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.

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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)

Tatty – Christine Dwyer Hickey (New Island 2004)

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The lasting impression that this novel had on me is the sheer quality of the writing. This was Irish author Christine Dwyer- Hickey’s fourth novel, the first after her “Dublin Trilogy”. At the time it attracted considerable attention, was nominated for the Orange Prize, was on the shortlist for the Irish Novel of The Year (the Hughes and Hughes award) and appeared on the list of 50 Best Irish Novels of the Decade. All very deserving accolades.

This is a tale of alcoholism, seen through the eyes of a child, Tatty. Set over a period of ten years, the curse of heavily drinking parents shadows Tatty but does not overwhelm her. She is very much her own character and, particularly in her younger years is a delightful narrator. I do so often enjoy novels about childhood and Tatty is much the same age as me and there are points of identification, although her Irish childhood with alcoholic parents is so different to mine.

It’s a tale obviously tinged with heartbreak and yet it is also very funny and is written with great style and observation and steeped in the period of the 60’s-70’s. The child’s eye view writing is extremely well done and totally convincing. Tatty relates a visit to an aunt house and what happens when she misbehaves;

“Aunt June doesn’t smack you but she sends you up to your room. Except it’s not your room because it’s in her house, and the big cousins are all in school, and the one with the pink lipstick and the flick in her hair is in work, so that means you have the room all to yourself.

You can look at their comics and mess with their stuff. You can open the vanity case and look at the lipstick and the hairnet with the pink and blue curlers for making the flick tucked up inside. You can stand on the bed and read the funny names of all the people in the pictures on the wall. You can wonder why the boys have two names each: Gene Pitney, Herman Hermit. But the girls only have one: Lulu, Cilla. Or the one with the black face that’s called Millie.”

That passage transports me to being secretly in my sisters’ bedroom. I love the combination of observation with the child’s perceptions on those observations.

Things get increasingly difficult for Tatty at home and her parents are unable to cope and she is eventually sent away to boarding school. With Tatty as our guide the horrors of alcoholism seem less grim and yet this does not diffuse any of the power of this novel.

I have not read anything else by Christine Dwyer Hickey but since this book she has published another three novels, a collection of short stories and a play all of which have been very well received which suggests she is an author of great significance. Her website states that “Tatty” has this year been translated into Arabic. I hope that it provides as much enjoyment in translation as did for me.

fourstars

The Mark And The Void – Paul Murray (Penguin 2015)

The other day Robert over on 101Books (he’s busy reading his way through Time Magazine’s List of the greatest books of all time) prompted a discussion by asking his readers what is the funniest novel? Funnily enough, (gulp!) I’ve just finished reading a very strong contender for that title and it is a book which is due to be published within the next few weeks.  So following on from my previous Paul Murray review here is one that I’m sure you’ll going to be hearing a lot more about.

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I was delighted to be chosen by Penguin to read Paul Murray’s  new novel for review purposes before publication. When I found out the set-up my heart sank- the educational institutions of “Skippy Dies” are part of my psyche so I felt an immediate attachment to it, the financial institutions that form the basis of “The Mark And The Void” leave me cold. I’ve got to my advanced age pretty much avoiding any books, films or television which deal with financial matters or are even set in offices. Perhaps the only related thing I have ever enjoyed is that moment in “Superman III” where Richard Pryor deposits all his fellow employees unrounded half-cents into his account! So it was with hesitancy but an open mind I began Murray’s book.

The Irish financial crisis has been responsible for at least one great novel already- Donal Ryan’s “The Spinning Heart”, one of the best books of this century (so far). That concentrates on the effects upon a small-town community. This book is even better and may very well be the Great Comic Novel of our time.

The narrator, Claude Martingale, a French analyst working in an Irish investment bank, is approached by Paul, looking for an Everyman for his new novel set in Dublin’s financial institutions . This news permeates through Claude’s workplace. This is a place where little exciting or “real” happens- a bank which “produces nothing tangible, which trades only ever in the virtual”, one of the factors for the economic collapse we all suffered.

It soon becomes apparent that Paul’s heart is not in his novel and that Claude at work is just “A Void. A Dead space” and that there is no story to be told. He has other plans in his shadowing of Claude. Murray doesn’t simplify matters, finance is a complicated subject but he makes it all understandable, plausible and, extraordinarily, very very funny. There’s a lot of “nothings” in this book; the bankers work with it, the writer produce it, Claude’s very life is it until he meets Paul. I may still have no idea what a hedge fund is (does anyone?) but I learnt a lot and my sheer enjoyment of this book is not diminished one iota by my economic stupidity. Within this there’s also Philosophy, Art and Literature and the role they have to play in the modern world where “the void” is so prevalent. This is a world where the nothingness has to be finely balanced, where banks can implode because of rumour, where the world of work sees “everyone completely oblivious to everyone else, eyes fixed instead on screens or on that empty point in mid-air where so much of life now takes place.”

