Book Reviews

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dalrymple‘I have plucked the finest flowers of the un-mown meadow and worked them into a row which I now offer to you’, wrote the Byzantine Monk John Moschos in The Spiritual Meadow, tales of 6th/7th century Eastern Christianity. The book inspired award winning writer William Dalrymple to mirror his journey to the Levant some 1400 years later. WD visits Christian sites, monasteries and hermetic caves from his starting point on Mt. Athos in Greece to the Coptic necropolis of Bagawat, the last outpost of the Christian empire. ‘From the Holy Mountain’ is a treasure trove of archaeology, history, theology and offers informative insights into the geneses of the Gnostic religions of the middle east; the religious tolerance that existed between Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Christian Palestinians and Armenians; the subsequent bigotry and the fanaticism that led to the fall of the great cities of Byzantium and the increasing xenophobia leading to the mass exodus of Christians from regions they’ve inhabited for hundreds of years. I found the relationship between the Coptic and Celtic monks fascinating and particularly enjoyed reading about the sophisticated and scholarly city of Alexandria, once known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Rich descriptions of ancient monks and monasteries, towns and picturesque landscapes (we visit Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Egypt), punctuated with anecdotes from ‘The Spiritual Meadow’ make this an interesting read but I found myself on the back foot a little. Without having greater knowledge of middle-eastern history, geography and theology, I found the book’s terrain tough going. Some archaeological descriptions went over my head and I struggled to get through a couple of the chapters. WD is an erudite and witty travel-writer, the book is a wonder but the fact that I had to work so hard made it less enjoyable than I’d hoped. Glad I stuck with it however.

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days without endMen’s Fiction is the talk of the literary box office at present and with a tale so spellbinding it’s easy to see why. This isn’t Barry’s first rodeo and with each new novel he delves a little deeper into the lives of two families: the Dunne’s and in this instance the McNulty’s. Thomas McNulty trades death in Sligo for the horrors of the American civil war. It’s a brutal, gut-wrenching, no-holds-barred account of the inhumanity of our species; the depravities of war juxtaposed with the impossible gentleness of spirit which, even the most heinous are capable of harbouring in their little ‘slaugtherhouses of glory’.
Culture, ideology, gender, ecology – all are intangible, otherworldly, everything in flux; like Thomas’s transformation to womanhood and how the Indians in dresses might have shown his path; his consoling belief that maybe his dead sister crept into him and made a nest: ‘I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman’. Movement and dislocation are recurring themes and the frontier is populated with displaced people; ravaged and ravenous as the ruthless terrain, the persistent weather. How can a novel so drear be so uplifiting? Beautiful language does that and Donal Ryan says it on the book jacket ‘sentence after perfect sentence it grips and does not let go’. Barry did let me go a little though, despite the metaphors, the poetry, the figurative bliss, his treatment of women was poor. This phallocentric viewpoint relegates women to the margins. They’re abandoned, raped or rescued but perpetually pitied. There’s a glimmer of hope in Major Neale’s wife (kidnapped and killed though) and Winona is ‘a better girl than any living in America’ but she’s ‘a injun’ that no school will take in. Days Without End reminds us that we are all conscripts really, enlisted in the war of life, our individual hopes churning in the maelstrom, winning, losing then winning again and losing again until our papers are signed and we are set free. With echoes (for me) of Gale’s A Place Called Winter, this is an enriching read.

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devil i knowS.T. Coleridge said that ‘a great mind is androgynous’ – Claire Kilroy has a great mind. She writes without bias. Her characters boil your blood and drain it at the same time – Larney the riddler; rapacious Ray; the overlooked women who are themselves the puppet masters; the landowners and property developers; the lawyers; the ‘bills’ and ‘mills’ – Kilroy’s prose sings with the absurdity of them all. This is a novel about reckless, megalomaniacal men and the property ‘doom’ that crippled Ireland; that excavated every square inch of our hapless country forcing us to live within its ruins. It’s compulsive reading; smart, savage and witty. But what struck me most was Kilroy’s ability to inhabit the mind of an alcoholic and capture, so truthfully, so vividly, the reality of addiction, the shakiness of recovery and the unpredictability of relapse. When Tristram comes face to face with a pint, he says: ‘This was what I was. A cubic pint of deepest black. I was holding my soul, distilled into liquid and aching to be reunited with my body, howling to be poured back in.’ This is insightful writing at its best. I love everything about it.
It’s interesting reading this novel now in 2017. Notwithstanding our volatile recovery, the wolves are quietly combing their pelts and the jade-green-glass-eyed players are blowing on their dice, readying themselves for the soul-trading game that most of us will only get the hang of when it’s over. This novel reminds me what I love most about Irish fiction: the women who populate it. Kilroy, Enright, Binchy, Boyce, Keegan, Gaughan, O’Donoghue et al. The women who put flesh on the bones of Shakespeare’s sister and give the rest of us a literary tradition to be proud of, one we can relate to. Recommended.

