three Tana French reviews: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place

In addition to Agatha Christie, my other recent obsession has been Tana French. As a self-proclaimed lover of thrillers and Irish lit, it’s been a source of shame for a great while that I’ve never read any Tana French, so I finally decided to rectify that, tearing through the first three books in her Dublin Murder Squad series in under a month. I’m currently on a French hiatus in order to catch up with some of my other reading, but I intend to pick up where I left off in early 2022.

IN THE WOODS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #1
Penguin Books, 2007

Each book in this series follows a different detective on the (entirely fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, and the series begins with Rob Ryan, who has memory loss around a traumatic event from his childhood, where he went out with his two best friends in the woods, and was the only one to come home. Twenty years later, Rob’s friends have never been found, and he’s working as a detective (a career choice that he insists is entirely unrelated), currently on a case involving a dead teenage girl who was found in the same Dublin suburb where Rob grew up.

The thing I’ve heard praised about French the most often is her writing, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s difficult to find thrillers that hit that sweet spot of propulsive/entertaining while actually displaying genuine literary skill, and I couldn’t be happier with how French manages to walk that fine line. Her mysteries are well-crafted and her books have that can’t-put-it-down factor, but the thing that really stands out about them is her brilliant character work and her deft hand at depicting the dark, fragile corners of human nature.

I only had two complaints while I was reading this, the first of which actually resolved itself—for a while, I found the depiction of Rob and Cassie’s friendship a bit tiresome; I felt like French would often go the extra mile to hammer the reader over the head with how special the bond between them was… but then by the end of the book I was stupidly invested in their relationship so I suppose Tana knew what she was doing there. The other thing is that French has this one habit that bothers me, where her narrators often turn to the reader and say something along the lines of “I know what you’re thinking”/”I know you must be wondering”/”I know how this sounds,” etc, and I find that whatever they’re next about to say rarely lines up with what I am actually thinking, leaving me with the vague sensation that they’re talking to someone over my shoulder rather than me. This is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things but it did irritate me often enough to mention.

Anyway, I thought this book was fantastic, and while each book in this series can absolutely be read as a standalone, if you’re interested in getting into Tana French I do think this is a really good place to start. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a certain detail about the ending, about the way this book resolves itself, that I know a lot of people find objectionable to the point of being a dealbreaker. I actually knew this detail ahead of time, so I actually wasn’t fazed by it—but I like to think that if I hadn’t known, I’m not the sort of reader who would be too bothered by something like that. Anyway, just a warning that you may not find this book as satisfactory as you hoped—but I still really think it’s worth reading in spite of that.

THE LIKENESS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #2
Penguin Books, 2008

My favorite in this series so far, by a mile. Let’s get the absurd premise out of the way: before working on the Murder Squad, Cassie used to be an undercover agent, and in one of her old cases, she went by the alias Lexie Madison. Cut to the present: a dead body shows up, and the victim is not only identical to Cassie, but she had Lexie Madison’s ID on her when she died. In order to investigate the case, Cassie is sent back undercover, posing as Lexie and living with Lexie’s housemates, a group of university students.

Like I said, it’s absurd. But that’s okay. Fiction is fiction for a reason. What I actually found mildly irritating toward the beginning was just how much time was spent on French trying to justify this premise to the reader, by means of Cassie trying to justify her decision to take this ridiculous case to herself and to anyone else who would listen. Nothing about this is realistic and we could have all saved ourselves 100 pages if everyone just accepted that from the start.

That said, I really adored this book. With traces of The Secret History, The Likeness depicts with aplomb the insularity of academic and the fiercely obsessive quality of close friendship. Once Cassie gets into the house, this book—unlike Cassie—never takes a false step. The characters are all brilliantly rendered on their own, but as a group, their dynamic sings in a way that I find it particularly challenging for authors to capture in an organic, convincing way.

This book is just fun and indulgent and moving and sad, and it keeps you guessing from start to finish. I had the best time reading this.

