Category Archives: Travel

Dark Family Tale in Northern Ireland

Destination: Ireland

Book: Black Lake by Johanna Lane

When you travel, do you like to visit old homes–you know, the Downton Abbey kind of manor, where the titled family has had to let visitors traipse through in order to make enough money to pay the taxes?

If you have visited, or stayed overnight in one of those places, you may have wondered what it would be like to turn your home into a place of amusement for the masses.  What does it do to the soul of the place? To the souls of the family members?

In Black Lake Johanna Lane explores those questions along with deeper, more existential questions that plague the family.  She presents the point of view of each family member–mother (Marianne), father (John), son and daughter (Philip and Kate)–one at a time.  The novel moves through a year when each person tries to cope with tragic changes in their lives.

Glenveagh Castle, Ireland. Photo by Stephen Collins. Used with Creative Commons license.

Dulough, John’s family’s grand family estate stands looking out to water from a cliff overlooking Black Lake in Donegal County, Ireland, with woods behind the house. Stately gardens surround the house. The atmosphere is cold and mostly gloomy, a suitable setting for such a serious story.

Marianne, a city girl from Dublin, has adjusted to her marriage with John and the family heritage through her work with the garden.  John has hidden from her the financial problems that came with the estate.

Irish castle
Glenveagh National Park, Ireland. Photo by Raphael Schön. Used with Creative Commons License.

9-year-old Philip tries to understand the world of the grownups and is most fascinated by his father’s lessons about the ice age. Glaciers carved out this land. The effect of ice on land and the effect of the restrained coolness of emotions on family members underlies the story. Kate, at twelve, is never quite sure what she really thinks and feels. Both children are shaken when they must move out of their accustomed home and routines into a humble cottage while tourists traipse through what was once their private domain.

Lane skillfully wraps you in the landscape and magically captures just the right tone for each character.

The  book’s circular structure means thoughts of one person are echoed, generally in a slightly different key, as we move from one point of view to another.

Johanna Lane has written an intriguing book that gives you much to ponder.  Not the least, for traveler’s is the conundrum of how we peek into other people’s lives as we visit new places and how the observer affects the observed.

In the interview linked to her name in the first paragraph (above), Lane is asked a question pertinent for Travelers Who Read:

Which Irish authors do you think do a great job of capturing the countryside?

John McGahern — he wrote 10 novels set in the Irish countryside. His vision is a lot bleaker. He grew up in quite an abusive household. For him, the country is beautiful, but also a trap … I think he’s one of my favorite Irish authors. And Anne Enright, of course.

So there you go–read Black Lake, then explore the writer’s writers.

Or pop over to Ireland and visit the Glenveagh National Park, which Lane used as a model for the estate in this book.

Note:  The publisher provided me with a copy of the book for review.  My opinions are totally my own.  There is a link to Amazon here. If you’re shopping for books or anything else at Amazon, it costs you no more to use these links, and you’ll be supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks. The two photos of Glenveagh are from Flickr. Click on a picture to learn more.

Another Chilling Read from the Arctic

 book cover: The Bone Seeker

Destination: Canada, The Arctic Circle

Book:  The Bone Seeker, An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery, by M. J. McGrath (NEW 2014)

“The boundaries of murder were unlimited.  Like some far distant universe, every individual act of killing was dark and vast and unknowable.” From The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath

The Arctic
Land and ice and water near Kuujuaq. Photo by Murray Dewing at Flickr.

I love finding books that are not only fun to read, but also shed light on a place and a culture that I know next to nothing about.  So how many books have you read that take place in the Arctic and have an Inuit heroine?

One difference between southerners (anyone south of the Arctic Circle) and the Inuits (Eskimos) is that we southerners think of ice as frozen water.  However, in the Arctic, they think of water as melted ice. Edie Kiglatuk, an Inuit, shares this bit of cultural difference along with many others along the way to solving the mystery of a missing teen girl.

If you need to cool off from  hot summer weather, let M. J. McGrath transport you to an island. No soft breezes and palm trees here, though.  Just too much daylight all summer long. Edie Kiglatuk, the main character is uncomfortably warm when the temperature raises above freezing. That makes McGrath mysteries the perfect books for ‘chilling.’

Artic wolf tracks
Photo by Johannes Zielcke, from Flickr

Edie has taken a summer school teaching position in the town of Kuujuaq, a small town in Nunaviq in far north Quebec Province. In summer, the sun never sets on this Arctic region, and the constant light plays havoc with people’s sleep cycles.

Edie, while not officially a detective, brings a wealth of experience and appropriate skills to the job when her friend Sergeant Derk Paliser, the only law in these parts, recruits her to help. They are searching for the killer of a teenage girl, Martha, whose body is found in a lake that is suspected by the Inuits of harboring evil spirits. Edie is an expert tracker, and sees things that elude people more used to walking on pavement than on ice.

As in the previous Edie Kiglatuk mystery that  I reviewed, The Boy in the Snow, set in Alaska,  The Bone Seeker reveals a much wider evil conspiracy than a simple murder.  In Boy in the Snow, Edie uncovered corrupt politicians and a human trafficking ring.  Here, the suspense builds and you will not fully realize the meaning of the book’s title until you arrive near the end.

You know you’re in for a wild ride when the Canadian Defense Department shuts down the investigation and takes away the body and all evidence.  Derek resents the non cooperation of the Army and his anger makes him less than a diplomat. Edie keeps some of her actions secret even from Derek. The native people on the island don’t trust any outsiders (qalunaat), even Derek, who is only half Inuit. Meanwhile, a female attorney who has been representing the tribe in a suit against the government aimed at cleaning up contaminants for the “evil” lake, endangers herself by refusing to back down when old paperwork hints at deep secrets.

