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.

 


For more book-related bits and pieces you can join my Book Club just as we reach member number 5,000!

https://www.facebook.com/groups/therickosheabookclub/

Books To Buy – Xmas 2016 (And January 2017!)

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As it’s something I get asked at the end of every year this has now become a sort of annual thing. So if you’re looking for ideas for books to buy as presents or to get for yourself if Book Tokens are your drug of choice this Xmas here are quite a few ideas with shortened reviews to give you at least a few starting points for your trip to the book shop.

Also, before someone says X is missing (as they always do) this is far from a definitive list of the best books of the year, just the ones I read that I think you should too.

Most are from 2016 itself, a few might be from last year and at the end I have a short list of things to keep an eye out for in early 2017.

Jess Kidd – Himself

Jess Kidd’s debut novel is, varyingly, genuinely creepy, funny, warm, wryly real, smart and compelling. She tells a cracking story with bags of style, a great cast of characters and seemingly effortless ability. I read it in huge chunks. It’s so visual in places it immediately screams “movie” or TV Series” (I have it cast already!) Himself is one of my favourite reads of the year.

Julia Claiborne Johnson – Be Frank With Me

What a gorgeous, wonderful, whimsical, human book. One that I only really picked up on a recommendation from one of the reviewers in my book club. Frank is the 9-year-old son of a reclusive onetime million selling author who lives hidden away in an L.A. mansion. Alice works for her publisher and is sent to help her finish her long-awaited new novel. Thing is, Frank dresses like he’s Fred Astaire and it’s still 1930. A little gem.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave 

Set in World War II the story of Mary North who starts by skiing down the side of a mountain almost James Bond-like(!) to enrol in the war effort the day hostilities break out. This is a story that illustrates just how cruel, random and arbitrary war is when it comes to giving and taking away. That takes guts. Hugely worth your time, a gorgeous, real book that both makes you read late into the night and illuminates some of the lesser known (for me anyway) corners of WWII with skill and bravery on the part of Cleave himself. Comes highly recommended.

Anakana Schofield – Martin John

Just brilliant. Seek it out. Martin John has been exiled to London by his mother for an initially unspecified event but quickly you come to realise that he likes to expose himself in public and rub himself up against strangers on the Tube… The world of fiction is full of forgettable characters. I forget ones from average books all the time. Martin John is not one of them and this is not one of those books. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it (and him) hard to shake off long after you’re finished the last page.

Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Originally a series from an Italian Sunday newspaper, it’s 79 thin pages take you all the way from the very, very small of quantum physics to the very, very vast of the actual architecture of the Universe (explained in 8 pages, a third of which are pictures!). This is mind-boggling tales of reality for anyone who’s ever marvelled at a black hole or wondered just what in the name of Hawking that messing about in the Large Hadron Collider is all about.

Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed

My second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare project after Anne Tyler’s disappointing Vinegar Girl; this couldn’t be more different. It’s The Tempest within a Tempest set in a world of people who know the play and are staging it(!) but yet never acknowledge, really, what’s going on here. Even aside from that her story of a failed brilliant artist looking for redemption or revenge or whatever by running Shakespeare productions in a prison is funny, smart and compelling. A brilliant, worthy adaptation.

Becky Chambers – A Closed And Common Orbit

The sequel to her wonderful A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. If, like me, you loved the Firefly-influenced first part of this story then I am absolutely delighted to tell you that this, set with only a couple of the characters from the first book, is *much* better. There are almost no “bad guys”, no vast battles, no evil empires and no space opera plots here, just interpersonal drama that could happen, well, anywhere.

Graham Norton – Holding

I’m with John Boyne on this one – what on earth has he been doing all these years not being a bloody author! This is an observant, warm, clever story of skeletons (literally!) being dug up in a small Irish town. The plot is less important – this isn’t a whodunit; it’s more about Norton’s skills at picking characters told in seemingly broad strokes initially who are then peeled apart layer by layer proving that his real skill here is in people watching and people telling. Thought it was absolutely super. More please.

Lying In Wait by Liz Nugent

Did you like Unravelling Oliver? This is better. As much as I adored and pressed the first book into the hands of many in the months after I read it, Lying In Wait is a completely different beast. As I finished the last page I actually stood up and gave a round of applause to my empty sitting room. Simply the best Irish thriller this year by miles. Crafted, elegant, full of evil and human consequences. Buy it.

Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

I would like to say there was always one on my summer holidays this year that was going to make me cry at the end but I so rarely cry at books, heartless bastard that I am. This did. A story of people, relationships, moments that change whole lives and the (mostly) normal story of a group of interconnected people and families set over decades. I don’t want to tell you any more, find out for yourself.

Mike McComack – Solar Bones

I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to it, save some good things I’d heard, I only noticed that the entire 200+ page book was a single sentence about 15 pages in and this is one of the most surprising joys of my reading in 2016. One man, one simple, ordinary life, told in the most extraordinary way possible. I know the author and publishers would like you to read the blurb beforehand, but I suggest don’t. It was like being kicked in the gut when I finished. Full of craft, humanity and balls.

Hideo Yokoyama – Six Four

Don’t be put off by the size – this is a Japanese giant of a cop thriller. A seven-year-old girl disappears in 1989 never to be seen again, in 2002 a press officer finds an anomaly that leads back into the case and threatens to unravel far more that just one kidnapping. Very precise, gorgeously told, never ever boring and even a bit Nordic Noir, I ate this up on my week away in March. You should too.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

You know every now and then you get hypnotised by a writer’s style or a series of short stories? For me, Vertigo brings both of those to the table. It’s less a series of disconnected stories and more almost a continuous stream of vignettes from the internal narrative of what could easily be the same woman in different countries, situations, parts of what seem to be the same life. Vertigo is a little thing of hidden beauty, you should seek it out.

Knights Of The Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

One for your kids or you if you still feel like one! A centuries old war between warriors, monsters, dimensions and worlds with genuinely gorgeous sweeps of words and sentence-stopping language to gape at and re-read, and it’s set in Ireland. The world of flashy new series-based YA is very, very crowded waters at the moment – Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is a great big vicious shark that leaps out of the water at you.

Donal Ryan – All We Shall Know

If you loved the universes of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, The Thing About December and his criminally overlooked recent book of short stories A Slanting Of The Sun then you won’t be disappointed here.  All We Shall Know pulls up the stones in the small town front garden rockery and shows us the wriggling worms of the poor choices adults make against their own better interests and the savagery that two people still in love can inflict on each other. I’m glad to say again what I’ve said in previous reviews – I believe that in decades to come we’ll look back on Donal’s work as the most authentic stories and voices from contemporary small-town Ireland in the early 21st century.

The Last Days Of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Top supernatural horror thriller with a lead who is a cross between Piers Morgan, Louis Theroux and Richard Dawkins in a remake of The Exorcist for the social media age with a touch of “directed by Christopher Nolan” thrown in. I wrote this just before it came out and I stick with that – “Should be lying on sun loungers everywhere this summer and flying off shelves when it comes out. But not in the poltergeist way. Don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as the supernatural…”

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone is the most fantastic work of whatiffery – John Lennon comes to Ireland in 1978 to try to escape from crushing fame, the expectation of the world and, conversely, the domesticity of New York fatherhood by trying to get to an island he bought and let lapse into abandonment off the west coast in the late 60s. His foil, driver, spirit guide, aide-de-camp and the one tasked with both getting him there and hiding him from the pursuing press is local man Cornelius O’Grady. Kevin Barry is, pretty much, the most nakedly talented writer Ireland has today. Long may that continue.

Nothing On Earth by Conor O’Callaghan

A total curveball, Conor O’Callaghan’s book is extraordinary. Even a couple of months after finishing it I’m nor exactly sure what happened. Is it a story of post-ghost estate Ireland? An actual ghost story? Are some of the things we witness supernatural or psychological? Can we believe anything we’ve been told? How reliable is our narrator? Very, very impressive stuff – one I think deserves a far, far wider audience that it has had so far.

