Guest Post: Virginia King, Rocking with Rocks (Plus Giveaway)

Rocking with Rocks by Virginia King

Author of B.R.A.G. Medallion award-winning The First Lie

See below for giveaway and free download details!

The symbolism of objects has always fascinated me. My love of folklore means there’s always a mythical twist to my modern mysteries and ‘magic objects’ with fairy tale credentials often link up to form a matrix of clues. Such as rocks.

In Selkie Moon’s second mystery The Second Path the symbolism of rocks came to me, setting up a chain reaction of events in the story. It’s a good example of how an idea implants itself in the subconscious and multiplies into a theme.

 

Rock 160KB

Rocks as Gifts

When my husband got to sail on an ocean-going canoe with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, he experienced the custom of rocks being exchanged from one island to another as a form of gift. This custom was in the back of my mind in The First Lie, when my main character Selkie Moon ran away from Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii.

Rocks Carry a Curse

When I wanted Selkie to carry a rock as a gift, I researched the custom and discovered some alarming stories – from Hawaii and Australia.

It’s illegal in Hawaii to souvenir a lava rock from a national park, but people still do it and lots of lava rocks are mailed back by visitors who claim the theft has cursed them with bad luck. Many such stories abound and perpetuate the belief in the curse.

Sorry Rock LetterThe rangers at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia are said to receive one parcel a day from hapless visitors returning ‘sorry rocks’ because the pilfered pebble has rained nothing but bad luck down on them.

In spite of these stories, I didn’t want to let my rock-as-greeting idea go, so Selkie doesn’t touch any lava rocks or go to Uluru.

What if?

With Selkie travelling abroad with a rock in her suitcase, my subconscious started playing with ideas. How could a rock play a part in the evolving mystery? What if …

  • she takes a rock through customs at the airport and declares it?
  • she’s carrying a rock in her hands ready to present it as a gift, but she gets caught holding it on a security camera, then later a window is found broken?
  • she’s got a rock in her suitcase and the bag splits open? Might the rock carry other things with it when it falls out? What things? What does she lose?

Rocks have Cracks

When Selkie gives her rock as a gift, the recipient rubs his hands over it and feels a crack. His reaction surprised both Selkie and me:

“I like this crack,” he says. “Cracks signify wonderful things.”

“Imperfection?”

He laughs. “Openings, secrets, doorways to hidden places, chinks in our defences, entrances to inner caves. Don’t get me started on cracks …”

This conversation is the beginning of another theme. The rock arrived in the story from just a simple idea but it grew into a series of symbols that weave and interconnect throughout the book.

second path

About the author…

When a voice wakes you up in the middle of the night and tells you to write a mystery series what’s a writer to do? That’s how Virginia King came to create Selkie Moon, after a massage from a strange woman with gifted hands was followed by this nocturnal message. Virginia sat down at the keyboard until Selkie Moon turned up. All she had to do was jump, the first sentence said. Soon Virginia was hooked, exploring far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia had been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

You can learn more about and follow author Virginia King at her website, blog, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon author page.

A Free Ghost Story

Get a taste for the Selkie Moon mystery series with Laying Ghosts, a modern 24-page haunted house story inspired by a Russian folktale and tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s a standalone story but also a prequel to the series and explains the chilling reason for Selkie Moon leaving Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii. Download your free copy here.

Laying Ghosts
Click the image to get your free download!

Giveaway of The First Lie

You could be one of ten lucky winners who will choose either a signed paperback or an audio book of The First Lie plus a $15 Amazon gift code. One grand prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift code.

Enter here.

Or, if you simply can’t wait to own your own edition of The First Lie, hop on over to the author’s website and grab your copy!

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Click here to see my review of The First Lie, the thrilling first in the Selkie Moon Mystery series.

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Images courtesy Virginia King. 

Book Review: The First Lie (Plus Giveaway)

The First Lie (Book I in the Selkie Moon Mystery Series) by Virginia King

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

See below for details as to how you could win a signed copy or audio book of

The First Lie

and an Amazon gift card!

Plus: Download a free ghost story below!

Though I am a huge ghost story fan, over the years I’ve come to avoid various books classified as “paranormal” because so many involve blood-drinking and other creatures who fail to excite my imagination—and even disgust me a little. Let’s face it: it’s a wide continuum and though understandable why these and others might be placed on it, there are nevertheless huge gulfs. For a while there I found most of my ghostly reading came from the time when séances were all the rage.

