Book Review of Wulfie: Stage Fright by Lindsay J Sedgwick, illustrated by Josephine Wolff

Little Island €8.00

In the first book of the Wulfie series we meet Libby, a neglected and underloved little girl, living with her absent-minded scientist father, her cruel stepmother and an appalling bully of a stepbrother called Rex.

Rex delights in making life difficult for Libby and when she’s not doing endless chores she stays in her bedroom, trying to keep out of Rex’s way. It never works, though. He torments her every single day.

One night she decides to pluck up the courage to open an old trunk that’s been lying about in the house for years and years. Rex has Libby convinced it’s full of old skeletons, but when she overcomes her fear and opens the trunk she finds a purple wolf called Wulfie – or Wolfgang Amadeus Rachmaninov The Third, to be precise. Wulfie is a magic wolf. But to say any more would be to spoil (although there’s a stage production of the Three Little Pigs in the story, you know that fairytale about the pigs and the wolf? Nuff said).

This delightful book, aimed at children of 6+ years, is both a hoot and a fable about overcoming our fears. Superb illustrations from Josephine Wolff (no relation) throughout the text are charming. The whole package is charming.

Book Review of Postscript by Cecilia Ahern

Harper Collins €10.99

This week sees the paperback publication of Postscript, another hit from the remarkable Cecilia Ahern. Sixteen years have passed since Ahern’s first novel PS, I Love You became such a huge success, both as a novel and later as a film. She’s written fifteen novels since then and in 2018 she produced ROAR, an anthology of short stories reflecting on the contemporary lives of women, which met with considerable critical acclaim.

In Postscript we meet Holly seven years after her husband’s death and six years since his last letter was received. She’s now in a new relationship and working in a vintage clothes shop. She is requested to be involved in a podcast about grief, which she’s initially dubious about, but she ends up doing it anyway. Soon afterwards a small group of people with fatal illnesses who call themselves the PS, I Love You Club approach Holly to help them say goodbye to their loved ones. At first she balks. She doesn’t want her entire life to be defined by her widowhood. Time has passed and she’s moved on, surely people should realise this? She has myriad reservations about revisiting all of the sadness in her life. But the group persists and Holly eventually relents, meeting, among others, single mother Ginika who is fatally ill and wants to learn to read and write so she can leave letters behind for her baby daughter.

All of this sounds horribly mawkish, and yet it’s anything but. Ahern handles her subject matter beautifully in this life-affirming sequel, balancing light and darkness with the confidence of a writer who is by now an old hand. And I think I see another film on the horizon…

Book Review of Just My Luck by Adele Parks

HQ €16.99

Lexi and Jake are an ordinary couple with two ordinary kids and they all live ordinary lives. The couple have been friends with two other couples, the Pearsons and the Heathcotes for over fifteen years and they have a lottery syndicate going between them. But there’s a row, a rift and Lexi finds they’re suddenly not friends anymore. When she wins the lottery a week afterwards, a jackpot of almost 18 millions pounds, things get very frosty indeed.  

Claims are made and rejected and lawyers are quickly involved, leaving the winning family in the very public eye when they had hoped to keep it private, although feckless Jake buying a sports car before the money isn’t even in the bank is a sign of things to come.

Lexi is forced into leaving her job in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau because of the throngs arriving at her office, everyone desperately looking for some cash. Her social conscience is pricked as she realizes she can’t help every worthy cause, but she can certainly help one man in particular, a homeless man from Moldova.

I found this yarn impossible to put down. Parks is famous for her twisty plots and her skilful depictions of ornery human beans, but here she has excelled herself. With pinpoint accuracy she charts exactly how an obscene amount of wealth can make seemingly harmless people behave obscenely. Just My Luck would almost move you to not want a lottery win at all. Almost!

Book Review of Little Book of Hope by Louise Hall

Peach Publishing £4.99

Louise Hall, author of the acclaimed novel Pilgrim and other non-fiction works, has produced this little volume in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the distress it has produced across the planet, quite apart from the growing death toll. For those who remember Paul Wilson’s bestselling Little Book of Calm published some years back, this book is in a similar vein and it’s also pocket-sized, making it easy to keep on your person, should you need some quick inspiration.

It’s dedicated “to all those around the world who have lost hard but loved much – that you may rediscover Hope and welcome the beautiful pleasure of joy back into your lives”.

