Blog Tour Book Review: Two Journeys Home

 Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe
(Book II in The Derrynane Saga)
by Kevin O’Connell

About the Book:

It’s 1767. As the eagerly anticipated sequel to Beyond Derrynane begins, Eileen O’Connell avails herself of a fortuitous opportunity to travel back to Ireland. In Two Journeys Home, the O’Connells encounter old faces and new—and their lives change forever.

Her vivacious personality matched only by her arresting physical presence, Eileen returns to Derrynane this time not as a teenaged widow but as one of the most recognised figures at the Habsburg court. Before returning to Vienna she experiences a whirlwind romance, leading to a tumult of betrayal and conflict with the O’Connell clan.

Abigail lives not in the shadow of her sister but instead becomes the principal lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Theresa.

Hugh O’Connell leaves behind waning adolescence and a fleeting attraction to the youngest archduchess when he begins a military career in the Irish Brigade under Louis XV. But more royal entanglement awaits him in France…

Author Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful tapestry affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe and Protestant Ascendancy–ruled Ireland. Watch as the saga continues to unfold amongst the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, at home and abroad.

Editorial Reviews:

O’Connell is a fantastic storyteller. His prose is so rich and beautiful it is a joy to read. The story is compelling and the characters memorable – all the more so because they are based on real people. . . I am Irish but I did not know about this piece of Irish history. It is fascinating but historical fiction at the same time . . . Highly recommended for historical fiction lovers!

(c) Beth Nolan, Beth’s Book Nook

I enjoyed the first part of the Saga awhile back . . . (and) couldn’t wait to continue the story of Eileen and her family . . . this author really does have a way with words. The world and the characters are so vivid . . . Overall, I was hooked from page one. I honestly think that (Two Journeys Home) was better than (Beyond Derrynane) – which is rare. The characters and world-building was done in such a beautiful manner . . . I can’t wait for the next one . . .

(c) Carole Rae, Carole’s Sunday Review, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe . . . is a gripping story that will transport the reader back in time, a story with a strong setting and compelling characters . . . a sensational romance, betrayal, family drama and intrigue . . . The plot is so complex that I find it hard to offer a summary in a few lines, but it is intriguing and it holds many surprises . . .  great writing. Kevin O’Connell’s prose is crisp and highly descriptive. I was delighted (by) . . . how he builds the setting, offering . . . powerful images of places, exploring cultural traits and unveiling the political climate of the time . . . The conflict is (as well-developed as the characters) and it is a powerful ingredient that moves the plot forward . . . an absorbing and intelligently-crafted historical novel . . . .

(c) Divine Zapa for Readers’ Favourite

My Review:

Starting a series with a sequel can be tricky business, though many authors routinely employ the technique of briefly filling in, whether via a quickie paragraph to bring readers up to speed, or a few details scattered here and there. In most instances this works out and all is well. Kevin O’Connell in Two Journeys Home takes it all a bit further by embedding details within the lead character’s reflections, as well as third-person narrative, and it does more than merely work. Because the information is so well paced, the author is able to choose carefully where he places it, and the natural feel within the acquisition of details of Eileen O’Connell’s life in The Derrynane Saga’s first installment, Beyond Derrynane, makes her story so much more readable and enticing.

Two Journeys Home tells Eileen’s story in between the two titular voyages, once upon arriving home to Ireland following several years spent at the Austrian court of Empress Maria Theresa, the second after her return there following a marriage attempt forbidden by her family in the interest of protecting the illegal import business that created their wealth. Readers follow her relationship with her young charge Antoine, the empress’s last daughter, future fill in for a role in perpetuating alliances via marriage. The author explores Eileen’s memories and rapport with the girl, so close that she privately addresses her Irish caretaker as Mama.

