibly, of his future children. To atone for his ingratitude, he cuddled Helena closer to him and planted a few apologetic kisses on her sweaty forehead. “Go to sleep, darling. You have a grueling rehearsal tonight.”

“Will you still be here when I return? I dread coming back to a cold, dark and empty flat in the middle winter.”

The book slipped out of Bulmer’s hand, as he began dozing off. “I’ll stay here until you kick me out.”

“Don’t be foolish, Hobson. I cannot kick you out in this blizzard. You’ll never reach the train station.”

“Can I come along to the theatre? I’ve never seen you rehearse.”

“But then everyone will assume we’re a couple. They’ll starting winking and grinning and asking questions. You know how people are.” “As you wish, darling.” There was no sense in arguing with Helena on that subject. The woman was willing to get pregnant by him, yet she would not allow him to come to her rehearsal. Now that was a classic example of Dublin suffragette logic.
“I knew you’d understand.” Helena sighed and rubbed the tip of her nose against his collarbone. “By the way, before I forget … I spoke to her last week.”

Bulmer shuddered and opened his eyes. “Who is ‘her’?”

“The one of whom you were thinking half a minute ago.” Helena lifted her head from his shoulder. “No need to feign innocence with me. I know what’s on your mind, and I’m not offended in the least. Dream about your divine Isabel all you want. She’s crafted a business proposal for you. She wants you to go to Carrick for a few months and train her father’s men. Did you hear that, Hobson? Your unattainable princess is dispatching you on a quest. Her mother is even willing to give you a modest stipend. You can lodge with the Malones, if you do not mind living side by side with pigs and horses. I know that the patriarch would welcome you with open arms. Hosting an IRB activist under his roof would be holy oil on his peasant heart.”

Bulmer sat up, his drowsiness suddenly lifted. “I’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said with rapid eagerness. “I told Isabel she could call on me anytime. I’ve met those men in Carrick. They are good raw material.”

He started rising from the bed, but Helena held him back by the arm. “Before you agree to this endeavor, examine your motive carefully. Are you doing this for the cause or only to impress Isabel? If it’s the latter,

then I must warn you that your efforts, in all likelihood, shan’t pay off. I’d hate to see you become devoured by another fancy and start neglecting your work.”

“That won’t happen.”

“You mustn’t make such promises. Recall how you went to pieces when you and I first quarreled? And you don’t even love me.”

“That’s not true. I do love you, as much as you allow me to.”

“I suppose, there are gradations of love.” Helena shrugged, acknowledging her defeat. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care for me at all. But Isabel has bewitched you. If you say a woman’s name in your thoughts often enough, others will hear it too. With your every thrust I kept hearing Isabel, Isabel, as if there were three of us in bed instead of two. Again, I take no offense, though it would pain me to see you demeaned.”

Bulmer did not want Helena to think they were having an argument, so he embraced and rocked her gently. “Hypothetically speaking, even if I were to pursue Isabel, what makes you so pessimistic about my chances of succeeding?”

“I’ve seen her with other men. She’ll never belong to any one of them. She’s betrothed to the Republic. Of all our nationalist friends she’s the most fanatical one, even though it may not seem so at a first. Oh, she may press your fingers, stroke your brow and impart a few secrets that aren’t really secrets. You’ll walk away feeling privileged and empowered, while in reality you’re but clay in her hands. Isabel doesn’t do it out of malice or for her feminine vainglory. Believe it or not, she hates being a woman and would give up anything to be reborn as a man to better serve her country. Everything she does it for the cause. I saw her kissing Malone’s youngest on Frankfurt Avenue two years ago. She still hasn’t given up hope of recruiting him into the IRB, even though Hugh’s been courting that Ashley woman from Belfast. Isabel wants him for that circle in Carrick. I’m ninety-nine percent certain that our prized Irish Baritone won’t join, but if there’s anyone who can convert him, it would be her. Did you hear me, Hobson?”

“It’s done,” Bulmer declared, alert and battle-ready. “Tell Isabel that I’ll go.”

Marina Julia Neary

Role of Bulmer Hobson
Handsome Edgar Harding in character as Bulmer Hobson

 

Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Review: Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916

Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916 by Marina Julia Neary

On the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, April 1916

Winner of the Readers’ Favorite Five Stars Award

41yT+awP3nL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_With Never Be at Peace, Marina Julia Neary opens up to readers’ awareness and imagination the world that existed behind the 1916 Easter Rebellion, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)-led event doomed to failure by its own participants. To be seen in this telling of events would be the backdrop of theatre consumed and surrounded by love affairs and casual assignations; jealousies and rivalries; and the rise and fall of groups and leaders of questionable sustainability.

Chief amongst these is Bulmer Hobson, an upper middle-class Quaker and Ulsterman, whose northern accent somehow is charmingly evident despite Neary’s choice not to emphasize burrs and brogues. He appears once more here in Martyrs and Traitors, which also recounts the events of the Dublin-centered insurrection, zooming in to brighten the field and all within it. Though he is the novel’s central character, the story is not told from Hobson’s point of view, but rather that of an omniscient narrator with the purpose of additionally seeing him the way others do, a narrative choice that develops Hobson’s person even further and also allows his interactions to provide greater insight into who he is.

