Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 160 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jennifer Johnston does a nice line in slightly kooky characters, and her latest novel, to be published on November 16, is no exception. Desmond Fitzmaurice, one of two main characters in Truth or Fiction, is a doddery old writer who’s fallen into obscurity. He lives a rather privileged existence in a house on the Dublin waterfront, where he is waited on hand and foot by his second wife, the dour-faced Anna. For all intents and purposes he seems to be a gentle old soul prone to sentimentality and a hankering for times gone by.

But then London-based journalist, Caroline Wallace, enters his rather mundane world and this version of a polite, well-mannered chap nearing the end of his life, gets turned, ever so slowly, on its head. Caroline, who’s been dispatched to interview him on the eve of his 90th birthday, isn’t entirely sure what to expect. When she arrives the first thing she does is tell Desmond that:

“My editor asked me to come and interview you. She would like to bring you back to life again. She feels your work is too important to be let fade away, as it has. She would like me to reassess your work and also to do a feature on your lifestyle. How you live, how you have lived, the interlocking of your life and work.”

Desmond is not entirely enamoured with the intrusion:

“You wish to take the unimportant garbage of my life and stir it in with the important, with my work. You wish to make me intelligible to the masses. I never wrote for the masses to read.”

And yet, there’s something about this new-found attention that wins Desmond over. Before long he is introducing Caroline to the important people in his life and confessing a succession of sordid events. But how much of what he tells her is truth, and how much of it is fiction?

The beauty of this novel, Johnston’s 16th, is not so much her typical restrained and unpretentious prose style, nor the fast-moving narrative that largely comprises dialogue, but her very human characters with their flaws and foibles. That Caroline arrives in Dublin reeling from a marriage proposal made by her partner of 10 years adds an extra layer to the story, for how much of her anger is affecting her opinion of Desmond? And why is she so angry in the first place?

Once again Johnston has delivered an entertaining and effortless read, one that can quite comfortably be read in an hour or two. It’s a welcome return to form after her slightly disappointing Foolish Mortals; I only wish I hadn’t raced through it so quickly, because it could be a long wait for her next one.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Foolish Mortals’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 312 pages; 2007.

If I had my wits about me I’d be reading Jennifer Johnston’s back catalog in the order in which the books were written, so that I could appreciate her development as a writer. However, I’m not that well organised, and when I saw Foolish Mortals in Waterstone’s the other day, while I was doing some last-minute Christmas gift buying, I snapped this one up for myself.

This morning, curled up in bed, I read it cover to cover and, not for the first time, wished my rating system featured half-stars. If it did, I’d probably award Foolish Mortals — Johnston’s most recent novel — three-and-a-half stars: it’s not one of Johnston’s best, although it is by far her most accessible novel. The literary flourishes that characterise most of her books (or the ones that I’ve read so far) are not here, save for one character — Henry — telling his side of the story in the first person, while the rest of the story is narrated in the third person.

The book opens with Henry lying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. We later learn that he’s been involved in a serious car accident in which his wife, Charlotte — the driver — was killed. Save for a lot of broken bones, he’s quite okay but his memory has been shot and it takes time for him to piece the past together.

So here I sit in this hospital room broken in pieces and little by little the past is revealing itself to me. Things I want to know and things that might be better left unremembered. How great it would be if you could only remember the good bits, the noble thoughts, the generosity, all the bits we hope for ourselves. Dreams, prayers, discard the blackness, let all the muck slide away.

Henry’s amnesia is a great device for Johnston to throw in the “reveals” that normally irritate the hell out of me — see my review of Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage for my thoughts on that particular literary device — but in this context they’re appropriate and don’t seem as if the author is using them to show off.

Unfortunately, because the narrative relies on the unveiling of so many “secrets” to work it means I can’t say much more about the storyline without ruining the plot for everyone else. But without giving anything away, Foolish Mortals is about the coming together of a dysfunctional family — Henry’s Canada-based brother, his first wife Stephanie, his almost-grown children and his 80-something mother, the rather gloriously eccentric Tash — with the car accident as a catalyst and everything climaxing with a wonderful Christmas dinner.

It’s delightfully kooky in places, although it never strays into outlandishness. The rambling family nature of the story does bring other authors to mind — Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve and, dare I say it, Maeve Binchy — but it still retains that distinctly Jennifer Jonhston feel with its economical use of language, its strong female characterisation and its deft analysis of ordinary human life.

It was also refreshing to read a book by this writer set in New Ireland (as one of the characters dubs it) instead of some undefined period in history. I enjoyed it as a piece of literary “fluff” but if you’re looking for a serious introduction to Johnston’s work, this is probably not the place to start.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Headline Review, literary fiction, Publisher, Rosy Thornton, Setting

‘Hearts and Minds’ by Rosy Thornton


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 352 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the author.