O’Connell’s prose really is quite vivid and sensory, with lavish and lovely descriptions painting images not only of breathtaking scenery, but also, if it could be said, of interaction between characters and how they experience various moments within their journeys through life. Their inner landscape is given due attention and it is not rare to feel almost a sense of delight in response to some passages, owing to a sensation of being able to both practically hear the individual’s lines as well as relate to the perspective from which they utter them. Too, we are introduced to other connections, including some of Eileen’s relations in the Irish regiments of the Austrian and French armies, who contribute to the story as a richly related family drama in addition to fantastic and revealing historical fiction. One difficulty I did have with O’Connell’s prose is his overuse of rather long and somewhat arduous insertions requiring frequent re-reads that take away from the passages’ fluidity. Fortunately, after about the novel’s first third, these ease up and we can once more immerse ourselves in a fascinating journey through rarely-glimpsed perspective, that of an Irish experience in Catholic Europe as well as a senior servant within the Hapsburg dominion.

Though the greatest part of outright conflict appears in the book’s first half, and the second doesn’t necessarily address the “mélange of political, relational and religious upheaval” Eileen faces, as referenced in the book’s own blurb, there is real allure with the cast of characters, how they relate to one another and the contexts within which they are placed. Moreover, a tension does indeed build as Antoine’s marriage looms and a growing sense of unease develops as readers begin to detect a familiarity with this tale and how Eileen, despite her final assessment of her own, “smaller” life back in Ireland as preferable to Antoine’s luxurious future role, has no way to know how it all will play out. It is as if we are impotent in the face of future danger and maligning forces; we witness it through the veil of time and the players we see cannot hear our warnings as each goes off to their futures and final destinations and we can only watch.

Two Journeys Home concludes before going into the greater part of that future, with Eileen’s connections to her past still very intact, and a sequel approached without previous knowledge of the story becomes one we are drawn to follow to the saga’s very end.


A copy of Two Journeys Home was provided to the reviewer in order to facilitate an honest review

See below for links to more great reviews, guest blogs and spotlights on Two Journeys Home


About the Author:

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and the descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French Army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

An international business attorney, Mr. O’Connell is an alumnus of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

A lifelong personal and scholarly interest in the history of eighteenth-century Ireland, as well as that of his extended family, led O’Connell to create his first book, Beyond Derrynane, which will, together with Two Journeys Home and the two books to follow, comprise The Derrynane Saga.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

Find the author at his website, Facebook or Amazon profile pages, and buy the book here!

Tour Schedule: Blog Stops (February 19th – 23rd)

February 19th

Spotlight  Layered Pages

February 20th

Guest Post –The Writing Desk

Guest Post – Blood Mother Blog

February 21th

Book Review – A Bookaholic Swede

Book Excerpt – Kate Braithwaite

Guest Post – A Literary Vacation

February 22nd

Interview & Review – Flashlight Commentary

Book Excerpt – Just One More Chapter

Book Review –Impressions In Ink

February 23rd

Book Review – Lock, Hooks and Books

Book Review – before the second sleep

March 5th –Tour Recap

Novel Expressions Blog Tours Website


Book Review: Knight Assassin

Knight Assassin: The Second Book of Talon
by James Boschert

Upon initially encountering James Boschert’s titular character in the first installment of his Talon series, we find a likeable Frankish boy abducted from his Levantine home to Persia, where he remains for five years as his captors assimilate him to their ways. The nature of memories and experience, mixture of perspectives and existence amongst unremitting danger is yet one portion of Talon’s story as he learns in the most honest way he can to cope with all he endures.

Assassins of Alamut leaves off with Talon being separated from the woman he loves as she is forced back into peril, and Knight Assassin picks up shortly after this as we witness Talon, en route to his ancestral homeland, still raw with the emotion of losing her and trying to stay on even terms with the Templars who took him into custody. At his father’s newly-inherited (via his wife) fortress in France he finds a family happy to see him, though bewildered about who he may have grown into and wary of threats against the family and their newly-acquired legacy.

This reviewer fairly flew through Knight Assassin. Having already bonded with Talon helped, naturally, but it is also true that Boschert’s plotlines are innovative and intriguing, and his ability to draw readers into scenes is magnificent. With authentic characters we journey through scenarios depicted in genuine fashion, such as Talon’s entire approach to his previous captors: they are enemies of his people, but he truthfully speaks of what he saw in their culture to admire.