This Neary pulls off with skill, aplomb, grace and remarkable understanding of this era’s events as well as implications that affect every moment. She brings in Helena Molony, Hobson’s first love, often to showcase the pair’s opposite approaches to their nation’s fight for freedom, not to mention the incandescence of Helena’s nature and the hue she brings to her perspectives.

“Over there,” she gasped, squeezing Bulmer’s arm.
“You’re in luck. I’m so glad he came out tonight.”
“Who’s ‘he’?”
“Mr. Pearse, the founder of St. Edna’s.”
Bulmer knew all about the school—another educational experiment, not much different from the agricultural commune in Raheny. Except, instead of vegetables, the test subjects were boys.
“Why are you whispering, Helena?”
Her pupils were dilated with indignation. “Well, because . . . his name’s not to be taken in vain.”
“Is he holy?”
“To many people, he is, believe it or not! Hobson, are you merely innerving me, or are you truly so ignorant of the man’s contribution?”
“We all contribute. Most patrons here have done something for Ireland. And yet they greet each other in their natural speaking voices. We’re not in mourning, are we?”
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Pearse is in mourning at the moment, yes.”
“Let me guess . . . a magazine rejected his poem?”
“You unapologetic blasphemer.”

Despite Bulmer’s prime spotlight, Neary never allows other characters to function as mere curtain warmers. Their presence indicates the reality that no figure exists in a vacuum but the author’s treatment of them also dignifies their own roles in Hobson’s life as well as that of Ireland. Indeed, the privileged position of opening is awarded to those who kidnap Hobson before the rebellion gets going, aware that he had already added sufficient gum to their works in his efforts to prevent the entire episode from occurring on schedule, thus reducing the number of participants. Neary’s streamlining prowess reveals a great deal about their natures without consigning them to stock status, as she simultaneously shines the spotlight on Pearse—“[Dublin] was about to be demolished by a mob of self-proclaimed patriots in a collective suicide fantasy devised by a handful of IRB bullies under Patrick Pearse’s leadership”—and commences his requirement throughout the novel to work for every strand of sympathy he gets.

Hobson as a young man
Bulmer Hobson as a young man, during a trip to NYC

This is not Neary’s doing; as she herself states, she doesn’t attempt to sway readers in either direction, “[n]ot that you need to take sides to enjoy a good historical novel.” Pearce’s voice is persuasive, but she presents historical information, relentlessly researched, and even when shared through the filter of Hobson’s perceptions, trusts readers to make their own choices about this moment in time when a group of citizens reach out for the freedom that hitherto had proved so elusive.
The novel does have its light moments—in fact rather many of them. Hobson himself is presented as somewhat caustic, though his sarcasm or insensitivity—dependent on where one stands upon delivery—is characterized by his willingness to unleash it even upon himself. Moreover, while not everyone thanks him for the truth within his statements, specifically regarding IRB multiplexing that would, he warned, lead only to collapse, he issues them anyway, at great risk to himself.

“The only way to free Ireland permanently is by moral insurrection. Our men need to stop drinking and enlisting in the British army and police force. We must expand and support our own industries. I’m not suggesting that we not bear arms at all, but we must use those arms for self-defense, not staging frivolous rebellions to flaunt our reckless courage before the oppressor.”

Reader appreciation for him goes deeper because he is portrayed realistically; no one can rightfully claim Neary’s Hobson as “too perfect”; he certainly is as egotistical as any of his adversaries, and has a way with words. It may be that the logic he employs is too pure in form for casual recognition, despite its simplicity: “No man has the right to risk the fortunes of a country to create for himself a niche in history.” He demands a free Ireland, but will not accept a nation that bleeds itself in it attempts to become whole.

“A body that’s kept clean of harmful substance and engaged in wholesome activity can heal itself. In the same manner, a nation of sober, industrious citizens can claim its independence.”

As the novel moves on we catch glimpses of events also portrayed from a different angle in Never Be at Peace and as Easter Monday and the week come and go, the narrative picks up speed, reflecting the way in which everything since the last uprising has led to this, and the rapidity with which life now seems to pass us by, once something we have toiled long, arduous years for has taken its final bow.

hobson being guarded
Hobson being guarded

Apart from the initial opening giving us a glimpse into just pre-rebellion, Neary’s tale—aptly titled as one of many portraits of the time—moves along linearly, which for this complicated historical era and cast of performers works best. Post-rebellion we see more of a Hobson we might not always have preferred—he is portrayed as, amongst other descriptors, a user and a traitor—but who succeeds in capturing us as the shared heartbreak of a partitioned nation continues to cast individuals into categories (i.e. religion) that guide us in “knowing” whether we are meant to love or hate them.

For those who grow old and at this time watch their friends and fellows begin to leave this world, it surely must have been all that much more bitter. Neary’s gift of words—a vast repertoire of communication; descriptive action phrases instantly and delightfully recognizable, even when we haven’t ever seen them before; and the ability to bring laughter to our lips when we would prefer to weep—mercifully carries us through these final years, as fast as they pass by. The tenderness with which Hobson’s daughter treats him reminds us of his vulnerability—and our own—as we can at least be grateful for this solidarity amongst so much else that has been divided, personally as well as societally.

