2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Hooray! Yesterday the shortlist for my favourite literary prize was revealed.

There are five novels in the running for The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, which is worth €15,000 to the winner.

No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week — Ireland’s oldest literary festival — and the winner is named on the opening night of the festival. This year the festival runs from 1st to 5th June.

I have been following this prize for many years now and I usually try to read all the books on the shortlist. I have read one title on this year’s list, have a couple already on my TBR and the remaining couple are new-to-me titles.

Below is this year’s shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

The five shortlisted novels are:

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

It is late June in Ballylack. Hannah Adger anticipates eight long weeks’ reprieve from school, but when her classmate Ross succumbs to a violent and mysterious illness, it marks the beginning of a summer like no other. As others fall ill, questions about what — or who — is responsible pitch the village into conflict and fearful disarray. Hannah is haunted by guilt as she remains healthy while her friends are struck down. Isolated and afraid, she prays for help. Elsewhere in the village, tempers simmer, panic escalates and long-buried secrets threaten to emerge. Bursting with Carson’s trademark wit, profound empathy and soaring imagination, The Raptures explores how tragedy can unite a small community — and tear it apart. At its heart is the extraordinary resilience of one young girl. As the world crumbles around her, she must find the courage to be different in a place where conforming feels like the only option available.

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Being Tommy’s mother is too much for Sonya. Too much love, too much fear, too much longing for the cool wine she gulps from the bottle each night. Because Sonya is burning the fish fingers, and driving too fast, and swimming too far from the shore, and Tommy’s life is in her hands. Once there was the thrill of a London stage, a glowing acting career, fast cars, handsome men. But now there are blackouts and bare cupboards, and her estranged father showing up uninvited. There is Mrs O’Malley spying from across the road. There is the risk of losing Tommy — forever.

‘Small Things like These’ by Claire Keegan

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him — and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church. The long-awaited new work from the author of Foster, Small Things Like These is an unforgettable story of hope, quiet heroism and tenderness.

‘Nora’ by Nuala O’Connor

When Nora Barnacle, a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel, meets young James Joyce on a summer’s day in Dublin, she is instantly attracted to him, natural and daring in his company. But she cannot yet imagine the extraordinary life they will share together. All Nora knows is she likes her Jim enough to leave behind family and home, in search of a bigger, more exciting life. As their family grows, they ricochet from European city to city, making fast friends amongst the greatest artists and writers of their age as well as their wives, and are brought high and low by Jim’s ferocious ambition. But time and time again, Nora is torn between their intense and unwavering desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living hand-to-mouth, often made worse by Jim’s compulsion for company and attention. So, while Jim writes and drinks his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, sometimes at the expense of her own happiness, and especially at that of their children, Giorgio and Lucia. Eventually, together, they achieve some longed-for security and stability, but it is hard-won and imperfect to the end. In sensuous, resonant prose, Nuala O’Connor has conjured the definitive portrait of this strong, passionate and loyal Irishwoman. Nora is a tour de force, an earthy and authentic love letter to Irish literature’s greatest muse.

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Here is rehab, where Ben — the only son of a rich South Dublin banker — is piecing together the shattered remains of his life. Abruptly cut off, at the age of 27, from a life of heedless privilege, Ben flounders through a world of drugs and dead-end jobs, his self-esteem at rock bottom. Even his once-adoring girlfriend, Clio, is at the end of her tether.  Then Ben runs into an old school friend who wants to cut him in on a scam: a shady property deal in the Balkans. The deal will make Ben rich and, at one fell swoop, will deliver him from all his troubles: his addictions, his father’s very public disgrace, and his own self-loathing and regret. Problems solved. But something is amiss. For one thing, the Serbian partners don’t exactly look like fools. (In fact they look like gangsters.) And, for another, Ben is being followed everywhere he goes. Someone is being taken for a ride. But who?

The winner will be announced on 1 June.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. 

Author, Billy O'Callaghan, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Life Sentences’ by Billy O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 220 pages; 2021.

Irish writer Billy O’Callaghan’s Life Sentences is a wholly absorbing family saga that spans three generations over the course of a century. It’s loosely based on the author’s own family tree and gives voice to the branch that was “illegitimate” because two children were born out of wedlock at a time when this was frowned upon.

At its essence, it is a love story between a teenage girl and the married man with whom she falls in love, but it’s also a damning portrait of one man’s eagerness to have his cake and eat it too, arrogantly ignoring his responsibilities to the children he fathered and blaming the woman for falling pregnant in the first place.