For those attached to the Middle Ages, every page feeds the hunger as well as whets the appetite for more. There are feasts and feuds, love interests and family loyalties, clerical abuses of law and authority —elements one might expect, with much more added to Boschert’s creations. The author makes it more personal without an over focus to endanger the tale’s relatability. His dialogue gives us clearer portraits of those who populate his stories, and there is a satisfaction to the manner in which Talon lays down his plans and then carries out each mission. He holds enough back to keep us in suspense, divulging just the right amount to skip the minutiae while pumping up anticipation from the details we are privy to. We find ourselves Talon’s champion, even in moments of fearful doubt, breathing immense sighs of relief when he is in the clear.

That, however, doesn’t always happen, and Boschert knows exactly when to go in which direction. He also knows just who to add, and where they need to go, in Knight Assassin’s case, a group of Welsh archers, or a girl from a Catharic background, one not widely known or understood today. It stirs the sense of hunger, providing tantalizing details for further exploration of this saga that proves itself the very reason why humans crave stories. Fluid and addictive, meandering like a river through various locales, we wonder where the author might next take us in the series’ number three—and it can be assured we shall be journeying there.


For reviews of two more James Boschert reading treasures, click the titles below:

Force 12 in German Bight

When the Jungle is Silent

The author provided a copy of Knight Assassin in order to facilitate an honest review. 

Keep your eyes peeled for my cover crush of this fantastic novel



Book Review: Future Confronted

Future Confronted by Louise Rule

An indieBRAG Medallion recipient

It has on many occasions through time been spoken of: the unnaturalness of outliving one’s own child. Unfortunately, many people have had to endure this terrible order of events and each has their own way to grieve. It takes great fortitude to re-count events, for in so doing, one re-lives them and their affiliate pains, not only in the telling but also the reverberating ache that strikes the heart long after the listener has gone away.

In summoning the courage to tell her story—her son’s story—Louise Rule has gifted upon us a piece of herself, of her strength and love for people and life that teaches us without lecturing, enables us in our quest to see the world and its inhabitants as the precious creatures they are.

Rule’s son Rob was just 20 when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and less than two months later he was no more. Just like that, one might think, right before the swoosh of horror that passes through the consciousness coming to grips with the understanding that most people take much more time than that to absorb the very reality of such an illness. Just like that.

That sort of swiftness is related to the flash of time Rule writes of in her poem, “Just a Moment,” that serves to introduce Rob’s memoir. She references that first awakening of each day before full consciousness, wherewithal, has set in—preceding the full knowledge, for her, of the reality that is.

This Moment lulls me into trusting

Everything is fine. The Moment

Passes, reality remains

I remember…

It is fitting that Rule opens the book with two memories: one of herself as a child staring up through an apple tree to the sky above, leading closer to the present as it transitions to an ash tree and a downpour, as if the heavens themselves are weeping at the loss to the world, whose tree we are under. Symbolic of healing, a state Rule pursues though cautioning on the difference between this and the impossibility of “getting over it,” the tree has now embraced Rob’s remains, his ashes, holding him in a way his mother no longer can.

Like life, even a life punctuated with occasional negative events, this memoir has its bright moments, most often shared with loved ones. Rule recounts these, too, proceeding by first talking about life after Rob’s death—fitting, given the sometimes-overwhelming task of continuing to live not just after her child has died, but also following a harrowing ten-week period in which speed and unplanned become key notions of existence, when even the compensation of adrenalin threatens shutdown and yet somehow keep going is the order of the day, and then, suddenly, without warning—stop. The adjustment is harrowing and can be debilitating.

Reflected in the title, this circumstance can lead to the breakdown of an entire family, and Rule relates how her clan could not simply go gently, as they say, nor move on: circumstances necessitated a confrontation with what was coming and a reconciliation with what was. She artfully manages the roles of each section in the book by steering them in their duties: a nonlinear storyline—the only way, really, it could have been done—told to an imaginary companion whose presence develops into a full personality, one who understands the singular import of allowing the bereaved to do all the talking. In so doing, she anchors Rule as the author finds her way to a voice uniquely hers, yet fitting for all.