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to the lighthouseIf you’ve ever wished for time to stop, I suggest you read To The Lighthouse. Mrs. Dalloway was lost on me but I realise that Woolf requires patience and complete concentration and if you allow mind and body to stay still for long enough, the beauty of her prose will reveal itself. Her characters are like portraits that need to be contemplated. Actually, her books are analogous to paintings – every word a brushstroke; and trying to determine what an artist might be thinking when she lets the light fall here and not there, is what Woolf seeks to understand: the process and structure of thought. Woolf deals with the passage of time, loss, the distance between the closest of people and how those divides can be bridged. Her language is lyrical, poetic and profound. She’s a genius, I get that now.

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marquez-100-years

Reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude is like being inside a Picasso painting: it’s a deconstructed reality, surreal and metaphorical . I wanted to both live in Macondo and run away from it at the same time. Imagine if your parents were Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote and you lived in a circus, in the heart of darkness where the only light-switch was in the toaster and you took illegal drugs with elephants and all your bad and fantastical dreams and every story in the Bible and the Odyssey were true? Well then you’re some way to understanding what this expansive work of fiction entails.
Somewhere between the plague of insomnia, candied animals and carnivorous red ants destabilizing the foundations of the Buendia household; Marquez tells the story of Columbia, from ‘when the world was so recent, that many things lacked names’ right up to the mid 20th century. The African, Spanish and indigenous people; war and liberation; the coming of the railway and the united fruit company; the circular pattern of history; everything that makes up the country’s culturally rich and unique heritage. The idyllic Macondo undergoes a seismic transformation when it establishes links with the outside world. Innocence turns to violence as the past repeats and recycles and both the town and the family – tied to their hopeless inheritances’ – battle the solitude, pride and history that haunts them. Marquez’s insouciant tone allows him to seamlessly combine truth and illusion. He anchors much of the madness to specific days or times of day, for example: the little girl Rebecca arrives eating dirt and carrying the clocking bones of her parents in a bag on a Thursday (as one does); when Fernanda could scarcely breathe in a roomful of yellow butterflies – it was 2pm!
This is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. Marquez is a genius and how he didn’t break his mind or his typewriter keeping track of the Buendia family-tree astounds me! Sitting at his typewriter for eighteen months, his wife Mercedes pawning everything to keep the family going – he created a masterwork. A seminal piece of magic realism that chronicles seven generations of the Buendia family, touching on everything: time, eroticism, death, intermarriage, violence, isolation, self-destruction, neglect – just a regular day at the office, oh and a little bit of love and hope at the end too, signalling some optimism for the future of the country. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, who Marquez himself called “the best Latin-American writer in the English language”, One Hundred Years Of Solitude questions every level of ‘official history’, it will deepen your love of language and storytelling and it will utterly blow your mind!
Highly recommended.

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montaigneIf there was an award for Best Last Line In A Book, Bakewell would have it on her mantelpiece: ‘the best things in life happen when you don’t get what you think you want’.
Thank you Sarah Bakewell for your ‘voluntary servitude’ to Montaigne and for bringing him to me on this marvellous platter of poetry, history and personality. I feel warmly enveloped within the temperate palms of his hands that have brought me closer to myself. I have been ’embabooned’ by both of you!
I’d never heard of Montaigne until reading an article by Maria Popova on Brainpickings. I took a chance and ended up having the most enjoyable month in the company of a 16th century philosophical legend, who championed mindfulness, forgetfulness and moderation in his attempts to flourish as a human being. Influenced by Hellenistic traditions, Montaigne was a stoic; a sceptic and a secret radical who travelled, read, wrote and loved by following the promptings of pleasure. He was intrigued by himself, rolled around in himself and wrote about every thought that came into his head. This is what makes The Essays (his life’s work) so enriching I guess, they are as much about the politics of the day and the ferocious French civil wars as they are about kidney stones and cats! He was all personality, a free-spirited, independent hero who resisted any claim to heroism. Everybody wanted a piece of him, even the King, but he had ‘conceived a mortal hatred of being obliged either to another or by another’ than himself.
How To Live? It involves nothing more complicated than being ordinary and imperfect; guarding your humanity; paying attention; questioning everything and regretting nothing.
This is a wonderful book. One for the bedside locker at home and in every hotel room in the world. Highly recommended.

