Book Review: Olive by Emma Gannon

Harper Collins €17.99

Olive is a woman who doesn’t want to have children. She doesn’t dislike children, she babysits, she enjoys kids. She merely doesn’t want to be a mother. Not such a biggie, one would have thought. But as Olive ages through the novel in a timespan running from 2008 to 2019, she finds herself having to defend her position time and time again. And very early on we discover that she’s split up from the love of her life because he wanted children and she simply didn’t. The personal cost to Olive of choosing a life without parenting is extraordinarily high. The company she keeps in present-day London seems to insist that a woman is not whole unless she has reproduced at least once. So Olive is on her own. A lot. If nothing else, this novel will lead to conversations about Olive’s particular kind of solitude, which I guess is the whole point.

The story opens in 2008 with Olive and her three close friends, Bea, Isla and Cec, moving out of their rented student flat. They’ve finished college and they’re on their way, although nobody gets much further than London or its commuter belt. The timeline shifts quite a lot, so take note of the year at the beginning of each chapter. In 2019, Olive has just broken up with her boyfriend of almost a decade because she opts out of motherhood. She’s left emotionally reeling but can’t cry on any of her close friends’ shoulders, because they’re all so busy with their own lives. Bea has had three children and her life is hectic. Cec is about to become a first-time mother and Isla is distraught from a round of unsuccessful IVF. In other words, Olive’s friends are all either dealing with motherhood itself or with their hunger for it.

As a magazine editor, Olive is married to the job. And when she comes across a notice about a support group for women who choose to be ‘child-free’ she sees an opportunity for a feature. She goes along, brings her friend Bea, and is confident that she will finally meet some like-minded women. But when the organization’s founding member admits that she’s finally pregnant and delighted, bang goes the feature. And the support group. It seems Olive is destined for a life of work and nothing else, and Gannon writes very eloquently about evening and weekend loneliness. Which begs the question; does choosing to be child-free mean choosing a life of interminable solitude? And if that’s the case, why?   

Emma Gannon has written two previous non-fiction books and was one of Forbes 30 Under 30 people to watch in 2018. Her debut novel reminds me of Anna Hope’s brilliant ‘Expectations’, although Hope’s novel is more expansive and profound. This book is tilted more towards the commercial fiction market, although it’s an absorbing story which will definitely spark interesting exchanges on the almost taboo topic of women who choose not to be mothers. 

Book Review: The Heavens Are All Blue

Dr Finbar Lennon & Dr Kate McGarry

Hachette €16.99

Dr Kate McGarry was a very highly-regarded consultant physician in Navan Hospital and devoted her out-of-hours time performing Herculean work for the Irish Heart Foundation. She consistently fought the powers that be who attempted to downgrade Navan hospital for decades. Her focus was always on her patients and she was a force of nature. When she discovered she had cancer of an unknown source, and therefore very tricky to treat, Kate the doctor became Kate the patient and she decided to keep a journal. She asked her husband, Dr Finbar Lennon, retired surgeon in the Lourdes hospital in Drogheda, if he would finish the book for her after she died and The Heavens Are All Blue is the result.

This is a beautifully-evoked memoir of love and loss, of a marriage that spanned decades and a love prior to the marriage that spanned another decade; they had been in each other’s lives since their early student days in 1966. And it is remarkable that Finbar Lennon can write with such finesse. The reader ends up hoping that this debut will not be the author’s only book.

It struck me that there is no self-pity in this story. When Kate was diagnosed she sought out the best care she could find and the fight was on. Although chemotherapy  bought her some extra time, it had horrendous side-effects, the cure being worse than the illness, she would remark. Through it all, Finbar was by her side and if he had hoped she’d begin to take it easy, he must have been disappointed. Kate worked with her hospital and private patients up to the very end, as well fulfilling all sorts of commitments for the Heart Foundation. She was a trooper and they, as a couple, were very much in love.  

It’s a look back at the high points in Kate and Finbar’s lives together, as well as at the many setbacks in the times leading up to her death. And the entire book is shot through with a latent admiration for Kate, with a shared love for their garden, which helped them both to cope, with an appreciation for their children and the friends, colleagues and neighbours who rallied round the family. There is also a hunger in this memoir for some kind of peaceable spirituality.

Finbar Lennon has been dabbling in poetry all his life. The title of the book is a line from one of his poems. Even so, the breadth and depth of his penmanship in this, his first book, is staggering. There’s a humility to it, too, despite the author’s professional standing and long medical career. The Heavens Are All Blue is a quiet, reflective, sometimes funny, always engaging testament of love. It is exquisite.

Book Review: The Cutting Place by Jane Casey

Harper Collins €16.99

Some dismembered parts of a woman’s body are found floating in the Thames and it’s Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan’s job to find out who they belong to, and why the victim was murdered and then chopped into little pieces. Turns out the victim is a young and ambitious freelance journalist who had been investigating the Chiron Club, an exclusive London men’s club which holds Jeffrey Epstein-type parties – you know the kind, those parties fit for princes and presidents – and retains members’ loyalty by secretly filming their shameful shenanigans and then blackmailing them. This charming old boys’ society is virtually impossible to penetrate, but Kerrigan is like a dog with a bone. She eventually finds three young men in a house-share that know more than they pretend. Problem is, one of the young men is connected with her working partner, Josh Derwent, although Derwent is blissfully unaware. How to proceed and do so delicately is just one of Maeve’s problems.

