5 books, Book lists

5 Irish novels you’ve probably never heard of

5-books-200pixIn honour of St Patrick’s Day I thought I’d put together a list of Irish novels — with a difference.

While I would never presume to know what you have read or not read, here are five Irish novels that you may not have heard of. All are excellent reads and deserving of a far wider audience.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

The Pilgrimage was banned by the Irish Censorship Board upon publication in 1961. I’m not surprised. Even now it has the power to shock. Set during the 1950s, it is about what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine. The story is largely told through the eyes of an upstanding Church-going woman who has a secret life in which she seeks out casual encounters with strange men, the consequences of which are rather devastating…

The dead eight‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler (2011)

Carlo Gébler’s The Dead Eight is based on a true story in which police framed an innocent man for the murder of a prostitute in rural Ireland in 1940. The man, Harry Gleeson, was hanged at Mountjoy Prison the following year. Gébler’s dramatic retelling of events is less about Gleeson and more about the murder victim, Moll McCarthy, who was found lying in a field with two fatal shotgun wounds — in fact, one side of her face had been blown away. Mixing fact with fiction, this is a riveting tale about an impoverished and uneducated woman who became an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game involving the IRA and the police.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know is an extraordinarily funny satire about the collapse of the Irish economy following the 2008 global financial crisis. This Faustian tale is set over 10 days in March, 2016, when Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, is giving evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. His lurid, fantastical tale, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, highlights the stupidity, idiocy and foolhardiness of a succession of builders, bankers, politicians, developers and businessmen who put their own greed above all else. This is a morality tale of the finest order.

Leaving Ardglass‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King (2008)

Leaving Ardglass is about two Irish brothers whose lives follow vastly different trajectories. When the younger brother, Tom, the narrator of the story, heads to London in the summer of 1961 to work on the construction sites run by his older brother, much of what he witnesses challenges his value system and opens his eyes to the ways of the world. The story is shocking in places, but its depiction of the truly tough and knockabout lives that Irish immigrants were forced to live at the time is unparalleled — and incredibly moving. It’s one of the best Irish novels I’ve ever read.

The Last Fine Summer‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John McKenna (1997)

The Last Fine Summer is set in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s. It is narrated by Tim, a 29-year-old school teacher, who is grieving over the loss of his much younger lover, whom he addresses directly in a series of letters. This narrative is undercut with the story of Tim’s previous love affair with his best friend 10 years earlier. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin, but it’s also about the relationship between fathers and sons. Sadly, the book is out of print, but it’s worth hunting out second-hand copies, because this is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is John McGahern-like in its depiction of the passing seasons, of rural life, close-knit communities and the ways in which education can help you rise above your circumstances.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another Irish novel that deserves a wider audience?

5 books, Book lists

5 of the best psychological thrillers

5-books-200pixI’ve always loved psychological thrillers or suspense novels. I read the first one when I was just 10 years old — Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown — and loved the fear and sense of foreboding it created so much that I must have read it a dozen times without ever getting tired of the high-stakes adventure story of a girl on the run from wicked men wearing dark hoods. I think my exploration of this genre as an adult is largely about me trying to recapture those feelings I first felt as a kid.

Of course, there’s a lot of mediocre books out there, so when Naomi from Consumed by Ink left a comment asking me to recommend some titles for those who don’t usually read the genre, it got me thinking: what are the best psychological thrillers I’ve read, the ones that are a cut above the rest?