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the gatheringThis is another cracker of a novel by Anne Enright. Having just read ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ I am fast falling in love with this woman’s heart and mind. Her story-telling is enthralling and her prose addictive. The horrors and delights of family life are in sharp focus as we join the surviving members of the Hegarty family, in Dublin for their brothers wake. With Veronica, we journey into the family’s troubled past to help make sense of his death, after which “nothing settles, not even the dust”. Because Veronica is the one who loved him the most, it’s her job to travel to the UK to collect her brothers body “or view it, or say hello to it, or goodbye, or whatever you do to a body you once loved”.
Enright writes from a place of deep observation. Every character, family member and location described in minute detail. One night she looks at her husbands body “Tom is sad in his sleep. His hands are gathered under his chin, his legs are impossibly long and large, they do not look bent so much as broken at the knee. The hollow under his ribcage slopes to a little low, pot-belly and the cushion of his scrotum rests in the V of his thighs. He is very pale”. This is the kind of writing that can elevate even the most dour of subjects.
Veronica travels back in time to her grandparents house, Ada & Charlie, in Broadstone, where she, Liam and younger sister Kitty were sent to live, while their Mother got over another miscarriage (she had seven of them). She pictures her brother in all sorts of places, communicates with him pre and post-death, speculating about why it was he, who wandered off the path. Something terrible happened to Liam.  He is the lovable tragedy and Veronica his only saviour.
She alienates herself from her husband and daughters, taking to night-driving in order to grieve in the most honest of ways. Everything is laid bare, no element of the family’s dysfunction is overlooked. And as they arrive home in their turn, the dynamics shift in pursuit of the truth.
This is a well-told story about pleasure and pain, shock and despair, resentment and the lack of forgiveness, but with an incomparable and intelligent wit. It’s almost as if she wrote the whole thing in one sitting, that the memories and hidden truths came spilling out in the precise order and language. She’s a brilliant writer and this is a brilliant book.
Highly recommended.

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place called winterBeing raised to idleness in England, left Harry Cane ill prepared for life as a homesteader in the town of Winter, but becoming a farmer was only the beginning of the making of this man. I’m so glad I gave Patrick Gale a second chance (Notes From An Exhibition was wearisome to say the least) because, I adored this book. For the last week, Harry Cane and co., were the only people I wanted to spend any time with.
The story is loosely based on Gale’s great grandfather, as one of the hundreds of Englishmen who joined the homesteading adventure of the Canadian prairies in the early 20th century. It’s a bitter-sweet and rather erotic love story; a portrait of daily life in an extreme environment (Gale’s descriptive talents are mesmerizing) and a compelling portrait of a man, who faced ostracism on many fronts, not least sexually. The prose is exceptionally beautiful in places and tears were spilled.
Harry is haunted by various men throughout the book, most significantly the love of his life, Paul, but also by the prowling Danish-man, Troels Munk, an ominous figure who resurfaces at various points to thwart and hinder the progress made by Harry and those closest to him.
The story is told in flashbacks, with climaxes everywhere, it’s genuinely gripping, and the compassionate and kind-hearted nature of many of the characters make it all the more endearing. The book just has an elegance and charm that you don’t find everywhere and although I’d like to have seen some events and individuals develop more, it’s safe to say that Harry Cane and A Place Called Winter have found a home in the grey folds of my brain. A real keeper. Highly recommended.

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The Forgotten WaltzThis is a fantastic novel. Anne Enright is such a pro. Her writing is flawless, and I love the fresh attitude to adultery and motherhood she so honestly and entertainingly presents.

