Modern Gods – Nick Laird (4th Estate 2017)

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This novel opens with a shocking, violent prologue and then settles into a family drama reminiscent of the best of Anne Enright.  Set in the small town of Ballygrass, Northern Ireland, Alison is preparing for her second marriage and hoping to put behind her an abusive first marriage.  Her mother is fearful that a serious illness has made a comeback and her father has been left slightly confused after bouts of ill-health, and is no longer the man he once was.  Her sister, Liz, the main character, is coming to terms with the break-up of yet another relationship and their brother has secrets of his own.

The author pitches these family dynamics perfectly.  They are well-rounded characters and feel like a real family with its own issues and  tensions of a lifetime’s making.  It feels very modern, there are well-observed references throughout and certainly the first part of the novel is an unpredictable joy.

In Part Two we get a split narrative away from Alison’s wedding as Liz travels to New Ulster Island off Papua New Guinea to film a BBC documentary about a new religion.  The author opened up my eyes  here to Cargo Cults which is something I knew nothing about yet in making this shift in the novel I felt that some of the power and vivacity of what had gone before was diluted.  This is always a risk (I felt exactly the same recently about Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”) as there is a danger that the reader will favour one strand over the other and want the author “to get on with it”. Although I enjoyed reading about Liz’s experience and it makes for chilling reading as the disastrous repercussions of western intervention begins to unfold I was itching to get back to Ireland where there were equally difficult situations regarding fanaticism to resolve.

The sections do link together and I can see what the author is trying to convey.  The whole thing ends up as a very good novel whereas for the first half I thought it was going to be an exceptional one. 

This is Irish writer Laird’s third novel.  He has also published collections of poetry and this is not surprising as his use of language is rich and precise.  He currently teaches creative writing at New York University.  I will certainly be seeking out his earlier works.   

fourstars

Modern Gods was published by 4th Estate in June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and to the folks at Nudge for the review copy.

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Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

 fourstars

 

Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

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Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

fourstars

 

The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Picador 2016)

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Although I have “Room” on my bookshelves I have not got round to reading it yet.  (I’m here referring to Donoghue’s international best-seller, not actual room, of which I have very little on my shelves!)  Here, I would imagine we are in very different territory with this her 14th publication.

This book focuses on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”,  a curio which has popped up throughout history when a (usually) young female clams to be living without taking in any food.  At times in the past, some saw this as a new stage of human development, as if the faster is converting food in a different way, like a plant and inevitably, perhaps, the religious have seen it as a sign of the miraculous.

In a mid-nineteenth century village in the Irish Midlands an eleven year old girl is causing ructions and great excitement by her four month total fast.  A committee is formed to investigate and a nun and a nurse have been employed to monitor.  The nurse, Lib Wright, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran of the Scutari Barracks in the Crimea has been brought over from England to keep watch.

Lib does not adhere to the Catholic beliefs which dominate the local population but is thrust into this intense world of ritual and superstition.  This and the rudimentary accommodation of burning peat and smoke filled huts makes for a very intense environment.  Much of the action takes place in the basic room between nurse and patient.  The child initially seems to be thriving without food.  What are the motives behind the child’s claim and is this some kind of ruse?   Is she, as she states, being fed by some kind of divine intervention or is something more sinister and underhand going on?

Donoghue catalogues the two weeks of this watch of close observation and note-taking.  Lib’s calling is still very much in its infancy but she is aware that she has been taught by the best and the words of Nightingale (Miss N) are never far from her mind.  Lib is submerged into a world where religion and superstition can overshadow common sense and the read is involving and builds nicely as the truth is revealed.

This is a novel rich in atmosphere.  Lib is very much an alien amongst the Irish and the environment of peat and an unstable boggy land is very much as alien to her as the attitude of the villagers towards the miracle child.  There’s so much room for discussion for reading groups, but with morality and religion at their centre these are likely to be lively ones.  “The Wonder” provides a thought-provoking involving read which will boost Donoghue’s reputation and variety as a writer and storyteller.

fourstars

“The Wonder” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Emma Donoghue.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

“The Wonder” was published in hardback by Picador in September 2016.  The paperback is published in May when we could expect to see Emma Donoghue once again ascending the best-seller lists.