First Lie coverSo it was with pleasure that I came across Virginia King’s The First Lie, a modern paranormal mystery steeped in Celtic and Hawaiian mythology that promised to draw me into an international chase between two worlds—and draw me in it did.

One of the first elements I admired was the likability of King’s protagonist and supporting characters. These are individuals who talk to each other in ways that genuinely reflect the way people really act and converse. Even the baddies are credible, their behaviors and consequences developing as a result of realistic foibles.

Australian Selkie Moon escapes an emotionally abusive marriage—itself entered with the hope of providing refuge from a cold and calculating stepmother—by re-locating to Hawaii, where she sets up a business venture. She begins to experience visitations by a woman warning that someone is trying to kill her. Selkie’s art-student roommate Wanda, knowledgeable in the supernatural, counsels her, but even her native understanding is limited by her experiences. Following her decision to fully investigate this and other goings-on, Selkie garners her information from a variety of sources, themselves linked within true-to-life degrees of separation and in possession of knowledge that makes sense relative to who they are—a wise direction for King to take and cleverly mapped out.

Selkie’s co-worker Derek and his partner, Nigel, gift her a dress custom made by an Irish girl, whose later link to Selkie weaves the story through a project at work, which in turn affects the business relationship between herself and a client who subsequently plays a large role in bringing her closer to understanding the events playing out in her life. Real life tends to operate this way, so it makes sense for the author to reflect this in her work, and she does it in a way so sleek and engaging I found myself moving through transitions I’d wanted to use as a good stopping point, but didn’t because I was so involved I had to keep following.

This ho’ohihi, interconnectedness, is also addressed within the tale in the context of the roles people play not only in their own lives and personal pasts, but also their ancestral histories and how that affects the paths they travel. The selkie mythology—sea creatures resembling seals who can take human form on land—is explained in a dialogue that unwraps yet another layer to the story and mirrors some of Selkie’s own memory and experiences, beginning with the name her mother loved so much, and into the present-day ghostly stalking. “Around here,” Roger tells her, “the interface between the living and the dead … wavers.”

At dinner the night before a proposed outing, Selkie asks for details. The exchange about photography encompasses a picture of the relationship between Selkie and Roger, expands upon the “interface” the latter had spoken of and becomes a conduit, a road for Selkie to make her way toward her next supernatural experience, developing a foundational event in her story.

“A competition. For serious photographers. Called … Life and Death.”

A topic that might be haunting me. “Isn’t a cemetery a bit … obvious?”

“Only to an amateur. It’s the artist’s job to accentuate drama. Transmute the ambience into something … palpable. A solitary gravestone against the horizon … signifying the folly of man’s struggle against nature. That kind of thing.”

“Right.” Roger could be a tad pretentious. “So why do you want me along?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” he mimics. “I need someone pretty to carry my bags. And waggle her excellent buttocks occasionally.”

“I want to take photos too.”

He laughs. “You know sweet FA about photography.”

King even enables the reader to interconnect with the tale, not only in its captivating nature and how she draws readers in, but also by a small addition at the novel’s opening, a list of Hawaiian words. She does this by keeping the list limited—removing the potential overload and overwhelming nature of too much new information—and her word choices render us familiar with but also visitors to this world: we are new, yet still connected, much like events and characters in the story. Kahuna, a wise person or sorcerer and menehune, legendary little people, link with the familiar: Pele, a volcano goddess, Mai Tai, lei and muumuu.

As the tale moves on and Selkie begins to find answers—often raising more questions—explanations are called for, and King provides in a way that encourages absorption rather than confusion. Her style is spare but not sharp. She deftly renders the potentially complicated into a succinct exchange or passage of a fascinating topic against the backdrop of Selkie’s story and intriguing hints at her ancestry. I remain rather impressed at how well she handles as many layers as the novel contains, all while still drawing in and keeping us mesmerized. For just a small taste at what that means, consider the variety of genres and styles The First Lie overlaps: psychological thriller, drama, betrayal, paranormal, mystery, magic, mythology, self-discovery and romance, to name but a few. Selkie’s real life experiences blend beautifully with her visions and King brings us to emotional depths, and with such expertise, often unexplored in modern literature.