It’s split into three parts, with each part told by a different family member: Jer, 1920; Nancy, 1911; and Nellie, 1982.

Nancy’s romance

Nancy is the central character in this tale. As a 16-year-old, she flees Clear Island, off the south-west coast of County Cork, after the famine kills all her family, and starts afresh on the mainland where she finds work in a big house on the northside of Cork city. It is here she falls for the tall, good-looking, charismatic gardener, Michael Egan, with whom she starts a secret relationship, unaware that he is already married.

I  was nineteen when I met Michael Egan for the first time. That’s not where my story begins, but it’s where I begin, that day the beginning of my happiness and the start of my fall.

When she falls pregnant, Michael Egan (he is always referred to by his first and last names throughout this story) wants nothing to do with her. She’s fired from her job and moves into a workhouse.

Later, she moves into a crowded tenement and supports herself through “shameful things I could not regret, as much as I hated myself for them because I knew they were necessary”. It is while walking the streets down near the pubs “where I knew men with money in their pockets would be” that she bumps into Michael Egan once again.

Despite her better judgement, and perhaps because Michael is a familiar face and unlikely to be physically rough with her, she rekindles her affair with him. But history repeats. Another child is born out of wedlock, Michael Egan rejects her and it’s back to the workhouse with a baby and toddler in tow.

Jer’s complex history

It is that baby, a boy named Jeremiah, or Jer for short, whom we meet when the novel opens. He is in a pub, “drinking fast and heavy”, waiting for the guards to come looking for him. We slowly learn that he is angry, deeply angry, because his beloved sister Mamie has died (Nancy’s firstborn) and that he blames her husband, a violent alcoholic, for her death.

He killed her. He might not have kicked the chair away, but with his drinking he put the rope around her neck. He’s been killing her for years. And now she’s gone.

Despite this imminent arrest, we discover that Jer is a good man, happily married with six children, but he is emotionally scarred, not just by his impoverished childhood and the father he met on just a few occasions, but by his time in the Great War. He seeks solace in his family, but his thoughts often turn to Michael Egan:

Dead now, dead a long time, but one half of me then and still. I exist because of this man, but because of him I am rootless. I made myself strong, in spite of him.

Nellie’s sense of peace

Jer’s youngest daughter, Nellie, takes up the final part of the novel. She’s in her 60s and lives with her daughter Gina and son-in-law Liam just “a stone’s throw from the house in which I was born”.

She’s dying but isn’t afraid to do so, and has shunned any kind of medical intervention:

I’ve watched so many go [die], and find comfort in knowing that I’m to take the same road. If it leads nowhere then that’s all right. But if there’s a chance of maybe seeing them again, my loved ones, my husband Dinsy and my father and mother and all the rest, then who wouldn’t want that?

As Nellie looks back on her life, we see how things have panned out for Nancy’s children and grandchildren. There is tragedy and heartbreak in this life, but there is also love and happiness and a sense of belonging, of putting down roots that her own father never could because of his illegitimacy.

Sad and melancholy

I adored this book. Yes, it’s sad and melancholy and treads some dark territory (there’s a lot of death in this novel, it has to be said), but it’s written in such an engaging manner, brimming with humanity and compassion, celebrating the tenacity and resilience of a family just doing their best to get by against the odds.

It’s intimate, rewarding and poignant, the kind of novel to make the heart lurch. And I’m delighted to see the author has two other novels and a bunch of short story collections for me to explore. I will look forward to reading them when I can.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, Cathy Sweeney, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Modern Times’ by Cathy Sweeney #ReadingIrelandMonth22

Fiction – hardcover; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 148 pages; 2020.

This is why I love browsing in the library so much; I would not have discovered Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times otherwise.

First published in the Republic of Ireland by Stinging Fly Press and now reissued by W&N, it is a collection of short stories with an absurdist and often risqué slant.

The suggestive cover art — designed by Steve Marking / Orion — is perfectly appropriate, for the very first story, “Love Story”, opens like this:

There was once a woman who loved her husband’s cøck^ so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.

How’s that for an opening line?

Tales about taboo subjects

There are other stories that revolve around sex and love affairs and lust. Most are only a few pages long, but they are shocking, confronting and wickedly funny by turn.

In “The Birthday Present”, for instance, a woman buys her husband a sex doll called Tina for his 57th birthday and keeps it locked in the guest room for his personal entertainment. But when he dies unexpectedly, she has to keep “Tina” hidden from her adult children.

