Short Book Reviews – January 2017

It’s been far too long and a combination of laziness and the season that shall not speak its name getting in the way but here are a few short reviews of things I’ve read over the last couple of months.


Colin Grant – A Smell Of Burning

I realise this might be of minority interest if, unlike me, you haven’t spent your whole adult life with epilepsy being front and centre, but bear with me.

It’s part thorough history of the condition, part look into what it actually is and how it works and part movingly human story about Grant’s own personal interest in epilepsy through the story of his brother.

The bit that really had me up til late and actually taking notes was the history of the condition itself from ancient Greece and Rome right to the present day. Some of it was staggering even to me. Did you know that up until 1970 when a priest asked in a marriage ceremony “does anyone know of any lawful impediment…?” that epilepsy was a legally permissible answer?

I know all about my own epilepsy, how it works, the facts and figures but the history of it has been pretty much a blind-spot for me. This sorted it.

Utterly fascinating, a brilliant history and a human story as well. Loved it.


Sarah Pinborough – Behind Her Eyes

Now this is the real deal. There are always thrillers being touted at the beginning of each year as the ones that will blow your mind. Putting the hashtag #WTFThatEnding on the press materials for this was an awfully high barrier to have this book vault. Luckily it makes the jump with acres to spare.

I’m telling you nothing shy of it starting as a fairly conventional love triangle. Girl meets man in bar, they hit it off, turns out he’s her new boss and then girl meets the bosses wife and becomes her friend! I know that might sound a bit soap-operaesque but then the whole venture takes a sharp right hand turn and it all becomes genuinely compelling after that.

I was sure I had the shape of this nailed about a third of the way through the book, so did my wife, we were both very, VERY wrong. This is a tightly written, genuinely rattling, clever and water-cooler conversation generating thriller that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

My caveat is that you might find the device used here to give you the cracking ending a bit unusual depending on your reading history. I can’t say more and don’t want to but safe to say that I had no problem with it and more of this sort of stuff please!

Make a note, it’ll be on sun loungers everywhere this Summer.


Sebastian Barry – Days Without End

Just one of the best things I read last year. I probably don’t need to tell you that given the success this book has had.

Evocative of period, vast of storytelling sweep and expert in execution.

Don’t let the whole “down and dirty U.S. Civil War period setting” thing put you off as it almost did with me. It should call out to you anytime you walk through the door of a bookshop.

Just read it.


Graham Norton – Holding

In a review last year, John Boyne said that he didn’t think Graham Norton’s debut novel was going to be very good, that he was completely and utterly wrong about that and that Norton might just be “wasted on TV”. I could not agree with him more…

I interviewed him back in 2015 in Listowel for his most recent autobiography. It was, as you might expect, entertaining, laugh out loud funny and he was a warm and fantastic interviewee, but Holding is a different beast altogether.

It’s one of those stories of a small Irish town with small Irish characters with dark pasts where something is just waiting to rise to the surface and, as such, is one of those things I tend to avoid. Thank goodness I didn’t do that here.

You do have to wonder just what he’s been doing all these years depriving us of stuff like this – I’d read another from him in the morning if I could get my hands on it. His observation of character is delicate and spot on, the story circuitous and real, his craft in putting it all together very evident indeed.

It sets a very high bar for whatever he does that comes next.


Ali Land – Good Me Bad Me

And just like buses you wait for one compelling thriller and two come along at the same time.

Ali Land’s debut Good Me Bad Me starts with a fairly attention grabbing scenario. A teenage girl ends up in foster care. As she has handed her mother over to the police. Because her mother is a serial killer.

Then it spends the rest of the time working through what that actually does to the mind of a kid like that, how she assimilates in a new family and school (no-one but her foster parents know her story) and what will happen in the run up to her testifying at her mother’s own trial.

It’s all of those things and much more – by the end you’ll be genuinely in knots. What could have played out like an average episode of Criminal Minds in average hands instead here is textured, human and, in that oldest of clichés, page turning in the hands of a debut novelist.

I’ll be interviewing her in Dublin on Wednesday January 25th at 6pm in Dubray. Event is free, just turn up on the night…


Michael Chabon – Moonglow

Speaking of events with people, I’m talking to Michael Chabon this Thursday in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin.

I’ll keep this simple – Moonglow is just wonderful. It’s a novel (important word that) about an author whose normally monosyllabic dying grandfather starts to tell him a genuinely extraordinary family story spanning almost the whole 20th century in the last days of his life. Yes, I’m a little slow sometimes(!) so, reading it cold, I only started to question whether it might be at least partially based on Chabon’s own experiences about a third of the way through. It is.

It’s beautiful to read in places, richly detailed, thrilling in places and elegantly ornate in others. If you liked Kavalier & Clay (and if you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?) then there are definitely plot, location and themes here that run along in parallel with it. For me it’s going to be hard to beat as a thoroughly brilliant and highly enjoyable read in 2017.



Ted Chiang – Stories Of Your Life And Others

Yes, it’s that collection that contains the original story that the film Arrival was based on. Yes, that’s why I bought it.

It is a grand, wonderful combination of the incredibly complex, the maddeningly infuriating and the genuinely brilliant. In some places the stories are SF, some speculative, one story is even set at the Tower Of Babylon…

I rarely remember the last time I came across an SF author who challenged me so much and that, in itself, is enough to make me love this.


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