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  1. As You Were is a story about Sinéad Hynes, a youngish woman in the West of Ireland, living with a terminal diagnosis. Her old life was shattered by the diagnosis - on her way home she saw a lone magpie and this divides her live into Before Magpie and After Magpie. Sinéad decides not to tell anyone - least of all her husband and three children. As her condition worsens, Sinéad requires more intensive palliation and is eventually hospitalised. There are also thoughts about the dying process - about how is becomes public property. However much Sinéad wants to keep it a private affair, she can
  2. If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for! Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever. Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hi
  3. The Wild Laughter is Caoilinn Hughes's follow up to The Orchid and the Wasp which was, for my money, the most complex and beguiling Celtic Tiger novel. This one is a big contrast - where The Orchid and The Wasp was a colourful novel about hope and good fortune set in Dublin and New York, The Wild Laughter is a dowdy novel set in dowdy County Roscommon. Is it just coincidence that this was John McGahern's setting for his loosely autobiographical The Barracks? We have a village. We have a farm. We have Doharty (Hart) Black about to inherit the farm from his mother Nora and his termin
  4. Donal Ryan is a writer who likes a quirky timeline. His previous works have tended to take the form of successive short stories from different viewpoints and Strange Flowers is more of the same. We meet Kit and Paddy Gladney, tenant farmers in Tipperary. Their daughter Moll, a good girl, has left home without leaving a trace. They are bewildered. They grieve. They feel the eyes of the village boring into them. Then, after five years, Moll returns. Successive sections follow different characters at different life stages until a final section allows Moll to fill in the gaps. The narrativ
  5. When All Is Said boasts impressive plugs from respectable writers: Donal Ryan and Graham Norton are just two of them. And they're right - this is an astonishing book. We meet Maurice Hannigan, a successful businessman, 84 years old and nearing the end of his time, reminiscing about the five people who affected him most in his life. He sits in his local hotel, downing drinks at the bar and uses each drink to toast one of those individuals. His rambling and conversational narrative is apparently for the benefit of Kevin, his son across the water in New York. Hannigan's
  6. Nobber by oisin fagan Nobber is a lawless unruly place. Not much has changed in the 670 years between when this is set and nowadays In this novel, the plague has struck Ireland and noblemen are buying up land all over Ireland at a fraction of what it was worth a few years before. Meanwhile a marauding band of gaels are also causing havoc throughiut the lands. Both groups reach the near deserted Co. Meath Town of nobber where the plague has enforced a curfew, only 3 or 4 inhabitants see the sunlight hours including the very strange nudist blacksmith.
  7. It’s a while since I read Night Boat to Tangier so some of the detail has softened. But I was left with a deep impression of two ageing Irish drug runners (Maurice and Charlie) passing the time as they wait at a ferry terminal expecting to intercept Maurice’s daughter Dilly. The beauty is in the dialogue between the two as they wait - and as we learn more about the uneasy relationship between the pair. Maurice and Charlie are big wheels back home - they trail a wake of fear behind them - but on the grand scale of things, they are medium sized fish in a small pond. They have a history of fa
  8. Elizabeth Keane is an Irish émigré, living in New York with her teenage son Zach, having recently split from a husband, Elliot. When her mother Patricia dies, Elizabeth winds up back in Ireland closing up her Patricia’s affairs – in the course of which she finds a stack of letters from the father she never knew, inspiring her to fill in the missing gaps in her own life history. The novel is told in dual timelines: Now and Then. Now is Elizabeth’s story, her quest for her past. She asks former neighbours, acts on half-heard whispers and discovers she has inherited not one but two houses. The
  9. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through a
  10. Orchid and the Wasp is a completely character driven novel. We spend ten or so years in the company of Gael Foess, a smart, sassy Irish girl growing up through the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. We open with Gael as an 11 year old girl selling “virginity” pills to her school friends to restore their hymens. Whether they work or not is immaterial – they work for Gael. Then we meet Gael’s immediate family, her father Jarlath, a senior banker with Barclays, and her mother Sive, an internationally renowned orchestral conductor. Gael’s brother Guthrie is a delicate boy who is bulli
  11. The Ruin (or Rúin as it is marketed in Australia) is a police procedural introducing Inspector Cormac Reilly of the Garda Siochana. The novel opens well, with Reilly in his first week in the guards, sent to investigate a call from a desolate farmhouse in the wilds of County Mayo. He finds a dead junkie and her two young children. It is creepy and mysterious. Then, 20 years later, Reilly finds himself newly posted in Galway, being given the cold cases to review. He is an unwelcome blow-in and is being deliberately frozen out of any real police work. But when the young boy Reilly had rescued tha
  12. Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written. Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage. Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes
  13. From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does. Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes
  14. Roddy Doyle does gritty, real life Dublin life with a sense of humour and a great ear for dialogue. It's what he is famous for. Recently he published a series of short dialogues on current affairs, narrated over a pint of beer in a bar (Two Pints). These were previously published in newspapers and were, at best, ephemeral. So in Smile, where we meet Victor Forde down the pub, having a series of conversations over beer, it is difficult to disengage from Two Pints and see the conversation as something more deep and meaningful. But once this hurdle is overcome, we start to see the em