Rule is also clearly suited to the English degree she achieved—having commenced before her son’s illness and finished up after his death. Lyrical and flowing, while simultaneously conversational, her prose maps out these and other events free of emotion for its own sake, but with a writing quality and management skills that at times can lead us to envision the scenes in ways that reflect the moments. In one passage, for example, when the family first learn the seriousness of Rob’s diagnosis, it is as if we are viewing the passage through a prism and sensing the confusion via the distortion.

Nobody spoke; a heavy silence. We were all studying the registrar’s face, eventually; he looked at each of us in turn, then began talking again. I must admit to the fact that I can’t remember what he said after that. His mouth was moving, yes. I could hear a mumbling, yes, but I couldn’t seem to understand him. I tried…I did, I tried, but it had all become surreal, like watching T.V. with the sound down; it was happening to somebody else, not us…not us. Everything was running in slow motion. I became aware that everyone was standing up and moving toward the door…The door clicked, I turned around and stared at the door. We stood rooted, a tragic tableau in the corridor.

Within the pages of Future Confronted Rule takes us through the journey Rob and his family face as they make their way through a labyrinth, navigating in a learn-as-you-go fashion of how to do death when, in reality, despite modern advances in technology and a world of endless interpersonal seminars on taking life by the horns, most of us are still learning how to live.

Rule understands this, and makes no attempt to pass off anything formulaic—or even anything except what she knows and claims only for herself. She shares with us events from Rob’s (and her others sons’) childhood, linking, always linking her transitions and leading us to something we know we have to hear, not because it is hers, but because of her courage and generosity, that becomes ours.

The Russians say that no one ever truly dies as long as there is someone to remember them, and the author brings this to bear on the words of Cicero as she quotes:

The life of the dead is placed

In the memory of the living

Breathtaking and perhaps even frightening in the enormous responsibility this carries, Rule utilizes her skill and draws on her faith to achieve this memory keeper duty. In so doing, she allows us to see Rob a little bit more deeply, allowing us to share her task.

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location

Book Review: Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

by Judith Starkston

Set during the Trojan War, Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire opens with the vain attempts of Briseis to save her mother, Antiope, from a wasting disease that eventually kills her. Briseis’s grief is further compounded by the stress of her duties as a novice healing priestess of Kamrusepa—her skills, she fears, underdeveloped and now at risk without her mother’s guiding hand—and future wife to the violent bully Mynes, heir to the throne of Lyrnessos. The impending union is delayed for the mourning period, but eventually the pair are wed.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Briseis, reared alongside three brothers is, even in the patriarchal society that grew her, a strong and intelligent woman. Her parents—chief military advisor to the king and senior healing priestess—surely set the tone for the brothers, who enable Briseis with an interest in her father’s estate as well as his metal works. So it is that her dread regarding her marriage threatens all that she is, in addition to the physical violence that lay in wait.

Briseis manages to assuage her fears amongst other events of her life, including a visit from Greek traders and a frightening incident in which she heals Hatepa, queen to Euenos and demanding mother of Mynes. She also sees visions of Achilles, that half-mortal whose goddess mother, in her quest to protect him from an eventual mortal’s death, equipped him with the fierce fighting ability that even in his own time already is legend.

At this point many readers will have nodded their heads in recognition, at least at the name Achilles and likely that of Agamemnon, Mycenaean king and commander of the Trojan War. Where though, they may ask, is Briseis in all this? The answer is that she actually plays a significant role in the Iliad of their previous study, though Homer only gives her a few lines. Here, then, is a huge portion of the majesty of Starkston’s novel, that she has crafted an entire story from a few lines in an epic poem of a ten-year war.

Those lines, of course, convey a great deal of Briseis’s life, and reveal her status as a once future queen, the fall of Lyrnessos and death of Briseis’s entire family, her later status and then of the rift between the two warriors when the commander removes Briseis from Achilles for his own pleasure and the half-god’s subsequent refusal to continue fighting for the greedy Agamemnon.