And this is what I’ve come up with.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married American couple on holiday in Puerto Rico. When the wife loans a woman $10 they find they can’t shake her off.  But that’s the least of their concerns, because no sooner have they got rid of her, than the husband falls ill and his wife has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans for them all. The couple’s exotic holiday quickly descends into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

The-memory-game‘The Memory Game’ by Nicci French (1997)

This is the first book by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, but I could easily have chosen almost any from their extensive back catalogue, many of which are reviewed on this site. I read this one not long after it first came out (and before I began blogging, so can’t provide a link to a review) and was swept away by its tale of Jane Martello, who discovers a body buried in her garden. The remains are 25 years old and they belong to her childhood friend, Natalie. How did they get there? And how did Natalie meet her end? Jane starts seeing a therapist to try to recover her lost memories — and what she finds out will have you furiously turning the pages…

Talented-Mr-RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

A European adventure told from the perspective of a young American conman and murderer, this is a precisely plotted suspense novel of the finest order. But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders while on the run in Italy. It’s deftly written, features a cast of terrific characters and is full of hold-your-breath moments.

TenderwireTenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy (2007)

This is the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance. Eva, who narrates the story in a menacing kind of voice, is fragile and mentally unstable, so perhaps it’s no surprise she gets caught up in the collision of two worlds — the criminal underworld and the refined world of classical music. But when she buys the 17th century violin from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar, she’s naive to think that there will be no repercussions or payback. Does she get away with it? You’ll need to read this novel to find out.

Eight-months-on-ghazzah-streetEight months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)

Frances, a British expat living in Jeddah with her husband, suspects something strange is going on upstairs in the flat above hers, but cannot convince anyone else that anything is wrong. This is the premise behind Mantel’s brilliant and deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of insidiously creepy read that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you. Is Frances just paranoid, or are her fears well founded?

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another good psychological thriller?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.


The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.


Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.


Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.


The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

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.


Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Claire Kilroy, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Claire Kilroy, a young Irish writer, first came to my attention in 2008 with her second novel, Tenderwire, an astonishingly good literary thriller about an Irish violinist, which is set in New York.

I was less enamoured of her next book, All Names Have Been Changed, which is about a bunch of creative writing students at Trinity College who become dangerously obsessed with their once-famous, now washed-up tutor.

Her fourth — and latest — novel, The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.

A public inquiry

This Faustian tale is set over 10 days in March, 2016, when Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, is giving evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy.

“People have been saying a lot of bad things about me in the press,” he tells the presiding judge. “I am here to say a few more.”

Tristram is from Anglo-Irish stock and grew up in a castle in Howth, a fashionable suburb of Dublin, but left the country in the early 1990s. He makes his living on the international conference circuit as an interpreter (“I do all the major European languages”). But in 2006 he returned to Ireland by accident — literally — when his plane flying from Birmingham to Florida was diverted to Dublin Airport after a near-disaster in the air.

During his unscheduled stopover, he stays at the airport Hilton, where he runs into an old school chum now turned property developer, Desmond Hickey. From this unexpected rendezvous an entire web of greed, hubris and deception — involving speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending — is set into motion.

Getting rich by doing nothing

As Tristram’s tale unfolds over the course of the inquiry, we learn that he is a recovering alcoholic, and that his mentor, Monsieur Deauville, is always just a phone call away to provide support and encouragement whenever he feels the need for a drink coming on.

M. Deauville later acts as a shady businessman, who sets up Castle Holdings — “It bought nothing, sold nothing, manufactured nothing, did nothing, and yet it returned a profit of €66 million that first year” — in Tristram’s name. This shell company, which effectively acts as an unsupervised licensed bank, provides the much-needed funds for Hickey’s big development project just a few hundred yards shy of Tristram’s ancestral home.

The Claremont project, on the site of a derelict cement factory in Howth, includes eight apartment blocks (“the guts of 400 residential units”), 12,000sqm of office space and a hotel. But it needs to be rezoned from industrial to high-density residential and commercial — an unlikely prospect given its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty. But this is where Minister Ray Lawless (note the name) steps in to sort things out, brown paperbag style.

This speculative development costs €10 million for the land alone, but within a week of its rezoning it is valued at €60 million. When a glamorous PR campaign swings into action, people queue around the block to be the first to buy an overpriced, not-yet-built apartment. Hickey, Tristram and co are coining it, but instead of quitting while ahead, Castle Holdings goes further into debt to fund bigger and potentially more profitable developments. And then the global financial crisis of 2008 hits — with devastating consequences.