Martyrs and Traitors is an analysis as much as the telling of one man’s role in a movement and place in the world, public and private, a man once categorized by the British as “the most dangerous man in Ireland,” whose rising star really did make him dangerous to Ireland’s rulers, for had his confederates followed his lead, they may have achieved differently—to the detriment of the British. However different to that it turned out, Hobson himself might be the first to point out that what we mourn in life is eclipsed by the freedom of soaring over the sea, as a star burning, for others, its lantern of liberty.

“This novel is my hymn for all prematurely extinguished stars.”

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About the Author

this oneA self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.

You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.

Drawings by Alyssa Mendenhall

All images courtesy Marina Julia Neary

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The blogger was furnished with a copy of Martyrs and Traitors in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Who Killed William Shakespeare?

Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means

by Simon Andrew Stirling

When I first cracked open my copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? and gave it my usual pre-reading examination, the exercise gave time for a flood of memories to wash through my mind: reading the plays in high school and university, of course, but also how teachers and professors taught them, what we discussed on the side, the high or low passions, variety of angles we came from with our comments and questions. It occurred to me that I, neither anti-Shakespeare nor aficionado, not only know very little about his life, but also his death. There were no memories of discussions or even lectures relating to his demise.

17738852With this in mind I went to the Internet to see if I could learn more about this angle—or, more particularly, to see what exactly everyone else knew that I didn’t. I was in for a bit of a surprise because nowhere did I see even any allusions to homicide. I picked up lots of typhoid mentions, especially connected to the time in which he lived. Other possibilities included alcoholism, though with the supporting evidence of a “merry meeting” after which the playwright died, this seems a reach, given the long-term nature of this disease. Nevertheless, for whatever the condition speculated, many posters seemed to agree that Shakespeare knew he was seriously ill. Shaky signature, two wills within weeks of one another, etc.

Elizabethan England is not my chosen era of great study, but I did know it was a dangerous time in which to live, especially if you were the wrong religion. Prosecution for the crime of illegal worship was swift and consequences horrible—simply describing them out loud is painful to the mind. Therefore I wondered why no one seemed to consider that politics was just as much a hazard to one’s health as any disease on the rampage. Many are familiar with the need for Shakespeare to have written to please the queen; a civil war was looming and religious intolerance was rampant—all elements that continue to exist in our world today and so even if from a distance, most have some understanding of it.

To be fair, delving into those murky waters is challenging, to say the least, and, as Stirling quotes Shakespearean scholar Schoenbaum, “What we would not give for a single personal letter!” or even “one page of a diary!” Alas, this is not a luxury available, making the parts and the sum of Stirling’s research all the more impressive.

shakespeare cover image comediesOpening with reference to the disappearance of the real Shakespeare to be replaced by a mythical figure, Stirling shifts to the personal Shakespeare and various interpretations of his life and legacy. Specifically he challenges the notion that nothing is known about the playwright and commences the laying out of his research, which over the course of the book shows how history was in the process of being re-written when he still lived, in the 18th century and even today when Shakespeare continues to be celebrated as what the author refers to as a “trademark.”

But why would anyone need to re-invent who Shakespeare was? What needed to be covered up? Why would anyone murder him? And how could they get away with it? While part of the mystery rests within the who, readers shall not be let down when within the first section a suspect is revealed—in fact, the book’s blurb provides this information:

He was (indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped. . .

Like an investigator, Stirling turns to the method of collecting evidence to prove the means, motive and opportunity; without such, “knowing” is insufficient to support a successful criminal proceeding. Other elements are required, however: the presence of reasonable doubt as to the suspect’s guilt might wash away the strength of those three aspects. In three sections, titled after these elements, the author explores in great detail avenues of the crime, including what led to it and subsequent events.

Following an author’s note is the “Preamble: The Apotheosis of Shakespeare,” designed to provide background information for readers before they are led into the “Means,” which wastes little time in identifying central players and their significance to main events. Scholarly in nature and non-linear, the narrative’s density may initially have a somewhat disconcerting affect, though readers may rest assured they will settle quickly into Stirling’s style: direct and smooth, the book reads like a mystery—a literary mystery in which clues to stage and governmental politics are contained in the plays themselves. Personal significance, such as motives and history behind particular lines are explained in a way so fluid that readers move in and out of events as if they had personal connections.

The amount of research that went into the book surely must have been staggering, though Stirling lays it all out in such a way we tend not to think of it as pieces fitted together. It is as if he has pieced together a puzzle but we cannot see the lines; rather there is an image before us so magnificent, its contours and colors matched so brilliantly it wipes away understanding or awareness of the labor required to perform the task.

For example, Henry Wallis’s painting, A Sculptor’s Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1617, exhibited in 1857, provides some interesting insight; the author utilizes, amongst other knowledge, Greek myth and another painting to show how the artist drops heavy hints about events that led to an assault and the assailant’s role in supervising the funerary monument:

The Greek myth recalls the ‘merry meeting’ [and a] strained epitaph game—the ‘Rhymes’ which, according to Michael Drayton, who was there, [were made] with Shakespeare[; his opponent became] angry when he was ‘out-gone’. Hercules had been similarly incapable of controlling his rage ‘as a hero should’. He attacked the river god. Achelous turned himself into a snake and then a bull. Hercules wrestled the bull to the ground and tore off one of its horns, mutilating the river god’s brow.