Using these lines, historical research and archeological resources, Starkston presents a multi-dimensional woman character who is much more than the now-standard “strong female behind the scenes.” Homer does assign Briseis a backstage role, but Starkston infuses her with the passion, dreams, fears, understanding and weaknesses that drive her. In the midst of swirling rumors of Greek raids a group of traders seek business in Glaukos’s absence; in her desperation to end her hospitable obligation and send them on their way, Briseis inquires about Achilles.

Briseis and Phoenix, red-figure kylix, c. 490 B.C. via Wikimedia Commons

She loved the bards’ tales. The tale of Achilles had enthralled her the first time she had heard it sung. Some versions even said an immortal, Chiron—half horse, half man—had taught Achilles to be a healer, of all things. It seemed a pleasant topic to her, but the traders looked alarmed. She remembered that her mother had often warned her not to go on about the stories she loved—it was unladylike and wild. Look what she had done—made them uncomfortable with her inappropriate conversation.

Indeed, both Starkston as well as Briseis admit to the latter’s shortcomings, Briseis owning up to dodging temple duty and the possibility of her own incompetence. Nevertheless, with precision she aims to do the best she can. As wife to Mynes she is unsure of her place: “When she had arisen each day at her father’s, she knew what tasks lay ahead[. . .]. She did not know how to live this new life, but she would figure it out.”

Imperfect Briseis certainly is, but her humanity is intact as Starkston shows us, in one of the more shudder-inducing scenes, that even those who lived in ancient times are closer to us than we may presume. They were also people who lived, laughed, loved, labored, hungered and, in the midst of savage behavior, died. They are more than distant characters whose lives played out on a blurry screen. Following the fall of her city and in flight via the back gate, Briseis in anger peers into one of the shops.

The family had not left in time. A man lay dead amidst a pile of broken pots—his trade. Huddled in a corner, three children had been run through with swords; their blood formed a pool around them. A baby had been swung against a wall, its head crushed. The mother must have been dragged off. The Greeks left only the dead. Briseis fell to her knees. She ripped away the linen covering her mouth and threw up, then pulled herself up.

Briseis’s rage alters the course of her life in ways she could never have expected and with the princess we journey through the aftermath of destruction, the intense and complicated emotions and further awareness it brings out in her, how she sees staggering beauty amongst unimaginable carnage and recognizes that love and hate are wed. Starkston portrays Briseis with compassion, remaining faithful to Homer’s place for her while artfully revealing much more, moving at a pace realistic to modern readers, all the while staying true to the Late Bronze Age sensibilities in which the characters all live.

Truth be told, this reviewer was initially uncertain of the novel’s ability to provide satisfaction, owing to it being outside a previously established comfort zone as well as prior lack of love for The Iliad. But “Who doesn’t love The Odyssey?” paired with a summoning from Hand of Fire’s blurb provided unresistable temptation, a magical pull, and once readers are in, Starkston’s ability to weave a story that wraps itself around its audience like a warm and comfortable cloak captures the imagination and beckons a following.

Achilles’ surrender of Briseis to Agamemnon, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, fresco, 1st century A.D. via Wikimedia Commons

While the opening scenes at first seemed to move slowly, Starkston brings us to realize—without having to articulate the understanding—that this reflects a long and arduous process of descent as experienced by the ailing Antiope as well as Briseis, who prolongs her mother’s agony with false hopes and cures. From then on out events in Hand of Fire move as quickly for us as they do for Briseis, Starkston’s own hand skillfully beckoning us within, utilizing history and mythology to see more deeply into the life of Briseis as well as Achilles from her perspective.

Starkston has quite magnificently brought to brilliant, vibrant life one very small portion of a much larger work, showing us in the process how much life resides within the diminutive. Giving voice to an important figure in the Trojan War, she employs vivid and dramatic descriptions, enabling readers often to sense the same emotions that swirl around the characters, to feel as if they, too, are part of the story:

“The air turned chill and the darkness edged in around the torches’ flares as if it were a living presence. The smell of dank mold surrounded them.”