Himself – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2016)

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“Himself” is Mahoney who returns to the Irish village of Mulderrig in the spring of 1976.  This was the place his mother disappeared from 26 years before, leading to him being brought up by nuns in an orphanage.  Mahoney has come back to find out what happened to her.  He can see ghosts and this should help, although he has never seen his mother’s spirit.  The larger than life Mrs Cauley takes him under her wing, a marvellous character, wheelchair bound and bedecked in a range of wigs with her theatrical tales and a determination to rouse the village with her annual dramatic production.

Kidd’s debut novel absolutely fizzles with life.   There’s some great characterisation here with Mahoney, a 70’s man with long hair and flared trousers alien to most of the village seeming the most stable of the lot.  The living and the dead are used well, the ghosts being “just echoes of the stories of their own lives sung back in the wrong order- arsewards”.  In fact, there’s a lot of “arse” in “Himself”.  Kidd has a ribald sense of humour which sounds just right emanating from these almost Rabelaisian characters. This gives body and depth to what is at heart a very dark tale of a suppressed crime, but she will also have you laughing out loud.

Mahoney’s arrival and investigations unleashes supernatural elements into the community as Mahoney’s fancy piece, Shauna says; “Oh God!  Can’t anything just be normal around here?  Can’t a storm just be a bloody storm?”  There’s all manner of things falling on the people of Mulderrig urging them to give up their secrets.  This is a rich tale which incorporates the supernatural and magic to very good effect.  This is not an easy balance and as far as I am concerned a lot get this wrong.  AK Benedict got it right earlier this year with “Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts” yet Kidd’s novel is a more satisfying read which will benefit greatly from group discussion to bring out the undoubted quality of the writing.

fourstars

Himself is published by Canongate on 27th October 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and nudge for the review copy

Holding – Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

 

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Graham Norton has joined the ranks of celebrity novelists.  After a couple of autobiographical works he has got the writing bug and has been spurred on to produce the novel he always wanted to write.  For the first half it is surprisingly under-stated, a rather cosy affair.  In the Irish village of Duneen a skeleton is unearthed when builders are working on redevelopment at an old farm.  The body is believed to be of Tommy Burke who had supposedly left some twenty years before following tangled encounters with a couple of women in the village.  It is obvious that some people know more than they are letting on.

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TV presenter, chat show host etc now adds novelist to list of achievements

So far, nothing especially distinguished but once Norton gets into his characters the novel develops a stronger identity.  He has created quite a star in Sergeant PJ Collins, the lone member of the Garda for the village, an overweight, lonely man who comes into his own and becomes unexpectedly in demand during the investigation.  Small time Irish life is something Norton obviously remembers well and it feels spot-on.  It certainly wasn’t the book I was expecting him to write.  I was expecting sharp, brittle humour and a much more glitzy affair.  Norton is a natural with yet really does not play it for laughs in quite the way I had anticipated.  It does open out from the charming, slightly dated feel of the cosy crime caper into a cauldron of secrets and lies and it has all been done rather well.  A welcome addition to the celebrity novelist’s club.

fourstars

Holding is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 6th October 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Maker Of Swans – Paraic O’Donnell (2016)

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I had heard quite a bit about this book and was tempted by the front cover which I like very much indeed. The buzz about it sees comparisons  being made to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (which I loved) and “Night Circus” (which I didn’t).  It has elements of Susanna’s Clarke’s superb work in its other-worldliness and hints of magic existing alongside the real world.  It has elements of “Night Circus” in that I didn’t always know (or care) what was going on.  Set mainly in a time I put around 1960 (the only reference is some sixty years after the Boer Wars) in a fading mansion house. This is run by a butler, Eustace, who keeps an eye on the strange Mr Crowe, his singer girlfriend and Clara, the mute girl of indeterminate age who lives what can best be described as an elemental existence and has developing powers which she is trying out on swans.  Eustace has to cover up a killing at the property starting off a chain of events which leads to, well, I’m not sure where actually.

Two strong characters, Eustace and Clara, dominate proceedings and this debut novel is written with a real flair for language.  I’m not totally convinced, however,  by this balance of fantasy and literary fiction.  The first third builds up beautifully but with too many unanswered questions I felt it ultimately a bit of a let-down.  I think to work well this kind of book needs real richness and depth which “Jonathan Strange..” has but I didn’t feel that O’Donnell quite pulled this off.  Without that there is a danger of things becoming whimsical which I doubt was the author’s intention.  I’ve looked at other reviews of this book and it does seem to be falling into the “love it or hate it” category but, unfortunately, I do neither.  Over at Nudge Books it has already been Book Geek Book Of The Month.  Arzu Tahsin, the Deputy Publishing Editor at W&N thinks they are on to a real winner and says of the book;

The Maker of Swans, so delicately wrought exquisitely fulfils our yearning for a truly immersive experience. Magic is all around us and sometimes someone comes along who brings it alive in ways we can only guess at. You will never forget Clara.”