It is moments such as this, laid out so efficiently, with such artistry and accessibility that Stirling draws readers’ sustained attention and focus to what he shows us, and creates a gripping drama that captures and carries us on to the next scene, and the next, and the next. There are many familiar names—Catesby (descendant of the first in the “Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge/rulyth all England under a hogge”), Throckmorton, Marlowe, Percy, Cobham, to name a few—that weave across time and consciousness, reminding us of the myriad connections between people and events, within their own times and others’.

For this reason, I found it helpful about midway through the book to return to the author’s “Preamble” in order to refresh my own recollections and re-connect what I was reading with what Stirling had provided in this first section. This is by no means a shortcoming of any sort on the book or author’s part, and in fact I found that section very helpful to return to on occasion to re-capture links I’d lost track of.

sculptorThere indeed is a great deal to absorb: Elizabethan and Jacobean politics, much of which (in education) stays hidden behind the curtain of “golden age” history; family and religious history and tensions; theatre and its obligations to the Crown; art and literature; government intrusion; family feuds; crime and punishment—it is as if the writing of the book required an author who is in part psychologist as well as detective, his forensic talents extending across all of the above to provide an examination of how this society affected one man—and all of us.

Though there are several segments I connected to more—including the portion in which the author examines Wallis’s painting—what I appreciated most about the book is Stirling’s honest and fair treatment of William Shakespeare. Popular culture tends to view him as upright and formal, laughing in disbelief at wooden-jaw caricatures or amazement at his appearance in other works of literature, acting out such ordinary human behavior as impulsiveness or possessing sexuality.

Here we find a man who is real, in a society and era hostile to who he was, and governed by those who would destroy him. He responds to many instances in ways we might criticize or copy; discussing the reality of his person honors him far more than a created image that falsifies the man. Stirling, too would have it no other way: “During the course of our investigation, a picture of Will Shakespeare will emerge which differs from the familiar, squeaky-clean image of the Bard. There will be no sweeping of vital evidence under the carpet. We owe him that.”

If you are a Shakespeare “fan” or not, familiar but not well-versed, lover of history or plainly inquisitive—and for many other reasons, this book is for you. It is a smooth read that will persuade your curiosity out into the open, sharpen the senses and bring into the light some painful truths about our own histories. As the author writes, the truth we owe Shakespeare must be brought out of hiding, as does that we owe to our children.

Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays
Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays–Artist Unknown (in the manner of Thomas Stothard)

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Simon Andrew Stirling is also the author of  The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero.

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The blogger was gifted a copy of Who Killed William Shakespeare? with no expectation of review. 

All images save book cover from Wikimedia Commons. 

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Author Interview: G.J. Berger (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

south-of-burnt-rocksRecently I had the great opportunity to read and review author G.J. Berger’s B.R.A.G. Medallion and San Diego Book Awardwinning novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon. Today Berger joins us for a bit of chat.

Good day, G.J. Berger, so awesome to have you here with us today! Hope you’ve been enjoying the sun in your neck of the woods—ours has returned since some weeks but the warmth to go with it is just now making itself more apparent. 

Your bio mentions your mom telling you, when you were eight, the story of Hannibal’s Alps crossing—with a great army and elephants, no less! Is this a bit of history she occasionally returned to, or was this a one-time story that gripped your imagination? 

For reasons I can’t fully explain, her story of Hannibal did grip hold and would not let go. She told me many stories, but none remained so vivid. At that time my single mom, with me in tow, was so poor that some nights we would have slept in her car. Except she did not own a car. But she was well educated, had lost everything several times in WWII, divorced my dad, and fled war-torn Germany for Australia. There and later in the US, she cleaned houses and watched the children of others to survive. After our work was done (I learned to dry dishes very well, washed cars, did yard work) and with no TV or Internet, we took walks or just talked. It was in these moments that she would tell me stories out of her extended family or out of deeper history.

What do you think could be amongst effective ways for families to get back into storytelling—historical events, family lore or other verbal tales that could spark young (or old!) imaginations?

I suppose they have to start by being families again from an early age, not just a collection of beings living in the same home and interacting once in a while in between all the other activities of their lives. Whenever a group of adults and youngsters gets away from modern trappings—say on a boat trip, an extended car trip, a place where the Internet is not pervasive—they tend to discover each other again, and stories about their lives or the lives of others naturally start spilling out. When our kids were of that age, we set aside regular family meeting time, and any member could ask for a family meeting. Pretty soon every member understood that these meetings helped us all understand and cope. Building little stories into such family meetings could really work well.

When did you first go to Celtic Spain and what brought you there? Did you go back more than once for research? What kinds of sites (or sights) did you see?

In my late teens I shipped out on a tramp steam ship. Its route was from NYC to Europe, around the Mediterranean, and back to NYC. That was my first “conscious” visit to ancient sites in Spain. Virginia and I went again in 2009 with the express purpose of roaming around some of the locales of South of Burnt Rocks. Spain has reconstructed or preserved a variety of structures from the time of Hannibal and Lavena, the main character of Burnt Rocks.

