20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 256 pages; 2015.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a coming-of-age story set in the Catholic working-class and Irish Republican district of Ardoyne, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles.

It is narrated by a schoolboy, Mickey Donnelly, who’s a smart kid with big dreams — when he grows up he wants to move to America.

I can’t wait to get to America. I’m going to work in a diner. I’ve got dreams.

But life is tough for Mickey, the apple of his mother’s eye, because his one shot at going to St Malachy’s, the local grammar school, has just been blown: his father has spent the required funds on alcohol and gambling.

Summer holiday

The book follows nine weeks in Mickey’s life during the long school summer holidays in which he dreads having to go to St Gabriel’s, where’s his older brother Paddy is in the sixth form and where all the boys are horrible and there will be no dancing or singing or acting lessons.

Caught between childhood and puberty, Mickey longs for his voice to drop so he can be regarded as a man rather than being labelled “gay” and “weird” by other children, including Paddy. It doesn’t help his reputation that he mainly hangs out with his little sister, Wee Maggie, whom he dotes on, and her friends instead of other boys (with the exception of Fartin’ Martin, a boy from school) and speaks in a “posh” way, using good manners which mark him out as different to other boys his age.

During his holidays he mainly plays with his pet dog Killer, lusts after his neighbour Martine, who encourages him to teach her to “lumber” (slang for sex) and has occasional run-ins with local bad girl Briege, whose father is in prison — rumour has it, he stole some sausages for the IRA.

Mother love

Mickey runs a lot of errands for his mother, whom he loves dearly. She becomes increasingly dependent on him to be her “good son” when Mickey’s dad leaves, taking the TV with him, but this proves a challenge when his freedom is constantly curtailed.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh, and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers. Ma should have just tied me to the gate or locked me in a cupboard.

On one occasion, when he ventures to a part of town he is forbidden to visit, he gets caught up in a bomb explosion that kills his dog and injures his own head, though not seriously. He hides this fact from his mother, worried that he will get in trouble, and does not tell her that he saw Paddy, who may or may not be involved with the IRA, at the scene.

It’s this kind of careful balancing between comedy and melodrama that gives The Good Son its emotional power. It’s the kind of book in which the reader laughs out loud on one page, then turns over to be confronted by the stark reality of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

I check there’s no Prods or gangs about in Alliance Avenue and cross to the corrugated iron barricades. There’s a tiny little door to the Prods. You’re not allowed to use it. You’d be murdered. They’ve started callin’ them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.

As the story inches towards the end of the school holidays, the drama slowly builds as Mickey’s family get caught up in events that put them at risk, forcing the “good son” to do something bad to protect them all. It’s a deftly told tale, compelling and charming in equal measure, but also alarming and heart-rending too.

The Good Son won the Polari First Book Prize in 2016.

Cathy, who blogs at 746 books, liked this novel a lot too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy, surrounded by violence and danger, who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

This is my 12th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on 30 August 2017, I think because I had seen a good review of it on Savidge Reads, back in the day when Simon blogged.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Meike Ziervogel, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘Clara’s Daughter’ by Meike Ziervogel

Clara's Daughter

Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 133 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you have ever read any translated novellas published by Peirene Press, then Meike Ziervogel* will be a familiar name for she is the founder and publisher of that independent and award-winning London-based company.

Meike is also an accomplished writer, and her first book, Magda, which fictionalised the story of the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was published by Salt Publishing to critical acclaim last year.  (I am yet to read it.)

Her new book, Clara’s Daughter, explores universal themes focused on love, marriage, growing old and the sometimes complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.

Strained relations

Set in north London, the story revolves around middle-aged businesswoman Michele, who is successful at her job — she loves the “status and illusion of power that it gives” — but is floundering at home. Her children, Felix and Thea, have finally left the nest, and now Michele and her husband, Jim, are forced to confront the reality that they no longer have anything in common after 25 years of marriage.

To complicate matters, Michele’s mother, Clara (of the title), needs looking after — there is talk of placing her in a home, although Michele’s sister, Hilary, doesn’t like the idea. Eventually, Clara is installed in the basement of Michele’s home, but despite sharing a house the two are unable to relax in each other’s company and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to communicate.

I hear her turn the key, open the door, close it. For a moment there is silence while she quietly removes her shoes. Then she tiptoes into the kitchen. I hear her take a glass. Silence. Then water is running out the taps. I know she will stand at the top of the stairs to the basement, holding her breath, listening. Nothing except darkness will meet her. I am pretending to be asleep.

The book highlights the tensions in Michele’s marriage as well as the tensions between her, her much more “forgiving” but highly strung younger sister, and Clara, who is fiercely independent but also fearful, lonely and increasingly paranoid.

Clever structure

Clara’s Daughter is told in uncluttered prose (though, admittedly, the first chapter feels a bit “flowery”, which is not indicative of the rest of the book), from various viewpoints and in brief chapters that jump backwards and forwards in time. The narrative is informed by an uncanny sense of silence and of space, which not only gives the story room to “breathe” but helps create a sense of increasing tension.

