book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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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

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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

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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: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

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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.

Reading Ireland Month TBR & Recommendations

Reading Ireland Month 2019 is being hosted by the lovely Cathy over at 746 Books, along with Raging Fluff.  It’s a month-long readathon where you’re encouraged to read Irish lit during the month of March, but I’d highly recommend you check out Cathy’s post for more information.  Cathy’s breaking her reading down into a schedule which you’ll see below, which I’m also roughly going to attempt to follow, but if you read even one Irish book in March you can participate.

March is going to be a busy reading month for me, because I’m also eagerly awaiting the Women’s Prize longlist announcement and knowing how obsessed I can get by literary prizes, I’m sure I’m going to want to dive straight into that.  But, given my love of Irish lit this is a readathon that I’m very excited to participate in.  So without further ado:

TBR:

25th February – 3rd March: Contemporary Irish Novels

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When All Is Said by Anne Griffin.  I have an ARC of this and it’s being published on March 5 in the US, so that’s perfect timing.

4th – 10th March: Classic Irish Novels

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell.  People are often surprised to learn that despite my love of Irish lit I’ve never actually read any James Joyce, and I wasn’t even in a huge rush to change that.  …but then this happened and if you follow me on Twitter you will know that I am a pretty big Colin Farrell fan, to say the least, and having watched 40+ of his films I figured an 8 hour audiobook should be nothing.

Alternately: Troubles by JG Farrell.  This is the only book off my 2019 backlist TBR that fits this category and I’m trying to read one of those per month.  (Technically this Farrell is Anglo-Irish but I’m counting it.)  (Technically it’s a very modern classic but I’m counting it.)

11th – 17th March: Irish Short Story Collections

Young Skins by Colin Barrett OR The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers by Sinead Gleeson.  I got both of these for Christmas and they’re both high up on my TBR, so I’m very very torn.  Which should I read in March?!

18th – 24th March: Irish Non-Fiction
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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.  I may cheat and read this one before March, because I have an ARC and it comes out in late February.  Then again, I’m so far behind on my reading that I may miss the publication date altogether… we’ll see!  At any rate, this is my nonfiction pick.

25th – 31st March: Irish Miscellany (Poetry, Plays, Film Reviews)

It’s gotta be plays, for me.  I have three main options that I’m considering: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett OR Faith Healer by Brian Friel OR The Mai by Marina Carr.  I’ve never read Beckett (I know, that’s embarrassing), but I’ve really enjoyed Friel and Carr in the past.  Which shall I choose?!

Recommendations:

So, I read more than a fair share of contemporary Irish lit, so rather than going through these titles one by one and giving a summary, I’m going to just list a bunch that jump out at me.

Contemporary novels:

John Boyne: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Absolutist, A Ladder to the Sky, This House is HauntedLisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, The Blood MiraclesLouise O’Neill: Asking For It, Almost LoveSally Rooney: Conversations With Friends, Normal PeopleDonal Ryan: All We Shall Know, From a Low and Quiet SeaColm Toibin: House of Names, BrooklynOther: Milkman by Anna Burns, Himself by Jess Kidd, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, Tender by Belinda McKeon.

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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  Possibly the only Irish nonfiction I’ve read, but well worth the mention and it’s one of my all-time favorite memoirs.

Plays:

Martin McDonagh (also Anglo-Irish): The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, A Skull in ConnemaraOther: Translations by Brian Friel, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr.

Are you planning on participating in Reading Ireland Month, and if so, which books are you planning on reading?  Let me know!

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.

book review: The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

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THE BLOOD MIRACLES by Lisa McInerney
★★★★★
John Murray, 2017
(review of The Glorious Heresies)

Apparently this is an unpopular opinion, but I loved this just as much as The Glorious Heresies. I understand why a lot of people didn’t. The Glorious Heresies is dark but it still retains a lot of signature Irish humor, and some warmth along with that. The Blood Miracles on the other hand is just a black tragedy. It picks up where McInerney’s previous novel left off, but it follows the thread of only one of the protagonists (though a few others play peripheral roles). And it was an interesting choice to shift from following five characters to following only one, but I have no complaints here as McInerney picked the right one.

I can’t think of any character I’ve read recently who I love as much as Ryan Cusack. Ryan is a drug dealer, both his own worst enemy and a victim of circumstance as he was raised by his abusive alcoholic father after his mother’s death. While The Glorious Heresies thoroughly examined Ryan’s relationship with his father and the near impossibility of breaking out of the life of crime and poverty that he’s been raised into, The Blood Miracles shifts the focus to another aspect of Ryan’s identity – the Italian side he inherited from his mother. As his boss Dan brokers a deal with the Italian Camorra and forces Ryan into the role of translator, Ryan faces conflicts both internal and external, as he tries to forge a place for himself in this new enterprise without alienating his concerned girlfriend Karine.

The main reason I imagine The Blood Miracles hasn’t gone over as well as The Glorious Heresies is that the only plot here revolves around the intricacies of drug dealing and Irish gang dynamics, and if you tried to sell this book to me with that pitch alone I can’t say I’d be terribly excited about it. But I think it’s a testament to McInerney’s skill that I was riveted. She expertly peels back the layers of contemporary Irish society to reveal its dark underworld, infusing her narration with Cork dialect to lend it a vibrant authenticity. This book is brutally, unflinchingly honest in a way that I find so refreshing.

I just adore McInerney’s writing. I love her distinctly unpolished style, her flawed and vulnerable and occasionally loathsome characters, her skill at tying together personal and social conflicts. This book is even darker and more violent than its predecessor and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if any of that appeals to you, I cannot recommend these books highly enough. I’m not sure if she’s planning on writing more in this series, but I thought the ending was perfect – it ties up all loose ends while still leaving the door open if she chooses to continue Ryan’s story. I really hope she does.

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr

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BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
★★★★★
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.

book review: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

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ALL WE SHALL KNOW by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Penguin, 2017

This book was stunning.

I’m struggling to give a brief summary of the plot, because although it’s a relatively simple story, everything I write feels reductive of the emotional journey that Donal Ryan takes the reader on, and the larger themes that he explores in his narrative. The bare bones of the novel are this: 33-year-old, married Melody Shee finds herself pregnant by a 17-year-old boy who she was teaching to read. But it’s not really a book about marriage and affairs. At the heart of this story is the bond that Melody forms with a young Traveller girl, Mary, as the focus shifts to their weird and unconventional friendship as Melody seeks atonement for something that happened in her past.

Ryan’s prose is lyrical and gorgeous. It’s the kind of carefully constructed writing that forces you to slow down and really take in each word. It’s a short novel, but one that’s not to be rushed through. I loved the experience of reading this as much as I love the impression it left me with.

This is ultimately a story about guilt, redemption, and betrayal, told with a searing and brutal honesty that made my heart race. This is one of those books that isn’t afraid of confronting the ugliness of human nature – how we’re capable of hurting those we love, how we lie to ourselves to cope with bad decisions we’ve made. I felt Melody’s pain and regret so acutely while I was reading this.

All We Shall Know is an intense, draining, and emotionally exhausting read – and all in under 200 pages. This was my first Ryan novel, but I have The Spinning Heart sitting on my shelf, and I think I need to bump it up on my TBR after how much I loved this.