The site is the ancient city of Numancia. It was the place of the last stand by the locals against the Roman invaders. By then Lavena would have been an old woman, and Numancia might make for my third novel in a trilogy. At that site I visited reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo I’m looking at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.
At the site of the ancient city of Numancia by reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in, and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo Berger looks at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.

In a cold wind of February, we traipsed around the old stone fort above Sagunt (Sagunto), so central to the story. We ducked around the reconstructed Celtic city of Numancia and there explored a house that might have been similar to the one Lavena grew up in. We traveled through several mountain ranges in Spain. In Europe, only Switzerland has more mountain terrain. We visited small museums of the Celtic Iberians as well as the city of Cartagena, the staging area for Hannibal’s great army.

In terms of world building within your books, has any of it been inspired by ruins you’ve visited? Did you see any locations and get visual ideas that moved you forward?

In the Google age, it seems everything an author needs is at one’s finger tips. Not so. Before we left on that more recent trip, I Googled the reconstructed city of Numancia. The actual site was so different—the air, she sky, the wider terrain, the scale of things large and small, the vegetation can’t be conveyed on a computer screen. The fort above Sagunto is both massive and had multiple parts—some built by the locals, then by Hannibal, then Romans, and later the Moors. Cacti protect the sloping ground below the walls—and don’t register on a computer screen search. The confidence of having been there makes the writing more secure, makes for details that put the reader there.

How much information had you gathered before you had a rough plotline for South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon?

Ah, this is a bit out of the box. South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was my second completed manuscript of that time and place. So I already knew the history pretty well and used the history as the plot outline. Authors who write about true history don’t have to struggle about the larger plot lines—but they had better be careful to get it all correct.

What was your favorite chapter in the book to write? Which one was most difficult? What made each so?

Close call, but the one I turn to most often when others ask for my favorite is “First Strikes.” This chapter echoes detailed lessons learned by Lavena while training years before as a young girl to become a “she-warrior,” lessons that confound Roman brutes who would appear to have the better of her.

“Thunder Down From Mountains” was the most difficult. It contains fierce action carried out by several men and women and is also terribly sad. It ends Part I, setting the stage for Part II. If this chapter did not work, the rest of the story would not work either. I rewrote this one more than any other.

How do you develop your “fictional fictional” characters? That is to say, those other than who actually existed and were assigned biographical details in your novel—for example, the young Lavena and the Roman soldier who follows her?

At the time I started this novel, another novel had just been taken on by a New York agent who sent the earlier one out to publishers. She asked me about what I was working on next. I pitched about five ideas. She and I both settled on this one, but she asked me to ditch my proposed main character—an old Celtic warrior dying after battling Romans—and make the main character a woman. After about five beats, cocky me said, “I can do that.” I decided in that moment to make the main character the old fighter’s youngest daughter.

The Roman scout popped in for the first time after I had finished Part I. My writing muse told me Part II needed a Roman point of view, and a Roman scout seemed right.

How would you describe your style of writing?

I’ve been told there are two basic ways to write fiction. Outline everything in great detail and then fill in the rest, or let the first word push the next, the first sentence push the next sentence until done. I believe I use the second method more than the first, but I don’t start until I have a character I love, an opening place and time and some distant lights on the shore I want to get to.

FourNailsGJBerger_FrontCoverTrimSize96DPI_600x900webCan you tell us a little about your next book? When should we expect it?

Ah, this one is easy. It just came out. Its title is Four Nails. It’s about Hannibal’s lead elephant driver and his great and glorious elephant. Here’s the link.

What books were your favorites when you were eight? Which would you consider as favorites now? Which books are currently on your night table?

Not sure when I was eight, not many books around where we lived then. But I loved comic books then, especially Mandrake the Magician, his love interest, Nada, and his helper, Lothar. They solved all sorts of problems in most interesting ways. A couple years later when I had access to a library, I inhaled books of adventure—Jack London, The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, whole series on figures out of history. One of my favorites was the Scottish collie story, Bob, Son of Battle.

My favorites now include The Book Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Road. Dead Wake, a non-fiction book on the sinking of the Lusitania sits unfinished on my night stand.

Oh yes, graphic novels they call them—comic books—now. They were a bit controversial as they first began to evolve away from the more casual reading content. Nowadays they might have graphic novel versions of books such as the London and Dafoe stories. Do you object or see this as a constructive way to draw kids in larger numbers toward reading?

In my own early reading years, many novels had illustrations, not as many as a comic books or “graphic novel” but plenty enough for the young mind to get into the story very fast. Many non-fiction books use photos and illustrations today. I don’t see any reason (except cost) why fiction works usually only have a cover and perhaps a chart or map on the inside cover.

What would you say to a kid-friendly version of South of Burnt Rocks produced in graphic novel form?

I’m all for it, though I think I lean to a version with illustrations rather than solid comic book panels.

That would be fantastic! Looking back at your novel in its original form: Suppose the mother of an eight-year-old today had told her child the general plot of the South of Burnt Rocks story—the focus being on the historical and of course leaving certain portions for later years—and the child was fascinated by it, much the same way you were with the story your mom told you that led to this book being written. What would you tell this youngster?

Honey, a week from now, tell me about the Celts. Where they came from, where they went, what became of them. And tell me the name of the world city that contains a giant statue of a Lavena-like heroine who almost kicked the Romans out of the British Isles.

