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Keith Ridgway’s fifth novel, Hawthorn & Child, is set in a London milieu of criminals and detectives that seems superficially familiar by virtue of decades of TV drama. His novel, however, is far more interesting and unpredictable.

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (US cover: New Directions)

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (US cover: New Directions)

Hawthorn & Child has attracted great acclaim from other writers. While it’s always better to be suspicious of any positive praise from one writer to another, in this case the blurbing writers highlight the main thing that makes this novel great: its glorious strangeness. Zadie Smith calls it “idiosyncratic and fascinating;” Ian Rankin declares it “brilliantly weird.” Both are absolutely correct. Hawthorn & Child is one deliciously weird confection.  Read the rest of this entry »

Anakana Schofield takes a lot of risks with her debut novel, Malarky, telling the story of one woman’s midlife crisis and sexual adventures.

Malarky by Anakana Schofield review

Malarkey by Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis)

In Malarky, a rural Irish mammy discovers her college-age son is gay (by blundering across several of his assignations with other men — which she then can’t bring herself to stop watching — and then struggles to come to terms with it. (A not uncommon struggle, I have no doubt.) At the same time, a woman comes up to her in town and describes how our protagonist’s husband likes to have sex, in great detail. So, “Our Woman” must come to terms with her son’s homosexuality and at the same time she must decide if her husband is actually being unfaithful with the town madwoman. Read the rest of this entry »

Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is the latest debut short story collection from Stinging Fly Press to garner a lot of attention and plaudits. And once again, Stinging Fly has launched a young writer well worth reading.

Review of Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett (Irish Cover)

Young Skins opens with two guys in a pub, and most of the stories in this collection revolve around a similar dynamic. Sharing pints makes individuals reflective and these stoic, silent men open up as much as they can, which is very little, over a few drinks. The type of character that inhabits these stories is the twenty- or thirty-something small-town Irish Catholic male, the guy who didn’t have the points to go to college or the guts to flee to Australia, the man who stayed where he grew up because he had few other choices or else was deathly afraid of change. Colin Barrett knows these people inside out.

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Michèle Forbes’ debut novel Ghost Moth contrasts a Belfast newly emerging from WWII, a city of possibility, with the same city twenty years later, fast succumbing to the start of “the troubles.”

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes (US cover)

Ghost Moth, the first novel by Irish actress Michèle Forbes, is just magnificent. Focusing on one family and the secrets they keep, the novel jumps back and forth in time between 1949, when Katherine Fallon is about to get engaged to George Bedford, and 1969, when they are long-married with four children and living in a Belfast exploding with violence and hatred.

Katherine is pushed into a remembrance of things past when she almost drowns while swimming at the beach with her family. This causes her to withdrawn from her husband — with whom she has a companionable, if not emotionally intimate, relationship — and retreat into her memories of an affair she had with another man while being courted by George. Read the rest of this entry »

Ciarán Collins’ debut novel, The Gamal, won the 2013 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. It’s one of the most-impressive debut novels in years.

The gamal a novel

The Gamal, by Ciarán Collins

The Gamal is narrated by a young man, Charlie, who tells us from the off that we won’t like him. He’s blunt, undiplomatic, and prefers to use photographs rather than describe places. He’s writing the book unwillingly, as an account of a tragedy that occurred some years previously, at the behest of his psychiatrist, a man of whom he doesn’t think very highly. Charlie is known as the gamal, a short form of Gamalóg, an Irish word for a simpleton, so we embark on the book understanding that Charlie is regarded as somewhat mentally deficient by his community. He’s also undergoing treatment for some form of post-traumatic-stress-disorder, presumably as the result of the tragedy looming in the recent past. Read the rest of this entry »

Nuala Ní Chonchúir excels at the difficult form of short fiction known as flash fiction. Her new book is a collection of these ultra-short pieces, Of Dublin and Other Fictions.

Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Tower Press)

Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Tower Press)

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s new collection of short stories comes out this week, and it’s a little different from the norm: both in terms of her previously published work and the conventions of the short story market; Of Dublin and Other Fictions is a chapbook of flash fiction.  It’s not that Ní Chonchúir hasn’t published flash fiction before — in fact, that’s what she’s known for, having picked up a prize or two for her frequently profound and funny stories — but a collection of flash fiction by a single author is practically unheard of. So, my initial thought was, how to approach the book; is reading a collection of flash fiction more akin to reading a poetry collection or a collection of short stories? Read the rest of this entry »

Claire Kilroy’s novel The Devil I Know is an amusing and dead-on satire. It lampoons the “sky’s-the-limit” mentality of the Celtic Tiger years with the tall tale of a reformed alcoholic, Tristram St. Lawrence, who is swept up in an old schoolfriend’s property development scheme.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (UK/IRL cover)

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (UK/IRL cover)

All the familiar types are at play: the hard-drinking chancer with the gift of the gab, the crooked politician, the greedy bankers, the aloof patriarch, the immoral Euro-trash, and the passive protagonist, smart enough to recognize the madness, but without the strength of character to stop himself going along with the crowd.

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Colm Tóibín’s novel The Testament of Mary has not only been transformed into a Broadway play, but it’s been short-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize as well.

The Testament of Mary promises much, but delivers less than hoped. While this revisionist portrayal of Mary as an angry, grieving mother, full of believable despair and rage at the cruel fate of her son, and anger at the inadequacy of his followers and their craven attempt to recast his life into something it was not through their gospels, is a welcome and overdue antidote to centuries of empty religious iconography, it’s an inconsistent portrait.

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Editorial note: I take forever to get around to writing book reviews. This is because of many factors: I like to let a book sit and marinate (metaphorically) for a while; I have paid work to be getting on with; and sometimes I just need to read a book a second time to have anything interesting to say about it. I also read many more books than I ever review for the simple reason that many/most [delete according to how cynical you’re feeling] are pretty vanilla and impossible to remember a week after reading (even if you enjoyed them at the time). Now, I’m not knocking vanilla — it’s my go-to flavor when I fancy an ice cream — a well-told story is often a joy to read, but when I sit down to write a review a month or so later, the details of the vanilla story tend to have melted away. That’s partly why I don’t review more than one book a week.

A great new Irish novel: YOU by Nuala Ni ChonchuirBook review:

One novel I really want to highlight is Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You. For the record, I think Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an amazing writer, mostly known for her short and flash fiction. I’ve read several of her short-story collections, and was blown away each and every time (check out Mother America, if you want to know where to start), but I’ve never reviewed her, so I need to begin putting that right.

You is Galway-writer and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel. While Ní Chonchúir offers a few historical cues to ground us in the year 1980 (the Olympics, Kate Bush on the radio, The Elephant Man, etc.), the story she tells is quite timeless. (You could be forgiven, glancing at the back of the book, for fearing that You might be a bit vanilla — the publisher’s try not to give too much away in the description. But, believe me, it’s anything but!) On the surface, You is a coming-of-age tale, narrated by a 10-year-old girl being raised by a single mother in poverty. Thankfully, those bare facts are as near to Angela’s Ashes-territory as we get, because for our 10-year-old narrator the family’s life is on-the-whole a happy one, their home a safe space. The father has left his wife and now lives in a Corporation flat with another woman, with whom he has a new family. In contrast, the mother, the narrator, and her siblings live in a small house by the river, with friends nearby, wild places to explore, and the girl feels the ineffable something, the spark, the charge of being alive that comes from being around a river. (The grown-ups, of course, fear it, fear change, and the violence of nature.) In contrast, the girl finds her father’s flat stifling, and is unsettled by the wildness and unpredictable danger of the gangs of local children who roam the estate.

The novel is told in the second person. We never learn the narrator’s name, her family mostly using the nickname “little Miss Prim,” but the second person has the effect of drawing us into her confidence, sharing her world-view. Unlike some novels that use child narrators to ironic effect, relying on adult perception to mock the child’s perspective as painfully naive, Ní Chonchúir’s narrative strategy makes the reader feel like a co-conspirator in her narrator’s interpretation of the world; an interpretation that makes Little Miss Prim feel uncomfortably disloyal to her mother and father, whose actions she is beginning to find wanting.

The narrator’s mother is depressed, and bounces between being a loving parent focused on her children, and resenting them, making rash choices to pursue a little fun at the expense of leaving them to their own devices. It’s an impulse that any parent can relate to, and we easily feel the narrator’s tension rise as her mother falls in thrall to a showy boyfriend who’s not good parental material. Thankfully, her mother has a network of supportive friends, and I detected a mild reproach in the author’s contrast of the slightly-striving discontent of the flat dwellers with the essentially decency and spirit of camaraderie among some of the residents of the terraces by the river.