And a few for early 2017 – keep an eye out for:

Michael Chabon – Moonglow

Ali Land – Good Me Bad Me

Sarah Pinborough – Behind Her Eyes

John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies

And don’t forget all the real action happens over on The Rick O’Shea Book Club where we’ll soon be announcing more events in 2017 to go along with our recently announced trip to the Ennis Book Club Festival to talk to John Boyne about the new one mentioned above:

http://www.ennisbookclubfestival.com/2017-events/141-rick-o-shea-book-club-special-with-john-boyne

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Seven Short Book Reviews

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Firstly, I am SO sorry. I’m way behind here. Seriously, what sort of reviewer does that make me? (Keep your answers to yourself…)

Various – Cyberpunk Malaysia

I bought this on a trip earlier in the year in London. Just wandered into Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue (something I haven’t done in, literally, decades) and ended up down in their SF section which is gloriously outfitted and varied. The plain, reflecting silver cover was what grabbed me…

It’s (unsurprisingly) a collection of new cyberpunk short stories from Malaysia or Malaysian authors and is pretty much universally strong to brilliant in places. Exotic, thought-provoking and bizarre if cyberpunk is your thing. I have to stress that last bit as if the genre doesn’t really light your fire then this might be a bit… overwhelming.

Javier Cercas – Outlaws

This one I got in a plain package at the book swap we did after the Liz Nugent interview in Galway. “Inspired” by a real person it’s the story of El Zarco, a teenage career criminal in fascist Spain in the 1970s told from the point of view, mostly, of a young man dragged(?) into his gang and then the story 20 years later of their lives that follow.

Extremely atmospheric, well told, if a little wandery at times but fascinating and worth your time.

Anne Enright – The Green Road

It is the triumph of Anne Enright’s brilliant work that she takes a premise that normally has me come out in a rash (returning emigrants, rural Ireland, quiet desperation, families in conflict, a decades spanning story) and turns it into something this readable and memorable.

Her characters scream reality where others stumble into cliché, her language demands re-reading, the deft interlocking of the story is a beauty.

I don’t need to tell you it’s one of the best books of the year, but for full effect you should really hear her read some of it out loud…

Robert Dickinson – The Tourist

It’s a terrible shame about this because I had such high hopes for it.

The premise is right down my street; people from the future come to travel to our present, all organised and monetised. There are hidden resorts in the countryside and people from the future go on day trips to, wait for it, shopping centres…

One day, on one such trip a tourist goes missing.

First the positives – the concept is interesting to begin with and fairly well sketched out. Sadly the early initial promise wanders into confusing (even for me), sluggish and a bit all over the place by the damp-squib ending, which I hated.

Shame.

Anakana Schofield – Martin John

Just brilliant. Seek it out.

Martin John has been exiled to London by his mother for an initially unspecified event but quickly you come to realise that he likes to expose himself in public and rub himself up against strangers on the Tube…

As I said in the Irish Times recently “The world of fiction is full of forgettable characters. Happens to me all the time. I’m talking to someone about something I read six months before and I’m damned if I can remember an important name from the story or, worse still, even how the book ended. Martin John is not one of those characters. This is not one of those books. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it an him hard to shake off long after you’re finished with the last page.”

Jess Kidd – Himself

Now this one I have to eulogise about from the hills.

The story starts with a brilliantly written if brutal death in Mayo in 1950 and then flashes forward to 1976 when a mysterious, trendy, tousle-haired stranger arrives in the small village of Mulderrig with an unknown agenda.

Jess Kidd’s debut novel is, varyingly, creepy, funny, warm, crushingly real, smart and compelling. She tells a cracking story with bags of style, a great cast of characters and seemingly effortless ability. I read it in huge chunks. It’s so visual in places it immediately screams “movie” or TV Series” (I have it cast already!)

Himself is one of my favourite reads of the year.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

I rarely read music biographies, despite what I do for a living, but with Bruce you have to make an exception…

The first half of the book is an eclectic, colourful and idiosyncratic telling of his early years growing up in New Jersey through starting in bar bands all the way up to his first album and I’d recommend it for this alone. It then mutates, necessarily, into a telling of his years as one of the biggest live acts in the world through the insanity of his popularity in the 80s right the way up to the three hour plus gigs of today.

This doesn’t disappoint because while there are plenty of moments of behind the scenes storytelling mixed with far more about his real life on and off the road, his crippling lack of self belief at times all the way through to his now open and lifelong battle with depression.

Maybe you’d have to be a fan, to be honest I’ve only been one for the last 7 or 8 years, but top-notch, unvarnished, honest and edgy.

Just like him, I suppose.