The cover of Four Nails laid out on my own table for a fantastic view to the back with its spectacular mountain range. The front cover shows a coin depicting hannibal astride his lead elephant.
The cover of Four Nails laid out for a view to the back with its spectacular mountain range (see above for author commentary about this). The front cover shows a coin depicting Hannibal astride his lead elephant. Image courtesy Lisl Zlitni

How about some getting-to-know-you a little apart from being a novelist~do you enjoy reading aloud to others?

I do enjoy reading aloud to others, but in this day and age, very few people of any age sit still long enough to be read to. If they do, they are likely to be staring into a hand-held device, or worried that they just missed a life-changing text message.

Are you a better cook or baker? What is your favorite dish to prepare? 

Oh, dear, don’t let Virginia see this, please don’t. I make great scrambled eggs, learned how from an old cowboy who did it on the range in Wyoming most mornings. There are several tricks. I make a good goulash, and will passably barbecue about anything. For anything else, I’d have to put my face into the recipe.

What movie for you is a must-see-in-cinema film?

The Godfather—the first one.

Do you collect anything or pursue a particular hobby? If so, how did you get going with it?

I used to collect stamps somewhat seriously, started from having traveled so many places at a young age. Then one day the absurdity of the whole thing hit me, and almost overnight I decided to sell my collection and have never looked back. I think learning about people and places depicted on old stamps and understanding the little tweaks that created or destroyed value in collectible stamps pulled me in. But once I had a few nice ones, the whole thing lost its appeal.

Virginia and I have for decades been learning the Argentine Tango. Once hooked, no other dance comes close.

What’s your favorite board game?

Bananagrams.

Are you a dog or cat person? Sweet snacks or savory? Hardcopy books or e-reader? 

Dog, but I greatly admire cats and wish I did not have allergies. Savory snacks. Hardcopy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add—related or completely random—that we haven’t discussed?

I am a lucky fellow that I have the time to write. It’s such a selfish undertaking. The writer must shut out all others, all other duties, all other thoughts for great chunks of time. I am lucky that I have writer friends who ask me to look at their work and react and who then come back for more. That part is almost as much fun as writing my own. Apart from family, my readers are my favorite people.

From my work with other writers, from my reviewing many other novels, I’ve learned that there are many interesting stories well told. Now, at last, the Internet allows those stories to find readers without obtaining permission from professionals toiling away in cubicles in office buildings in major cities. It’s a golden age for authors.

I like the way you put that—“without obtaining permission.” There are soooo many amazing stories to be told. Do you believe the more golden of this golden age is yet to come, that the popularity of indie authors will become much greater, almost mainstream? Mainstream, perhaps, in the numbers sense, but they could still be called indie because they retain creative rights and don’t have to seek that permission from someone in a secluded, posh office to tell a great story.

It’s of course hard to tell where the independent publishing world is going to be in the future, where traditional publishing is headed. It’s equally hard to tell whether the future will bring more or fewer readers. For the moment I’m content to let others figure that out and remain very glad my stories can get out to readers without someone else giving me and my stories that permission. The direct author-reader connection is wonderful.

Thank you ever so much for allowing us a glimpse into your world and getting to know you some more. It has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I hope we shall be meeting up again soon!

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george_1_9-17-13_email6x9When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.

G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.

When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.

G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.

You can learn more about G.J. Berger’s work and news at his website and Twitter. A review for Four Nails, the prequel to South of Burnt Rocks, can be seen here.

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Stay tuned for my review of Four Nails

Images courtesy G.J. Berger except when otherwise indicated.

 

 

Author Interview: Anna Belfrage (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

shadowLong-time readers of the blog are probably quite aware of my enthusiasm for the work of Anna Belfrage–namely her B.R.A.G. Medallion-winning Graham Saga and now the start of her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy. I was so privileged to have been able to read and review the kickoff to the series, In the Shadow of the Storm. Kit and Adam, the novel’s protagonists, are no Alex and Matthew, which is a good thing, for they bring a whole new dynamic, perspective and fantabulous story to historical fiction.

I’ve chatted with the author before and we got to know each other over virtual tea and cake–chocolate, of course. A second interview came with my re-visitation of A Rip in the Veil–along with a review, both of which shall be forthcoming on these pages quite soon. I was treated to lemon meringue pie for that one! Now for a third time, we get to chat and I’ve brought along a treat for the chocoholic Anna Belfrage. Hope she’ll like it!

Good day, Anna Belfrage, and I hope this finds you well! I am so excited to see you yet again to talk a little about your new book, In the Shadow of the Storm.

About as excited as I am to be back here, in virtual Alaska. And even better, I see you have provided tea and cake. Have I ever mentioned I love cake? And tea? And having said that, I must say my present sojourn in the Middle Ages is a bit of a challenge. What did my poor characters indulge in when they needed a food binge? Dried peas? I must say… no: sorry. You have questions, Ms Zlitni. I shall focus on replying to them.

brownies 3
Image courtesy Lisl Zlitni

Don’t forget the cake! Well, brownies today. [Lisl uncovers plate.] Made with Ghirardelli chocolate! So … you mention in your historical note that the book is partly inspired by Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor. Did the story come to you as you were reading the book; perhaps at the end it all started to come together? Or was there a pivotal moment within when something clicked?

