Strange Flowers – Donal Ryan (Doubleday 2020)

When I read Donal Ryan’s debut “The Spinning Heart” in 2013 I was so impressed.  I completed it very early on in the year and it still managed to make the runner up spot in my Books Of The Year (behind Robert Lohr’s 2007 “Secrets Of The Chess Machine”. What an under-rated book that was).  I felt like I was really at the start of something when I was sent Ryan’s debut to review.  My thoughts about it featured alongside an interview with the author in Newbooks (NB) magazine and the novel won the Guardian First Book Award, The Book Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards amongst other accolades and was later voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”.  I made my own claim to the lasting power of this book in 2015 when I put the title forward in the winter edition of NB/Newbooks as my choice for the Best Book Of The 21st Century So Far.

Here’s the strange thing- despite my great love for this title I have not got around to reading anything else by this author who has since published  a short-story collection and three novels (his last “From A Low And Quiet Sea” making the 2018 Costa Novel Shortlist).  I was delighted to be offered a chance to advance review this, his fifth novel, by his publishers to put my previous oversights right.

The thing I have to get over first of all is that it didn’t blow me away like the debut did, so there’s unfortunately already a trickle of disappointment creeping in.  This was added to slightly by the narrative structure chosen, the debut drew the reader in with 21 people telling their tale creating a community with wonderful, economic writing which really brought these characters alive. Here we have a very factual narrative, written like a fable or fairy tale, which makes obviously for good story-telling but holds the reader at arm’s length and delays an emotional attachment with the characters developing.  This is obviously a popular style at the moment as Edmund White has surprisingly utilised something similar in his latest “A Saint From Texas”.

We begin in the early 1970s in Tipperary and the novel focuses on three generations of the Gladney family.  Paddy, a postman who also works on the land of the Jackman family where his cottage is situated and his wife, Kit, are reeling from the disappearance of their daughter Moll.  This can be seen as a novel about returning home and being satisfied with one’s lot as characters seem happiest when they have returned home to live a simpler life in the Tipperary countryside.

For the first half of the novel I was impressed by the quality of the writing but not totally involved but perhaps by two-thirds of the way through the undeniable genius of Donal Ryan had worked its magic and despite writing in a style which was keeping me at a distance I discovered  I really cared for some of these characters (I adored Alexander) and ended up feeling quite misty-eyed by the end.  I’m not sure how the author did this to me.  Once again it is a deceptively simple work which is much richer in characterisation and symbolism than it first appears- perhaps working in that subliminal way in which we as children relate to fantasy and traditional stories which the structure of this ultimately satisfying work echoes.

Strange Flowers was published in hardback by Doubleday on  20th August 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers for selecting me to review an advance copy and to Netgalley for making that available.

2018 – What I Should Have Read

I am fairly certain that I am now reading my last book of 2018.  This is because I am just mid-way through the massive “Count Of Monte Cristo” which I have never read before and the Penguin edition amounts to 1276 pages of pretty small print.  If I get through these it will end up being perhaps the longest book I have ever read.  I’ll let you know how I get on but that will unlikely be before the new year.

With newspapers, bloggers, websites coming up with their favourite books of the year I thought I would delay my choices until the very end of 2018 but look at some of the books I have missed out on reading this year.  So here is my Top 10 what I should have reads.

Snap – Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press)

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The first popular crime novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it seems not even the presence of huge fan Val McDermid on the judging panel could get this onto the shortlist.  I read Bauer’s dark debut “Blacklands” in the year it was published and enjoyed it but have not read any of her others.  Luckily, I found a copy of this on the library shelves and have borrowed it so Alexandre Dumas-willing I will get round to it before hoards start reserving it because of its regular appearances on “best of the year lists”

Chalk Man – C J Tudor (Penguin)

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Another one I have out from the library.  This debut has been compared to Stephen King and is set in 1980’s Britain. Now out in a paperback edition featuring high praise from writers of the calibre of Lee Child, John Boyne, Celia Aherne, Kimberley Chambers, Julia Heaberlin and King himself.  Can’t wait to read this one.

Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (Raven)

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Another much praised debut.  Val McDermid had it as one of her books of the year.  The little I know about it sounds a bit like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” in structure (an all-time favourite) within a classic murder mystery frame.  I saw this going cheap one day as a Kindle Daily Deal so it is sitting there waiting for me.  This has been shortlisted for the first novel Costa Awards, a National Book Award and scooped the independent booksellers Books Are My Bag novel award.  Not sure why there is an extra half of a death in the American title.  Suppose I will have to read it to find out.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)

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A Booker shortlisted roller-coaster of a novel and the only one that made me feel sorry I did not read the shortlisted titles before the winner’s announcement this year as I have done the past couple of years.  I do have this Canadian author’s earlier novel “Half Blood Blues” unread on my bookshelves and I may just have to start to this but I am certainly looking forward to discovering her writing in 2019.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

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A book which is certainly popping up on best of the year lists.   It was championed by Kamila Shamsie in “The Guardian’s” look back on the year.  I have never read any of  the Sri-Lankan born Canadian novelist Ondaatje’s 8 novels before, not even “The English Patient” (nor have I seen the film version) but this novel set in London in the aftermath of World War II seems to me to be a tempting place to start.  I had this as one of my 2018 highlights at the start of the year.

From A Low And Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan (Doubleday)

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I loved, loved loved this Irish writer’s debut  “The Spinning Heart” and was published in NB magazine citing it as one of the best books of the 21st Century, but since then, amazingly I have not got round to reading any of his three subsequent novels.  This was championed by Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian and is on the shortlist for the Costa novel Award.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

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This British author’s “A God In Ruins” is well in the running for being named my best read of 2018.  I wanted to read her Jackson Brodie series of novels next but then I borrowed this as a library e-book.  I’ve not noticed it much on end of year lists and a few people I know who have read it have been a bit lukewarm about it but she is one of our greatest living novelists so I really should find out for myself .

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

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I’ve read all the others so of course I’m going to get round to this but I’m a little put off by the sheer size of the hardback so may need to wait until it arrives in paperback.  It does seem to be generally getting the thumbs up but most seem to mention that it is too long.

Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press)

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Admittedly I’ve got the odd Gale gap in my reading history but he is one of my Top 10 most-read authors.  I would imagine that this is a quieter, understated, less showy novel than some on display here so I might need to get myself into the right mood for that.  He can absolutely blow me away as a writer but this does not happen every time.

My Love Story – Tina Turner (Century)

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My pick of all the non-fiction I’ve missed this year.  I was a little concerned that this autobiography might have been a little air-brushed but reviews seem to say that this is not the case.  This living legend and performer of one of my 100 Essential CDs got huge publicity for this publication as it was her version of what has been an incredible life.  I haven’t rushed to buy this because I did read “I, Tina” written alongside Kurt Loder and I wondered how much of this was a rehash of that.  But I will get round to it.

Anyone looking for a last minute Christmas present for this reviewer could start here….!

 

 

 

100 Essential Books – The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012)

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This is an extraordinary debut novel. It is set in small-town recession-hit Ireland where everyone knows everyone’s business and the departure of a bankrupt builder leads to a great hole in the community. Ex-foreman Bobby, the central character is given first shot as narrator and then the tale is told by twenty other narrators, developing the plot. No one is given a second bite of the cherry. This unusual device works so well, as within a few pages Ryan superbly creates each character through their own narration.  It is a book of voices, every one clear and vibrant. Each section could be read separately as a high-quality short story but when read as a whole it becomes a compelling first-rate novel of contemporary Ireland. It is a slim book and deceptively simple. Reading groups would love that a little analysis shows what a complex piece of work this and marvel at how a whole community , could be created in so few words: Wonderful, economic writing. “The Spinning Heart” is a superb achievement by Donal Ryan. fivestars

This review first appeared in New Books – the magazine for readers and reading groups.