Many other reasons to admire this novel are also within the content of her author’s note, where Starkston succinctly and eloquently explains her methods and some details behind the writing of the book. Not your grade school teacher’s handout notes, this is readable, fascinating and honest; the author speaks of the manner in which characters, even in the process of being written, claim their own identities, all while remaining true to historical fact and documented archeological evidence. Her consideration for readers is also woven in, and she succeeds magnificently, for even those most worried about dry and dull Hittites will quickly observe in Briseis a mirror of their selves, one in which is seen strengths and shortcomings, and the ability to adapt to love, loss and that which we cannot change–a life worth remembering.

The author provided a gratis copy of Hand of Fire in exchange for an honest review. 

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location

Movies by the Minute: Signs

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

I absolutely detest alien films, and my passing all these years on M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Signs is directly linked to my lack of awareness that this film isn’t about these creatures at all. However, when plopping down on the sofa in the midst of my son’s recent viewing of it, and he insisting on returning to the start, I was once more drawn into the world of Shyamalan. Having experienced a similar draw to his more recent Split, I didn’t resist, and was not disappointed.

Graham Hess, a former reverend and recent widower, begins to find crop circles in his Pennsylvania farm fields. Television news reveals lights and circles are appearing in other parts of the world as well, and strange occurrences support the family’s growing belief that aliens are mapping out an attack plan. Hess’s brother Merrill, who moved in to help care for his niece and nephew, provides some of the glue needed to hold the usually close family together as events move quickly toward terror and catastrophe. But Morgan—protective and loving toward his small sister—and Bo—whose quirkiness is matched to her demeanor—contribute as well, each one a key component within the path the family must take if they are to survive their ordeal.

In the telling of the story, Shyamalan’s genius shines through in just about every angle, something I later found many reviewers to miss. For example, when the family’s dog begins to act strangely, Hess says he will take him to the doctor, a non-vet. Morgan questions this, the father gives a semi-pat response and Shyamalan later provides a very significant clue as to why it plays out this way. This provides a very solid foundation not only for his reluctance to go to the vet, but is also linked, like so much else, to a central theme within the story. Moreover, it establishes Shyamalan’s ability to equally distribute information: it is viewer friendly in that the director doesn’t withhold information, though neither is there any need for spoon feeding. Indeed, this strength exists within a holistic framework wholly visible: as far as I could see, there are no extraneous scenes or occurrences; everything means something, as it should.

Also key to Signs is that the tale is told from the family’s point of view: we only know as much as they do, and they experience it all through the lens of their own encounters with life. This brings everything to a personal level as we begin to appreciate that these few days in their lives are intimately linked to what it means to have meaningful connections to other people and something larger than ourselves.

In turn, Shyamalan achieves this with such techniques as allowing us to use our own imagination. We don’t see huge cities aflame from alien battles with any nation’s air force, or disgusting attacks on people, replete with what I have an awful aversion to and call “moist noises,” the duty of which is to replace thematic elements with horror. Shyamalan has no need for this, simply because that isn’t the story he is telling.

Instead, the director relates a much more personal one in which unadulterated fear—not a Hollywood hyped version of it—questions what we think we know, and he applies this reflectively, though variably, as it would be in real life. As a character engages in an action, we expect a reaction—and it doesn’t come. It doesn’t come yet again, and still not. Then: BOOM! It comes and even the most jaded or confident moviegoer jumps in his seat at the reality that our knowledge is faulty. This is confirmed by the director’s fluid application of that technique, which as a by-product keeps the scenes fresh and thrilling, the tension palpable and even raw.

Signs is, in short, a magnificent thriller that hosts various levels and themes, created by a master storyteller wholly adept at angle, plot distribution and character development. This particular film’s genius—especially as related to the alien angle—is its point of view, as it takes us in a different direction to focus on the heart of the tale and addresses relationships, forgiveness, faith and hope, as well as what it takes to mend and maintain any or all of those. An eternal tale told by an absolute master.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Split

See below trailer for more on Signs

Still to come:

There is so much I could and want to say about Signs, which is why discussion on it will continue another day with the very one who introduced me to the film as we discuss various aspects, people’s responses, scene analysis and more. It will be, by necessity, chock full of spoilers and I will naturally post an alert.