It’s set at the tail-end of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger and considers the flamboyant and gaudy middle-class actualities of the day: the trophy wives, brunches and barbecues, interior decorators and designer hand-bags.
Gina is in the midst of an adulterous affair with Sean and she’s basically trying to make sense of the what, how and why of it all. Sometimes you get caught up in the events of life without really knowing how you feel about them. There comes a point where you need sit down and take stock and that’s what Gina is doing, remembering and making sense.
She recalls too, with such passion, the first meetings, the romance and seductions, the hotel rooms where ‘only the air knew what we had done. The door closed so simply behind us; the shape of our love in the room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.’
The only thing standing between Gina and the serial adulterer she’s in love with, is his daughter Evie, ‘the woman he loves but can never desire.’ Trying to win over this, now nearly 12 yr old, is tough going for child-free Gina, who has little patience with kids and can’t understand why her sister Fiona indulges them and their friends. At a party, where Fiona serves up Lasagne with real linen napkins, real glasses and cutlery, Gina muses, ‘These were big, uncomfortable children, not grown ups – throw a bag of tortilla chips at them, I thought, and retire’ – brilliant! A woman after my own heart. I love too, the way she describes Sean’s prowling around her friends baby ‘he was like something on David Attenborough, one of those silverback gorillas maybe, who has forgotten where baby gorillas come from, then Mammy Gorilla pops one out, and he doesn’t know what to do. Cuddle it? Eat it? Pick it up and throw it in a bush?.’
Gina’s attempt to construct an acceptable account of her life before and after Sean, bring to the surface some hidden insecurities. I think the impact of her Father’s drinking and subsequent death when she was young, sibling rivalry, the death of her Mother and unspoken concerns about Sean’s infidelities, past and possible, reveal a more frightened character than she would have us believe. Someone a lot less conniving and indifferent to the hurt caused by mistrust and betrayal. She’s an ordinary woman, whom I am fascinated by.
The Forgotten Waltz is an honest portrayal of a universal theme, it’s a keeper, a story of love, wonderfully told.

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all the lightThe problem with books this good, is that they make all the others look shite!
Despite being set against the backdrop of the 2nd world war, it’s horrors, evils and disturbing circumstances, I was naive to the warm light I couldn’t see gathering furtively around me each night as a I read, absorbed and became increasingly more invested in the lives of the characters of this extraordinary book. That was a long sentence. I had obviously been living in a bunker, because I missed the hype and publicity accompanying Anthony Doerr back in 2014. But I’m here now.
Even-though I found the story difficult to lock into at the beginning (which may have had more to do with my own state of mind at time than any real fault of the author) I persevered and found characters of strength, courage, loyalty and depth and out of the terrible immorality of war, found kindness and love.
Briefly, the story revolves around Marie-Laure, a French blind girl, and Werner, a German boy whose gift for radio mechanics gets him enlisted into the Nazi army. His job is to locate and destroy illegal radio transmissions – all the while bringing him closer to meeting Marie-Laure in the French coastal town of St. Malo. She and her father evacuated here from Paris after the German occupation. Doerrs’ prose is beautifully descriptive throughout but he handles their exodus so touchingly, how he carries her when her feet hurt (I was listening to Nick Cave’s We Came Along This Road at the time, so tears were spilled). In fact, their relationship is one of the great triumphs of the book, as is the bond between herself and her great-uncle Etienne, voice of the broadcasts we hear at the opening.
I was gripped by these ’children with a conscience’, their experiences, their fates, Marie-Laure’s infatuation with Jules Verne and Werner’s passion for science. I was also very impressed by Doerr’s sentiment, his insights and writing style. He was criticised I think, for normalizing the Nazi historical record, but I don’t believe that was the point of the novel. I didn’t talk about the miniature neighbourhoods, the Sea of Flames, the sea ‘big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel’, the snails or the messages in baguettes but bravery, intellect, memory and unwavering hope combine to move the reader in innumerably emotional ways. The fact that it’s possible all of humanity, dead and living, communicate in unseen light along inexplicable wavelengths is just pure poetry to me. Full marks all round

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ordinary geniusGreat book! Really enjoyed it. Still enjoying it actually, I dip into random chapters over breakfast most mornings just to kick-start my Juno 🙂
I’m forgetful and so need constant reminding about how to use line breaks, correct grammar, how to open doors in poems, how to use tricks like repetition and interruption. Ordinary genius has all of this and more and I love Addonizio’s frank, straight-talking approach: ‘poetry is a bitch’ she says ‘ it wants your energy, your intelligence, your spirit, your time’.
It’s all about commitment to the craft which can take years of hard apprenticeship.
There are some great ideas for creative writing classes in here along with exercises that will stretch your beliefs as well as your imagination. There are in-depth discussions on metaphor, meter, re-drafting and revision; close reading to learn from the experts and find your own poetic voice. As poets, we need to pay attention to the music of what happens, we are looking for the essence of the land and in this regard, awareness is everything, Addonizio reminds us that all we have to do is check-in with the evidence of the external world, it won’t ever fail us.
I’d strongly recommend this book to new and advanced writers of any genre, it’s about opening yourself up to the magic of words, letting yourself be inspired, trusting yourself and exploring the wonders of your own imagination. What can be more thrilling than discovering, tapping into and further nurturing your own creative self, your own poetic voice?
My only criticism is that Addonizio doesn’t go far enough, I was hoping for more lyrical secrets, more pearls of poetic wisdom, more shimmer as she calls it.