Everyone has taken a battering one way or another this year and this book is the perfect antidote to the constant media feed, hungry for every hysterical angle, seemingly intent on ramping our collective anxiety up to eleven. Worry is, someone said, “a waste of imagination” and hope is our only defense. Louise Hall beckons us in this modest little book to take some time out and reflect on the things that matter; family, friends, rest, time out, patience.  Little Book of Hope is perfectly timed and perfectly pitched.

Book Review of To The Island by Patricia Forde, Illustrated by Nicola Bernardelli

Little Island €15.99

At the back of this book there’s a note for the adult readers who will be reading it to their children, briefly outlining the history of Hy Brasil island and there’s probably the bones of a whole other book right there. But this particular book is for the very young and it’s an absolutely breathtaking publication.

Fia is a Galway girl who knows about the legend of the island of Hy Brasil and of how it only appears once every seven years, rising out of the Atlantic ocean like a mysterious apparition. Fia spends many full moons hoping to see it. And then it happens! She sees it one night and she sneaks out of bed, creeps through the Galway streets and hops on a moonbeam at the Spanish Arch quay. The moonbeam takes Fia straight to the magic island.

Commissioned by Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture and published by Little Island, this book is full-on gorgeous. The artwork by Nicola Bernardelli is outstanding, the depth and colour and light of the illustrations just something to behold. Text by Patricia Forde is pitch perfect and the scenes of Galway city, as well as the magic island, are wondrous. Also published in Irish under the title An tOileán Thiar, it’s one of the most attractive children’s picture books I’ve seen published this year. Exceptional.  

Book Review: The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan

Hope Road Publishing    €12.99

This work of fiction is based on a true story, beginning with the mutiny among the Connaught Rangers, stationed in India at the time of the Black & Tans’ atrocities in Ireland. Ireland was not yet an independent state and India had even further to go to gain her independence. Opening in 1920, this novel recounts the romance of young Private Michael Flaherty, stationed in Nandagiri in South East India, and Rose, the Anglo-Indian governess to the Irish Colonel Aylmer’s children. Educated and capable, Rose believes herself to be “pale” enough to be accepted by her superiors as Michael’s fiancée. She is gravely mistaken.

In the 1980’s Colonel Aylmer’s grandson leaves Kildare to visit India, intending to open an art exhibition in Nandagiri. But the local people have long memories…

This beautifully-crafted novel is underpinned with the history of English occupation of both India and Ireland and the author, Indian by birth but living in Ireland for over thirty years, displays remarkable empathy with both cultures. Her descriptions of south-east India and its people, pre-and post-independence, are outstanding. Since this is the summer of holidays at home, with all the rain and wind we can stand, we could all do with being transported to the exotic heat, the strange and spicy aromas, and the intense, vivid colours of India in all its splendour, as well as in all its profound tragedies. Absolutely marvellous.  

Book Review: The Bird in the Bamboo Cage by Hazel Gaynor

Harper Collins €15.99

I’ve often wondered what makes historical novelists tick. It’s hard enough to write a novel – any novel, in any genre – without giving yourself the headache of all that research, ensuring your attention to every tiny detail is impeccable, writing in the language of the day, whatever that day might be, poring over dusty documents in dusty archives, depending on the kindness of strangers in libraries, reading through reams of personal testimonies. And I think the answer must be that this is half the enjoyment. Historical novelists hunger to write, but they also hunger for an intimate knowledge of times past and will seemingly go to great lengths to attain it. Hazel Gaynor has taken the trip down memory lane so many times now, and she always delivers. Whether it’s Monaco in the glitzy fifties, Covent Garden with its flower girls in Victorian London, a far-flung lighthouse off the coast of Northumberland or, in this case, an English school in China during WWII, she is never less than wholly authentic.  

The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is, like all of Gaynor’s novels, a work of fiction based on fact. Chefoo School in Shantung Province, China was a school for the children of English missionaries working in Asia. When China was invaded by Japan during WWII, Japanese forces took over the school, using it as a military base. From 1941 to 1945, the staff and children of the school endured the privations and suffering of Japanese occupation until Americans soldiers finally freed them. This novel is the testimony of two protagonists, young Nancy Plummer, ten years old, and her teacher Elspeth Kent. From these dual perspectives the reader gets a flavour of what life was like during occupation. And although it was a living hell, there were moments of great kindness and indeed great bravery on the part of both the teachers and the children. The girl guides, led by Miss Kent, instilled in her youngsters a kind of resilience that might otherwise have been hard to muster.