6 Long Overdue Short Reviews!

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Yeah, recently when writing pieces about both for newspapers I realised I hadn’t actually written my reviews for two of the books below. I’m falling more than a little behind here…

So:

Anne Tyler – Vinegar Girl

Sadly, this was the first of the Hogarth Shakespeare series I read and it did absolutely nothing for me. She has updated The Taming Of The Shrew to a modern day story of a Kate who tends house for her eccentric scientist father who hatches a plan to keep his research assistant in the country by marrying him off to his daughter.

What was the done thing in Shakespeare’s time just seems highly implausible played straight like this in the 21st century. Just doesn’t work.

Not a patch on the current one – Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.

Alexandra Olivia – The Last One

This starts out as a very solid concept – 12 contestants are sent out into the woods in a survival-type reality TV show, at some point a biological catastrophe befalls most of America but our narrator knows nothing of this and thinks the abandonment by camera crews and corpse “props” she sees around her are all part of the show…

Loved her descriptions of the nature of the survival itself although they took up a bit too much space for me. She writes decetn character, but I was disappointed with the last section of the book. Not to reveal too much but her denouement is a little too “TV movie of the week” for me and for the genre it’s in.

Still, a nice idea and worth your read just for the new angle on one person surviving in a post-apocalypse reality TV world.

Jessie Burton – The Muse

Her second novel is not quite The Miniaturist (what could be?) but this is a solid, beautifully told in places interweaving of two seemingly different people, times and places.

Half takes place in 1960s London, half in pre-Civil War rural Spain and, as you would expect from her, she seems to be able to get into the mindsets of people of wildly diverse backgrounds, decades and worlds as well as evoking a sense of place beautifully.

Mike McComack – Solar Bones

Only the other day *having written a thousand word piece for the Irish Times about this* did I realise I’d neglected to write my own review here so let me keep this brief.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to it, save some good things I’d heard, I only noticed that the entire 200+ page book was a single sentence about 15 pages in and this is one of the most surprising joys of my reading in 2016.

One man, one simple, ordinary life, told in the most extraordinary way possible. I know the author and publishers would like you to read the blurb beforehand, but I suggest don’t. It was like being kicked in the gut when I finished.

Full of craft, humanity and balls, it’s one of my favourite books of the year.

Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus

This is the follow up to his brilliant Sapiens (see my review of it from the beginning of the year here) in which he imagines where the future of the species lies, while at the same time admitting that it’s all just informed speculation.

Parts of it involve slight repetition of themes from the first book (fair enough if you haven’t read it) and the real world picking apart of ideas long-since used in speculative fiction. Where are we going? What happens if/when we abolish death? Will out mastery of technology merely be for the benefit of the ultra-rich? Will humans of the future look back on us as we do on primitive Homo Sapiens…..?

Sections are utterly fascinating but, sadly, it’s not a life-changing as its predecessor.

Donal Ryan – All We Shall Know

In this is the greatest omission from my reviews of books I’ve read in the last few months (particularly given that I had an advance copy of this long before it went on sale!) So…

If you loved the universes of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, The Thing About December and his criminally overlooked recent book of short stories A Slanting Of The Sun then you won’t be disappointed here. This time he gives us Melody, her husband Pat and Martin, the underage traveller boy who we learn in the first pages is the father of the child she’s expecting. It’s a story of marital infidelity, hidden scandal and a repulsive lead character you still end up hoping the best for in the end.

All We Shall Know pulls up the stones in the small town front garden rockery and shows us the poor choices adults make against their own better interests and the savagery that two people still in love can inflict on each other.

I’m glad to say again what I’ve said in previous reviews – I believe that in decades to come we’ll look back on Donal’s work as the most authentic stories and voices from contemporary small-town Ireland in the early 21st century.

All We Shall Know only goes to further reinforce that belief.

For more reviews from me and lots of other book lovers, come join us in The Rick O’Shea Book Club.

The 9 Books I Read On Holidays

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It genuinely says something about me that I think it’s a poor show I only finished 9 books when I was away for 2 weeks recently. Still…

As has proven popular before I’m going to lump them all together in one post here with short(-ish) reviews as, if not, I’ll never get to them all with the work bearing down on me over the next while!

Alexandra Kleeman – You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this and, even now, I’m not really sure what happened. Just that I liked it very, very much.