The last time I read a campus novel was probably Donna Tartt’s The Secret History way back in 1993. I’d forgotten about the closed world of the university campus, in which students seem perpetually at loggerheads with the academic staff. Once-upon-a-time that was my world too, but I escaped it by the seat of my pants, swapping the cash-strapped lifestyle of a post-graduate student for the cash-strapped lifestyle of the rookie reporter. A dozen years later and I’m an editor instead of an academic, but it could quite easily have been the other way around.

Reading Rosy Thornton’s latest book, Hearts and Minds, which is set in the all-female St Radegund’s College, Cambridge, was an unexpected reminder of my distant past.  And in a funny, crazy, karmic-type of way, it seemed fitting to find that one of the main characters — James Rycarte — is a BBC executive who swaps journalism for academia.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel when I began reading it a fortnight ago. It seemed to take forever to set up the plot, which revolves around Rycarte, the college’s first ever male Head of House, quarrelling with the fellowship about a large cash donation that could be used for much-needed building repairs as well as setting up scholarships for up to 10 students in perpetuity. His one champion, the career-minded senior tutor, Martha Pearce, has her own battles to fight — a rent strike by students, coupled with domestic problems involving a clinically depressed teenage daughter and a layabout husband — to devote all her energies to Rycarte’s aims.

But once I got into the rhythm of the writing and came to know the diverse and quirky range of characters, I fell in love with the story, the setting and the little subplots. I decided, about 100 pages in, that this was a book to savour and so I treated myself to a few chapters a night rather than race through it and miss out on the subtleties of Thornton’s lovely rich writing style.

Despite the somewhat “girlie” cover, this is not chick-lit, nor, as the title may suggest, is it a cheesy romantic novel. In fact, I’d argue that this is mature fiction for mature readers, male and female alike. At its most basic level Hearts and Minds explores the complicated balancing acts that people perform every day — Rycarte, looking after the college’s best interests without compromising its integrity; Pearce, juggling her academic career with a troubled home life — but adds a delicious layer of extra interest by setting it in a cloistered world where tradition does not mix with modernity.

This is a great, rainy day novel brimming with intelligent, often witty, prose, the perfect kind of story to luxuriate in while the rest of the world goes about its busy ways. I very much enjoyed it.

Anita Amirrezvani, Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Iran, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blood of Flowers’ by Anita Amirrezvani


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 384 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of

We all struggle to live a life of our choosing, but imagine what it must be like to be a female in a very male world, a world in which women cannot be seen much less heard, a world in which even the most talented must give themselves over to marriage and motherhood — no questions asked. This is the premise behind this lush, luminous tale by first-time novelist Anita Amirrezvani that is due for publication next month.

Set in Iran in the 1620s, The Blood of Flowers is about one girl’s painful journey from naive young peasant to hard-bitten business woman. When her father dies, the unnamed narrator is forced to flee to the city with her mother in tow. Here in the captivating capital of Isfahan, they are taken in as house servants by  an uncle and his demanding wife. Their new life is riddled with broken promises and much hard work, but the saving grace is the narrator’s special talent for carpet making, which is strengthened under her uncle’s tutelage.

But being able to design and knot carpets is not enough to secure her future: only marriage to a wealthy man can do that. And if marriage is not an option, the next best thing, a temporary contract known as a sigheh, will have to do — provided it is kept secret…

The Blood of Flowers is a sweeping, extravagant and sexy tale about life lived against the odds in another era and another culture. Amirrezvani very much brings this Cinderella-like story to life with gorgeous descriptions of the scenery and architecture, the bazaars and market stalls, the hand-knotted carpets and the factories in which they are made. But it is when she is describing food and the interiors of wealthy people’s homes that she really comes into her own: the detail is, at times, mouth-watering to the point of making one feel hungry and desperate for an inky-black coffee.

Amirrezvani is also very good at moving the plot along at a rapid pace, helped in part by putting her narrator though incredible ups and heartrending downs, testing her will at every opportunity. And the characterisation is strong if somewhat stereotyped — the wicked aunt,the kindly uncle, the poor mother.

My only quibble is that the narrator’s sexual awakening — a quite critical component of the storyline and reminiscent in many ways of Debbie Taylor’s The Fourth Queen and M.R.Lovric’s Carnevale — goes on for so long that I became bored with it.

Ultimately, The Blood of Flowers is a delicious, entertaining fairy tale that captivated me for the two days I took to read it. It will especially appeal to anyone who appreciates great storytelling (the main storyline is interspersed with traditional Iranian and Islamic tales) and wonderfully evocative writing. And I rather suspect it will be on the best-seller list before we know it!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Two Moons’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 232 pages; 1999.

Two Moons is another startling novel by Jennifer Johnston, who  writes in a crisp, clear style reminiscent of so many of her Irish counterparts.

A kind of cross between Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and Salley Vickers’ Instances of the Number 3, this book is part comedy and part family drama, but has an element of spiritual “fantasy” that gives it an unusual twist — although some readers may find it too “inventive” for their liking.