I wish I was totally immersed but there was something within the book that held me back and I hate to say it but although Clara was a fascinating idea for a character there was not enough for her to do within the plot to stay in my mind.  Another book I read recently which attempted to do something similar with a blend of fantasy and thriller was “Jonathan Dark Or The Evidence Of Ghosts” by A K Benedict and her central character, the blindfolded Maria, has certainly stuck in my mind.

threestars

The Maker Of Swans was published in February 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither – Sara Baume (2015)

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This debut novel is an extended love letter from a man to his dog.  Their relationship is the central focus of the novel.  I’m always a little anxious about animals in stories (and films come to that- following a bad experience with “Ring Of Bright Water” when I was very young) and after becoming an emotional wreck from “Paw Tracks By Moonlight” I thought I’d severely ration pet reading.  I’ve mentioned this before and  a number of readers came to my rescue and admitted their pain threshold concerning animals is very low and whereas we may quite enjoy hardship being heaped upon our human fictional characters when animals, especially pets are introduced it might be a different matter.  So for those of a nervous fictional animal disposition I think you’ll be alright with this one.  There is as the say in the cinema trailers “mild peril” but I think you’ll find the beauty of the language more than compensates for that.

Ray is “too old for starting over, too young for giving up”.  It soon becomes clear that he has had a lifetime of difficulties, particularly relating to people and coping with everyday life: “I’m not the kind of person who is able to do things, have I told you this already?  I lie down and let life leave its footsteps on me.”  Identifying with him yet?  Ray’s life is a lonely one, his sole parent has died, leaving him in an empty house until he sees an advert for a rescue dog in a shop window.  We know from the minute he catches his reflection looking at the photo that the relationship between these two will be significant.

“I see myself instead.  I see my head sticking out of your own back like a bizarre excrescence.  I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the back.”

The one-eyed dog, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a badger, has a volatile temperament and becomes fiercely protective as the relationship between these two outsiders is forged.  In a society which judges by appearances the mutt and the hefty, pony-tailed, slightly strange man prefer to keep to the shadows and as their alliance develops the further they become isolated from society. Dog learns from Man, Man learns from Dog.  “I feel different somehow.  I feel animalised.  Now there’s a wildness inside me that kicked off with you.”

This might sound trite if it was not for the skill with which Baume handles this and most effective is the way she uses language.  This may be her debut novel but I am sure she has a background in writing poetry, if she hasn’t then everything is there to suggest that this is a skill in which she would excel.  The way she writes about the natural world is reminiscent of the best of Ted Hughes, there’s the almost elemental understanding of Man, Animal and Environment and an incredibly powerful use of words(she’s also hot on plants).

The novel is written in present tense, which I know gets some readers groaning.  I myself complained recently in my review of “The Demonologist”,  but then that was a mystery novel where the confines of present tense writing meant that significant events had to be carried out “off-stage” and reported.  Here it works.

Given the nature of the two protagonists it would not be a surprise to say that there are very few supporting characters and so to keep the reader engaged Ray and One Eye have to be pretty potently drawn and they are.  It shows considerable skill to ensure that the character of Ray is maintained throughout his narrative.  This is achieved by his little literary quirks including occasional use of three verbs (“running, running, running” “nibbling, nibbling, nibbling”) which used sparingly becomes highly effective (and adds to the poetic feel of the whole piece).  Ray’s repetitions and his thought processes help establish the character and clearly suggest that not everything is functioning well all the time. The sense of loneliness and the unfolding of secrets is beautifully handled.

This is a strong debut, skilfully carried out and Baume has recently been rightfully nominated for The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and for First novel at the Costas .  It’s knowingly quirky in the way that “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time”and “100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window” are knowingly quirky and so might not be everyone’s cup of tea (bowl of kibble) but for the literary dog-lover I might just have solved your Christmas book buying dilemma and I will be fascinated to see what Baume comes up with next.

fourstars

Spill Simmer Falter Wither was published in paperback in the UK in 2015 by Windmill Books

The Green Road – Anne Enright (2015)

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It is 1980 in County Clare and Rosaleen Madigan takes to her bed after her son Dan tells he is going to become a priest.  This family tale is Man Booker Prizewinning author Anne Enright’s 9th novel.  Spanning twenty five years of the life of Rosaleen and her four children we meet them at various times in their lives until they are all brought together again for a final family Christmas in the house they grew up in.