The clever structure shows how past resentments can fester if not dealt with, as well as fleshing out the frailty of sexual love, the harsh realities of family duty and the different sides of ourselves that we present at work and home.

I found it a rather taut drama about domestic and matriarchal power in which each character is stuck in a “role” from which they can’t truly escape. It made me think a lot about how we treat our aged parents and whether daughters are always destined to become their mothers. This story doesn’t exactly provide the answers, but for a book that is less than 140 pages, it certainly packs a lot in.

It’s occasionally chilling but has a distinct ring of truth about it. I came away from the book feeling slightly unnerved, as if I’d had a ringside seat at a family gathering I wasn’t supposed to attend. It’s not designed to be voyeuristic, but the characters are so realistically drawn, so flawed and full of foibles, I felt I’d got personally caught up in their funny little power plays…

* In the interests of full disclosure, I know Meike personally.

Alison Moore, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore


Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 192 pages; 2012.

Before I’d finished the first chapter of Alison Moore’s astonishingly good debut novel, The Lighthouse, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because it had that lovely melancholic feel that characterises Per Petterson’s work. And perhaps because the opening chapter was set on a ferry — a common theme in Petterson’s novels — I felt immediately at home with the subject matter and the prose style.

A week-long holiday

The book has been billed as a “walking novel” but it is less about walking than about a middle-aged man — the impossibly named Futh — coming to terms with his past while on a week-long holiday in Germany. As he trods a circular route along the Rhine, he has plenty of time to think about his childhood, his early adulthood and his marriage.

The holiday is supposed to be restorative — he is freshly divorced and when he returns to England he will move into a new flat, where “all those self-assembly boxes will be there, with all his things inside waiting to be unpacked”. But things get off to a bad start on his first night at (the appropriately named) Helhaus hotel, in which he is badly treated by the landlord for what he thinks is no apparent reason.

However, Futh is not what we would call the most perceptive of characters, and much of what happens to him, not just on this holiday but throughout his life, seems to occur because he has misread people or situations. Indeed, most of this novel hinges on characters misunderstanding one another, either because they are too self-absorbed or because they lack the necessary social skills or emotional intelligence. On more that one occasion I was reminded of another of my favourite authors, Magnus Mills.

Second storyline

The Lighthouse contains a secondary narrative thread, told in alternate chapters, involving Ester, the landlady at the Helhaus hotel. Middle-aged but with a rampant sexual appetite, she resorts to seducing guests and having furtive sex with them, unaware that her usually inattentive husband knows exactly what she is doing.

Like Futh, Ester spends much of the novel thinking about her past and coming to terms with losing her looks — and her husband’s love. Similarly, she is also unable to appreciate how others might view her behaviour, which leads to some ingenious set-ups that are laugh out loud funny.  (As an example, that first night in the hotel is, quite frankly, hilarious.)

But on the whole this is a rather sad novel, more so when you realise that Futh is emotionally stunted, no doubt caused by his mother abandoning him as a small boy. Raised by his bullish father, a sexually promiscuous man, Futh lacks confidence, becomes the target of school bullies and finds it difficult to fit in, even as a grown man.

Symbolic language

Much has been said about the heavy-handed use of metaphors in this book — the lighthouse, in particular, is a recurring (phallic) symbol — but I quite enjoyed spotting these. And I also enjoyed some of Moore’s beautiful similes:

The man has his hands flat on the bar, his fingers splayed, his manicured nails like the display of eyes on a peacock’s tail.


‘You are losing your sparkles,’ she said, reaching out and savagely refixing Ester’s diamante hair pins, the wire scraping along her scalp like rocks against the hull of a boat as it ran aground.

But most of all I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.

The Lighthouse has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Tomorrow night (Tuesday, October 16), we will find out if it has taken the £50,000 award.

Author, Book review, David Rose, England, Fiction, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘Vault: An Anti-Novel’ by David Rose


Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 168 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

David Rose’s debut novel has one of the most intriguing dedications I’ve ever come across in all my years of reading: “Vault is dedicated to the staff of Pizza Express, Staines, where it was written, in my lunch hours.”

But that’s not the most intriguing thing about this short, effortlessly readable novel, which defies categorisation. The subject matter is equally interesting — road cycling, army snipers and nuclear espionage. It’s almost as if Rose, a 61-year-old former Post Office worker, picked three random subjects out of a hat and then strung them together in narrative form. But somehow it seems to work.

The story is about McKuen, an Englishman, who becomes a sniper in the Second World War. Disturbed by some of the events (read killings) he participates in, he decides to atone after the war by cycling through the most devastated parts of Europe, handing out medicine and other aid. He does this alone, without the backing of any formal organisation, and for this he earns legendary heroic status, which he despises almost as much as his participation in the war.

He later reinvents himself as a successful road cyclist (he takes part in the first Tour of Britain in 1955) only to be mythologised again for heroic acts of athleticism. But he chucks it all in when an ongoing knee injury, sustained in the war, means he can never go professional.

