2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
Africa, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Pan Books, Publisher, Sally Hinchcliffe, Setting

‘Out of a Clear Sky’ by Sally Hinchcliffe


Fiction – paperback; Pan Books; 295 pages; 2008. 

Sally Hinchcliffe’s debut novel Out of a Clear Sky has already drawn comparisons to Barbara Vine, so I can’t claim to be original by stating the same. Yet the quiet build-up of tension and the psychological drama that plays out is hugely reminiscent of Ms Vine’s best work. It also has shades of Nicci French, mainly in its depiction of a single young woman on the run from a disturbed man.

And yet there’s something about Out of a Clear Sky that is wholly original.

The story is set in the world of bird-watching (or “twitching” as it is colloquially known) with each chapter headed by the name of a bird species — kingfisher, firecrest, wren — espousing on the theme. This continues with lovely descriptions of wild birds and the places in which they inhabit, giving the story a languid kind of beauty, almost a hymn to the natural world.

But belying this sense of calm is a tension that builds and builds, as the narrator Manda comes to terms with the realisation that a fellow birdwatcher, the mysterious and slightly spooky David, is observing her in much the same way as Manda observes the birds — closely and with much patience. Having just broken up with Gareth, her long-term boyfriend, Manda is already feeling pretty fragile, not helped by the lack of support shown by her small circle of friends who have seemingly abandoned her.

As the narrative progresses, and Manda shuts herself away by going on more solo birdwatching trips, we get glimpses of her troubled childhood in Africa and the inexplicable death of her mother. These flashbacks are seamlessly woven into the main storyline, so the reader is almost unaware of the subtle shifting backwards and forwards in time. But what you do begin to appreciate is that Manda has always been a victim and that history seems to be repeating itself. Will she find the energy and the will to keep on fighting, or will she succumb to a loner’s morbid fascination?

Despite a slightly weak circular plot (I guessed the major twist at the end long before I reached it), Out of a Clear Sky is a quietly thrilling read, and I’ll look forward to reading more by this talented writer in the future.

Author, Book review, Brian McGilloway, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Borderlands’ by Brian McGilloway


Fiction – paperback; Pan Books; 312 pages; 2008.

Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands, which is the first Inspector Devlin mystery (the second is Gallows Lane), was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger in 2007. And it’s easy to see why.

The writing is effortless, the mood suitably dark and sombre, and the storyline in which a teenage corpse is discovered on the border between the north and south of Ireland, moves along at a good pace, with some interesting and unexpected twists in the plot line.

The characterisation is superb, and Inspector Benedict Devlin is a likable if somewhat flawed lead character, far from the aging and troubled grumps that seem to populate the Scandinavian crime fiction to which I’ve recently become enamoured. But he feels no less human than them and, if anything, tends to tread a much blurrier line between right and wrong, vengeance and justice.

The story itself is a straight police procedural that opens with the discovery of a teenage girl’s body on wasteland a few days before Christmas. The only thing she is wearing is a pair of white cotton underpants, turned inside out, and a distinctive gold ring set with a moonstone surrounded by diamonds. It is this ring which provides a valuable clue in tracking down her killer.

Not long after the police investigation, led by the Irish Republic’s An Garda Siochana, gets underway another teenage body is discovered, this one in a burnt out car.

Are the two killings linked? And how does the disappearance of a local prostitute 25 years earlier fit in?

This is a disturbing but strangely compelling read. The case is complex enough to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end, and coupled with the hint of police corruption, there’s a good dose of moral outrage to be had as well. I thoroughly enjoyed Borderlands and will certainly hunt out the paperback version of the next in the series.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Donna Leon, Fiction, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Venice

‘Acqua Alta’ by Donna Leon


Fiction – paperback; Pan Books; 399 pages; 1996.

Acqua Alta is the fifth book in Donna Leon’s series of crime novels set in Venice starring Commissario Guido Brunetti.

In this book we are re-acquainted with American art historian Brett Lynch, who appeared in Leon’s first book Death at La Fenice, and her lesbian lover, the beautiful operatic diva Flavia Petrelli.

Brett, who organised a recent exhibition of Chinese pottery in Venice, is brutally attacked by two men, who warn her off keeping an appointment with Dottor Semenzato, the director of the museum at the Doges Palace.

While Brett recovers in hospital, Guido Brunetti launches an investigation, seeking a motive for the crime. Amid the winter rains that lead to acqua-alta (high tide), he slowly unravels a network of lies and corruption in the art world…

Once again Leon delivers a wonderfully evocative novel in which Venice plays a central — and memorable — role. In many ways the city itself is like a main character, complete with its own distinct and quirky personality.

And while her characterisation and story-telling abilities are good, the writing itself is fairly mundane — this is no literary masterpiece. Nonetheless it’s an exciting read, with enough surprises and action-packed drama to keep the reader turning the pages.

The violence is restrained, so if you like your crime novels to be a little more hard-hitting and realistic, this book will only appeal as a ‘light’ read. Personally, I would not recommend these books to crime fiction aficionados, but if you rarely read crime books I expect they will appeal enormously.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Walter Macken

‘Seek the Fair Land’ by Walter Macken


Fiction – paperback; Pan; 304 pages; 1988.

Seek the Fair Land, volume one of Macken’s acclaimed Irish trilogy, is an action-packed adventure story set during Cromwellian rule.

Dominick MacMahon, his wife slain in a bloody massacre, flees Drogheda with his two young children, Mary Ann and Peter, and a wounded priest, Sebastian, to set up a new life in the “fair land” which, according to an Irish proverb, is “over the brow of the hill”.

Dominick and his family battle ongoing starvation, deprivation and prosecution in their search for peace and freedom. But Coote of Connaught is on their trail as he relentlessly enforces the oath of abjuration across the land, forcing Catholics to abandon their faith in exchange for keeping their property and possessions.

In these dark and treacherous times priests are imprisoned or executed without question, a risk which endangers Dominick’s life on more than one occasion.

Written in 1959, Macken’s prose is vividly descriptive if the style is somewhat stodgy and old fashioned. But this does not take away from the dramatic storyline and the moving way in which he depicts his character’s struggles against a despicable enemy.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Minette Walters, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting

‘The Shape of Snakes’ by Minette Walters


Fiction – paperback; Pan; 443 pages; 2000.

Minette Walters’ The Shape of Snakes is an unconventional murder mystery in which a black woman, known as ‘Mad Annie’, dies in the gutter outside her west London home in 1978. She is found by a neighbour, Mrs Ranelagh, who disagrees with the coroner’s verdict of death by misadventure. Over the next 20 years Mrs Ranelagh, who has been deeply affected by the death, tries to uncover the truth, to prove to the authorities that Annie was murdered.

The story, which covers all manner of current day issues such as racism, alcoholism, cruelty to animals and mental illness, is a page-turner.

There are enough twists and turns to keep the momentum going, but there are some unbelievable elements (the revelation of her friend’s love affair takes on an almost operatic dimension, for example) and there are a few too many coincidences which makes the story feel somewhat contrived. It might be fiction, but it’s important that fiction reads as believable and The Shape of Snakes is not always convincing. Likewise, the ending, which has the potential to be jaw-dropping, is disappointing.

An interesting book, but not a highly-recommended one.