A lives with her housemate B. B is starting to look a bit more like A. A’s boyfriend C thinks so too. That and the disappearing family from across the street with sheets on their heads, the bizarre obsession A holds with one kind of artificial store cake and the cat they advertise with and a whole other rabbit hole of surreal, bonkers, borderline trippy days that are underlied by a whole structure behind about body-image, self-esteem, consumer society, cult-like behaviour and mental health.

I was fairly sure the story was going one way and that I had a handle on it until it wriggled out of my grasp near the end leaving me as unsure about what I had been witnessing as ever. If I could put it in a stylistic box (and I wouldn’t dare) it kind of reminds me of recent books I’ve read by the likes of Ben Lerner, Tom McCarthy and even Tao Lin’s Taipei. She has a new book of short stories due out in the U.S. soon. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Not out here in paperback until January 2017 but readily available from U.S. online retailers and on Kindle.

Julia Claiborne Johnson – Be Frank With Me

What a gorgeous, wonderful, whimsical, human book. One that I only really picked up on a recommendation from one of the reviewers in my book club. Frank is the 9-year-old son of a reclusive onetime million selling author who lives hidden away in an LA mansion. Alice works for her publisher and is sent to help her finish her long-awaited new novel. Thing is, Frank dresses like he’s Fred Astaire and it’s 1930.

A little gem.

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

One of those books I’ve been threatening to read for years and years and I’m at least partially glad I did. It’s the legendary story of Thoreau building his own cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in the 1850s and living pretty much alone and in a state of self-sufficiency for 2 years.

Half is a brilliant and still relevant analysis of how industrialisation and capitalism has made the human race live, half is a fairly dull set of descriptions of the local flora and fauna. Keep the first half, skim the latter.

Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed

My second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare project after Anne Tyler’s disappointing Vinegar Girl; this couldn’t be more different. Atwood’s take on The Tempest involves a legendary theatre director and festival artistic director being fired on the eve of his radical new version of The Tempest. He’s sent into a lonely exile with only (the spirit of) his (dead) daughter and smouldering thoughts of vengeance upon those who have stolen his seat and he’s going to use The Tempest itself as the vehicle of his revenge. See where we’re going with this?

It’s a Tempest within a Tempest set in a world of people who know the play and are staging it(!) but yet never acknowledge, really, what’s going on here. Even aside from that her story of a failed brilliant artist looking for redemption or revenge or whatever by running Shakespeare productions in a prison is funny, smart and compelling.

A brilliant, worthy adaptation.

(Out on October 6th)

Various – Great Science Fiction

A little gem full of 50s nuggets picked up (for free!) thanks to the Dublin Worldcon 2019 bid stand at Comicon this year. Little chance you’ll find a copy yourself, sorry…

Michael Hughes – The Countenance Divine

It’s a Cloud Atlas-structured story slipping back through 1999, 1888, 1777 and 1666 and encompassing Y2K, Milton, Blake, the “From Hell” letters (that may or may not have been written by Jack The Ripper), the great fire of London and back again to the turn of the millennium.

Dizzying, fascinating, dense, entangling, occasionally wandering and enjoyable, even if I felt the end was a little bit of a damp squib.

Declan Lynch – The Ponzi Man

This was, for me anyway, the surprise pick of the bunch as I brought it along for some light reading in between the heavy stuff. I was wrong.

It’s the story of a fictional high-roller business-dealer type who collapsed along with the rest of a whole economy at the end of “The Thing” as they refer to the Celtic Tiger. Now he’s back living in a mouldy caravan in the seaside town he grew up in surrounded by shadows of his past and waiting for his court case to decide how long he’s going to spend in jail.

As someone who spent all of his childhood summers in a similar seaside town (just much further south and a decade later on) his detail is beautiful but it’s his examination of the nature of addiction and gambling in people who took other people’s money and ruined many of them during the crash that makes this stand out.

Well worth the read.

Becky Chambers – A Closed And Common Orbit

If, like me, you loved the Firefly-influenced first part of this story, A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, then I am absolutely delighted to tell you that this sequel, set with only a couple of the characters from the first book, is *much* better.

Look, I know that SF may not, in theory, be your thing, but she writes characters with such (and I am aware it’s not the correct term, as most of them aren’t human) humanity and is, in effect, creating stories of life, love, difference and potential that just so happen to happen far from Earth and a long time into the future. There are almost no “bad guys”, no vast battles, no evil empires and no space opera plots here, just interpersonal drama that could happen, well, anywhere.

