Tuesday, 12 August 2014

City of Shadows by Michael Russell

published 2012







He went to the sideboard and …took out a biscuit tin with a picture of the Rock of Cashel on the lid. He opened it carefully and looked through the contents [then took out] a picture of a young man of sixteen or seventeen. He wore a dark suit jacket, a white collar that was too big for him, and a striped tie. He wasn’t smiling. There was a similar photograph of Stefan on the wall in the kitchen at Kilranelagh. He had gone to the photographer’s shop in Tullow Street the summer before he started at Trinity College; his mother wanted a photograph of him in the dark suit that looked so much like Vincent Walsh’s. He had sat in the same chair, in front of the same stained sheet in Mr Beard’s studio. Mr Beard would have said the same things and made the same jokes.

Stefan promised he would return the photograph as soon as he could.



observations: I bought this book after reading an enthusiastic review over at Jose Ignacio Scribano’s great blog, The Game’s Afoot. It’s a historical crime novel, set in Ireland in the 1930s, with a section set in what was then the Free City of Gdansk.

The story follows a young policeman, Stefan, as he tries to find out what happened to a young woman and, in an apparently separate strand, the young man in the photo above. The plot takes in the Catholic church, convents, illegal abortionists, and the rise of Hitler in Germany along with some corresponding fascism in Ireland.

Overall I liked it very much, though I got a bit bogged down in the middle and think the book could be a bit shorter. But it is very well-written – I loved this description of Hannah, the Jewish woman who has gone to live in Palestine:
Lying in Stefan’s bed that morning, before he woke up, listening to the sounds of Dublin outside, she knew how much this was still her city… She listened to Dublin, rattling and clattering and cursing beyond the window of the scruffy room in Nassau Street.
The information about Gdansk was a revelation – I can’t be the only person who knew nothing about this historical anomaly, and the Irish diplomat and Bishop who were so important there. But still, I thought the protagonists had one too many adventures in Gdansk.

But the final section was enthralling, and this is one of many moments that linger in the mind:
And sometimes we’d stay over. She’d read to us, stories like. She was the only one ever read a story to me. It was a little room at the top of the house. The best bed I ever slept in. If I’m home there’s never a night I don’t read to my kids. You know what’s daft? They can read better than me. They pretend they can’t but they show me up.’ He laughed but as he spoke the words he said them with pride.
So thanks to Jose Ignacio for the tipoff, and I would certainly read another in this new series.

The picture is from the National Library of Ireland, who have a really wonderful collection of photos online.

24 comments:

  1. This one sits on the pile along with another by the author. Not sure when I'll get to them the library being what it is, something to look forward to though.

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    1. I think you'll enjoy it Col - and I'm sure there's a long series to come...

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  2. Sounds great, thanks Moira, shall have to seek this out.

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    1. I really enjoyed the unusual setting and the extra history, which had me busy looking things up and trying to find out more.

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  3. Thanks you very much Moira, I'm glad that Overall you like it very much

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    1. Very grateful for your recommendation Jose Ignacio - I had not come across it anywhere else. My family is from Ireland, which gives it a particular interest for me.

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  4. Moira - I'm a big fan of José Ignacio's blog. Like your own, it's one of my must-visits. And I remember thinking myself that I ought to read this one. I do like solid historical novels, and this one seems to have some interesting story threads. I'm glad that, overall, you liked it too.

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    1. Yes, you can always rely on Jose Ignacio for good reading and great tipoffs, can't you? And this was a good one.

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  5. I'm glad to see this review. Since one side of my family hails from Ireland and the other side were Russian/Polish/Jewish immigrants, this book interested me from the first mention I saw of it.

    I hadn't known the history of Gdansk and am eager to learn more.

    There is another book out by Russell, "City of Strangers," but that one heads to New York, not exactly a mysterious location for a decades-long resident of this great city. I was hoping for a city I could go scurrying through the Internet to read about more.

    Speaking of looking up more information, Nicole Mones' "A Night in Shanghai," did that for me. It's set in 1937-1941 Shanghai. It was quite a city and harbored thousands of Jews who fled from Europe, as well as African-American jazz musicians.

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    1. You sound like the ideal reader for this book, Kathy. I found the history absolutely fascinating. I will look up the book you mention - Shanghai always sounds like a fascinating place, and my daughter spent a summer there recently, so I would like to know more.

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  6. A Night in Shanghai was fascinating to me. Lots of interesting history. Nicole Mones did good research, and her Afterword is good, too.

    I didn't know that Black musicians from the U.S. went to Shanghai to perform. At the time of horrible discrimination and segregation in the U.S., these jazz musicians were able to earn equal salaries and live reasonably well -- until Japan's army invaded. Hope you find this book.

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  7. Glen has this book and has not read it. I will probably wait until he does to try it. I did not realize it was quite so long, which may be why he has not gotten to it yet. Definitely a time period we are interested in.

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    1. It's one of your interests I know, the run-up to the war, and I think you would find it a good read. I would like to read more in this series, but I don't know when I'll get to them. I am trying to reduce the TBRs and not buy more right now....

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  8. I ponder if there is a 12-step program to deal with huge and growing TBR piles, not to mention lists. As much as I try to keep the growth to a dull roar, books appear as if by magic.

    At the same time, bloggers write great reviews and one wants to read the books, so one heads to the library. But they are not great at ordering global books, except by bestselling authors, so one ends up buying books.

    I think another mindset is needed, but am not sure what that would be!

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    1. Short-term embargos are the only way for me - I tell myself 'well when August is over if you still want it you can get it then', and I have to say I have a small list already. But, the satisfaction I've had from reducing a shelf this month is huge. I wish I'd photographed the shelf the day I started for my own satisfaction....

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    2. I am going to have to try that approach. Short term total embargo might work much better than long term limits on books coming in.

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    3. I think small ambitions are best for me... I've been reading about the idea of hackathons applied to everyday life, have you come across that? It seemed like a good idea to me, hence the August book attack.

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    4. I have not heard of hackathons. Taking that approach in other areas sounds interesting. I despair when I keep adding new authors and books even to a list, though, because I will never catch up. I guess I should change my attitude and be glad there are so many books waiting to be read someday.

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    5. I like the idea of identifying a small problem area, and a small piece of time, and putting the two together. I know that larger aims tend to be harder to achieve, but the month-long tasks suit me. I have done something different each month this summer....

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    6. Wow, that sounds like a great idea. I will have to let that percolate a while.

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    7. It might not work for everybody, but it works for me Tracy.

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  9. I haven't purchased books lately, but I have six from the library, and a kind blogger/reader sent me four. And I took back Kate Atkinson's Life after Life from a neighbor to whom I'd loaned it.

    So with not one purchase, the piles have grown. And there are several I'd like to read but the library doesn't have them -- so I hit the credit card from myself.

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    1. Oh dear Kathy - I know just what you mean. And I've had a couple of books arrive on backorder, and a couple from a publisher, so my embargo wasn't total... More reading time is what's needed.

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