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book of evidenceI’m sorry John Banville, but I’m glad this uninspiring book is over. This is my forth Banville novel (might be my last for a while) so at this stage I know what to expect as far as his writing style goes, I’m a sucker for poetic fiction. There is no doubt he is a master wordsmith, look at this for example ‘I had an image of him as a child, out on some bog in the wastes of the midlands, stacking turf with his da: quake of water in the cuttings, smell of smoke and roasting spuds, and the flat distances the colour of a hare’s pelt, and then the enormous, vertical sky stacked with luminous bundles of cloud.’
But something didn’t work for me in this book. I couldn’t garner any feeling, affection or aversion, for the protagonist Freddie Montgomery, gentleman/murderer. I simply didn’t care.
He’s in a bind. Steals a painting. Murders someone. Waits it out at a friends house. The law finally catches up with him.
I didn’t enjoy reading this novel but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. I hate downing on JB. In his defence however, this was one of his earlier books, 1989, so I guess he hadn’t quite honed his craft. I mean when you consider ‘The Sea’ which came in 2005, and won the Man Booker Prize, there’s no comparison. Banville is a marvellous writer and if you’re new to him, might I suggest starting with ‘Infinities’ – it’s fun and frolicsome and contains all the usual lyricism and poetics, characteristic of the author.

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harold fryLet me begin by announcing that I LOVE HAROLD FRY! Of all the characters in the books I’ve read so far this guy had me from the opening pages, as he tugged a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Harold decides to walk 627 miles to visit a dying friend, Queenie Hennessy, whom he wronged many years ago when they worked together at the local brewery. The journey itself is one of perseverance, self-discovery, reflection, awareness and resolution. Harold left home in what he was wearing, including the yachting shoes he would have to tape together a number of times along the way. He meets some interesting people between Devon and Berwick-upon-Tweed, many hijack his pilgrimage for their own purposes and Harold’s backtracking to avoid them leaves him disoriented and exhausted. His primary purpose is to save a life but also to come to terms with the past and to heal his marriage to the reserved and remote-loving Maureen. This book is about the normal, the routine, the ordinary and I guess this is what makes it so delightful. Joyce herself says that her experience as a radio writer has taught her that every scene must have a beat, in this regard I think she’s written a bona fide page turner. Also, this was the first book I’ve ever read that made me cry! Honestly, 11.30pm propped up in bed on my pillows blubbing like a 4yr old who just had her teddy taken away and put in the washing-machine. That’s how much this book moved me. Bravo Rachel Joyce!
I would highly recommend this book to everyone and anyone who believes in throwing their hearts over the fence – and jumping!

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reasonsThe more books written about mental ill-health the better, even more so when they’re written by people who’ve experienced it. For sufferers, for families and friends of sufferers this is a book worth reading, a starting point to gaining deeper knowledge and insight into what depression is, what anxiety is, what it’s like to live on the fringes of society.
Being a writer, Matt Haig does an exemplary job of describing his experiences, how he felt and what he did to get better, expressing what, for many people in the fog of depression, is the inexpressible. He was fortunate to have a caring family and a loving partner who, it seems is nothing short of a saint, who took care of him, stood by him and led him through the dark tunnel out into the light of wellness. Many people are not afforded this luxury however and have to suffer in the darkness alone, or in the care of the mental health services, which, in this country at least, is worse than being alone.
I understand that this is Matt’s journey but I found some of what he had to say a bit preachy in places. It’s great he was able to voraciously read his way to wellness, without medication, without therapy etc., but again, for the majority, this is not always the case.
Although the book has a lot of useful information, statistics, self-help techniques, a new vocabulary to help explain symptoms and cognitive hurdles etc., I just found there to be something disingenuous about it, I don’t know why, maybe Haig was holding back, maybe there were a few stones left unturned, but I sensed a smugness that I wasn’t happy about and as a result, didn’t feel as inspired as I possibly should have.

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spinning heartGood little novella. The aftermath of the Irish property crash is told through twenty-one voices including out-of-pocket builders, their partners and children, unmarried mothers, ghosts and foreigners. All have their own unique and interesting thoughts on their fate and that of their small-town neighbours. Ryan’s prose is engaging, there’s an endearing musicality to his colloquial speech and he incorporates much needed humour to good effect. Grappling with so many points of view wasn’t as confusing as I thought it would be. Each character is given one chapter and every monologue falls seamlessly into the narrative which centres around the young foreman Bobby Mahon. It doesn’t take long for some hard to swallow truths to surface about the narrow-minded, back-biting, begrudging nature of life in rural Ireland. The token blow-in, the old busy-body, tortured fathers and sons along with a murder and missing child eventually bring the whole sorry lot together. A too-soon reminder of the crash that brought the country to it’s knees, and the egomania that’s at risk of putting us back there. Better it was short. Worth the read.