The First Lie is simultaneously what I’d hoped yet nothing I expected: thrilling all the way through with new twists at every turn, written in a grand style in a modern setting, and opening the door to further exploration. What will Selkie’s future hold? What other questions will arise as a result of what she finds here? Will she in time be able to accept all she has learned? Does she want to know more?

These and other questions will arise in the series’ next installment, The Second Path, and I look forward to seeing where the tale will take me as well.

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About the author…

Virginia KingWhen a voice wakes you up in the middle of the night and tells you to write a mystery series what’s a writer to do? That’s how Virginia King came to create Selkie Moon, after a massage from a strange woman with gifted hands was followed by this nocturnal message. Virginia sat down at the keyboard until Selkie Moon turned up. All she had to do was jump, the first sentence said. Soon Virginia was hooked, exploring far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia had been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

You can learn more about and follow author Virginia King at her website, blog, FacebookTwitter or Amazon author page.

A Free Ghost Story

Get a taste for the Selkie Moon mystery series with Laying Ghosts, a modern 24-page haunted house story inspired by a Russian folktale and tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s a standalone story but also a prequel to the series and explains the chilling reason for Selkie Moon leaving Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii. Download your free copy here.

Laying Ghosts
Click image to get to download page!

Giveaway of The First Lie

You could be one of ten lucky winners who will choose either a signed paperback or an audio book of The First Lie plus a $15 Amazon gift code. One grand prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift code.

Enter here.

Or, if you simply can’t wait to own your own edition of The First Lie, hop on over to the author’s website and grab your copy!

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Click here for Virginia King’s captivating guest post about souvenir and sorry rocks!

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Images courtesy Virginia King. A free copy of The First Lie was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review. 

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This post was updated to include a link to the author’s subsequent guest post.

Guest Post: Kristie Dean: On the Trail of the Yorks (Plus Giveaway)

On the Trail of Richard IIIToday I’m very excited to host Kristie Dean, author of On the Trail of Richard III (formerly The World of Richard III), which I reviewed back in August. The paperback edition is being released today in the United States and is available for purchase at Amazon.

Now Dean is back with an accompanying text, On the Trail of the Yorks, which I’ll leave for her to introduce. However, I will add that you should be sure to leave a comment because there’s a free copy to be had! Simply leave a comment–don’t fret about saying anything super snazzy–and you’ll be entered into the draw! On the Trail of the Yorks is also available for purchase here.

On the Trail of the Yorks

Part of the fun of researching On the Trail of the Yorks was visiting the places the York family had lived and loved. I especially enjoyed visiting locations that had not experienced great changes because it felt as if I could almost reach out and touch the past. When Lisl invited me to do a guest blog, I decided to share some of my pictures from the research trip. Some of these made it into the book, while others did not.

Ludlow Castle has to be one of the more picturesque castles in the British Isles. The best views of the enormous building can be gained by meandering along the Bread Walk from Ludford Bridge. Towering over the river, Ludlow can be glimpsed from the path through a mixture of tangled vines and flowers. Richard, Duke of York, was here at the castle when news reached him that the king’s troops had arrived.

Ludlow Castle

From the first moment I visited Kenilworth Castle, I was enchanted.  The castle ruins glow red in the sun and it is easy to imagine how grand it once appeared as Richard approached it towards the end of his reign. ­­The garden in the castle is a recreation of a Tudor garden and is exquisite. A garden certainly existed at Kenilworth in Richard’s time as well.

Kenilworth Castle

Calais was an unexpected delight. I arrived early in the morning and made my way to the center of the city. After parking my rental car, I walked to Église de Notre Dame where George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Neville likely married. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, but I was able to make my way around the outside before walking on to the harbor. Calais was largely destroyed in the twentieth century and not much remains of the city as Richard and his brothers would have known it.

Calais
Église de Notre Dame

Bruges, Belgium is a place that I hope to return to time and again. Picturing Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, as she rode in a lavish procession through the city following her marriage to Charles, was incredibly easy. The city center still retains its medieval feel and there is so much to offer a visitor interested in history. Of all the places that I visited for the first time on my research trip for On the Trail of Richard III, it was my favorite. Take a ride on the canal, wander the twisting, winding medieval streets, or climb to the top of the belfry for an amazing view.

Bruges

Anne Neville married Edward of Lancaster at the Château d’Amboise in France. I was doubly excited to visit the château since Anne Boleyn also stayed there for a time. The day I visited was a gorgeous sunny one, with the creamy white building shimmering against the backdrop of the sparkling blue sky. As I strolled through the gardens, I pictured a young Anne Neville doing the same as she contemplated her marriage to her family’s former enemy.