In “The Handyman” a divorcee wonders what it would be like to have sex with the handyman she invites into her semi-detached house to fix up a few things before putting it on the market, while in “A Theory of Forms” a teacher reminisces about the illicit sex she used to have with a teenage boy who had learning difficulties.

In “The Woman with too Many Mouths”, a man plans to end his affair with a woman who has two mouths — “She was, as I said, not my type” — while in “The Chair”, a married couple take it in turns to administer electric shocks as a substitute for sex:

When it is my turn to sit in the chair, I am almost relieved. In the days leading up to it I become irritable, angry, even on occasion experiencing violent ideations. Often, during this period, I think of leaving my husband, of breaking everything. But when the time comes to sit in the chair I do so without protestation. A sensation of release and expanse overtakes me, as though I am swimming effortlessly in a vast blue ocean, obeying laws of nature that are larger than me, larger than the universe.

A little bit bonkers

Not all the stories are framed around these taboo subjects. Some are truly bizarre and best described as OFF THE WALL, bonkers or just plain WIERD.

There’s a story about a palace that becomes sick evident by a “dark discolouration” spreading through the bricks at the top of its tower. Another story revolves around a manuscript that is found wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a boiler in a house recently “vacated” by an old man. In another, a son returns from boarding school and is instructed to supervise his mother at a family celebration for fear she will get up to “her old antics, letting the whole family down”.

Out of the 21 stories in the collection, my favourite is “The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man” in which an unmarried mother escaping a “dull provincial backwater” moves to a city bedsit and takes a job at a local shop. She can’t afford childcare, so while she is at work she puts her baby in the freezer and as soon as she gets home she thaws him out.

Well, human nature is human nature, and anything can become normal. Soon putting the baby in the freezer was part of the rhythm of life. There were no various side effects. The baby went into arrested development while frozen, but then caught up easily when thawed out. When the woman had a day off the baby sometimes outgrew a romper suit in an afternoon or learned to crawl in an hour.

Eventually, this pattern of freezing and growing gets out of whack, and the child grows — and ages — too quickly. And then the woman gets distracted by her new career as a writer and forgets her child in the freezer, only to return years later to find he’s become a very old man. Yes, I told you the stories were bonkers.

Wholly original

The blurb on my edition suggests that Sweeney’s stories are reminiscent of Lydia Davis, Daisy Johnson and Angela Carter, but having only read Carter’s The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault I don’t know how accurate that comparison is. They do bring to mind the genius that is Magnus Mills, perhaps because of the simple, fable-like prose in which they are written. Regardless, they are wholly original — and totally memorable.

Modern Times is a refreshing palate cleanser offering a quirky, inventive take on the short story. It is great fun to read! I hope Sweeney writes a novel next so she can give extended reign to that vivid imagination!

^ I’ve inserted a special character so my content isn’t deemed “unsafe” by search engines.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sandycove, Sinead O'Connor

‘Rememberings’ by Sinéad O’Connor

Non-fiction – hardcover; Sandycove; 304 pages; 2021.

Like many outspoken people condemned for speaking the truth, Irish singer-songwriter Sineád O’Connor was a woman before her time.

When she ripped up a photograph of the Pope live on American TV in 1992 to protest sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, she was roundly castigated, her records burned and her public appearances cancelled. She became persona non grata virtually overnight. Even Madonna, that bastion of virtue (I jest), attacked her.

At the time, she was a global star thanks to her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares to U — released in 1990 (YouTube clip here) — but this single act, prescient as it we now know it to be (it was nine years before Pope John II acknowledged the issue), killed her international career. (Interestingly, her story about meeting Prince does not paint him in a good light.)

And yet, in the decades that have followed, she has continued to slog away, creating great music in various different genres including pop, rock, folk, reggae and religious. And she has continued to stand up for what she believes in, often playing out her struggles — mental health issues and relationship breakdowns, for example — in full glare of the public eye.

Long time fan

I’m a long time Sineád O’Connor fan. It began when I bought her debut album The Lion and The Cobra in my late teens, two years after it had been released. At the time, I was just beginning to explore Irish music, both traditional and popular, and this sounded like an intriguing blend of the two.

I wasn’t wrong. This album was powerful. It was melancholy. It was beautiful. It was angry. And her ethereal voice, quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before, was mesmerising as she shifted between singing like a banshee and singing like an angel, sometimes within the space of a line or a verse.

