Book Review of Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s The Heart of Summer

Hachette €15.99

Reviewing a book with such a title reminds me of how late to the party I am with this – and with some others, too, about which I’ll be writing in the coming weeks – but at least I didn’t miss out on this heartening read, another novel full of good stuff from Felicity Hayes-McCoy.

Although it’s a standalone novel, it’s the latest in the Finfarran series, set on a fictional peninsula in the West of Ireland that could be anywhere from West Cork to Donegal. Those of us who have followed Finfarran librarian Hanna will know that she moved back there with her daughter after a painful divorce, and has found her feet in the place where she was born and reared. Like most small communities, there’s no shortage of drama in the village and the discovery of an ancient Psalter, written in similar fashion to the Book of Kells and donated to the library by the local lord of the manor, brings unprecedented numbers of tourists to the once-sleepy little town.

Nobody’s complaining, though, business in Finfarran is booming as a result. One of the tourists in particular, Amy, is a very old friend of Hanna’s from her student days in London, and after much persuading, Amy manages to lure Hanna back to the big smoke for a few days. Hesitant at first, Hanna finally decides to go. Her timing is good as her boyfriend’s adult son, whom she barely knows, has turned up at Finfarran and seems to be staying. And now Hanna now finds herself falling in love with London all over again…

Hanna’s mother Mary is back in this novel, as is the local builder Fury and his dog, The Divil. There are other favourite characters too, along with some new ones to keep us up to date. In spite of the summer of its title, this novel is a great read for dark, locked-down winter evenings, laden as it is with much-needed light and humour.

Book Rview of Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent

Borough Press €16.99

Susie Steiner’s third Manon Bradshaw novel is as funny as it is shocking, as thought-provoking as it is topical. Prompted by a real-life news story about a Cambridgeshire modern-day slavery racket, it’s a social commentary as well as a police procedural, in addition to being at moments a rather dispiriting evaluation of modern-day marriage.

While walking her toddler son in the local park, Manon discovers the body of a young man hanging from a tree. There’s a note pinned to the body saying “The dead cannot speak.” The young man is identified as Lukas Balsys, an immigrant from Lithuania. He had been working on a chicken farm, housed in a filthy, overcrowded rental and his passport and money remained the property of a Lithuanian gang boss, along with the passports and money belonging to all of Lukas’ colleagues.

As Manon heads up this grim investigation she finds there’s also trouble at home. Her partner is diagnosed with cancer and, as she examines the course of their relationship, she’s left feeling decidedly guilty about how much she has taken him for granted. (Although some of the most amusing passages in the book are about the institution that is modern marriage!)

While Manon digs deeper into the murder investigation, she comes up against a seething and particularly vociferous lobby of UKIP thugs, who don’t view the murder of a “foreigner” as anything to complain about. Welcome to the Britain of Boris Johnson.

In an intricate and finely-honed story, Steiner has much to say about a plethora of issues, not least how difficult it is to make progress in one’s career as a working mother. With much more meat on its bones than many other novels in the same genre, it’s an intriguing and often disturbing read, lightened by Manon’s dry and distinctive wit. I enjoyed it immensely.

Book Review of Joseph M Hassett’s ‘Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life’

Lilliput Press €15.00

Joseph Hassett’s book, focusing obviously on Yeats but drawing from many other great pens from Socrates to Zadie Smith, is nothing if not aptly timed;  Yeats lived through the Great War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the rise of fascism and the volatile unrest here in Ireland in the early years of the 20th century. There’s a frightening prescience to it all in this 21st century, indeed one chapter of the book is called “Cycles” and presents some carefully considered ideas on the cyclical nature of human history. Here we go again, in the middle of a pandemic, watching again the rise of fascim (now called populism, but a steaming pile by any other name, etc) and it’s alarming to observe how ‘doomed’ we are to endlessly repeat the errors of our ways.   

Yeats, of course, had much to say about all this and in his slim but packed volume, Hassett presents us with Yeats the man as much as Yeats the poet, fraught with self-doubt as much as he was blessed with genius. We’re also given valuable context for some of Yeats’ finest works, shedding light on passages that we might have found obscure. Hassett also shows Yeats as inspiration to others, most immediately Joyce and Beckett and later, in particular, Seamus Heaney.

The book’s short essays are gathered under headings such as “On Friendship” and “Inventing and Reinventing the Self”, “Marrying” and “Growing Old” and through these episodes we see Yeats’ flawed humanity, doomed himself to repeat his own mistakes. His unrequited love for Maud Gonne and then for her daughter Iseult is well known. He married late and was not completely fulfilled. But he wrote prolifically throughout his myriad travails and his impulse to transcend what Kavanagh called ‘the habitual, the banal” is the very essence of his poetry.

This book gravitates more towards the everyday Yeats reader than the Yeats scholar. Not that it is not a scholarly work – it most certainly is – but it’s an accessible book, almost a ‘Companion to Yeats’-type book, offering non-scholar and scholar alike an array of richly-illustrated frames of reference that further illuminate the poet’s work. His influence on Joyce, Beckett and Heaney is handled lightly but thoroughly. If all great men are standing on the shoulders of giants, then Hassett leaves us in no doubt about whose shoulders bore the weight of those three greats.  