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brooklynLong listed for the 2009 Man Booker, I wanted this book to be good and I even saved it to take on holidays with me. Am, ok, well firstly I like Mr. Tobin. He’s a nice, erudite, well respected novelist, but this is not the first time I’ve been let down by one of his novels. I found Nora Webster uninspiring and The Blackwater Lightship a little lacklustre, however I didn’t want to give up on one of Ireland’s most illustrious writers, so I dived into Brooklyn with the conviction that Toibin’s everlasting reputation would meet my expectations. It didn’t.
Toibin is a good writer: not superb, fantastic, incredible or however else he’s rendered by an Irish media who seem to wheel him out as our foremost literary giant whenever a chat-show needs a foremost literary giant (who doesn’t need the publicity) to tell the masses of literary miniatures (who do) how un-achievable literary growth is!
Oh anyway, the story features the young Ellis Lacey who can’t find work in 1950’s Wexford. With the help of her sister, Rose and a visiting Catholic priest, she emigrates to Brooklyn. Ellis works at a department store; lodges at a boarding house with other female emigrants; does some night classes, meets a guy at a dance; yada yada yada and has to make some decisions.
There’s nothing complex about this character, nothing challenging about the book or it’s subject matter and I guess in some ways that was a pleasant experience. Toibin is an old fashioned writer, a male Maeve Binchy, there’s a lot of detail and he tells a simple story, simply. I guess his novels are like a place to rest, a safe harbour after the tumultuous seas of excessively complex and mentally overwhelming books on many lists these days. I would certainly recommend Mr. Toibin’s novels to anyone looking for that calm literary healing place.
Colm Toibin’s novels are not what I was expecting, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them, just don’t believe the hype.

the infinitiesThe book involves a reunion of the Godley family and the story is narrated by the gods Hermes, his father Zeus(god of sky & thunder) and mother Maia. I use the word story loosely, as Banville’s tales always seem to be more character driven than plot driven. I rather enjoyed the God’s interfence with the mortal characters, they toy with the humans like Banville does with language. His prose is extraordinarily good and despite the fact that I had to reference the dictionary more times than I was comfortable with, I still couldn’t put the book down. I read Banville for the poetics, the lyricism of his language which transports me to another place and time. I realise some find Banville’s writing tedious and haughty, but I find it rich, imaginative and elegant. If its language and its magical potency you’re after then The Infinities comes highly recommended.

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The Miniaturist

I said to myself “Tracy, let’s get magical!” as I settled down to read this novel, “I’m not a fuddy duddy” I thought, “I can do whimsy“. Turns out I can’t. This book nearly broke my eyes. For a time I thought I was doing reading wrong! – I mean it had all the magnificent exquisite hype and best-selling headlines etc., so I persevered because once I start a book I feel I have to finish it, like a bar of chocolate or at one time a bottle of wine.
Anyway, oh yes just to say that for me personally, author photo’s simply spoil the enigma of the story and having Burton’s ‘Hey look at me being a cutesy author in my twee yellow dress’ face emblazoned on my brain every time I picked up the book didn’t help either.
So The Miniaturist, off you go, mesmerise me!
I think Burton had a good idea and then got lost/bored/confused/tired because the miniaturist in question didn’t have the role we were lead to believe she would and she wasn’t the only character who went missing or failed to get fleshed out in any believable fashion. In Burton’s defence, some of the writing is beautiful, descriptions of the city of Amsterdam are transporting, there is a certain amount of mystery and a little suspense.
As a debut, it’s good but I don’t know who I would recommend this book to, all I can say is that you won’t always dread reading it.

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Neil GaimanWhy did the algae and the fungus get married?… They took a lichen to each other. (although, unfortunately, their marriage is on the rocks) 🙂
Ah yes indeed,ocean humour! Listen, this book is definitely worth a read. A man, now in his forties, makes a return visit to the place he grew up. All sorts of strange memories come back to haunt him and scare the reader! A powerful evil has been released, the boy (the events take place when he’s 7yrs old) and his magical neighbour friend, Lettie, try to stop it. Fear, magic, abuse, home-cooking and tragedy ensue. Whatever about the suicide, the supernatural baby-sitter, Ursula Monkton, the worm etc., the description of what happens while he’s waiting alone in the dark, in the fairy-ring really frightened me the most. It’s a good story that had the potential to be a great one, very dark in places – (like the young boys relationship with his father)but Letties departure from the scene, the location? (don’t want to spoil it for anyone)was a bit lame, bit of a damp squid, if you’ll pardon the pun. All in all great storytelling, interesting concept, intrigued to read more from this noteworthy author. Recommended.