Movies by the Minute: Split

A continuing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Matinee getaway OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

At the risk of being repetitive, my disclaimer is this: I like movies as much as the next person, though I’m by no means a fanatic. My fourteen-year-old boy, however, is quite the aficionado and more than once he’s used his stealth swaying powers to get me in front of the screen.

Tonight it was for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which after a few minutes in I recognized from previously viewing its trailer. While not (I thought) in love with Shyamalan or psychological thrillers, my lack of follow-up had more to do with the subject matter of abduction, a topic that unnerves me when immersed within it for too long—especially as part of storytelling.

In this particular tale three high-school girls are abducted from King of Prussia, later awakening to find themselves in a small room complete with torture lighting. Their kidnapper is a man with 23 personalities, key of which are revealed to viewers—and the girls, albeit more slowly—as the film progresses through scenes, including his visits to a psychologist and one of the girls, Casey, experiencing flashbacks of life events that aid her attempts to strategize a way out.

The room itself is part of the set I liked the least, for where we are placed as we observe events is almost claustrophobic. Shyamalan manages to generate in viewers a sensation of skittishness in there as we face the horrible colors, subtly glaring light (if that isn’t too contradictory) and overall ickiness of the surroundings: no windows, humid, basement-y, utilitarian and lonesome, the very place no cautious person would ever go into willingly.

We feel backed into a corner when confronted with James McAvoy’s multiple personalities, portrayed so brilliantly we will never look at Tumnus the same way ever again, which for the actor may be a pretty good deal as he escapes potential typecasting as a faun, and is known for his amazing repertoire. Truly, this was a risky role given the film’s uncomfortable content, but McAvoy owns it as he introduces the various personalities by the very expressions on his face. Spectacles are a prop for one identity, but they are almost superfluous given McAvoy’s ability to reposition his countenance and alter his accent, even his very voice to become who he is (at that moment). Who else resides inside his psyche is yet to be seen, as is the cost to whom he reveals himself.

Anya Taylor Joy also gives a fantastic performance even in silence, for her range of emotion speaks volumes: horrific fear, fierce determination, raw desperation, even bitter anger. As her abduction is set in motion and the two other girls are already knocked out, it might be contemplated that to simply wake up somewhere horrible must be the absolute worst. Taylor Joy challenges this as one tear runs from her eye and she is utterly paralyzed in fear and terror—too much so to simply leap from the car she might otherwise have escaped. One simply murmurs to one’s self: Oh. My. God.

As a director Shyamalan is impressive and I can appreciate his talents displayed in transitional shifts, perspective angles, fitful lighting and a host of other techniques utilized to create tension and elicit commentary directed at characters, willing them to do this or that—and do it faster. And while I am absolutely fascinated with the brain, I prefer mostly to stay out of the dark corridors of the mind. Shyamalan, however, manages to lure from this protective evasion to view technical brilliance and magnificent performance within the themes of, amongst others, the role of history, labels, leadership, agency, coping mechanisms, relationships and communication. And in the end we see a surprise that makes us think both Aha! and No way!

Stay tuned, people, stay very tuned. 

Assessment: Major performances are worthy of

cinematic experience, whether day or night


Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Dunkirk

And the Daffodils Look Lovely Today

I am so very, very sad to read that Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer for the Cranberries, has passed away. She had such a beautiful voice, whether speaking or singing, and I could listen to her for hours.

Her lyrics weren’t always about happy things, but that voice made you want to listen and be part of the joy of being alive, of experiencing something special in life. And for those who, like her, suffered from bi-polar disorder or depression, it lifted one up to want to be part of creating a beauty for others to experience.

Dolores O’Riordan with the Cranberries, live in Barcelona 2010-3-13, by Alterna2, via Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago I received a letter from a penpal in Russia. I was always so excited to hear from Natasha, who sprinkled her missives with “my darling” and “sweetheart” from day one. At one point she sent me a gorgeous samovar that I treasured deeply. I was absolutely smitten with its pretty lines and aura of loving that accompanied its gifting.