We are in the midst of dark days again. We are locked up and locked down, clamped into inertia by an unknown disease. We are spending more time in the company of books than in the company of loved ones. And I can’t think of a more inspiring way to fill the unforgiving minute than to read this book, to be renewed and invigorated by Yeats’ relevance today – Now – and to rediscover the nobility of his poetry, the endurance of his hope.   

Book Review of Alice Feeney’s His & Hers

HQ €11.99

More psychological thriller than police procedural, although comfortably straddling both genres, His & Hers is a clever novel, deftly written and tight as a drum.

When TV journalist Anna is sent back to her dreary hometown to report on a murder she is more than a little disgruntled. She’d been anchoring a TV show and now feels she’s been pushed aside. Her ex-husband Inspector Jack Harper is, she finds when she arrives, in charge of the murder investigation. This divorced couple are the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of the book’s title and most chapters are recounted from one or the other’s perspective. But there’s also a third voice, an anonymous and sinister one and it’s this voice in particular which undermines the veracity of both Jack and Anna’s respective stories.

The plot rattles along beautifully, with him saying potato and her saying potahto and a young female police sergeant who appears to be stalking Jack. But then Anna seems to be on the receiving end of a stalker’s attentions too. To add to the complexity, the murdered woman is known to both Jack and Anna and it becomes clear that in fact both of the central characters might have had reason to kill her. But who did?

Alice Feeney’s third novel is a case study in how to wrongfoot a reader. Even the most seasoned noir enthusiasts won’t guess the ending here, although you’ll be on high alert throughout. Hard to put down.

Book Review of Paul Clements’ Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time

Lilliput Press €15.00

In 1939, Irish travel writer Richard Hayward travelled the length of the Shannon from source to sea and his book Where The River Shannon Flows was an instant success. Eighty years later, travel writer Paul Clements decides to follow Hayward’s journey from the Shannon Pot in Cavan right down to the Atlantic. And the result is this gorgeous book. It’s exquisitely written, with passages on the landscape surrounding the magnificent waterway described in pristine detail and his curiosity about the locals in the towns and villages along the river is never forced, always interested and genuine. Clements is also at pains to depict the ways in which the surrounding countryside has changed, as well as the ways in which it hasn’t.   

References are made to Hayward’s original book throughout the text, and one quotation concerning a certain Cavan newspaper, struck this reader: “…the only newspaper printed in the county is the weekly Anglo-Celt. The only bad thing I know about that paper is the execrable local pronunciation of the word Celt with a soft C. It does violence to my ear every time a Cavan man uses such an un-Irish sound.” I have never understood why Cavan locals say “Selt” for “Celt”. Maybe they know something the rest of us don’t?

Similar little gems are scattered throughout, gently leading the reader back and forth in time between Hayward’s journey and Clements’ following in his shadow. Full of colourful characters and full of the breadth and majesty of the Shannon, this is a book written in the tradition of the great travel writers like Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin, possibly all the more alluring because it’s set right here, on the oul’ sod.

Book Review of Patrick Freyne’s OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea

Penguin Sandycove €15.99

When TV architect Dermot Bannon bought and renovated a house for himself and his family, the telly ratings went through the roof. When Irish Times columnist and journalist Patrick Freyne wrote about it shortly afterwards, his article did the same. In fact, the column might have beaten the TV episode. It was time for a book from Mr Freyne and here it is.   

This series of essays offers the reader snapshots of Freyne’s life, from his childhood days as the son of an army commando, through his wilderness student years and his time as a musician in a band. The thread holding everything together is Freyne’s trademark wit. Lots of the passages are bawl-out-loud funny (warning: the details of a drunken phone call home from Germany, made by his student friend who’d just gotten himself a summer job, is not to be read on public transport lest one gets oneself chucked off the bus).

But Freyne also describes his bouts of depression in prose that’s as clean as a bullet and stripped of everything except bald, intimate honesty. We’ve had some exceptional essay collections in recent years from the likes of Emilie Pine, Ian Maleny and Sinéad Gleeson. Freyne’s collection stands tall among them; it too is exceptional, and has been shortlisted for an An Post Irish Book Award.  Humane, sincere – and extremely funny.

Book Review of Gráinne Murphy’s Where The Edge Is

Legend Press €10.99

In a sleepy town in County Cork, an early morning bus with eight people on board falls into the road. Literally. Nearby underground carparks have, it seemed, weakened the road’s substructure and the weight of the bus simply breaks the road open, like a big hole in a frozen lake. Local journalist Nina is called to the scene, where her ex-husband Tim is the firefighter in charge of the delicate and lengthy rescue operation.  The bus driver Richie and a local woman, Aline, born in Lebanon but reared in Ireland, are rescued pretty quickly but others remain trapped on the bus and the nearby river is rising. So is the tension, the rapidly gathering crowd of disaster tourists, the blame within the local Planning Department and the grief of Nina and Tim who previously shared the loss of a baby daughter, their bereavement having blown their marriage apart.  