As a civil servant, he is later recruited to foil a threat to Britain’s burgeoning thermonuclear programme by an anti-nuclear group calling itself the Neutron Committee. McKuen’s mission is a dangerous one, but despite the possibility of death — he knows the Government has chosen an untrained civilian because he is expendable — it doesn’t worry him because:

At least it would be a death. Not a wartime statistic, as it could earlier have been. An individual death. Which becomes more important the older you get.

And that’s where the book comes full circle: a man escaping death in the war puts himself back in death’s sights, almost as if he wants to test his invincibility.

But the real twist in the tale of Vault is this: McKuen (if, indeed, that is his name) has discovered that his life story has been turned into a novel. So, what you get is one chapter, written in the third person, telling McKuen’s story as if it is fiction, followed by another, written in the first person, by “McKuen” himself, either expanding on what has been written about his life or pointing out the novelist’s errors. “Hasn’t he checked any of the history?” he moans at one point. This interwoven narrative — of a fictionalised life undercut by the subject’s recall of that same life — is hugely entertaining, illuminating and often very funny.

In this way, Vault pokes fun at the art of writing a novel, exposes its illusions and the way in which it can falsify “truth”, but it also showcases what fiction, when done well, can, and ought to, achieve:

Look, none of this is in the novel. It’s all so dry, so cold. I’ve spent my life hiding my emotions — you have to, to survive — hidden even from my self. There are feelings we don’t understand ourselves. That’s what we look to novelists for.

This is probably the most “literary” novel I’ve read all year, so it’s disappointing that it didn’t make the longlist for this year’s Man Booker. (According to a note the publisher sent me, the book was submitted.) While Vault is not perfect (I thought the narrative slightly disjointed in places and the nuclear espionage sub-plot slightly far-fetched), it’s a thought-provoking,  intelligent read, one that is accessible and entertaining at the same time. The prose is lean and the storytelling thrilling. And it deserves a far wider audience than it has currently received.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth Baines, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘Too Many Magpies’ by Elizabeth Baines


Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 124 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of author.

In many European cultures, the magpie is associated with superstition. In English folklore, the bird is a bad omen. In Scotland, a magpie near the window of a house foretells death. In Sweden, it is associated with witchcraft.

In Elizabeth Baines’ Too Many Magpies the bird is a metaphor for the mysterious world of spells and magic, but it also symbolises nature.

In the park there were magpies, too many to be counted. When I was a child there were never so many of them — one for sorrow, you said, two for joy — but now there  were too many for such short rhymes or such simple messages, they’d multiplied and colonized the towns.

The story, which is told from the point of view of an unnamed mother, explores what it is like to raise children in a world beset by environmental problems. Together with Richard, her scientist husband, the pair grow their own vegetables “since trials had indicated that pesticides and nitrates in farming and market gardening could cause allergies and cancers”. They read the books, apply the gathered knowledge, and their little family — “husband, wife and two-point-four children” — is happy and safe.

But then a charismatic stranger enters the woman’s life, a man who is the direct opposite of her husband, who talks of spells and magic, and lives life with spontaneous abandon.

He said, ‘Have another brandy.’ He added, ‘You only live once.’ What he meant, and what I knew now, was that if you stopped worrying you could live several times.

His carefree attitude rubs off on the woman, and before she knows it she’s not exactly neglecting her children, but she is less anxious, less fearful for their safety. As she whizzes off down the motorway to make her secret rendezvous, her newly acquired blithe spirit teeters on irresponsibility. She drinks, she drives, and on one occasion she comes across unexpected roadworks, so that she has to slam on the brakes:

The red-and-white cones rushed up more quickly than it seemed they should have done; I pressed the pedal and got the brakes under control. Each side then red-and-white barriers flickered as I crawled. TAKE CARE, said a sign, too late, FOR HALF A MILE.

On the most basic level Too Many Magpies is a story is about a straitlaced, anxious mother embarking on an extra-marital affair and then dealing with its outfall. But to dismiss it as a middle-class romance-cum-kitchen-sink drama would do the book, and its author, a supreme injustice.

Despite its subject matter, there is no sex in this book. Everything feels oblique. References are askew, nothing is nailed down. It lends the story a haunting, intangible quality. The prose is filled with a kind of musicality more reminiscent of Irish writers than British ones. I found myself being lulled by its rhythm — and its magic.

For such a slim volume Too Many Magpies also wrestles with big ideas — science versus nature, methodical analysis versus irrational fear, well being (physical and mental) versus illness — and explores marriage, parenthood and the impossibility of protecting children from a world of hidden, unknowable dangers, all subjects which I expect are close to many people’s hearts.

I found the book curiously reminiscent of Jennifer Johnston’s style, in particular The Illusionist, but it also reminded me of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child in its depiction of a young boy, marked out as different from birth, who causes disruption to his picture-perfect family.

Smartly plotted and with not a word wasted, Too Many Magpies is an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling. It deals with predictable subjects in unpredictable ways, and for that reason alone it marks Baines as a British writer to watch. Highly recommended.