What if politics wasn’t such a cynical business, dedicated to perpetuating power dynamics and maintaining the status quo, while talking ceaselessly about progress and change? That’s the situation Sean Moncrieff dares to dream up in his fascinating novel The Angel of the Streetlamps.

Angel of the Streetlamps

The Angel of the Streetlamps by Sean Moncrieff

A woman falls to her death from a high window on a Dublin street, as she falls her foot knocks an election poster from a telephone pole, which then lands on her broken body, thus ensuring it’s in all the news coverage. A junkie runs from the building, leaps into a taxi, and flees the scene. The politician whose poster this was becomes tarnished by association, and the party consider her unelectable. A passing priest become a media celebrity after he gives the dying woman the last rites. These characters are a powerful canvas on which Moncrieff paints a perceptive portrait of contemporary Ireland. Read the rest of this entry »

Lorna Sixsmith’s second book, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife, is an excellent follow-up to her 2013 debut, Would You Marry a Farmer? 

HTB Perfect Farm WifeThis time, she looks at the transition from being carefree and single to being a farmer’s spouse. (The book mainly looks at women from outside the farming community marrying farmers, but Sixsmith says her advice should work as well for men marrying into a farm — however, they might want to pass on the patterned wellies.) It appears to be a change akin to marrying somebody who speaks a different language, and How to be a Perfect Farm Wife attempts to be a tongue-in-cheek primer to understanding your farmer. Read the rest of this entry »

Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray is an award-winning young-adult novel set in Ireland during 1993, when grunge played on every teenager’s Walkman.

Carnival at Bray

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Maggie Lynch is a sixteen-year-old girl in Chicago, growing up working class amid hard-working and hard-partying Irish-American stock. When her mother falls in love with an Irish guy, the family moves to Ireland, to the seaside town of Bray, south of Dublin, where Maggie and her younger sister, Ronnie, try to find their place in a new culture.

Life is not all roses for Maggie, however. The family don’t have much money, she’s beginning to understand that her beloved musician uncle is a drug addict, and her mother falls in an out of love with regularity, so Maggie suspects they’ll be back in Chicago before she can blink. But, against her expectations, Maggie begins to feel at home in Ireland. She soon acquires a boyfriend, a surrogate father figure, and a sense of herself. It’s one of those brief periods in your teens when you start to think you might be figuring life out — before fate dumps on you.

Rock music is Maggie’s crutch, her refuge. She listens to Pearl Jam and Nirvana over and over, and considers her musician uncle, Kevin a wise sage. Kevin takes her to see Smashing Pumpkins, urges her to go see Nirvana live, and generally makes life seem exciting and vital. Kevin however has his demons. Still living with his mother, he drifts from bar band to bar band, never accomplishing much, and not fighting very hard against a serious drug addiction.

Kevin inspires Maggie to embark on a crazy trip to Italy to see Nirvana play on their 1993 world tour, so she basically runs away from home with her boyfriend, Eoin. Naturally, many things do not go according to plan. In a sense, this is a classic quest novel, wherein our heroine must make a journey in which she grows and learns much about herself. In another, it’s a coming-of-age story where the protagonist discovers what she cares about and how she wants to be in the world. And, of course it’s an illuminating fish-out-of-water tale of a big-city girl moving to a small Irish town where everybody knows everybody, and all their relatives back through the generations.

I came across The Carnival at Bray randomly at my local library. Though I work in the book trade, I had not heard of this novel and was intrigued by the premise: an American teen moves to Ireland with her family in 1993, during the heyday of grunge and the birth of generation X. I lived in Ireland during those years — although I was a little older — loved that music, and frequently wonder how my teenagers might handle life in Ireland if we moved back before they’ve grown. I don’t often get the chance to read a novel I genuinely know nothing about, as I’m too close to the hype machine in my work. So, I checked it out, and am very glad I did.

The author, Jessie Ann Foley, is from Chicago, and is married to an Irishman, so she is able to write about Ireland with both an outsider’s perspective and local knowledge. She understands what it was to love music as a teenager, to live and die in your CD collection, and she visceral thrill of seeing your heros perform live. There’s a real authenticity to the writing that I feel contemporary teens would be able to relate to. Of course, I loved the same bands and lived in Dublin during the period the novel is set, so I’m biased. I remember seeing Nirvana live, I remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain was dead, and I remember people gathering in the Phoenix Park and elsewhere to mourn him — all of which take place in this novel.