Eldest daughter Constance waits for a mammogram test, son Emmet saves lives in Africa but is thwarted by a relationship and a dog and actress daughter Hannah struggles to cope with motherhood and alcohol.  The most vibrant of these is Dan, whose route to the Priesthood is diverted by trips to Fire Island, grappling with his sexuality at a time when men are falling rapidly to AIDS.  This provides a very haunting section of the novel.

Although the family go their separate ways , the men getting a considerable distance away, there’s no real escape from the complex relationships they each have with their mother whose presence lurks in the background.

“Why she could not be nice to them, she did not know.  She loved them so much.  Sometimes she looked at them and she was flooded with love, she just had to go and spoil it.  It made her angry in the after-wash.  They were so beautiful.  They used to be so beautiful.  They were so trusting and good.  It made her feel not good.  Unappreciated.  It made her feel irrelevant.  That was it.”

It is full of “moments” this novel – vignettes of excellent writing on coping with the complexities and tensions of life.  The bringing together of the family for the final section works  beautifully, returning home is so often poignant in fiction and this is no exception.

The Green Road of the title is a coastal road running through Burren in County Clare and provides a surprising dramatic highspot of the novel.

The characters are well-drawn and the dynamics of the relationships with one another is handled subtly and convincingly.  I have never read Irish novelist Anne Enright before (and I must admit I didn’t feel that inspired when I saw the cover) but I am very glad I picked it up and will now add to my reading list “The Gathering” which scooped many awards including the Man Booker in 2007.

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fourstars

 

The Green Road is published in hardback in 2015 by Jonathan Cape.  It has recently been nominated for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year in the Irish  book awards.

The Blue Guitar- John Banville (2015)

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“Happy sadness, sad happiness, the story of my life and loves.”

The central character of Man Booker Prize winning Irish author John Banville’s 17th novel is Oliver Orem, a self-obsessed painter of limited talent who falls in love with Polly, the wife of best friend Marcus Pettit, a watchmaker.  This is Oliver’s narrative- a tale of betrayal, disappointment and a fear of commitment.  We first meet Oliver in hiding as his affair has been rumbled, in a refuge where everyone seems to know where he is.  Oliver has a predilection for theft, choosing meaningless objects, the taking of which provides him with an erotic rush.  He has the belief an object comes to greater life when it has been stolen, a theory which might explain why he makes moves on his friend’s wife.  He believes his crimes are unsolvable, but this also is not so.

The thought-processes of this hapless Everyman gave this reader much delight.  Banville has created an almost timeless fictional world, with larger than life characters who seem to exist simultaneously in a modern world of supermarket car parks and impending environmental doom and a world steeped in history with airships, boneshaker cars and characters who seem so out of place in the modern world that in the few places it infiltrates itself, it seems rather a shock.  The blurb describes it as “a reimagined Ireland that is both familiar and unsettling.” This is true, but it is also subtle, the human condition of Orme’s philandering and cowardice fit into any time frame.

I found it all rather captivating.  There’s an endearing warmth throughout.  It is full of anecdotes, reminiscences and Orme’s view on life written in robust, vibrant language which had me holding on for every word.

“At heart I am I think a simple organism, with simple desires that I keep on foolishly elaborating to the point where they get me into impossible fixes.”

There are some elements that do not hit home on first reading – Why “The Blue Guitar?” It’s used as an image in the closing pages as Orme envisages himself as a Pierrot strumming along to a stately dance by the other protoganists.  He’s on the outside, pulling strings, much as he has been for the whole novel but I do have the lingering feeling that I’ve missed out on something here.  Not picking up the author’s references can leave me a tad frustrated.

Banville also writes crime novels as Benjamin Black.  Before I try another of his “literary” novels (there’s the 2005 Man Booker winner “The Sea” to be considered) I think I might try reading him with his other hat on.  I’m keen to see if his vibrant use of language and richness of detail is employed in another genre.

fourstars

The Blue Guitar was published in the UK  in 2015 by Viking (Penguin Books)