Darkly comic morality tale

The Devil I Know  perfectly captures the madness and chaos that gripped Ireland during the boom years. Indeed, that madness and chaos becomes Beckett-like towards the end of the novel, which descends into a kind of crazy magic realism. While Kilroy’s style is far from pretentious, her narrative is rife with puns, word play and Irish literary references — great fun if you are into that sort of thing, but not obtrusive or bothersome if you are not.

I laughed a lot while reading this book and quoted long passages of it to Mr Reading Matters, because I knew much of it would resonate. (He once worked in a cement factory in Howth, for instance.) Like all true satires, it uses wit as a weapon — to highlight the stupidity, idiocy and foolhardiness of those builders, bankers, politicians, developers and businessmen who put their own greed before the good of the nation and the environment.

As a morality tale, The Devil I Know is a truly fine and entertaining one. Having seen firsthand those now-abandoned housing developments that are scattered the length and breadth of Ireland, I have often wondered, how on earth did so much development get approved — and funded? This book, in its darkly comic way, explains it pretty well.

Author, Book review, Claire Kilroy, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘All Names Have Been Changed’ by Claire Kilroy


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Claire Kilroy is a young Irish writer whose debut novel, All Summer, published in 2003, garnered much critical acclaim and earned her the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. It was also shortlisted for the 2004 Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award.

Her second novel Tenderwire (2006), a literary thriller set in New York, was shortlisted for the 2007 Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year but lost out to Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood.  I read it last August and thought it was such an intelligent page-turner I was eager to read more of her work. So when I found out there was a new one on the way I asked Faber and Faber if they’d be kind enough to send me a proof copy, and they obliged.

Sadly, I found it very difficult to “get into” All Names Have Been Changed and I put it aside, hoping I might find it more rewarding if I picked it up at another time. And so it lay abandoned on my bedside table for almost two months, until I picked it up last night to give it another try. This time the book seemed more readable and I eagerly made my way through the remaining 100 or so pages, but ultimately I found it disappointing in comparison to Tenderwire.

The book is set in 1980s Dublin and is about a group of creative writing students at Trinity College who become dangerously obsessed with their tutor, the world-famous PJ Glynn. It is narrated by Declan, the only male student in the class of five, but not much seems to happen and before long, as harsh as this will sound, the reader begins to wonder whether there is any point in ploughing on.

Because this is a book about group dynamics and personalities, it seems odd that none of the characters, bar Glynn, a stereotypical drunk Irishman, and Declan, the impoverished student, are particularly memorable. Perhaps it was just me, but the others — Antonia, Aisling, Faye and Guinevere — seemed indistinguishable from each other, so I could never quite remember which one was the mature student, which one was the Goth and which one was rumoured to be abused by her husband. This seems a fundamental flaw given this is essentially a story about writing.

But, in a way, it is this examination of what it is to be a writer that makes All Names Have Been Changed such an interesting read. If you have ever participated in a writing class or idolised a particular author, then much of the content will resonate.

There’s a lot of literary in-jokes here, too, and probably far too many of them went over my head, but it becomes apparent as the story moves on that the participants in the group find themselves acting out roles in a novel. Indeed, at one point, Declan realises that he is no longer aping Glynn but the characters in Glynn’s books.

And Kilroy takes it further by giving each chapter a title taken from a real-life Irish book or song — for example, I don’t like Mondays; The Book of Evidence; The pipes, the pipes are calling; and Tarry Glynn — half the fun of which is identifying their source.

Such a gloomy, sombre novel — remember, this is set during a time when the length of Dublin’s dole queues were notorious and the city was in the grip of a heroin epidemic — begs for this light relief, but I’m not sure the dark humour truly works.