Dublin Murder Squad #3
Penguin Books, 2010

Faithful Place is the first book in this series to follow a detective who isn’t working on the novel’s central case. It follows Frank Mackey, an undercover agent who gets a call from his younger sister—the only person he still speaks to from his poor, inner city Dublin family that he cut out of his life decades ago. A suitcase has been discovered, which belongs to Rosie Daly, the girl Frank had been in love with as a teenager. The two were planning on running off to England together, but Rosie never showed up that night, and Frank found a note from her which made it sound like she was going off on her own. He had never spoken to her again, assuming she had made her own way to England—but the discovery of her suitcase overturns his assumption that she had managed to make it out at all.

What I liked about this book is what I like about all of French’s books: solid mystery, distinct character voice (I’d actually describe French’s writing style as less “lyrical” in this book than in the first two in this series—which suited Frank to a T), the ability to get to the heart of her characters and connect the reader to what drives them.

What I disliked about this book was everything else. This book was overwhelmingly domestic, to a degree that was just never going to work to my personal taste. The biggest thing at stake here is Frank’s personal relationships: with his daughter, with his ex-wife, and with his estranged family. Any time I see the words marriage, divorce, parenthood, etc., in a thriller summary, I click swiftly away, so this is the sort of thing I never would have picked up if it hadn’t been a part of this series, and I can’t exactly fault a book for not being everything I personally wished it would be.

That said, I do think this is a notably weaker offering than the first two books in this series. Frank’s belligerence gets tiresome very quickly, and all of the conflicts in this book get very repetitive. I also found the whole setup very stereotypical: poor Irish family has too many kids and an alcoholic, abusive father—shocking! (I know French herself is Irish, and I don’t mean to imply that the family dynamic was handled insensitively—just that I thought there were opportunities for a fresher dynamic that French could have taken but did not.) I definitely didn’t mind reading this, but I’m hoping for more exciting things from the three remaining titles in this series I still have to read.

book review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Grove Atlantic, November 30, 2021

Small Things Like These is the second standalone novella by award-winning short story writer Claire Keegan. It tells the story of Bill Furlong, a man born to a single mother in a small Irish town in the 1940s, who now in the 1980s runs his own coal and timber business, and who, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, meets a girl at a Magdalen Laundry whose physical state and predicament concerns him. 

With shades of A Christmas Carol, Small Things Like These is the story of a man wrestling with his own morality when doing the right thing means going against the Catholic Church, which has a stranglehold over his town. What I found so affecting about this book was Keegan’s deft touch — her prose reads effortlessly and the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries are elucidated not through graphic, violent descriptions, but in the harrowing small moments of abuse captured. Character and setting are rendered with impressive detail given the scarcity of pages, and I found this to be a great place to start with Keegan, whose backlist I’m keen to explore now.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen
Algonquin Books, 2020

This was a fine and forgettable read. Big Girl, Small Town follows Majella, a fast food worker on the autism spectrum in the fictional town of Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. Like most post-Troubles lit this deals with lingering tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the unresolved and unstable social climate narratively underscored by the disappearance of Majella’s father, who went missing during the Troubles. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, beyond feeling sort of vaguely unconvinced by Majella who felt to me very much like a character in a novel and not an actual person. This felt like it was desperately trying to be quirky but didn’t quite have the finesse needed to pull it off; it comes off as rather prosaic and muted. I didn’t mind reading this–it’s a short book–but I also found it so unnoteworthy that I can’t come up with anything else to say about it. Read it if you feel like it but if you’re new to Northern Irish lit, there are better places to start.

book review: The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan

Tin House Books, 2020

Set in 1990s Ireland, The Butchers’ Blessing (originally published as The Butchers in the UK) tells the story of a group that travels through the country, practicing an ancient ritual of cattle slaughter for farmers who still believe in the old customs.  It follows a handful of characters – primarily Úna, the preteen daughter of a Butcher whose life’s aspiration is to follow in her father’s footsteps.  We also follow Grá, Úna’s mother, trapped in an unhappy marriage; Ronan, an ambitious photographer; Fionn, a semi-retired farmer whose wife is dying of cancer, trying to atone for past sins; and Davey, Fionn’s son, a teenage boy who’s immersed in classical studies and dreams of escaping to Dublin.  