Essentially it is a story about three generations of women, two of whom live together — Mimi, the elderly grandmother, and her daughter, the stage actress Grace — in a house overlooking Dublin Bay.

As Grace readies herself for an upcoming role in Hamlet, the family equilibrium is thrown off-kilter by two major events: the appearance of an angel, who can only be viewed by Mimi, and a surprise weekend visit by Polly, Grace’s London-based daughter, whose new boyfriend leaves a lasting impression that lingers long after he leaves.

To say any more would spoil the plot of the book. But it has a raw emotional urgency coupled with a few  unexpected “kinks” in the storyline that kept me turning the pages. The characters — especially Mimi — are very well drawn, and Johnston’s writing is taut but sophisticated: she knows how to move a scene along using crisp dialogue, few details and little else.

My only quibble is the overuse of the moon motif — the Two Moons title comes from the reflection of the moon in the ocean — and the fact that pretty much every scene depicted involves wine — whether pouring, drinking or spilling it — which began to wear very thin very quickly.

On the whole, Two Moons is a bittersweet story about love, betrayal and growing old while trying to come to terms with disappointments of the past. It’s a quick read with a kind of fairy-tale twist — wonderful, if you like that sort of thing.

Author, Book review, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Gingerbread Woman’ by Jennifer Johnston


Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 213 pages; 2000.

This beautifully succinct novel tells the story of two lonely 30-somethings, both coming to terms with personal tragedies, who forge a tentative — and rocky — friendship, almost by accident, on a cliff top overlooking Dublin Bay.

Clara, a freelance writer and lecturer who lives in a house filled with clutter and an overgrown garden, is recovering from major surgery and nursing a broken heart after a failed love affair in New York.

Meanwhile Laurence (Lar), a teacher from Northern Ireland, is mourning the loss of his wife and 10-month old daughter, who were killed two years’ earlier.

Both characters have much in common — they are dealing with loss and grief, and the claustrophobia of familial concern — but they deal with their problems in vastly different ways. Clara is outspoken, blunt to the point of rudeness and self-deprecating; Lar is filled with hate and quietly stewing in his own anger.

However, as the story gradually unfolds we see that it is Clara who finds it difficult to express herself, other than on the written page, while Lar opens up to strangers, expunging his guilt and pain like verbal diarrhoea.

With no real plot to speak of, the narrative force of this novel revolves around each character’s growth and journey to self-realisation. It is not a romance novel — the friendship between the two is purely platonic — but it is a novel about the fragility of the human heart.

Jennifer Johnston, who is an acclaimed writer in her native Ireland, is a master at drip feeding information so that the reader is never quite sure what is driving her characters to say and do certain things. Then a certain fact is revealed that slots neatly into place and everything suddenly makes sense. I am sure I said ‘a-ha!!’ out loud several times while reading this book as fragmented pieces of information began to join up in my head to form one cohesive — and intriguing — whole.

My only quibble is that I found it hard to believe that a single woman would invite a strange man, who is “sick in the head” as she puts it, to come and stay with her for a few days… but then maybe this just demonstrates Clara’s naivety and trusting nature, traits which have landed her in trouble in the past.

Ultimately The Gingerbread Woman is a very sad and emotional book, but it is a compelling tale about hope, second chances borne through friendship and human resilience in the face of personal tragedy. I loved this near-perfect book and did not want the story to end and will definitely be reading more by this wonderfully talented writer.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Headline Review, London, Publisher, Setting, Vena Cork

‘Thorn’ by Vena Cork


Fiction – paperback; Headline; 340 pages; 2005.

Rosa Thorn, a trained actress, loses her artist husband in a tragic accident and now finds herself alone, raising two temperamental and grief-stricken teenagers with problems of their own. Forced to go back to work as a drama teacher, Rosa is immersed in the strange and slightly menacing world of Churchill Towers Comprehensive. The undertones of unease come erupting to the surface when a pupil is found murdered in a nearby park. From there on in the tension never lets up.

As the police begin their murder investigation, Rosa tries to convince them that their number one suspect should be Squirrel Man, a homeless Irishman in his early thirties who has befriended her daughter. But the police fail to share her concern and do little, if anything, to control the Squirrel Man who has taken to hanging outside the front of Rosa’s house, staring into her front windows.

Later, when she rents her spare bedroom to a police detective, matters don’t necessarily get better: a bloodied one-eyed cat is left on her doorstep, her daughter’s pet cemetery is desecrated and then another pupil’s murdered body is found …

All in all, Vena Cork’s debut novel is a menacing and deeply addictive read, with enough twists and turns to keep even the most cryptic reader intrigued. I found myself reading this book at any opportunity, desperate to reach the ending to find out who-dun-it. And believe me the surprise ending was an unexpected, and deeply satisfying, shocker.