While Kilroy’s prose cannot be faulted (the oft-used phrase “beautifully written” has never been more apt) and the tone is measured and the atmosphere suitably claustrophobic, it feels as if something is missing. I suspect it might be a tighter plot, because even as a character-driven novel I don’t think All Names Have Been Changed quite pulls it off. You might beg to differ.

Author, Book review, Claire Kilroy, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Tenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2007.

Back in January a reader of this blog emailed me to recommend Claire Kilroy‘s Tenderwire. “I have recommended this book to so many different types of people, young and old, male and female, and I haven’t heard one negative review of it,” she wrote. “In fact, friends of friends of friends and distant relatives of friends have gone out of their way to tell me how much they liked it.”

I’m always partial to a good recommendation, so I looked this one up on Amazon: it ticked several boxes for me, including great reviews and a mention on the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award long list. The fact that it was written by an Irish author and set in New York sealed the deal: I “mooched” a copy from BookMooch as soon as I could hunt one out.

Last week, looking for something that would entertain me during my lunch hour, I extracted the book from my reading queue and took it to work with me. I rarely take full lunch hours these days, often scoffing a sandwich at my desk, but last Wednesday the sun was shining and so I sat outside and cracked open this book. Hooked from the start, the hour whizzed by and for the rest of the day I couldn’t wait to get back to the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance.

Admittedly, this might not sound like a gripping story, but the first-person narrative, written in a kind of cruel, edgy and unstable voice, is the type that gets in your head and throws your world a little off kilter. You want to keep turning the pages if only to shake-off that quietly menacing monologue that so disturbs you.

Part thriller, part psychological drama, Tenderwire is set in a rather unfamiliar place in which the criminal underworld collides with the refined world of classical music. And Eva, our narrator, gets caught up in it, naively expecting that if she buys a valuable violin — the Magdalena Stradivarius, dating from the 17th Century — from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar there will be no repercussions and no payback.

If I bought the violin, would somebody come knocking on my door, claiming rightful ownership? Not if it had been stolen from somebody who’d stolen it themselves. And not if it had been lost; not if it had been seized from the Russian aristocracy a century ago and found its way into the hands of someone who didn’t fully grasp what it was. Just another fiddle in a country full of fiddles. It was feasible. Highly unlikely, but feasible.


There’d been any number of wars during the violin’s lifetime, huge savage wars spilling right across Europe, in which everything had been uprooted and lost. Napoleonic wars, world wars, cold wars, a plethora of revolutions. Things had come loose from their moorings; paintings, jewels, even people. And the difference with paintings, jewels and people was that they were identifiable by sight. A violin wasn’t. Not unless it had distinctive ornamentation. Magdalena had no distinctive ornamentation. At least, not that I could recall. I racked my brains, but remembered no markings at all. Only dirt, grime, the formidably all ruing patina of neglect. It was just possible that I might get away with this.

Obviously, the whole point of reading this book is to find out whether Eva does, indeed, get away with it. It’s an alluring premise, because it’s hard to believe that someone so fragile and mentally unstable as Eva would have the audacity to stump up $650,000 in cash to buy it. Even more intriguing when you know that it does not come with any papers and therefore cannot be authenticated. Is she merely being duped into buying a fake and staking her whole career on a possible copy?

This is a rollicking good read, with plenty of red herrings, including love affairs and concert performances, to keep you on tenterhooks throughout. There’s a great cast of characters in supporting roles to give the story real depth, and the prose style, clipped and restrained, is imbued with enough paranoia to make the reader look over their own shoulders once or twice.

And for those who doubt they know enough about violins to warrant reading the book, there’s plenty of background information on the rich history of violin-making to give you an understanding and appreciation of the very object that Eva becomes so passionate and obsessive about. It’s an intriguing insight into a world I knew very little about.

I can see why Tenderwire is one of those books you end up recommending to others — it’s an intelligent page-turner, highly engaging and with a terrific, satisfying, ending to boot. I very much enjoyed it.