There’s a central tragedy in the novel, that motivates the narrator into drastic action. It’s perhaps better to say little about this in order to maintain the surprise and suspense for the reader, although the novel is not about shocks or surprises (but you will turn the pages of the second half in somewhat breathless haste). The central pleasure is the exquisitely drawn narrative voice, the viewpoint of the child developing an adult self-awareness, while retaining the innocent impulse to do the right thing even though she can’t think through the consequences.

You is a quiet, surprising novel, that captures a young girl’s growing perception of the world quite beautifully. And, even when you know the twist, this is a novel you’ll enjoy rereading.



Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You does not have a US publisher (shame!). It can, however, be ordered (w/ free international shipping) from or the Book Depository <affiliate link> (I have used both many times, so can recommend their services.). I scored my copy in the fabulous Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin.

Readers can learn more about Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her website…



Downton Abbey is a show that the whole family can enjoy and even learn a little from, as the drama on-screen follows real historical events. Except, of course, when it comes to the Irish history.

Tom Branson looking like he's stepped out of Miller's Crossing.

Tom Branson looking like he’s stepped out of Miller’s Crossing.

In Season 3, episode 4, Tom Branson flees Ireland after helping to burn down the castle of Lord & Lady Drumgoole, an act which the Dowager Countess seems to approve of on purely aesthetic grounds, as she says the castle was “hideous.” I went to the internet and to my various histories of Ireland, and could not find a mention of the burning of any great house belonging to a Lord Drumgoole. There was a Drumgoole/Drumgool Castle taken by Cromwell in 1649, but that was turned into a hotel at some point thereafter, and didn’t remain a stately residence. There’s a Drumgrole in Co. Monaghan, where my mother’s family comes from, but that’s a little agricultural townland without any big house to burn.

Similarly, Lady Mary’s reference to Lady Drumgoole’s coming out with her — “she was Laura Dunsany then” — is also false history. The contemporary Lord Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, had no daughters. So, the name conjures up Irish associations, but the event is imaginary.

The Dowager Countess Disapproves

The Dowager Countess disapproves of ugly Irish castles.

This is a pity, as there was no shortage of action in 1920 in which to implicate Tom Branson. The War of Independence was raging. It would, indeed, have been a truly shocking environment in which to leave Sybil to fend for herself — very far from the rainy, bucolic scene of a copper pedaling along on his bicycle shown in the episode. In reality, the police were being targeted by the Irish rebels and members of the constabulary were quitting in droves. The first ‘Black and Tans’ (recently demobbed British soldiers more used to fighting Germans than keeping the peace) arrived early in the year, and many raids and atrocities followed. There were major riots in Belfast, Cork and Derry, and the first British soldiers killed in Dublin since the Easter Rising were ambushed in September 1920. The Head Constable of the Irish police was assassinated in Co. Dublin, spurring massive police reprisals knows as the Sack of Balbriggan. This event occasioned a lot of coverage in the British press at the time. However, involvement in that would have made Tom Branson a party to murder, rather than simple arson, and it’s less likely that the Home Secretary could have been persuaded to go lightly on him for Lady Sybil’s sake.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the lure of independence, and the removal of any threat of arrest will bring Tom back to Ireland in season four. Perhaps he’ll stay at Downton for young Sybil’s sake, secure with a position and family support? The Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park occurred in November 1920, followed by the burning of Cork city center. I wonder if Lord Grantham will change his tune about the Irish after those atrocities come to light? I doubt it. History serves as a backdrop to Downton Abbey, rather than a motivating factor. The primary focus of the show is the family dynamics, and anything else is a distraction to that, even major historical events. But, l’ll keep watching, even if I can’t help but be distracted by what isn’t impinging on their comfortable lifestyle — the Dowager Countess alone is worth the price of subscription.



A contemporary Pathé newsreel (silent) showing the aftermath of the sack of Balbriggan. (Plays in a new window.)

link to a video clip for the Sack of Balbriggan


And a youtube clip providing some context on the Black & Tans.




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