I get the feeling Becky Chambers has a whole universe of characters she could write that skate around the boundaries of what she’s written so far. I sincerely hope she does.

(Not out until April 2017, sorry… However it does seem to be out in the U.S. next month.)

Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

I would like to say there was always one on the holiday that was going to make me cry at the end but I so rarely do that, heartless bastard that I am. This did.

A story of people, relationships, moments that change whole lives and the (mostly) normal story of a group of interconnected people and families set over decades. I don’t want to tell you any more, find out for yourself.

Skilfully observed, ringing with truth and full of fascinating characters. The sort of thing that a book you bring on holiday should be.

6 Short Reviews – July 2016

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As started last month I’m trying to play catch-up on a bunch of things I’ve read by doing shorter one paragraph reviews. The last ones seemed to go down well… (Small bit of duplication here from Summer Reads 2016 – apologies!)

Hideo Yokoyama – Six Four

Don’t be put off by the size – this is a Japanese giant of a cop thriller. A seven-year-old girl disappears in 1989 never to be seen again, in 2002 a press officer finds an anomaly that leads back into the case and threatens to unravel far more that just one kidnapping. Very precise, gorgeously told, never ever boring and even a bit Nordic Noir, I ate this up on my week away in March. You should too. (Small disclaimer – I love Japan and everything Japanese so might colour my view! Some people needed to keep track of similar names…)

M.R. James – Fellside

I wish I liked this as much as his brilliant first one The Girl With All The Gifts, I really did, but them again I think I may like few things as much as that. As is it’s a solid story of a woman sent to a remote maximum security prison for her part in the death of a child and the unravelling of what really happened through the ghostly presence of a child when she gets there. A worthwhile summer read but I maybe cared less about the characters by the end than I probably should have.

Blake Crouch – Dark Matter

I was very excited to get my hands on this as he’s the creator of Wayward Pines. It’s a multiverse theory, alternate history, thriller, speculative fiction sort of movie screenplay thingy that rattles along without ever really leaving a lasting impression on me. I liked the science, but some of the plot and the ultimate denouement are a bit all over the place for me and I spotted what was coming a mile off (I’m terrible at that sort of thing!) I’ve read much better, but the movie will probably be great. Dark Matter was bought by Sony for over a million dollars when it was only a 150 page manuscript…

Alexandra Oliva – The Last One

This is high concept too (imagine what would happen to the contestants of a reality TV survival show if a vast pandemic happened during the filming of the show and one of them soldiered on under the misapprehension that everything she was seeing was set up by the show.) Really liked her cast of TV-tropes and her lead and the survival stuff is obviously researched to within an inch of its life and very interesting in and of itself (even if once or twice it all gets a bit instructional). Not sure about the ending but each to their own 🙂

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls At Night was handed to me by one of the (male btw!) producers in the office with a high recommendation. It’s the late Kent Haruf’s intimate, tender story of an older man and an older woman living in the same small town who, one day, seek out comfort together. It’s exquisite.

Nothing On Earth by Conor O’Callaghan

A total curveball, Conor O’Callaghan’s book is extraordinary. Even a couple of months after finishing it I’m nor exactly sure what happened. Is it a story of post-ghost estate Ireland? An actual ghost story? Are some of the things we witness supernatural or psychological? Can we believe anything we’ve been told? How reliable is our narrator? Very, very impressive stuff – one I think deserves a far, far wider audience that it has had so far.

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Summer Reads 2016

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As has been the fashion over the last few years I throw up a bunch of titles I think you might like to bring away to whatever Spanish resort, Galway gaff, Tuscan villa or Tibetan monastery you’re heading to for your holiday 🙂

They vary wildly in tone, genre and even when they were released but they all come with a personal stamp of “well worth your time”. The only criteria I’ve used is that I must have read them this year.

Enjoy.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave 

Set in World War II the story of Mary North who starts the story skiing down the side of a mountain (almost James Bond-like!) to enrol in the war effort the day hostilities break out. The characters he populates this world with are real, human and, above all, illustrate just how cruel, random and arbitrary war is when it comes to giving and taking away. That takes guts. Hugely worth your time, a gorgeous, real story that both makes you read late into the night and illuminates some of the lesser known (for me anyway) corners of the war with skill, craft and bravery on the part of Cleave himself. Comes highly recommended.