The Carnival at Bray is more than just a coming-of-age story, it’s a hymn to the vital importance of rock music during the teenage years, a poem about the joy of finding your tribe or at least a kindred spirit. It’s about taking chances and learning that a few bad decisions won’t kill you. And, is one of those occasional novels that I feel both young and adult readers will enjoy.



Other powerful young-adult novels (by Irish authors) I’ve read or reviewed recently include Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (review) and Sarah Bannan’s Weightless.


In Ireland or the UK, you can purchase The Carnival at Bray here…

It’s a wonderful thing to wake up, make a cup of tea and devote your morning to an engrossing book without a thought to the dishes in the sink or other household chores. I had such an opportunity over the July 4th weekend, and devoured Nuala O’Connor’s brilliant novel Miss Emily.

Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor (US cover)

Nuala O‘Connor is one of Ireland’s greatest writers of short stories and flash fiction, but she’s also an excellent poet and novelist. Raised bi-lingual, O’Connor — who publishes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, in Ireland — has a great ear for the playfulness of language, for double meanings, and the layers that get lost in translation. She brings that same perceptiveness to her understanding of her characters and the nuances of their dilemmas, which is especially useful when telling tales of people crossing borders or boundaries from the known to the unknown. Read the rest of this entry »

Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is a biting look at our cultural attitudes towards and treatment of women.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (US cover)

Set in what appears to be a private school in a future Europe, we see a world in which young women trained from birth to be beautiful, subservient, and always available for men’s pleasure. Although it’s suggested that the society that created this school is now failing, and not as powerful or wealthy as it once was, order is maintained not by armed guards and coercion, but by the girls themselves. Indoctrinated in a ruthless social code that questions nothing, and strives only to be ever more beautiful, toned, coiffed, made-up, and stylish, the brainwashed girls maintain a rigid hierarchy based on an online popularity contest — they are rated weekly by the pool of men who may choose one of them for a mate when they turn sixteen. Read the rest of this entry »

Belfast has a bright new star in writer Laurence Donaghy, whose Folk’d trilogy (Folk’d, Folk’d Up, and Completely Folk’d) is creative, gloriously weird, and irreverently funny.

Folk'd by Laurence Donaghy

Book 1: Folk’d

Laurence Donaghy’s Folk’d trilogy riffs off the old myths of the Tuatha dé Danann and transports us to modern Belfast, where Danny Morrigan has got his girlfriend Ellie pregnant, and together they are struggling to keep mind and body together as they deal with being new parents before they even took one step on the career track.

If you have any notion of the legends of the Tuatha dé, you know the Morrigan is the goddess of war, and you assume Danny’s name will turn out to be more than mere coincidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Books IrelandThe May/June issue of Books Ireland magazine appeared in my mailbox the other day, and by midnight I’d read all but a couple of reviews (of books I’m planning to read).

That got me wondering, why don’t we review magazines routinely? Maybe not every issue (that would get ridiculous in the case of something published weekly) but we could occasionally write something a little more in-depth than a tweet about how we loved or hated this week’s New Yorker short story? Read the rest of this entry »

im-not-perfect-but-im-irish-which-is-way-better-a7ba9I’ve always been proud of Ireland, and keen to pass along a sense of being Irish to my daughters, who were born and are being raised in the US. However, as my eldest has officially entered the “Obnoxious Teenager” phase (Oh, such a barrel of laughs!), she appears to have internalized a lesson I did not intend: that everything is better in Ireland. Read the rest of this entry »

White Feathers is a suspense-filled new novel about mis-matched lovers separated by the horrors of WWI.

White Feathers

White Feathers by Susan Lanigan (O’Brien Press)

Susan Lanigan’s debut novel White Feathers opens in 1913, as 17-year-old Eva Downey escapes her suffocating family to attend a finishing school for one year. Eva is full of the passions and principles of adolescence, and has been getting involved with the suffragettes, much to the horror of her deeply conservative family. Her family are Irish; her father a relatively well-to-do accountant who has moved the family from Cork to London escape both scandal and the sadness of Eva’s mother’s death. Read the rest of this entry »

Best-Loved Oscar Wilde Edited by John Wyse Jackson (O'Brien Press)

Best-Loved Oscar WildeEdited by John Wyse Jackson (O’Brien Press)

Who’d be the editor of a volume of selected prose from a famous author? You get nothing but abuse for leaving out someone’s favorite poem or story, or for including something that’s not as strong as something else, or expressing conclusions about the author’s motivations or themes that vary from the accepted wisdom. It’s a mug’s game, but one that John Wyse Jackson has embraced nonetheless with what appears to be a genuine labor of love, his new book Best-Loved Oscar Wilde. Read the rest of this entry »

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