I have always had a thing for Roger Mortimer – long before I ever read Mr Mortimer’s books (and just to clear things up, they are NOT related). In fact, I bought the book just because it was about Roger – and then I read it page to page.

Before this reading, had you been considering a novel set in fourteenth-century England? Which figure(s) first captured your imagination? Edward II? Mortimer? The evil Despenser?

My first love has always been the medieval period – until I discovered the 17th century and went all wild and crazy over this absolutely fascinating era. But yes, I knew that at some point I’d want to write something set in medieval times, and originally I was looking further back, seeing as I grew up with a major crush on Richard Lionheart – utterly pathetic, given that he was dead since ages.

As to what figure captured my imagination, it was Roger Mortimer – and his love affair with Isabella. That’s just me, I guess – I gravitate towards the love angle. And I’ve always wondered what Mortimer’s loyal and abandoned wife would have felt about all this – something I touch upon in my books.

However, once I started reading up, I was more than sucked in by the political turmoil of the time. Edward II may have been a good man, but he was a weak king, things further compounded by famine and scheming barons. Ultimately, things haven’t changed all that much: create a void at the top of the power hierarchy and people will climb all over each other in their efforts to become king of the hill – which is what happened during the turbulent years of Edward II’s reign.

Do you find a fair number of readers are expecting another Graham Saga, or are (pleasantly) surprised when the story turns out to be completely new and different? Was there any part of it you worried readers would habitually compare?

rip
A Rip in the Veil, first installment in The Graham Saga series

I think the fans of The Graham Saga are not necessarily quite as enamoured with Kit and Adam as I am – at least not initially. But once I have them hooked with the story, I’m hoping they will enjoy this gallop through medieval England. After all, both series have at their core a man and a woman who will do anything to keep each other safe – no matter the risks involved.

The main difference is that Alex, the female protagonist of The Graham Saga is a modern woman thrown three centuries backwards in time. While she adapts, she is fundamentally still modern, so readers find it easy to relate to her, while Kit is very much a product of her time (as she should be). Not that being medieval in any way impinges on Kit’s ability to defend those she loves …

If I may ask, you once had told me you didn’t think this new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, would be my cup of tea. What made you consider this might be so?

Did I say that? I must have eaten too much ice cream that day, leaving me with a brain freeze! Somewhat more seriously, I think the fact that you so enjoyed The Graham Saga made me a bit nervous, so I was just trying to lower your expectations. Plus, I never got the impression you were all that much into medieval times – with the exception of the late 15th century. But I was wrong, wasn’t I? You did like it!

You mean I’ve never forced you listen to me carry on about Merlin? Well, yes, I do tend toward the latter Plantagenets, but have been enjoying discovery of other eras as well. Nosy sort of question: Are all the books already written, or are you still working on the end of the series? Do you ever find yourself considering reader sentiment when mapping out future events?

All the books are written – but not through the final edit. As to reader sentiment, in this specific case I am writing a series based on factual events – which at times is heart-wrenching. It also restricts my freedom as to what can happen or not in the books – which I must admit I occasionally find suffocating and challenging.

Yes, indeed, the historical events dictate rather a lot. Would you ever consider writing a series in serial form—evaluating reader sentiment as part of how events play out in newer installments? I myself only know of one author today who does this, and am unsure how prevalent it is. I think Charles Dickens got it all going and as audiences read each installment they would write letters about who they liked and didn’t, etc.

No. I have enough of a challenge handling my characters, who have this nasty tendency to take off in an entirely unwanted direction in the midst of an ongoing plotline. I have, however, taken to heart comments made by readers regarding the first few books in The Graham Saga and carried them with me into future books. As an example, people were very upset with Julian Allerton after book seven (as was I) so he was given an opportunity to make amends in book eight.

I do, however, find the idea of interactive writing intriguing. But I’m not sure I’d want to do it with a plotline/characters that are truly important to me – I somehow need to hold them close until I’ve seen them through to the end.

What do you suppose accounts for the immense popularity of series these days? It seems as if so many books—even young adult that I see in my son’s collections—are but one part of a lineup. The cynic, of course, could point toward profit, but readers don’t respond to poorly written stories, so I myself don’t buy that as an explanation (no pun intended!).

I actually think there are various reasons, but one is, in my opinion, closely linked to the speed with which things happen today. Our lives whizz by, change is ubiquitous, we rarely have the time or patience to see one TV show from end to beginning without zapping around midway through; as a species we are increasingly restless, increasingly moving onwards and upwards – or trying to. It fries our synapses to keep up with all that change, and so, when it comes to relaxation, I think we crave familiarity and a slowing down. I don’t know what things are like your end of the world, but here in Sweden I see more and more anglers, men who stand for hours and stare at the water while holding on to a fishing rod. They don’t speak. They don’t look at their smartphones. They just stand there, now and then pulling up a flash of silver as they land a herring.

I suspect reading a series delivers a similar feeling: you know the characters, you know the setting, all you need to do is sit back and allow yourself to be carried away.

