Reader’s Journal: Lake of Sorrows

Lake of Sorrows (Nora Gavin #2)For my second book for Reading Ireland Month (well, also my final book I guess, although I started Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine on Saturday, so that sort of counts, doesn’t it?), I chose Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows, the second book in her Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series. I read the first book in the series, Haunted Ground, back in 2009. While Hart is technically an American (as is Nora Gavin, her female protagonist), the series is set in Ireland. Nora is a pathologist and Cormac is an anthropologist, so they seem to find themselves pulled into helping to solve modern-day crimes as a result of their work with older specimens, specifically bodies and artifacts recovered from the boglands in central Ireland.

From this point on, my review will contain some spoilers. That’s the thing about series like this one: many of the areas up for discussion will be based on things that happened in the previous books. So one thing to know about Lake of Sorrows from the get-go is that while you can read it as a standalone, some things won’t make much sense, or may seem to take up valuable time in the book without really warranting it.

As Lake of Sorrows opens, Nora is on her way to investigate (as part of a research team from the National Museum) a bog body that has been recovered by an archaeological team that works at a peat cultivation site to ensure the preservation of archaeological finds. One thing Hart does well is to keep the political and environmental impact of the bogland in the reader’s mind. Peat can be cultivated relatively cheaply to fuel power plants, but cheap fuel has its price:

It was astonishing to her that bogs, despite their role as collective memory, were still being relinquished to feed the ever-growing hunger for electric power. Up until a hundred years ago, the bogs had been considered useless, mere wasteland. then men of science had gone to work on them, devising ever more efficient ways to harvest peat—only to find out, too late, that this was a misguided effort, and perhaps the wrong choice all along. Twenty years from now, the outdated power plants would be gone. The bog would be stripped right down to the marl subsoil, and would have to begin anew the slow reversion to its natural state, layer by layer, over the next five, eight, or ten thousand years.

Nora is only at the site a short time when one of the young archaeologists uncovers another body—only this one happens to be wearing a wristwatch. Even though the second body is clearly a modern man, similarities appear to exist in the way the men have died (or were killed). When the lead archaeologist at the site is found murdered not long after the discovery of the second bog body—and again with similar marks and methods, Nora finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mystery, as is Cormac, who has accompanied her (separately) and offered her a place to stay.

Here’s where it gets a bit spoiler-y. In Haunted Ground, Nora and Cormac were set up (as a couple) by a man who was mentor to each of them. At the beginning of Lake of Sorrows, Nora is thinking that she will have to leave Cormac in pursuit of the one thing that obsesses her, which is proving that her dead sister Triona’s husband, who is about to be remarried, is responsible for Triona’s murder a few years earlier. This backstory is given much more space in Haunted Ground, and at the beginning of Lake of Sorrows it seems that this will be one of the larger subplots to help further develop Nora (and possibly Cormac). Strangely enough, although Nora spends the first few chapters acting weepy and strange and guilty for not staying focused on Triona’s death and about her decision to leave Cormac, the entire thing is all but dropped until near the end of the book, when she mentions to Cormac that she needs to return to America, and his response is not much more than, “I knew you would.” I suppose I can understand why Hart would want to save the Triona storyline perhaps for a book that’s more full devoted to that crime, it annoyed me that it was such a huge deal in the first few chapters and then is basically dropped while she and Cormac try to figure out the murders. On that note, Cormac doesn’t get much in the way of development in this book (and neither does Nora, actually, not really), and plays second string to Nora even though he has his own past issues with his father to deal with that were well-established in the first book and only given passing mention in this one.

Another thing that, for me, made Lake of Sorrows less satisfying than Haunted Ground was the mystery itself. While Hart is very good at weaving in cultural history—in this case, mostly about Celtic sacrificial rituals and Iron Age artifacts—the mystery itself is somewhat boring. The characters involved, other than the Detective Liam Ward (whom I hope reappears in later books in the series), are mostly types easily set in to make that subplot move forward. For example, Ursula Downes, the head archaeologist who is murdered, had been involved with Cormac when they were much younger. But she’s simply drawn as a manipulative man-eater (albeit one with a sad, clichéd past). This seemed to me like a real opportunity to develop Cormac’s character and have a complex villain (but not necessarily a murderer, which she’s not). The other problem for me was the pacing. Hart bogs this one down (ha!) with so many little subplots and oddball characters out to get this or that, it becomes tiresome.

Overall, Lake of Sorrows was good enough to make me want to read at least the third book, False Mermaid, if only because Hart does do such a good job with bringing in the history and culture of Ireland. I’m also interested to see if the issues I have with the second book (pacing, character development) are really more about the author feeling her way into a longer series. I definitely recommend it, but do read Haunted Ground first. You won’t be sorry.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Skippy Still Isn’t Dead Yet

How the Irish Saved CivilizationNot that I want to see Skippy die, but I’m starting to feel anxious. I’m only about two-thirds through the book, and I started it in early March. It’s my fault of course, not the book’s. In fact, when I get a chance to read, I find it very difficult to put down because it’s very well done: observant and witty and melancholy all at the same time, which are all traits of the best books. I’m only embarrassed because I joined Reading Ireland Month, and now I am starting to worry that my contribution will be one lone entry. I hope not, because I’m tired of Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows looking at me reproachfully from the shelf…Oh! And also, I forgot that I have a copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, and I was hoping to read that one as well. The best laid plans!

Reading Ireland Month

ireland monthI’ve decided last minute to join what looks to be a fun event for the month of March. Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging are hosting Read Ireland Month (The Begorrathon) to celebrate Irish books, film, theater, and so on. At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t join because I must stick with the plan to read only from my TBR through March 31, but then it occurred to me (duh) that my current book, Skippy Dies, is by an Irish author and set in Ireland, and I was bound to have at least a few more that I could sneak in over the month. Look what else I found on my shelves:

Lake of Sorrows, Erin Hart

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore

The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

Troubles, J.G. Farrell

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Nora Webster, Com Tóibín

The Collected Stories, William Trevor (obviously a bit much to read the whole thing, but maybe some selected stories)

It must be fate! What could be more fun than finishing the TBR Double Dog Dare by reading some Irish authors? I am hoping to fit in at least three of these titles, so please do share if you’ve ready any of them, and if you’re so inclined, sign up for the event yourself! Éirinn go Brách!