Chateau d'Amboise
Château d’Amboise

Cecily Neville is believed to have been born at Raby Castle. While little of the interior is the same as it was in her time, the exterior still resembles the castle Cecily knew. A visit to Raby Castle can take a few hours and the interior is accessible via a guided tour. On one of my visits I was lucky enough to see several of the deer that still roam Raby’s deer park. Although I have been several times, I always manage a visit to the parish church in Staindrop.

Raby

Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, was another delightful surprise. Elizabeth, the fifth child and second daughter of Cecily and Richard, married John de la Pole, the son of William de la Pole and Alice Chaucer. She and John would have visited Ewelme often, especially when Alice was still alive. Within the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, a large alabaster tomb rests between the nave and the chapel of St. John the Baptist. This elaborately decorated tomb contains an effigy of Alice wearing a ducal coronet.

Ewelme

Eltham Palace was a favorite of Edward IV. He was responsible for the construction of the Great Hall. Today, the only way to visit the hall is by buying a ticket to tour the Art Deco palace. I thought I would rush through the palace and make my way immediately to the hall, but I thoroughly enjoyed the 1930s interior.

Eltham Palace
Eltham Palace

Lincoln Cathedral is a must-see for any visitor to England. The soaring cathedral was reputedly once the tallest building in the world. Not a single detail was overlooked in its construction and it is a beautiful place to visit. Nearby is the Medieval Bishops’ Palace where Richard likely stayed on his visit to the city. I also enjoyed visiting Gainsborough Old Hall, a short distance away. Richard was a guest here overnight.

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Gainsborough Old Hall

About the author…

Kristie Dean is the author of On the Trail of Richard III (formerly The World of Richard III) and On the Trail of the Yorks, both available from Amberley Publishing. When not travelling for research, you can find her at home with her husband, three dogs and two cats.

Many, many thanks to Kristie Dean for stopping by for a visit and sharing her beautiful photos with us!

Remember to comment below to get your name in the drawing for a FREE COPY of On the Trail of the Yorks.

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Book Review: March to Destruction

March to Destruction (Book II in The Emperor’s American Series)
by Art McGrath

march to destructionIn addressing how he came to write about an American serving in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, author Art McGrath references his quest to discover how such a circumstance might come to be. “It was discovery through writing, and while it may sound like a cliché, it was as if Pierre Burns was standing over my shoulder telling his story. He wanted to be discovered.”

In March to Destruction, superb sequel to McGrath’s The Emperor’s American, the author indeed employs the Method philosophy to tell Burns’s story—in fact, so effectively that readers would be forgiven for believing this to be the memoir of a real historical figure. Since the series’ opening novel, Burns’s—excuse me, McGrath’s—narrative has tightened as he further employs an economy perhaps reflective of the manner in which a soldier’s self awareness might utilize minimum movement to ultimately provide maximum advancement.

Narrated by Burns, an American of French-Scots decent who had been raised to abhor the English and sought his opportunity to fight and kill them, the tale continues his deployment with the Grande Armée. This time, however, Burns moves east into Bavaria, geographically farther from his first campaign in The Emperor’s American, but still against the same foe, who bankrolls foreign armies to create havoc on the Continent. He comes under direction of the ruthless spymaster General Savary, whose summary execution of the Duc d’Enghien the previous year had triggered Russian determination to curb Napoleon’s power, and now contributes to the slightly tense interactions between them.

When the pair first meet up we sense a competition of sorts, initiated by Savary, who affably concedes a touché before they move on. The tension remains, however, and when they climb into a bell tower for lookout duty, it comes somewhat more out into the open. Savary addresses the incident that provoked the outrage of numerous European houses, to the bewilderment of Burns, whose emotional recall leads to his answer and readers’ sensation of the caution closing the scene:

“I suppose you’re thinking, Burns,” Savary said without taking his spyglass from his eyes, “if only we hadn’t had the Duc d’Enghien executed last year you wouldn’t be stuck in Central Europe looking for an Austrian army but would still be on the coast preparing to invade England, perhaps even be in England by now.”

I stopped scanning the horizon to look at the general; it seemed such an odd question out of nowhere.

“Maybe I should have done more[,” Savary suggested.]