But she has other problems, too, one of which is her new boyfriend. He’s a wealthy lawyer in the city, handsome and fun and maybe a little jealous but nothing that Maeve can’t handle. Until she’s forced into handling it. This subplot was really intriguing. The twists and turns and red herrings and lying witnesses in the Chiron case multiply by the day, but then this is classic Kerrigan and indeed classic Casey, who has nothing to prove by now. Her crime fiction is world-class. But it’s the disintegration of Maeve’s personal life that really got this reader’s attention. There is an alarming incident which Kerrigan brushes off, determined not to see where it’s leading, and the price she pays for not acting sooner is horrendous. To say any more would be to spoil, but Casey has really done her homework here in depicting Maeve’s initial reaction. It’s the way almost every woman reacts in similar circumstances, until the circumstances themselves spiral out of control.  

Another reviewer of this novel said that if film and TV producers were not already beating a path to Casey’s door, then they should be. I agree. Tight, clever, writing, with complex plots that you simply can’t guess at, whole characters with flaws an’ all and an underlying compassion on the part of the author make all of the Kerrigan novels so much more than police procedurals. But as police procedurals go, they’re among the best.

Book Review: The Good Family Fitzgerald by Joseph di Prisco

Rare Bird Books €22.99

A sprawling epic even though it’s set for the most part over a mere couple of months, a sweeping family saga, a tale of rags to riches in modern-day America, a contemporary gangster story, a wry and perceptive social commentary, a believable depiction of Catholic church meddling in the land of the free…it’s difficult to pin down one succinct line to describe what this novel actually is, but it’s all the richer for that.

Paddy Fitzgerald, old now and a devout Catholic and wealthy mobster, has lost both his son and his wife and is determined to live out what’s left of his life in something akin to happiness. His daughter-in-law and son’s widow, Frankie, is still trying to make sense of her own, admittedly privileged, life without her beloved Anthony. Paddy’s younger son Matty doesn’t care for Paddy’s wealth and makes his way in the world on the penurious salary of a secondary school teacher in a tough Catholic school. His other son Philip is an ambitious priest well on his way to primacy and – who knows – maybe even papacy? He’s cunning and clever and shape-shifting enough to make it to the top. And Paddy’s only daughter Colleen, his youngest (and the most under-depicted character, by a country mile) is a seemingly good-natured lesbian who doesn’t really get a look in, at least not until near the end of the novel.

There are other characters who are very deftly depicted, like Ruth the Therapist and Bishop Stanislaus Mackey and young Terry the homeless girl with a penchant for destruction, all with key roles to play in this story, but the focus is primarily on the Fitzgeralds and on how Paddy, who controls so much in his city, can’t control his own grownup family. Along the way are incidents of blackmail, violence, kidnapping, betrayal (of both people and holy vows) and an unwanted pregnancy forges the plot towards an ending you wouldn’t envisage.

Despite an unevenness in the editing and some persistent wise-assery on the part of the author, I must admit I liked this book. It’s big and it’s old-fashioned in many senses; there’s no paring of language here, no sparseness, no brevity, none of the hallmarks of 21st century literature. Rather the author has embraced the generous expanse of language, particularly Americanese, and pulls no punches with his story nor his characters. The hard-drinking, fierce and fast-talking, but strangely brave and principled Bishop Mackey gets my vote as the most engaging, puzzling and infuriating character, and he’s awarded some of the best lines in the book. But there are lots of great lines, and indeed lots of nuanced shades among almost all of this very disparate dramatis personae. Di Prisco has gone out on a limb with his family history, reminiscent in many ways of Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man, casting this big fat gem of a book out on a vast ocean of literary ‘minimalism’. At a time when ‘restraint’ is one of the buzzwords in contemporary fiction, he’s given us a tome almost as big as the New Testament. But it’s definitely more profane than sacred. And it’s mesmerizing.   

Book Review. This Happy by Niamh Campbell

W&N €17.99

This remarkable debut is the story of Alannah, now married (if uncomfortably) to an older man who hails from moneyed stock and has two children from previous relationships. The husband is never named and the marriage – or at least the reason for marrying – is never fully explained. It’s not a bad marriage, not really, but it just doesn’t seem to be a good one!

The possible reason for this lies in the trauma of a short affair Alannah had with a much older man (him married, also from moneyed stock and a writer for clients like the BBC). After three weeks of them living together in a rented cottage in Mornington the older guy runs off home to his wife in England. There’s no warning, Alannah simply wakes up to find him gone. A chance sighting of the landlady of this Mornington cottage, seven years later in Cow Lane, is the spark for an avalanche of memories.  