The detail in this novel is stunning. Much homework has been done. And the awful suffering is chronicled carefully, respectfully, without splaying it all over the page. Restraint is not easy in describing such horrors and Gaynor is to be commended for accurately portraying the monstrosity of war without feeling the need to catalogue the gore.

Ultimately,  the reader is left with a feeling for the extraordinary power of grace under fire, the absolute necessity of bravery when one doesn’t feel brave, and a real sense of how the “make do and mend” generation of WWII shaped the future for those of us yet to come. Her best yet.

Book Review: The Restaurant by Roisin Meaney

Hachette €16.99

The launch of Roisin Meaney’s seventeenth novel in June was a muted affair, as so many launches have been in these cruel Covid days. It was broadcast live from O’Mahony’s Bookshop in Limerick, one of the first of many similar launches since then, with very few people onsite but plenty raising a glass from home. And plenty of her writing colleagues had pre-recorded their good wishes in order to be ‘present’ for the occasion. To say that Meaney is held in high esteem among her peers would be to understate it. It was quite moving to watch.

Her latest novel is quite moving, too. Emily is a chef who, two years prior to the opening of the story, was left standing at the altar when her husband-to-be absconded to Canada. She has since thrown all of her energy and her money into running a tiny restaurant with just fourteen seats around a single oval table, open for lunch and dinner, one sitting for each, and targeted at single diners.  Business is good and Emily is coming to terms with her circumstances. Until husband-to-be returns from Canada, full of remorse, and Emily slowly falls for him all over again. And this, I think, gets to the crux of how Meaney writes her characters. She doesn’t do cool, clean and shiny, she does flawed and broken and muddling through. Emily is capable of making mistakes. Huge ones. So are virtually all of the characters in this novel. How they deal with the consequences of their respective mistakes is the very fabric of the story.  

Among the writers who paid tribute to Roisin on launch night were Judi Curtin, who said “Roisin creates a world I want to live in”, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald who mentioned the thriving writing community in Limerick and called Meaney “the queen of us all”,  and probably Ireland’s most revered author, Donal Ryan, who said she is “the most generous and empathetic of writers…long may she work her magic”. 

Roisin Meaney raises the bar with every bestseller she writes. The Restaurant is exquisite.

Book Review: Galway Stories:2020 edited by Alan McMonagle and Lisa Frank

Doire Press €15.00

The Covid pandemic scuppered Galway’s chance to showcase itself as the European Capital of Culture 2020 and we’re all the worse off for that. But for the year that was supposed to be in it, Doire Press has published a marvellous anthology, Galway Stories:2020 which is, I believe, in its second print run already. We may have not reached Galway in person this year, but this book at least allows us to be there in spirit, with pictures by Róisín Flaherty, illustrations by Tríona Walsh and information on the locations within the stories provided by Tom Kenny.

With nine of the stories set in Galway city and twelve set in various parts of the county, this collection features some very big names like Patrick McCabe, E.M Reapy, Caoilinn Hughes, Nuala O’Connor, Niamh Boyce and the latest trailblazer in Irish fiction, Elaine Feeney, whose debut novel As You Were has become probably the most talked-about novel of the year.  Themes sweep from the parochial to the universal and, as you’d expect, there’s a distinct west-of-ireland tang about the place. Whether it be a backstreet boxing club or the stage entrance to the Róisín Dubh, a barstool in Taylor’s or a quiet smallholding in Connemara, the melding of character to place in almost every story is meticulous.

Particular favourites for me were Alan Caden’s Socrates, in His Later Years, a fable about the ravages of alcoholism, Niamh Boyce’s The Doteen, a chilling and suspenseful tale of domestic abuse, sprinkled with an unexpected smattering of macabre theatre, Micheál Ó Chongaile’s Father, a poignant story about an only son’s coming out to his beloved but old-school father, Elaine Feeney’s Sojourn, about the death of a marriage among other things, and Danny Denton’s Motorbike Accident, Roscam, chronicling a different type of death.

Death aside, you’ll find all human life here, including the pulse of it in Patrick McCabe’s thrumming experimental piece The Galway Spike. Caoilinn Hughes, ever mocking of the captains of 21st century commerce, sticks her very stylish oar in with I Ate it All and I Really Thought I Wouldn’t, and there’s further experimental fiction from E. M. Reapy and June Caldwell, making this a volume that covers so many styles and genres it’s a credit to its editors, Lisa Frank and Alan McMonagle. A carefully chosen and beautifully wrought collection, aptly described by Mary Costello as ‘a joy to read’. Highly recommended.