As a writer, I’d say series spring from the fact that the characters grow on you, become voices that echo through your dreams, whispering seductively about new adventures just down the road. Plus it helps that you already know them.

Have you talked to Kit or Adam apart from the novel? If so, what are they like with you? Do they realize they are fictional characters? How you suppose Kit in particular feels about you being in control of their destiny, given her strong will to be her own woman?

“Have you talked to Kit or Adam …” Of course, I have! My characters have this nasty tendency to become fixtures in my brain, constant whispering presences. As Matthew and Alex (from The Graham Saga) also hang around in the more convoluted corners of my head, it is quite the noisy place at times.

I actually talk more to Adam than Kit. He is the one who has the roughest road to travel – “an honourable man burdened with too much integrity,” as Mortimer puts it – and there are times when all this political intrigue gets him down. Plus, he fears for his wife and their children – with valid reasons, one might add.

Fortunately for Adam, Kit is always there for him, a warm embrace to hold him close when the outside world is just too much. Likewise, anyone as much as looks askance at Kit, and Adam surges to his feet, all six feet and more of protective male.

What’s next for Anna Belfrage? Do you have any more stories up your sleeve?

Well, I do have a ninth book in The Graham Saga coming up … Matthew and Alex are in for something of a rough ride when one of their sons betrays their priest friend, and an unknown, very damaged, granddaughter shows up out of the blue.

Other than that, I am working on a trilogy called The Wanderer (the first book is called A Torch in His Heart) which is a combination of contemporary romance, paranormal stuff and time slip. I’m not sure it’s your cup of tea (wink, wink) …

In brief, it’s the story of Jason and Helle who originally met up at a time when the fall of Troy was still a memory, not the stuff of legends. Thanks to the ambitious, greedy and cruel Prince Samion of Colchis, things did not go so well back then, and what was supposed to be a Happily Ever After morphed into death and loss. Now, for the first time in 3,000 years, Jason and Helle are in the same time and place. Unfortunately, so is Samion, and it is time to finish what was started in the distant fogs of time …

Plus, I have a new series set in the 17th century, and possible a series of sequels to Kit and Adam, and … well: my poor brain is going to burst at the seams someday.

Do you ever think you spend too much time on any part of the writing process? What word do you find yourself using a lot, even too much, in your writing?

No. I spend the time required to write a book I am proud of. Sometimes, more time goes into the rewrites than the first draft, at others it’s the other way around.

As to words, I always end up stuck on one word/expression in each book I write. This is why one needs editors (well, not only…) so as to tell you that maybe you’re repeating “no more” ad nauseam as I did in the unedited version of the next book in the Kit and Adam series.

Which of any of your characters possesses a trait you would like to have?

 All of them. I’d like to be as honourable as Matthew and Adam are, I’d love to be as brave as Alex, as persevering as Kit. But I am very happy to have few things in common with Hugh Despenser.

Hmmm … intriguing. Any hints?

As to what I have in common with Hugh? Ambition, definitely – but mine is tempered (I hope) by a strong moral compass. And the Hugh I’ve created has his moments of wit – as do I. Other than that, nada.

I must point out, though, that I find Hugh Despenser an extremely capable person. His misfortune was living under a king who couldn’t control him.

Knowing what you do about the time of King Edward II, would you be afraid to live in this era? Or confident about doing?

I’d prefer not to. First of all, as a woman, chances are you’d spend a substantial amount of your life pregnant and even die as a consequence of all these childbirths. Secondly, I’d find it difficult to live in an age so influenced by the Church – I’d probably be far too outspoken for my own good. Thirdly, as a woman I’d be relegated to the periphery – albeit that exceptions such as Isabella of France existed. And then there’s the sad fact that there was no tea and little cake – sugar was a luxury item.

And no chocolate—I can see where that is a dreadful consideration.

 Tell me about it! Imagine an entire life without a Hershey gold nugget. Wasted, in my opinion.

 [chuckles] What was the last book you read? What books recently jumped up onto your To Be Read (TBR)?

I’ve just had one of my “I must devour romance” phases, culminating with the fifth book in Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series.

Right now, I am reading an advance review copy of a book set in the 12th century called For King and Country by Char Newcomb. I loved her first book, so I have very high expectations.

As I am one of the final judges for the 2016 Historical Novel Society Award, at present four new books landed on my TBR: Aurelia by Alison Morton, Bloodie Bones by Lucienne B., Fossil Island by Barbara Sjoholm and When Sorrows Come by Maria Dziedzan.

Thank you so much, Anna, for joining us today! It’s been a pleasure and a privilege, and I hope we can do it again.

Absolutely! But next time, how about you drop by my place instead? And seeing as I know you don’t like chocolate (however incomprehensible) I’ll bake you something with apples instead.

Thank you so much for having me, Lisl!

The pleasure is all mine. Oh and just for fun, here’re a couple of pies my son and I have been exploring for next March 14.

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From Anna Belfrage’s website

anna

I was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.

Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?) a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.

Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months …. It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.

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Follow and learn more about Anna Belfrage and her work at her website, Twitter and Facebook. See my review for A Rip in the Veil here, and stay tuned for my review of that book revisited! Also, don’t miss more book reviews of her fantabulous stories, including in her newest series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.

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Images courtesy Anna Belfrage except where otherwise noted

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