There’s a persistent mild despair within the story, which meanders from Alannah’s ‘mistress’ days to now, and it’s clear that she has not gotten over the Mornington experience. Her consciousness is dogged with a sense of loss, with abrupt abandonment, and it leaves a stain on her marriage.   

Already the comparisons with Sally Rooney are virtually everywhere, which is frustrating. If every young female Irish novelist who emerges over the next decade must be measured against Rooney, well…

Can we not make room for others?  Both Rooney and Campbell may be drawing from similar wells when it comes to material, but how each writer handles that material is really chalk and cheese. They can both cast a cold eye, but isn’t that a duty, almost, of any writer? Campbell’s novel is a fluent and insightful, frequently very beautiful work of fiction. The author deserves her own platform and her own slice of the literary limelight.

Book Review. Strangers by C.L.Taylor

Avon Books €16.99

Alice is a middle-aged divorcee, a fashion boutique manager in a Bristol shopping centre and lives with her adult daughter.  A blind date set up on Tinder goes horribly wrong and there are dangerous consequences.

Gareth is a security guard who works in the same shopping centre in Bristol. He lives with his mother who has dementia and is effectively lost to him. Until she actually does become lost, slipping out of the house alone and not turning up anywhere.

Ursula is a courier who used to be a teacher. Suffering from PTSD, she has developed a habit of shoplifting, mostly in the fashion boutique where Alice works. And Ursula’s new landlord is more than a little odd.

The lives of all three strangers will converge towards the end of this novel in a dramatic finale. And there’s a creepy afterword too.

The plotting here is second to none and, unlike a lot of thrillers doing the rounds just now, this one is authentic and completely believable. There are no cool clean heroes, everyone’s flawed and when these characters’  lives are interfered with, the police react as they normally do towards ordinary people in trouble – they’re not too lively. Each character must figure a way out of their own particular mess, but the way in which those messes become entwined is extremely clever. Strangers is deserving of the praise it has received, it’s an excellent psychological thriller. Fans of writers like Liz Nugent will love it.

Book Review. The Body Falls by Andrea Carter

Constable €16.99

Ben O’Keeffe is about to finish a six-month stint working in a legal practice in Florida and is looking forward to getting back to her own practice in Inishowen. She’s also looking forward to seeing Sergeant Tom Molloy again. Molloy had proposed marriage just before Ben left for the States and as yet she hasn’t given him a yay or nay.

Donegal, and in particular the Inishowen Peninsula, is deluged shortly after her return, suffering the worst rainstorms in recorded history and the village of Glendara is completely cut off, as the surrounding roads and bridges either collapse or become impassable. When a body falls from a height onto the local vet’s car, suspicions immediately centre on a charity cycling crowd that arrived in Glendara just as the storm hit and are now unable to leave because of worsening weather conditions. The deceased in this case is the charity organizer responsible for the cycling event, Bob Jameson, and the more Ben digs into Jameson’s past the murkier this guy looks. Curiously, he seems to have died from a snakebite. But there’s been nary a snake in Donegal since St Patrick showed them the door…

This is Andrea Carter’s fifth murder mystery featuring Ben O’Keeffe. Three of her previous four novels have been optioned for TV and she has a large, steady following. What sets her apart from a lot of other crime writers is firstly, she spares the reader the gore-slash details (mercifully) and secondly, she writes with such an acute sense of place. Whether it’s the suffocating humidity of the Miami sun or the wild, wet and windy hills of Donegal, she completely immerses the reader in location, a trick not anything like as easy as she makes it look.  A solid, convincing cast and a murder case that the reader can’t guess at makes this another well-deserved winner for Carter.

Book Review. Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh

Orion €17.99

This is Steve Cavanagh’s fifth Eddie Flynn novel and my first! And as twisty plots go, it doesn’t get much twistier than this. The novel opens with a 999 call for police and ambulance as a daughter lies with her dying father.  The father has been stabbed repeatedly and, really, there’s no hope.  This 999 call is swiftly followed by another 999 call about the same case, this time from the victim’s other daughter. Both sisters are in their father’s house and each one accuses the other of their father’s murder. But which sister actually did it?

The victim, Frank Avellino, is an insanely wealthy New Yorker and even with his estate split between the two sisters, he will have left each of them inheriting a king’s ransom. But one of them, and we’re not sure who, wants it all. Enter Eddie Flynn, ex-con turned savvy lawyer. He takes Sofia as his client. Sofia is a lifelong self-harmer, more than a little crazy and she’s absolutely distraught. Eddie knows in his gut she could not have done it. But the state decides to put both sisters on trial for the murder of their father, so Eddie must construct a very convincing defence. The other sister, Alexandra, is more cool-headed and media-savvy. By accident she ends up with a newbie, Kate Brooks, as her defence lawyer. Also by accident, Eddie Flynn and Kate Brooks end up collaborating on a case that gets more blood-soaked by the day.

Steve Cavanagh said in a recent interview: “I wanted to write a novel which had the reader’s head spinning in every chapter, challenging and changing what and who they believed the whole way through the book.” He’s certainly succeeded. If crime novels are your thing, this is a page-turner that will keep you awake well into the wee small hours.