What was astonishing was that she was only 20 years old when she made it. She not only wrote many of the songs herself, but she also produced the record, too. To this day, it remains as one of my “desert island discs” — I could never grow tired of it. (To listen to it in its entirety, visit YouTube.)

A way with words

Fans know that Sineád has a way with words, whether spoken or sung, but it also seems she’s a talented writer if this memoir is anything to go by. Rememberings is a beautifully written book that details a remarkable life and a remarkable career in a voice that is intimate, pragmatic and often wickedly humorous.

It’s a book of two halves: the first, written in episodic style, details experiences from her childhood; and the second, written in a different tone of voice, covers the period of her life after she became famous. This latter section is patchy rather than comprehensive (O’Connor says this is a result of her undergoing a radical hysterectomy that wrecked her memory and had a detrimental psychological impact on her life), but it hardly seems to matter for the tales she tells are often eye-opening, insightful and funny.

The stories from the first half are more nostalgic and often heartbreaking. She was born in Dublin in 1966, the third of five children. (Her older brother Joseph is, of course, the Irish novelist whose work I have reviewed here.) After her parents divorced, she and her younger brother went to live with her mother, her older siblings lived with their father.

Sineád says she was regularly and brutally beaten by her deeply religious mother — “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well” — and she blames this abuse on the Catholic Church, which had “created” her mother. Later, when her mother died in a car accident in 1986, Sineád, who was 19 at the time, struggled to reconcile her grief with her sense of relief.

Her musical talent came to the fore when she was sent to a Catholic reform school (she used to shoplift regularly), where one of the nuns bought her a guitar, a Bob Dylan songbook and arranged music lessons for her. She began writing songs and after leaving school performed in and around Dublin (because she was too young to tour).

Derailing her career?

Aged 20, she recorded the debut record that was to put her name on the musical map. Two more albums later, just when everything was going exceedingly well for her, with Grammy nominations aplenty and three best-selling albums, she was ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live.

This example of “bad behaviour” is rather reflective of O’Connor’s life as a whole: she’s always been outspoken and forthright, not afraid of what people might think. She shaved her head very early on in her career when a record executive told her she needed to be “more feminine”. She went ahead with an unplanned pregnancy when she was told she couldn’t possibly be a mother and go on tour. She said she would not perform if the United States national anthem was played before one of her concerts. And she boycotted the 1991 Grammy Awards because she did not want to support, nor profit from, the “false and destructive materialistic values” of the music industry.

She has always defied convention and just done her own thing, regardless of the consequences.

But in this memoir she paints it differently: while the media and the public viewed the Pope photo incident as derailing her career, she sees it as saving her from the pop star’s life she didn’t want.

Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.

Rememberings is a brilliant memoir full of cheeky spirit and forthright honesty, as entertaining as it is enlightening. If they handed out awards for resilience, Sinead O’Connor would have to be the first in the queue. She truly deserves it.

Extra notes

I read this book last year and loved it so much I struggled to pen a review, I just didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts. Then, over the Christmas break, I started putting something together and had it scheduled for early January. I held off publishing it when news broke that Sinead’s 17-year-old son, Jake, had died. Today, I’ve dusted it off and polished a few bits, and had fun digging out some of my favourite clips to share. Forgive the indulgence.

The first is an interview on Arsenio Hall in 1991 demonstrating a very wise head on young shoulders. She talks a lot of sense and her integrity really shines through. (But how the wheels turn because, in 2016, Arsenio Hall tried to sue her for defamation but dropped the case.)

One of my favourite songs from ‘The Lion and The Cobra’:

And, finally, her live performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards.

I’ve seen her in concert once — at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2012 — and more recently in the queue at Dublin Airport, circa 2017. She was almost unrecognisable — apart from the dimples and those extraordinary eyes.

Author, James Joyce

Want to read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’? Here are some tips that might help you

First edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare & Company, 1922

Yesterday (2 February) marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

This modernist novel was published in Paris, France, on Joyce’s 40th birthday and despite a bumpy trajectory — deemed obscene in the US and banned in the UK until 1936 — it’s long been regarded as a masterpiece of English-language literature.

The story is set on 16 June 1904 in Dublin and follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, as he traverses the city on foot. It chronicles his innermost thoughts as well as his actions, appointments and conversations. It’s challenging and clever, stylistically dense and brilliantly witty — and quite unlike anything that came before it or has followed since.

