The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák – book review

The Signal FlameSet in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains in 1972, The Signal Flame is a lyrical, quietly beautiful novel about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War. The family has just lost their patriarch, Jozef Vinch, who survived WWI as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and travelled to American to build a life for his family. If you have read The Sojourn you are already aware of Jozef Vinch, and of the power of Krivák’s writing – but this is not a sequel per se, and knowledge of the events of The Sojourn is not necessary.

“The trees were always the first thing his grandfather spoke of in the morning, weaving a forecast for the day based on the curve of leaves or a bird he might see nesting in the branches. Or he would tell a story that began with the planting of a particular sapling…its root pack bound in burlap and sitting in the front seat of his rig like a passenger…”

The Signal Flame centres on Jozef Vinch’s stoic grandson Bo is left to work the family’s 2000 acres of logging land and hope that this newest war will return his brother safely to him. However, Sam is MIA in Vietnam, and he has left behind a pregnant girlfriend – whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. This isn’t an action-packed plot fuelled rollercoaster – it is something more. I was utterly absorbed in this immersive portrait of a family and community in this wooded territory where the cycles of soil and weather set the rhythm of the days. There is a quiet dignity to the portrayal of grief, endurance, and the importance of forgiveness in The Signal Flame, and Krivák’s sense of pace and place is close to flawless. There is a lot of sorrow in this book, and perhaps January was not the best month to read it – so I have waited until now to recommend it to you. And I highly recommend it.

The Signal Flame is published by Scribner, who provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

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Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

The Call, Peadar Ó’Guilín #AuthorInterview #BookReview

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You have three minutes to save your life…

You know how if you really love a book it’s hard to rationally recommend it to people, you just push it on them saying “you just have to read it, it’s brilliant, just read it”? Well, The Call is a bit like that for me. Sometimes it’s harder to review a book you loved than one you quite liked, or one you hated. I am not quite sure what I expected from The Call, but I can tell you I was surprised by how much I LOVED it. I fell headfirst into the world of the book and only emerged twice – once to seriously consider putting it in the freezer because I was freaked; and once when my other half looked over and said “Jesus! Your face!” because I was reading through a distorted mask of facial tension. It’s that good.

The Call is like a mash-up of the darkest parts of Irish mythology and teen survival stories… albeit more Battle Royale than The Hunger Games. Let’s call it fantasy horror folklore, if we must genre it at all. Set in an Ireland where the Sídhe (fairy folk) have sealed the borders of the island and ‘call’ the youth of Ireland one by one to fight for their survival in the Grey Land where the Sídhe were banished thousands of years before. The call lasts three minutes of our time; twenty four hours of theirs. But the Fair Folk don’t just want to hunt their prey… they want to play with it.

Our heroine Nessa is a student at Boyle Survival College, one of several schools throughout the land where young people prepare for The Call that hardly any survive. They train to fight and to hide, study hunt theory and learn the enemy tongue – but for 25 years the population has been rapidly dwindling.   Nessa is intelligent, beautiful, and a total badass who is determined that her disability will not stop her surviving the Call. Her pacifist vegan love interest Anto was definitely my favourite character (what? ethics and empathy are sexy!), and unusally for a teen ensemble piece the supporting characters were well developed. But it is well structured plot, the skillfully built up tension, and the twisted brilliance of the scenes in the Grey Land that sold me on this one – honestly don’t ask me to summarise it. Just read this one asap.

This is the very definition of YA not just being for young adults, it is a stonker of an adult read. That said, if you have young people in your life – they need this book and you should buy it for them immediately. Parental types – many are the excellent life lessons. Aunts/Uncles/Older siblings – there’s also loads of warped scary gross stuff, it’s a cool book to give, and the season of giving approaches!

Author Interview – Peadar Ó’Guilín

I met Peadar at the Easons brilliant DeptCon2, and despite my initial nervous burble I got it together enough to ask him to grace the blog with an author interview, which he did, because he’s only marvellous:

Welcome to Eats Plants, Reads Books Peadar! First up – I absolutely loved this book, it’s unquestionably one of my books of the year. When did you get the idea for The Call, and can you tell me a bit about the process of writing it?

Thank you! I always think you need to marry at least two separate ideas together to form a book. In this case, the first idea was just an image of somebody disappearing in the middle of a crowded room. Where had they gone? What was happening to them? The answers to these questions were provided by earlier short stories I’d written about the Sídhe and my conception of what their homeland must look like.

Did you spend a lot of time researching the Sidhe/Tuatha de Danann/faerie folk, or did you draw more on your cultural memory of these stories?
No. I did no research outside of what I grew up with. But that was considerable and I had always loved the stories, so a lot of it stuck. I didn’t worry about changing things, though. I’m a writer: I love to make things up and I’m pretty sure there’s not one person who touched those stories over the centuries without altering them in some way.

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Peadar being all dark and moody

Despite the fantastical premise, this book felt totally grounded and real. Reading it I wondered what my impression would be if I wasn’t Irish/aware of Ireland’s folklore… was it hard to pitch to publishers outside of Ireland?
Not at all! You have to remember that a lot of people read SF and Fantasy, not because they want to visit the same old places again and again, but because they’re looking for a book to take them somewhere truly different. The UK and US publishers both bought publishing rights straight away. And a lot of translation deals are in the works too. I think the words “evil fae” are enough to get readers of any culture on board!

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