As you can see, there is plenty of conflict to go around, and plenty of strong characters who refuse to “behave” when the government wants them to back away.

 NOTES: I am an Amazon affiliate, which means if you click on the book cover and shop at Amazon, A Traveler’s Library will earn a few cents to help pay the Internet rent. Thanks.

Click on photos to learn more about the photographers.


Thomas Kennedy: Seeking Bars, Jazz, and Love in Copenhagen

Destination: Copenhagen, Denmark

Book: Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy (NEW in U.S. August 5, 2014)

In the fourth of the series of novels he calls the Copenhagen Quartet, Thomas Kennedy looks at the dark side of Copenhagen.  It is winter in this noir novel, and many of the scenes take place in the dark. After all, in winter, you don’t get a lot of hours of sunshine in Copenhagen.


Copenhagen Quartet
Copenhagen winter. Photo from Flickr. Click to learn more.

Each book in the quartet features a different season and a different style of writing.  For instance, Kerrigan in Copenhagen, which I reviewed here, takes place in spring and is presented as a guidebook as an aging travel writer tours the bars and clubs. It would be an oversimplification to think of it merely as a guidebook, since it is also an homage to James Joyce with its stream of consciousness autobiography of the narrator. (Happy to discover that my review is quoted on the web page for Copenhagen Quartet, linked in the first paragraph above.)

Jumping into the debate about whether it is important to know anything about the author of a book in order to fully appreciate the book, I will just say that Thomas E. Kennedy is hidden in plain sight in all of these books.

Only a dedicated jazz aficionado would go to such lengths to provide a musical score for each novel.  He obviously knows his stuff, with details of jazz musicians and their work discussed in every book.

Kennedy has Irish roots. His characters always include some ties to Ireland.

Kennedy is an American living in Copenhagen and a man fascinated with language.  So we get main characters who are working in Copenhagen as writers or translators. Characters bring a fresh eye of an outsider to the details of Danish culture. A comparison of American ways and Danish ways provides extra fascination for American readers and travelers.

In Beneath the Neon Egg: A Novel (which was called Bluett’s Blue Hours when published in Europe ten years ago) we learn that many American jazz players spent a lot of time in Copenhagen, which offers numerous jazz clubs.

CD Cover
CD Cover: A Love Supreme

The headliner for this novel is John Coltrane, whose A Love Supreme provides the  structure and symbol for a story that is basically about various kinds of love. I admit that I have not delved so deeply into literary deconstruction as to outline for you how these four movements, Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm align with the story of Beneath the Neon Egg–but I have a vague idea. (So shoot me for laziness.)

It is the appropriateness of the title “Love Supreme” that struck me.  Beneath the Neon Egg deals with every kind of love from casual sex to parental love. The motivation for finding love of whatever type seems always to be avoiding loneliness (being alone.)

Each kind of love is challenging, but the most challenging and the one that turns the book into a mystery novel of sorts has to do with Bluett’s neighbor across the hall, a man so unlucky in love that he completely falls for a Russian prostitute and believes her attentions signify real love. It is a fatal mistake.

When Thomas Kennedy told me in an e-mail that he had adopted noir as the style for this novel, I was expecting a Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, big city detective solving a crime with gorgeous broads and  deceptive business dealings in a setting of shadows.  You get some of that in Beneath the Neon Egg. But this introspective angsty story is a far cry from the typical noir detective novel.

Bluett, the translator at the heart of the story, is not a man of action. His main motivation in life is to finish five pages of translation per day. But still, Kennedy’s writing style is unbeatable for putting the reader into the mood of the story.

What then?

Another day, another five pages, another evening, another vodka, Coltrane.  Chair at the window watching the blue hour descend like mist.  McCoy Tyner’s quiet piano chords lead into Coltrane’s moody tenor, addressing the equinox.  Ought to get some skates, glide like a shadow on the blue ice, hearing music recorded neraly forty years earlier; himself a tiny lad, his parents young and good-looking.  He has “Equinox” on repeat, vodka on his tongue, the tenor enters his ears like a sweet promise, orders his mind with sound that is a credible reality.

I think I prefer the European title, Bluett’s Blue Hours for the mere sound of the words, as well as the moodiness. But on the other hand, Beneath the Neon Egg, is puzzling and intriguing–teasing the potential reader rather than laying it all out–and so is the book. And the mere mention of “neon” surfaces a mental picture of a garish light blinking against a black sky.

Spoiler Alert:  The neon egg is part of an appropriately surreal neon depiction of a chicken laying an egg that Bluett can see from his window.

And by the way, Kennedy is still up to his little tricks. He checks to see if the reader is paying attention by putting characters from the other three novels into this one. They wander through in cameo appearances at a bar or on the street. It is this kind of playfulness that makes me think of Nabokov as I read Kennedy.

Copenhagen Quartet
Copenhagen street, winter night. Photo by Cian O’Donovan from Flickr.

The traveler looking for a guide to Copenhagen, will once again have the benefit of Kennedy’s meticulous directions for navigating the city as Bluett mostly beats a path from watering hole to watering hole.

Kennedy said in an interview: “The more you know about a place, the more your life is enriched.” Obviously I agree with that, or I wouldn’t be telling you about books that will enhance your travel! However, the tourism people in Denmark might not be thrilled by the menacing air of this novel. At least you’ll learn about a part of the city that you definitely do NOT want to visit while you’re pub crawling.

I have now read all four of the novels in the Copenhagen Quartet. You can read them in any order, but the author says on his website that reading Kerrigan in Copenhagen first gives you information that helps orient you for the other three.

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