Lying In Wait by Liz Nugent

Did you like Unravelling Oliver? This is better. As much as I adored and pressed the first book into the hands of many in the months after I read it, Lying In Wait is a completely different beast. As I finished the last page I actually stood up and gave a round of applause to my empty sitting room. Simply the best Irish thriller this year by miles. Crafted, elegant, full of evil and human consequences. Buy it.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Split between pre-Civil War Spain and the UK in the 1960s, the stories of an English artist struggling to work and have her work seen and a writer from the West Indies making her way in Swinging London interconnected by a single painting. Her second novel after the sensation that was The Miniaturist and a worthy successor.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers 

Adored it. Read it while on holidays in March and flew through what is a fun, smart space opera that would remind you of Firefly in tone. The sequel is out this year, can’t wait.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

You know every now and then you get hypnotised by a writer’s style or a series of short stories? For me, Vertigo brings both of those to the table. It’s less a series of disconnected stories and more almost a continuous stream of vignettes from the internal narrative of what could easily be the same woman in different countries, situations, parts of what seem to be the same life. Vertigo is a little thing of hidden beauty, you should seek it out.

Knights Of The Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

One for your kids or you if you still feel like one 🙂 A centuries old war between warriors, monsters, dimensions and worlds with genuinely gorgeous sweeps of words and sentence-stopping language to gape at and re-read. The world of flashy new series-based YA is very, very crowded waters at the moment – Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is a great big vicious shark that leaps out of the water at you.

The Last Days Of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Top supernatural horror thriller with a lead who is a cross between Piers Morgan, Louis Theroux and Richard Dawkins in a remake of The Exorcist for the social media age with a touch of “directed by Christopher Nolan” thrown in. Should be lying on sun loungers everywhere this summer and flying off shelves when it comes out. But not in the poltergeist way. Don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as the supernatural…

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

A beautiful human story set in WWII full of extraordinary sweeps of language (there are many single lines that deserve to be mounted and framed!) and a story of compassion, love, family and how telling you the stories of individuals on both sides of a conflict is far more illuminating than any broad history ever can be. After my wife had finished it she said she thought it may have “ruined other books” for her.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone is the most fantastic work of whatiffery – John Lennon comes to Ireland in 1978 to try to escape from crushing fame, the expectation of the world and, conversely, the domesticity of New York fatherhood by trying to get to an island he bought and let lapse into abandonment off the west coast in the late 60s. His foil, driver, spirit guide, aide-de-camp and the one tasked with both getting him there and hiding him from the pursuing press is local man Cornelius O’Grady.

Kevin Barry is, pretty much, the most nakedly talented writer Ireland has today. Long may that continue.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Written very much with mainstream audiences and non-scientists in mind he charts the entire course of the human race since, how we ended up with agriculture, capitalism, religion, consumerism and science and where we might be headed in centuries to come. I can’t tell you the number of pages I have turned down in my copy and the number of times I stopped dead in my tracks while reading to appreciate just how a part of my perception of the history, present and future of the human race had changed at that exact moment. All in all Sapiens if probably the best non-fiction book I’ve read in years and years.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

Giant Japanese cop thriller anyone? A seven-year-old girl disappears in 1989 never to be seen again, in 2002 a press officer finds an anomaly that leads back into the case and threatens to unravel far more that just one kidnapping. Very precise, gorgeously told, never ever boring, I ate this up on my week away in March. You should too.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls At Night was handed to me by one of the (male btw!) producers in the office with a high recommendation. It’s the late Kent Haruf’s intimate, tender story of an older man and an older woman living in the same small town who, one day, seek out comfort together. It’s exquisite.

Nothing On Earth by Conor O’Callaghan

A total curveball, Conor O’Callaghan’s book is extraordinary. Even a couple of months after finishing it I’m nor exactly sure what happened. Is it a story of post-ghost estate Ireland? An actual ghost story? Are some of the things we witness supernatural or psychological? Can we believe anything we’ve been told? How reliable is our narrator? Very, very impressive stuff – one I think deserves a far, far wider audience that it has had so far.

Don’t forget for constant bookery-pokery you can click here to join up to my FB book club – this month we’re reading these…

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