Book Reviews – February 2019

EDIT – It was only when I was at home at the weekend that I realised I had completely forgotten to include two of my favourite books coming up in this period!

I’m blaming old age.

Sorry Sinead and Hannah, they’re now added.


If you ever read stuff on this site you’ll probably have recognised a few things:

(1) I’m an incredibly infrequent poster

(2) I prefer the short to the long-winded when it comes to recommending books.

(3) I am a terrible reviewer, but I am quite passionate about things when I like them.


A few things out now or in the next few weeks that you need to read.

Ece Temelkuran – How To Lose A Country – The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship

This is vital reading. She starts with her own experience in her native Turkey, quickly moving through other parts of Europe and on to Trump And Brexit, showing how you can take a perfectly functioning democracy and subvert it to a greater or lesser degree using the playbook of global populism.

A lot of things happening in vast swathes of the world make a lot more sense once you have read this, and it may even help you change that if you want…

I interviewed her recently for RTE Culture.

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Daisy Jones And The Six

The Six are a happening band at the tail end of the 60s about to get all the right buzz with a front man that I could not stop imagining as Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born(!), Daisy Jones is an “it” girl who just wants to write and sing her own songs. The two forces meet, explode brilliantly and then plummet earthward like all good fireworks are supposed to.

The story is told as an oral history from the points of view of the band members, music journos and friends – it’s a cracking, hugely enjoyable one particularly if you like the music of the time…

Catherine Price – How To Break Up With Your Phone

Does exactly what it says on the cover in spades – firstly by dissecting just how smartphones are affecting the modern human brain and then my offering a few ideas to claim back your own mental headspace, if you want to. We’re doing our first digital sabbath this weekend after having read it. Ideal if you have at any stage in the last year found yourself losing an hour of your day down an online rabbit hole or thought “Jesus, I’m spending way too much time on my phone”…

Ian McEwan – Machines Like Me

Not out until April but the premise alone was enough for me to dive in – Britain is in an alternate 1980s where Margaret Thatcher has lost the Falklands War, Tony Benn is going toe to toe with her as leader of the Labour Party and Alan Turing is still alive, meaning the computer revolution happened much sooner and artificial humans are on the market.

Atmospheric, well thought out, peopled with interesting characters and picking apart the time (and, allegorically, the Britain of 2019) it’s very impressive stuff and a great addiction to the continuing current trend for lit-fic speculative fiction.

John Lanchester – The Wall

More super post-apocalyptic lit-fic this time set in a UK now entirely surrounded by a coastal wall in the aftermath of a climate disaster that is only described as “The Change”. Young men and women are all conscripted to spend two years each guarding it under a series of draconian rules in case the country is overwhelmed by refugees, sorry, migrants, sorry “Others”.

A super story in itself even if it didn’t so that thing that all great SF does – hold a mirror up to today from tomorrow. You know the way they say that reading fiction helps you build empathy? Read this.

Ronán Hession – Leonard And Hungry Paul

Now this is the real deal – one of many brilliant Irish debuts for 2019. 2 gentle, quiet thirty-something men still living in their respective family homes dealing with the world through ghost-writing encyclopedias, playing board games and gentle observation. His writing is just beautiful in places (you know the sort of stuff that shows you something completely everyday but at a slight tilt so you see it in a completely new light? That.)

It’s also funny as all hell – in places I was reminded of A Confederacy Of Dunces.

I adore this book; I can’t recommend it highly enough. May not be in every store as it’s from a smaller UK press so seek it out here if you can’t find it –

Sarah Davis-Goff – Last Ones Left Alive

Speaking of brilliant debuts… Orpen has been raised by two women on a barren island off the west coast of Ireland because everywhere else has been laid waste by ravenous creatures. Something happens that mean she has to attempt a crossing of a post-apocalyptic country. Last Ones Left Alive is bleak, unforgiving, dark and bloody fantastic; both a cracking story evoking The Road and a story of faith in human resilience even in the worst possible circumstances.

Anne Griffin – When All Is Said

I’m just going to briefly add to the chorus of praise for Anne Griffin’s debut – I read it on holiday last Summer sitting in a house in the sunshine by a river in France and it hypnotised me for the day and a half I read it in. One man raises a series of toasts in a hotel bar in a small town on one night to the people most influential in his life. It unfolds gorgeously.

Sinead Gleeson – Constellations

This one is a slightly hard one for me to review objectively as, full disclosure, I’ve known Sinéad for donkey’s years. so let me be as objective and clear as I can – Constellations is a thing of honesty, clarity, beauty and, if you’re anything like me, may make you cry more than once.

She’s a longtime anthology editor, broadcaster, arts journalist (and when I met her back in the day, a blogger as we all were!) but this collection is a series of essays on her and her body. Her health (and lack of it at times), motherhood, reproductive rights, and what it’s like to experience all of these things as a women growing up in the Ireland of the last couple of decades.

The lazy comparison here will be to compare it to 2018’s all-conquering Notes To Self but there is some small validity to that. Both are collections of non-fiction about the writer, about their body, being a woman, and both are beautifully written, blisteringly honest and incredibly powerful.

Powerful is an overused word, it’s a deserved one here. Genuinely, this is an absolute must-read.

Hannah Beckerman – If Only I Could Tell You

Audrey has two daughters and both have daughters of their own, none of whom speak to each other after a schism that has occurred in the family many years ago, something that we’re not immediately party to but that unfolds over the course of this elegant, gorgeous story. One that is in some way connected to 10 year old Jess seeing 15 year old Lily coming out of the spare bedroom when they were kids.

I don’t really want to tell you any more, you should find it out for yourself. All 3 main characters and those that inhabit their worlds won’t leave you for a long time after you’ve finished, this deserves all the success that I hope it’s going to find. The book took me a quite a bit by surprise, it might not have ended up in my hands if someone hadn’t recommended it to me. I’m thrilled it did.