For a debut novel, this is remarkable stuff and I can’t understand why there’s not been more pot-banging and general fuss around its publication in September. I must emphasize that this is not a disaster novel, this is no Airport or Towering Inferno although the tension is palpable and sustained. The author herself described it best in a recent feature in The Examiner when she said: “This isn’t a rescue thriller. The crash is the background for a multi-perspective character driven novel.”

Her multi-perspective novel is scathing at times and the slice of her pen pierces, for instance, the ineptitude and corruption of national and local government figures, the foolish platitudes of the typical wheel-on grief-and-trauma therapist brigade, the sly, quiet and peculiarly Irish brand of xenophobia in our midst, the utter state of the nation. Romantic Ireland is surely dead and gone, leaving behind the likes of Crazy May, who’s lost her home and her mind, left to fumble in the greasy streets in hunger and ignominy (my apologies to Yeats).

But for all its darkness, this novel expresses, in myriad infinitesimal ways, the endurance of the human spirit and its proclivity for transcendence and survival. There’s a second novel due out from Gráinne Murphy in 2021 and I’ll be watching out for it.  

Book Review of The Dead Zoo by Peter Donnelly

Gill €14.99

A perfect book for very young animal-lovers, this is author and illustrator Peter Donnelly’s fourth picture book, after his much-acclaimed trilogy The President’s Cat, The President’s Glasses and The President’s Surprise.

In the Natural History Museum (commonly referred to as The Dead Zoo), the man in charge, Mr Gray, takes his work very seriously indeed. He’s not too fond of people, though, he sees them as a danger to his beloved stuffed animals. Some of the species in the museum are rare and precious, like elephants and tigers from Africa and Asia. And there are delicate skeletons to be minded too, like the giant Irish elk.

Mr Gray is very strict about rules, there’s no talking or laughing and no running about. So when he finds an actual live mouse running about, well…there’s going to be trouble.

This is a big, fat, generous book and young children will be mesmerized by it. It’s sumptuously illustrated cover to cover and would make for many treasured and funny moments while being read out loud to a very select young audience. Gorgeous.

Book Review of A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Tramp Press €16.00

The verbs most commonly associated with haunting are to persist, to linger. A lingering persistence certainly describes the haunting of poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa within this slim volume of titan magnitude. The ghost of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the 18th century noblewoman, aunt of Daniel O’Connell and poet remembered for her lament over her slain husband’s body, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, first moved Ní Ghríofa as a child in school. She reappeared in Ní Ghríofa’s early years of motherhood while rearing four small children, her days measured out not so much in coffee spoons as in foul-smelling nappies and squashed bananas. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is to persist and linger in Ní Ghríofa’s consciousness, haunting her until she has wrung every scrap of information on Eibhlín out of every single source she can find. The research takes years and yields meagre enough fruit in terms of hard historical facts about Eibhlín, but it has produced this most remarkable, profound and brilliant work.  

 “This is a female text” is a leitmotif that appears throughout the book. It is a text about a woman, written by a woman, one who is repeatedly distressed at the fact that women – no matter how significant or strong so many of them appear – are consistently written out of the history books. The ghost in Ní Ghríofa’s throat gnaws at her continuously, leaving her sleepless at all hours while she searches the internet for more clues, hauling her babies into the hallowed silence of library reading rooms, skipping showers and meals for another few stolen moments of literary sleuthing. “I may be an inept detective” she writes “but I am a devoted servant”.

There are moments of doubt, too, as her search becomes, by the author’s own admission, an obsession. “How dare I pry on the private moments of a life, stitching frills where the pattern calls for no such thing?” How dare she, indeed, but without her daring and indeed her devotion, the world might have been left without this precious ode.

As much as it is an essay about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, her family of origin, her husband Art and her children (those who could be found), this book is a hymn to mothering, an extended reflection on the myriad chores borne daily by a mother of small children, from breastfeeding to preschool. The text is very much a 21st century one, haunted though it is by an 18th century ghost. And this is the wonder of the book; that a chronicle of the contemporary everyday, of smartphones and internet, of drunken student episodes in the past, of near-accidents in cars, of trips to playcentres in industrial parks, can sit so comfortably, cheek-by-jowl, with Eibhlín Dubh’s world of brave soldiers on brave steeds, of arranged marriages among the Irish elite, of grudges settled with swords and muskets, of the ancient undertow in the ocean at Derrynane.  

Ní Ghríofa’s own translation of the epic poem is included in the book and it’s a fierce and passionate one. This is a fierce and passionate work, very much “a female text”. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an acclaimed and award-winning poet and has received many accolades. But this work, only a few weeks published, is really a thing apart and is already being hailed as a classic. For what it’s worth, it has my vote. The ghost in Ní Ghríofa’s throat took my breath away.