I had heard both sides of that point argued in the officers’ mess and taverns in the camp near Boulogne, but I didn’t feel entirely adequate discussing the matter with someone so intimately involved with the affair and with the Emperor. However, Savary pressed the point.

“What would you have done, Burns?”

The question stunned me. “I think, mon Général, such matters are far above my purview as a lieutenant.”

[…] I watched a falcon dive at the roof of a house below, trying to catch a dove roosting there. The prey escaped.

McGrath moves his passage forward and simultaneously back to the approaching Austrian army and the French troops’ own onward progression. He continues to demonstrate the manner in which March to Destruction utilizes dramatic expression familiar to audiences of the stage and screen.

DCF 1.0
The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thevenin (Photo Wikipedia Commons)

Throughout the book, Burns speaks of what Stanislavsky in his Moscow theater would have referred to as the American’s “super objective”: he is motivated by his deep and abiding desire to fight and kill English, taking him farther into the heart of Europe and advancing the novel’s plot. As they move on, so too the narrative carries forward, not unlike the rivers Inn and Rhine, which also make cameos, contributing to the sensation of the plot flowing amid the countryside they march through, transitioning smoothly from one circumstance to the next.

This is often achieved by McGrath’s employment of props as metaphor, contributing to the unfolding of the plot or digging at the psychology of the moment, adding layers to events that also unfold as readers advance in the story. Following an English attempt on Burns’s life and the would-be assassins’ capture, Napoleon seizes their gold, rewarding it to our lieutenant and resuming the afore-mentioned friction.

Savary caught up to me […] “I’ll need the coins as evidence.”

I raised an eyebrow, my sardonic expression not well hidden.

“It’s evidence, Burns.”

I handed one to Savary.

“I’ll need all of them, Burns.”

That’s all the evidence you need, mon Général. They’re all the same as that one. The Emperor returned them to me.”

Savary stared at me, dark eyes studying me. “It’s blood money, Burns.”

I shrugged. “What of it? It’s my blood[.]”

While there is no mention in this installment of the emperor’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, we periodically come across snippets of narrative reminiscent of the style one might find in a letter, or a conversational tone bringing readers closer to the character: “I loaded my pistols and made the rounds of the loopholes manned by the soldiers in my company, checking on each man. For a moment I almost said my men, but they really weren’t.”

americanBurns’s reasoned humility, periodic complaint of those who wish him ill and anguish over an unattainable love interest all remain evident in enough doses to show his decency as well as how he, too, is subject to human nature. His poor choices tend to keep him anchored, and he knows it, as well as the reality that it isn’t always genius on his part that events turn in the favor of this man’s army: “Behind every good officer, especially a junior officer, is a good NCO [non-commissioned officer], as I came to realize quickly after I joined the army.”

McGrath winds it all together with confidence, as if he is seeing everything Pierre describes over his shoulder, and the battle scenes in particular are cohesive, with thrilling precision of language that is authentic and possessed of authority, without the need to rely on military jargon. Even the longer skirmishing keeps readers on alert as they make connections, bridge transitions, and follow an internal conflict that will cause them to stay awake far, far too late into the night.

For readers who enjoyed The Emperor’s American, this is a half a year in the life of Pierre Burns that will exceed expectations based on the brilliant first part of his story: McGrath’s storytelling prowess has grown, as has Pierre himself. He continues to use dialogue to show events as they occur, and more frequently connections to indicate political nuances as well as explanation, such as his reading of a newspaper article on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Knowing this is not the last to be heard from the Baltimorean will buoy them with anticipation for those tales yet to be told.

For an audience not yet acquainted with Burns: do yourself a favor—not because you have to, for March to Destruction can indeed be read as a stand-alone. However, characters who grow with their audience and who readers can relate to, and have appeal beyond the strictures of genre have a staying power that eclipses individual struggle, such as those to achieve, belong and accept. Depriving oneself of earlier Pierre Burns is to miss out on a character whose name in coming years is sure to stand out in literature of war.

About the author…

mcgrath

Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne–the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. March to Destruction is second in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns through the Napoleonic Wars to the climatic Battle of Waterloo. Learn more about Art McGrath and the book at his author page and at Facebook.

The blogger received a free copy of March to Destruction in exchange for an honest review. 

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Photos courtesy Art McGrath unless otherwise noted

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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.

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            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.”

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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