  15. It is difficult to do anything new with the Irish village novel, even with the coming and going of the Celtic Tiger. It is a well trodden path going all the way back to John McGahern, Liam O'Flaherty and back to Somerville and Ross and William Carleton. You know the thing, slightly quirky individuals, oppressive priests, scary schoolmasters, licentious publicans, etc. Yes Mike McCormack does manage to wring some life from the theme, principally by narrating in a stream of consciousness voice. His big trick is to write the novel as a single sentence - although in fact he doesn't, h
  16. review of The Good People by Hannah Kent Hannah Kent's second novel is set in Co. Kerry in the 1820's. It starts with the death of Martin, husband of Nora. This had followed a previous death of their daughter, Johanna a few months earlier. The consequence of this was that Johanna's husband brought their son, Nora's grandson to live with his grandparents. Unfortunately, the grandson Michéal is believed to be a "changeling", sweeped by fairies for the real boy with one for one of their due to the illness. To help with the few hens and the cow, Nora goes to Killarney to hi
  17. Disappointment. I loved The Glorious Heresies and picked up this follow up with the highest hopes. I wish I hadn't. Because, the high points for The Glorious Heresies had been the blend of farce and crime; the balance between good people; inept people and bad people; the multiple viewpoints; the contrast between the Celtic Tiger and the organised crime. But these are all missing in The Blood Miracles. It is just a straight story of drug deals. The characters are the same - well some of them reappear, but then they only seem to come in two dimensions. For example, Ryan Cusack had been on t
  18. Emma Donoghue is coming to speak in Dallas at the end of this month, so for Christmas, I bought my mother this book and tickets to the lecture. And then I read the book. Lib Wright is a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean campaign, which means she's among the first nurses that existed once nursing became seen as a calling and profession. How she decided to go to train as a nurse is revealed slowly in the book and I won't spoil it here, but it's important to know since it affects her approach to her work. The Crimean campaign has ended and so Lib is now wor
  19. Vivian was not quite wired right. She has no friends, she avoids mirrors, she tells unwelcome truths and fighters children. She has inherited her aunt's house, freeing her of the need to work, so she spends her days searching for a portal into the fairy world in which she believes she belongs. Vivian has a distinctive voice that does remain consistent to the end. Initially this is beguiling; the reader wants to diagnose Vivian, perhaps cure her. The reader hovers uneasily between horror and humour as Vivian fails to comply with society's norms. Some of her actions are endearing - advertisi
  20. review of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue The Wonder is the latest novel by author Emma Donoghue and it sees a nurse, Lib Wright, travel from a hospital in England to the Irish Midlands in the 1860s. She has been chosen for this position because of her experience in the Crimean War as one of Florence Nightingale's volunteer nurses but is unclear hat her role will undertake only that it is for a specified period of a fortnight. When Lib arrives, she is filed in about the role and what it entails, to watch a mysterious girl that has gone without any food for 4 months since April. Is the girl, Anna
  21. Nora Webster, mother of four, Enniscorthy, late 1960s. Recently widowed. This is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Initially caught up in grief and devastation as her husband Maurice dies, leaving her in a financial mess and social isolation, Nora gradually begins to assert her own identity. There are many little sub-plots. The plight of the boys, sent to stay with their aunt during Maurice’s illness, returning with stammers and nightmares. The girls leaving home to set up careers or engage in politics. Nora’s position with Gibney’s, a large firm run by the husband of a school frie
  22. Glorious Heresies is a treasure of a book. It is essentially a straightforward story about criminal families in Cork, all sparked off by the night a young man is bludgeoned to death with a religious statue in a warehouse that has been used as a brothel. It’s one of those stories where the work to cover up the mess creates a bigger mess, and the work to clear that up creates a bigger mess still. There is a French Farce element to it all. What makes the book special, though, is the narrative voice. Mostly it is told in third person with a roving viewpoint that is able to hear and report inte
  23. As a story of the hubris of the Celtic Tiger, The Ghost Estate works. In the 1990s, the Irish economy boomed, largely through inward investment in IT and pharameutical plants. The low rate of corporation tax attracted money primarily from the US, and the newly rich Irish wanted to invest their money in housing. Every small town or city within a hundred miles of Dublin fancied itself as commuter territory; aspiring owner-occupiers and buy to let landlords couldn’t wait to sign up for off-the-plan investments; and house prices spiralled. They spirally so high, so fast that it barely mattered whe
  24. On the surface, History Of The Rain is beautifully crafted. Ruth Swain, probably twenty-something and a university graduate, lies in bed in the attic of her family's County Clare home, quietly dying. Probably. Perhaps to fill the boredom, she decides to tell her family history. Armed with a few facts, she invents and hypotesizes; creates dialogue, meetings, motives... She has access to her father's library of books, numbering over 3,000, which she references painstakingly throughout the story; and she has an obsession with the Salmon of Knowledge. Ruth has a lively, playful voice and engages i
  25. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, proudly bearing a quote from Anne Enright on the front cover of the Australian edition, reminds readers of what The Gathering might have been. The style is experimental. Verbs are scarce - apparently Eimear McBride wanted to portray just what the girl saw - and sentences tend to be fragmentary. In particular, in the opening sections when the girl is a young child, the ideas are not even half-formed and the narrative is hard to follow. The reader has to read between the lines. Later on, as the girl passes through teenage and on to young adulthood, the ideas are c
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