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Sebastian BarryIt’s 5 stars from me Sebastian Barry! Well done to you! This is a great book. Excellent story, grippingly told, a balanced pace and each chapter a revelation.
Set in the west of Ireland, the story centres around Roseanne McNulty, an elderly patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and her physician Dr. Grene who has been given the task of assessing and resettling her and other remaining patients, before the dilapidated old building is finally demolished.
Despite the religious intolerance and sectarianism, the abuse and mistreatment of women (all symbolic of Ireland’s dark and toxic past), oh my goodness when the prose is this good: intrigue triumphs over despair.
We learn about the characters, their burdens and anxieties through their respective journals. Roseanne, who hides her ’unwanted paper’ under a floorboard, writes that she is ‘… only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless bird …‘. Dr. Grene, a sensitive man, is grieving his late wife whom he loved dearly but in later years were ‘… like two foreign countries and we simply have our embassies in the same house. Relations are friendly but strictly diplomatic.’
Roseanne’s testimony of herself is both distressing and unreliable and at odds with that of Fr. Gaunt, (an interfering old priest who has ominously shadowed Roseanne from childhood) which drives Dr. Grene to investigate further. His findings are unsettling.
I have no problem recommending this novel to anyone interested in captivating fiction. It’s unputdownable and I wholly enjoyed it. Barry’s prose is haunting, delicate, expressive and proud. I heart him 🙂
I’ve got his 2005 historical fiction novel A Long, Long Way lined up next!

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A long long wayTook me a long long time but got there in the end. This is an excellent portrayal of the Great War. The language is quite intense and graphic in places but Barry delivers an incredible insight into the conditions endured by thousands of young men in the trenches of First World War Flanders.
Willie Dunne is an Irishman fighting for King George of England (many nationalists believed he should be at home fighting for his own country’s liberation) this makes him a traitor to his countrymen and a dissenting would-be deserter in the eyes of the English army. We meet the young Willie before he joins the Dublin Fusiliers and track his progress from trainee to war exhausted soldier. His tragic relationship with his father; the bonds he forms with fellow comrades; his rapport with regiment captains and his love for Gretta and young sisters reaffirm the innocence, the normalcy, the humanity of this young character, haplessly embroiled in a conflict of such inhumanity.
The graphic detailing of the massacres, the filthy conditions, the mud, blood obscenity and violence makes for testing reading but reality can be demanding. I’m not a fan of war literature so this doesn’t get 5 stars from me, but the writing is faultless, a pleasure to read. Recommended.

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notes on an exhibitionAnother book I’ve longed to see the back of. Notes From A Stupid, Invisible, Yawn Fest Of An Exhibition. Stephen Fry was wrong! I don’t know where he got ‘pure perfection’ from (probably pulled it out of his ass or off one of those Darwinian Apple trees he lives under … lucky apples) The only character worth anything doesn’t appear until the last few pages. It’s a boring story with boring people doing boring things. Read it if you will.

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Rachel HoreNearing the end of this book I kind of got the feeling the author wanted it to be over as much as I did. Slow, dreary and tedious to say the least. Hore’s time-slip abilities are about as competent as a giraffe on ice. I had such little interest in Lucy Cardwell and I resented having to persevere but I’d heard good things about this author. It’s a ‘daughter delves into dead Dad’s past’ kind of story, with a deep dark secret that isn’t all that deep or dark when you consider the cruel malevolence of our world today. I did like Beatrice, she had some depth at least. Her character spends time with the wealthy Wincanton’s who are like a family of reticent vultures, shadowing Beatrice’s life from youth, through the war years, picking away until ultimately taking that which was, supposedly, most precious. The inscrutable Angelina – who did make me a little uncomfortable – reminded me of the sinister Adeline and Emmeline twins from Diane Setterfields’ Thirteenth Tale. This book is readable but I wouldn’t be writing home about it.