Gilligan does an expert job of weaving historical context throughout the narrative.  The novel’s backdrop mainly concerns BSE, also known as mad cow disease, as the crisis kicks off throughout the UK and Ireland.  While Gilligan excellently captures the resulting tension of that social climate, her skill in establishing the setting is right down to the nitty-gritty details; the Spice Girls playing on the radio, The Beauty Queen of Leenane on a the local playhouse, Ballykissangel on tv.  Setting historical fiction in a moment that your readers have lived through is a unique challenge, but Gilligan has a talent for the immersive.  The details of Celtic folklore were also well-woven in; this probably isn’t the Gothic or eerie book you’re expecting from its premise, but the way the folklore was presented as a part of these characters’ daily realities was handled incredibly well.

There were a few things that didn’t work for me – the whole story was framed in a past/present way with the present being narrated by the least interesting character, which unfortunately causes the interludes to lag more than they should.  But on the whole I thought this was a clear-eyed, unsettling, morally ambiguous read that captures this moment in modern Irish history brilliantly. 

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan



EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
Ecco, June 2, 2020


Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

Thank you to Netgalley and Ecco for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of Exciting Times here on Book Depository.

book review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan




Doubleday Ireland, 2012


The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good.  Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community.  With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona.  Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away.  Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites.  His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books.  The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down.  In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of.  Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened.  This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.

Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.

You can pick up a copy of The Spinning Heart here on Book Depository.

Reading Ireland Month 2020 TBR

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Reading Ireland Month!

You can read Cathy’s post about it HERE, but basically, it’s what it says on the tin: you read Irish books throughout the month of March.  You can read exclusively Irish lit all month, or you can mix it up – I’ll probably end up doing the latter since March is when the Women’s Prize longlist gets announced, but I still want to cram in as much Irish lit as I can.

Cathy laid out a schedule which you are welcome to follow, should you so desire:

2nd – 8th March – Contemporary Irish Novels

9th – 15th March – Classic Irish Novels

16th – 22nd March – Irish Short Story Collections

23rd – 29th March – Irish Non-Fiction

Last year I themed my reading around the schedule and it worked out really well, but this year I think I’m going to do things a bit more free-form.

Before you see this massive list and panic on my behalf, I am under NO illusions that I will read all of these books in March.  This is just a selection off my shelves that I feel particularly drawn to at this moment in time.  Who knows what I’ll end up going for.

So without further ado, here are some of the books I’m thinking about picking up in March:

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
The Dregs of the Day by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin
For the Good Times by David Keenan
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Being Various edited by Lucy Caldwell
The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson

Honestly I think if I manage to read even 2 or 3 of these, I will be happy!  Or maybe I’ll read something else entirely, but this list is what I’m feeling drawn toward at this very moment.  So there you have it.  Have you read any of these, and what are your Reading Ireland Month plans?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park



Bloomsbury, 2018 (UK)


This was a lovely, devastating little book.  It’s a simple story which follows Tom, a Northern Irish man making a road trip from Belfast to Sunderland to pick up his son Luke from uni for the Christmas holidays.  This reverse-Odyssey is being undertaken as weather has made road conditions terrible and all public transport has been shut down, and Luke is too sick to drive himself.

On a very surface level, David Park captures the fortitude required to drive in unsafe weather conditions in a way that hooked and compelled me instantly, but obviously this book is so much more than that.  I don’t want to give away too much as it has such a short page count, but this book delves so deep into grief and guilt that it’s a wonder Park could do it all in under 200 pages.

The only issue that cropped up for me on occasion was something that frequently bothers me with books written in the first-person; when the narrator becomes overly articulate in such a way that you can feel the author using them as a mouthpiece.  I found the writing mostly lovely and authentic, and this was only an occasional criticism, but it was enough to knock it back from 5 stars.

Still, it’s a tremendously affecting book that I’d recommend highly, especially on a snowy day.

You can pick up a copy of Travelling in a Strange Land here on Book Depository.

book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride



Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.

You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

book review: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson



CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)


Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.

Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.

This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.

All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.

You can pick up a copy of Constellations here on Book Depository.