I loved the characters in this book, Claude, the “Everyman” with little going for him, Paul, always hopeful he’ll find the next big thing before total destitution, whose literary career was stalled by one bad review, Ish, the female analyst of out place in a male dominated world because she believes in things rather than “nothings”, the boorish men who make up the majority of the workforce. It’s intelligent yet outrageous and Murray gets it just right. I felt with “Skippy Dies” that the book took a time to settle and that the author just crammed too much into it initially and that it was only after Skippy’s death is confirmed and we move away from the events leading up to his demise that the book really took off and we saw the true quality of the writing and the potential of this writer. I was with “The Mark And The Void” all the way. The pace never flags and it becomes funnier and funnier, which is some achievement in a comic novel. If Paul Murray can get me enjoying a book so much with this premise then he can write about absolutely anything. If Joseph Heller with “Catch 22” managed to make war funny (and I’m not entirely convinced he did) then Murray’s making us laugh at loud at Ireland’s financial crises is a comparable achievement.

This is the best book I have read this year and I am looking forward to seeing it appear on prize shortlists.

fivestars

“The Mark And The Void” is published July 2015 by Penguin. Thanks to Netgalley for providing this copy for review.

 

Skippy Dies – Paul Murray (Penguin 2010)

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There seems to be a lot of very good quality writing coming out of Ireland in recent years. I have featured Donal Ryan’s debut as one of my 1oo Essential books and I really enjoyed the recently published “I Am In Blood” written by Joe Murphy and reviewed here back in April. This novel,  Paul Murray’s second and published seven years after his debut “An Evening Of Long Goodbyes” (which I haven’t read) is another winner.

Set in an Irish boarding school this is a long, dense book. I must confess that I was one of the legions of readers who picked this up and thought “Bush Kangaroo” but Skippy here is a pupil, nicknamed because of an overbite, who does indeed, spoiler alert, die. I think this book does take a while to settle down, because Murray puts so much into it. It initially  feels a little like it is all over the place as he introduces the characters- the staff and pupils at Seabrook and the neighbouring girls school St Brigid. I was aware that the book was struggling to stamp its identity  but black humour is quite prevalent, often with a very brittle edge.

Sex, drugs, school politics, bullying and violence all rear their ugly heads but once Skippy’s death (which does occur early on but is then backtracked to events leading up to it) is confirmed the themes become more focused and the writing becomes very impressive. All teenage life is here, so it is not always a pleasant read. From bad kids to nerds, we range from those only motivated by the sale of drugs and prospect of sex to those who are experimenting with time travel. It is often offensive (I do struggle with such frequent use of the word “gay” as a term of abuse – I know teenagers do it but it jars). It is both tragic and comic and it cannot be rushed as there is so much in it and I think for many readers there will be sections that do not work as well (for me it was the drug pushing) but ultimately Murray’s ability at throwing everything into his school themed book works and you have left with the impression that you have completed some novel. This is a writer with a vast amount of potential.

I am currently reading for review Murray’s much-anticipated new novel “The Mark And The Void” (published in July) and my verdict on this will be on here very soon.

fourstars

Skippy Dies was published by Penguin in 2010

I Am In Blood – Joe Murphy (Brandon 2015) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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joemurphyThere’s quite a buzz around Irish Crime Fiction at the moment with the suggestion that the Irish could replace the Scandanavians as the next big thing. One of the spearheads for this campaign could very well be Joe Murphy with this intriguing third novel. There’s an edginess to Murphy’s writing which is there right from the beginning. The book opens on the streets of Dublin not long before Christmas 1892 and the scene is set in parts of the city that makes Dickens’ London look rosy by comparison. A prostitute is violently murdered and there is a strong possibility that the Ripper has relocated from Whitechapel to Dublin. Sergeant George Frohmell of the Dublin Metropolitan Police has his own reasons to halt the killings of prostitutes but those in charge are more pre-occupied with political events, leaving Frohmell go go it very much alone.

These opening pages are superbly written with evocative alliterative phrases – “the sough and suck” of the nearby River Liffey; “the soup of smoke”; “the sallow sneer” of light from a gas lamp building up the picture of this cold, hostile environment in often, short, descriptive sentences. It proves quite a pull when Murphy drags us away and into the Dublin of just before Christmas 2015 where seventeen year old Nathan Jabob is mourning his Dad. Nathan’s story is one of grief and angst, of not belonging and the uncertainties of first love. An outsider also provides the voice of the third narrative strand, that of the killer whose tale is bookended by swirling, poetic passages of violence and madness. Nathan’s morbid preoccupations are piqued by a library book, (Hurrah! A seventeen year old is using a library and being helped by a librarian- good on you, Joe Murphy!) an examination of this sequence of murders in the Monto district over 120 years before.

Joe Murphy weaves a tale of patterns, of blood lines and of blood lust. It’s extremely readable laced with a smattering of dark humour which is effective and appropriate. In Frohmell and Nathan the author has created two likeable well-rounded characters. This is a good read and I will certainly be checking out Murphy’s two previous novels. fourstars

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.