I was always so greedy about letters I received, and never could be one to put an unopened one in my purse to read later, at home. No, I tore them open and read at stop lights, my laughter or gigantic smile happily devouring contents. On this day I was so uplifted as I slowed to the red light at 4th Avenue, coming up from behind the post office, a Cranberries CD helping me pump out my emotion and anticipation as my voice used all its strength to release what I held inside.

Like a light switched off, my smile disappeared. Natasha wrote that she had discovered a lump in her breast while she was pregnant with her first child, one she had wanted so much that she refused medical advice to abort in order to receive treatment. She went on to briefly explain the situation but the words I recall most are, “ … and I believe I have a future.” They are imprinted in my mind, which is grand because later someone stole the box of letters that was my treasure chest from abroad, and even now I have to remember her words from the recesses of my mind, where she is still alive for me.

Also sealed into my mind are those songs I listened to as I drove, particularly “Dreaming My Dreams” on through the rest of the No Need to Argue CD. Somehow those vocal intonations reflected my heart’s song: the dread I felt, along with the future Natasha was so sure of. I knew someone in my own life who had recently beaten breast cancer, and so as my goosebumps radiated a chill through me, I poured my tension out, willing it to leave with the flow of song as it escaped my lips.

Continuing to drive, I thought of the narrator’s story in “Daffodil Lament” as she transitions from a period of stagnation, seeming hopelessness—“Holding on, that’s what I do, since I met you”—to a mindset of something brighter ahead. The music is symphonic and shifts with a movement replicating that period of time, and O’Riordan’s voice reflects this as she moves forward:

I have decided to leave you forever
I have decided to start things from here
Thunder and lightning won’t change what I’m feeling
And the daffodils looked lovely today
And the daffodils look lovely today
Look lovely today

 Has anyone seen lightning
Has anyone looked lovely

I thought this could very well be my friend’s song, addressed to a disease she stood up to, telling its combined forces that she would not be put down. The last two lines in the excerpt above reflect the storyteller’s determined strength against even thunder and lightning, as she admires the sustained loveliness of a genus representative of both death and good fortune. She chooses the latter and a new life, renewal, she determines to achieve.

Natasha did survive long enough to give birth and be with her daughter, Anna, for a bit, but eventually succumbed to her illness. The day I learned of her passing I also listened to O’Riordan’s amazing voice as she belted out her passions and I absorbed what I could to once more uplift myself, grateful and glad to be alive, even though my voice cracked a few times and, like the poetic music it is, O’Riordan’s voice lured me back to the song as I silently moved in candlelight.

Perhaps for the rest of my life I will always have that connection between my friend Natasha and the voice of Dolores O’Riordan, both of which are everlasting gifts whose memories and legacies enable me to pass a special part of who I am to my own child. A Russian friend told me, the day I sang my heart’s mournful melody in a way not quite like any I have ever before or since, that people in his country believe no one ever really dies as long as there is someone to remember them. I’ve gone back to that so many times in subsequent years, not only because it is such a comforting sentiment, but because I’m naturally inclined to believe the dead deserve our attention, not just for everlasting life, but because they once were. They shared this world with us, and in so many instances what they had with us.

My voice is nowhere near as beautiful as Dolores O’Riordan’s—not by a long shot. In fact, there are very few people I will sing in front of because, well, my singing leaves a lot to be desired. Simultaneously I have been either blessed or cursed with a physical recognition that flows within my veins, of the power it holds over me, of the lifeblood that is song for humans, and that most often simply bursts from my heart when it is caged. 

Today I will be lighting candles for Dolores O’Riordan, not because I knew her—I didn’t—but for the memories she contributes to and the gifts she shared with us, her own heart’s songs that memorialize so much of the struggles of life. We often wish to forget them, but she gave them attention because of their link to the humans we care about.

Thank you, Dolores O’Riordan, and rest in peace.

The fragrant Poet’s Daffodil (click)