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HirshI love pretty much everything about this book – it’s rich in content with an inspiring message, there are introductions to new poets, treatises on life and the poetics of living it. Hirsh is beginning to lose me a little in the glossary, I’ve made it to H – haiku, but think I’d better start writing about the pleasure I’m getting from this book before becoming completely befuddled.
The poet and critic Edward Hirsh just has a lovely way about him. From chapter 1, Message In A Bottle, he had me hooked. I think it’s his absolute adoration for the alchemy of poetry that is so infectious. How he relates rhythm to the ‘pulse, the heartbeat, the way we breathe. It takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves’, this kind/way of writing really attracts me. The soulfulness, the heart, the sincerity of it – like when he speaks about Apollinaire’s calligramme’s, ‘the writer puts the rain down on the page, the reader lets it fall’. In chapter 7, Beyond Desolation, he talks about how the despair and lonliness of the writer can be changed into a relationship with a future reader, he says ‘the poet disappears into the poem, which stands mute, like an idol, until the reader breathes life back into it. And only then does it shimmer again with imaginative presence.’ How beautiful is that?
I do love poetry and am pleased that I’ve read work by about 70% of the poets he examines, from Whitman to Neruda; Szymborska to Borges; Hikmet to Akmatova, but there are many I’ve never heard of. Hirsh, helpfully, includes a catalogue of all the writers mentioned in the book however, from Asia to Europe to North & South America.
For anyone new to poetry, anyone wondering what all the fuss is about, then this book is a treasure trove, it contains all sorts of information about what poetry is, who writes it and why, about the processes involved and what your responsibility is as a reader. There is no question that you will fall in love 🙂
For anyone already loved up and feeling all the benefits of a poetic relationship, this book serves as an endorsement, a confirmation that you couldn’t be in a better partnership, that poetry will never let you down, will always be there for you, whether in Whitman’s Midnight or Salinas’ Day, in good times and bad, poetry is the fire that feeds our lives.
Highly recommended.

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13th tale

I enjoyed this book. A Gothic novel with two main stories. One of biographer, Margaret Lea, an antique book-dealers daughter and the story of her subject, novelist Vida Winter. The secretive Ms. Winter has one hell of a past to document filled with enough obsession, jealousy, loss, madness, experimentation, manipulation, death, lies and secrets to make you feel a whole lot better about your own life and family. There were times I felt uncomfortable about the subject matter, though not enough to stop reading, but written in Setterfield’s shadowy hand I came to understand that their can be something sinister about little girls, disturbing about governesses and plain evil about people and the places they occupy. It took me a while to get into it and sometimes I wanted to scream JUST TELL ME ALREADY! but all in all a good read, full of suspense and tragedy and weirdness.

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Star of the SeaJoseph O’Connor – I’m impressed.
A very engaging novel set during the Irish famine of 1847. The Star Of The Sea is one of the so-called Coffin-ships that ferried millions of the Irish poor to the UK, US and Canada in search of better lives. This ship is bound for New York. Among the hundreds of steerage and first class passengers, there is a murderer, who I thought I knew until the end of the book when the final analysis seemed to contradict everything that had gone before.
However, I’m interested in the famine and thought the subject matter was well-researched. The horrendous conditions for the poor below deck, are spine-chillingly recounted as well as the gradeur and opulence of First Class. During the course of the voyage we’re given an insight into the lives, past and present, of the characters through many diaries, interviews and Captain’s journals. It’s a long novel, took me a while to get through so I’m glad old Pius Mulvey has finally left the bedroom!
O’Connor is a gifted writer, he has a touch of the John Banville’s about him. Definitely worth reading.

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NerudaIf you enjoy poetry, if you’re prone to being knocked sideways by a simple group of words perfectly formed, expressing a thought or feeling – then you’ve got to stop what you’re doing and get your hands on a copy of this book! This was a no-brainer for me, I LOVE Neruda, his twenty love poems rendered me speechless. But the poems in this collection are sublime. I guess so much is lost in translation (I’d nearly learn Spanish just to read Neruda’s words exactly as he wrote them) but Mark Eisner, Alastair Reid et.al. have done outstanding work here. I have read some Neruda translations on-line that didn’t have the same potency for me and I didn’t understand why, until I read the same ones translated here, and once again I became spell-bound by Neruda’s passion. You can’t help but fall in love with him and with poetry in general. There are a handful of poems from Veinte Poemas – ‘Leaning into the evenings I throw my sad nets to your ocean eyes’ – beautiful. From Estravagario; Plenos Poderes and Memorial de Isla Negra which includes one of my all time favourites – Poetry ‘And it was at that age … poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river’ – magical! Honestly, if its possible to feel at home, to feel safe and secure and loved by a book, then this is the one, its like the great man is right there with you, helping you to inhabit every line.