I read it in 2011 when I was in between jobs and had the time and focus to read it in its entirety. Back then my blog was heavily focused on Irish literature, so I was delighted when Tourism Ireland invited me to celebrate Bloomsday (16 June) in the city in which the story is set.

There was a Bloomsday breakfast at the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street, complete with a troupe of Joycean players performing scenes from the novel while we chowed down on “grilled mutton kidneys” with “a fine tang of faintly scented urine”. This was followed by a literary walk and an evening pub quiz.

Part of my stay involved an entertaining session on how to read Ulysses led by academic Dr Eibhlín Evans. More than a decade later I still recall that session in quite vivid detail. I wrote about the session at the time but deleted that post when I rebranded and moved my blog from Typepad to WordPress in 2014.

I have dug it out of my files and thought it might be timely to republish it here today:


Originally published at 10am on 20 July 2011

You want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses but are too scared to tackle it. You’ve picked it up once or twice. You might have even read a chapter or two. But then you’ve abandoned the book — and felt like a failure.

Many of us have been there. I tried to read the novel in my early 20s. I got about a third of the way into it, then put it down and never picked it up again. A year or two later, too ashamed to keep the book in my personal library, I sold it to a second-hand store just to be rid of the damn thing.

But then last month I set upon a mission to read it in three weeks — to have it finished by Bloomsday — and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The key is not to get too concerned with understanding every single reference, but just go with the flow, and if all else fails, read bits of it out loud and buy yourself a guide to help you along.

Or you could try a different route — and learn to read it while in Dublin.

Dr Eibhlín Evans, an academic and writer, set up The Flying Book Club [now defunct] to do just that — and a lot more besides. The organisation, based in a gorgeous Georgian building not far from St Stephen’s Green, runs all kinds of literary programmes for visitors to Dublin who wants to learn more about the city’s literary history and Irish literature in general.

When I visited Dublin last month I attended a three-hour session on “Feel the Fear but Read it Anyway!” which provided tips on reading Ulysses for those who have always been too scared to tackle it.

Even though I had recently finished reading the book — just two days earlier, in fact — it was an inspiring session. If only I’d attended it before I had read the book, the challenge would have been far less daunting.

During the session, held on a damp rainy Friday afternoon, Dr Evans put the book into context and gave us some background to Joyce’s troubled life. Dr Mark Quinn also gave us some tips on reading the book, and then we were treated to a lively and animated reading by a Dubliner, who really got into the spirit of it and brought Joyce’s work to life. In fact, he had us all roaring with laughter. (It was the bit in Barney Kiernan’s pub that ends with the anti-semitic “citizen” hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head while his dog gives chase.)

I took some notes, and what follows is a mix of tips I picked up from those who were there, including the dozen or so people in the audience:

      • Ulysses has a difficult reputation — and not without reason. It has a structure, a narrative and a voice that you probably have never come across before

      • It is a “novel of ideas”

      • It was written at a time when the world was going through a period of radical uncertainty — psychology was a new science, religion was being challenged by Darwinism,  gender issues were coming to the fore with the suffragette movement and history was no longer viewed as a reliable narrative

      • It was written at a time when Nationalism was on the rise in Ireland. And what better way to analyse a country than by having your  central character — Leopold Bloom, the Irish-born Jew — as an outsider,  with an outsider’s keen eye and dispassionate way of looking at things

      • The main character is an anti-hero — he is an ordinary man with ordinary problems trying to get by like everyone else

      • The book depicts the inner reality of its characters, rather than outer reality. This is achieved chiefly through  stream-of-consciousness and inner dialogue

      • It is helpful to look at the book as if it was a newspaper, with each chapter like a different section

      • Note that each chapter is written in a different  literary style and is often themed around a particular subject or idea

      • It is not necessary to understand every reference in the book. If you don’t understand something, don’t get hung up on it — just keep reading!

      • If you get really stuck, try reading some of it out loud — or listen to an audio version to get to grips with the Dublin vernacular

I would add that the more widely you read — everything from historical drama to post-modern fiction — the easier you will find Ulysses to tackle because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life.

If you’re still too scared, take The Flying Book Club’s advice and feel the fear but read it anyway!

I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland. Many thanks to Dr Eibhlín Evans and The Flying Book Club for the warm Irish welcome, delicious afternoon tea and wonderful discussion — it was the highlight of my trip.


Here are some interesting pieces that have been published to celebrate the centenary:

Have you read Ulysses? Or would you like to?

Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

7.05pm
First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.