Announcing Reading Ireland Month!

 

It’s that time again! March is coming, my favourite month in my blogging calendar, because it’s Reading Ireland Month – will you be joining us?

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Ah, gwan, ya will!

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Thomas Cahill

By now you’ll know that Ireland is about so much more than shamrocks, St. Patrick and leprechauns. For a country the same size as South Carolina, it packs a hefty cultural punch. Ireland has produced four Nobel Prize winners; five Booker Prize winners; some world dominating musicians; a host of Oscar winners (and another nominated for this year’s awards) and a leading action hero from Ballymena.

We have the best pint in the world and the most stunning coastline – you could even say it’s in a galaxy far, far away.

Last year we hosted a whopping 130 posts on all things relating to Irish culture. Books, food, travel, movies, theatre and favourite bookshops – your enthusiasm was boundless and so was your reading.

So this year we hope to be bigger and better.

To celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life, 746 Books and Raging Fluff are co-hosting a month long celebration of all things Irish.

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Reading Ireland Month (or The Begorrathon as it is affectionately known) will feature book and film reviews, poems, music, interviews, giveaways and much, much more. This year I’ll be looking at female Irish Crime Writers, celebrating World Poetry Day with some new Irish Poets and compiling a list of 100 Novels by Irish Woman Writers.

We’d love for you to join us!

To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Grab our new badge and put it in your sidebar and get planning your Ireland themed reading or viewing. Like our Facebook page here and then between 1 and 31 March, post as much as you like about any aspect of Irish literature and culture – anything at all!

Read this year’s One City One Book choice Echoland by Joe Joyce. Post your wheaten bread recipe. Make a list of your favourite Irish books or movies. Eat a packet of Tayto crisps. Read a book by a female writer from Northern Ireland to support Women Aloud NI.

Ireland more last

Watch Game of Thrones and marvel at our countryside. Read some of last year’s award winning new fiction from Mike McCormick (Solar Bones) and Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies). If you’re feeling brave, read Ulysses. Dress up as Mrs Doyle from Father Ted and take a selfie, whatever it is we don’t mind!

 

As an added incentive, everyone who posts during Reading Ireland Month will be entered into a draw to win a copy of the beautiful Irish literary journal The Winter Pages, edited by Kevin Barry.

We’re not big on rules so the ones we have are pretty straightforward:

  • Put a link to your post on our Facebook page and we’ll be sure to share it
  • Link to our master post on either of our blogs: FOR POSTS ABOUT POETS, PLAYWRIGHTS and AUTHORS, link back to Cathy at 746 Books
  • FOR POSTS ABOUT FILMS, MUSIC, TV or ANYTHING ELSE, link back to Niall at Raging Fluff
  • Watch our Reading Ireland Month trailer to give you some ideas for what to watch, read, eat or drink
  • Join the craic on Facebook
  • Check out the list of 100 Irish Novels on 746 Books blog in case you need some help choosing a book
  • Don’t forget to tweet about your post using the hashtags #readireland17 or #begorrathon17

We can’t wait to hear what you are planning. Have you any books or movies lined up? Any new authors or old favourites you might visit during March?

It’s going to be some craic….

 

More than loud acclaim,

I love Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

Pangur Bán Poem by Anon Irish Monk, Translated by Seamus Heaney

Irish Book Awards Shortlist Announced!


The Shortlist for the Irish Book Awards was announced yesterday and there are some great books and authors on this years list. The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards brings together the entire literary community – readers, authors, booksellers, publishers and librarians – to recognise and celebrate the very best of Irish literary talent across thirteen categories, including Novel of the Year, Popular Fiction, Non-fiction, Crime, Children’s, Sports, Short Stories and Cookery.

The Best Novel category is always an incredibly strong category, which was won last year by Louise O’Neill for Asking For It. This year, I have my fingers crossed for All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. I was lucky enough to get a review copy of this and although I haven’t published my review yet, it was another beautiful, unforgettable novel from an author who is becoming a firm go-to writer for me. I’m delighted that he will be coming to Seamus Heaney HomePlace in December to chat about this new novel, I think I will be a bit of a fan-girl when he arrives! I also have copies of Days Without End, Solar Bones and The Lesser Bohemians on my TBR. I haven’t been able to read Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, but I know from hearing other bookish chat that it is considered one of her best, so I think that could be a favourite to win, although the acclaimed Solar Bones might create an upset.

Eason Novel of the Year

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry 

All We Shall Know – Donal Ryan 

Solar Bones – Mike McCormack 

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride 

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue 

This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

MY PREDICTION: MAGGIE O’FARRELL

I’m delighted to see The Glass Shore included in the Journal.ie Best Irish Published Book of the Year. This anthology of short stories by Northern Irish female writers goes someway to balancing out the gender bias of many anthologies and collections of Irish writing. I am half way through the collection at the moment and it is a great read and a great companion piece to last year’s winner The Long Gaze Back

TheJournal.ie Best Irish published Book of the Year

All Through the Night – Edited by Marie Heaney 

Dublin since 1922 – Tim Carey 

Looking Back: The Changing Faces of Ireland – Eric Luke 

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks – Edited by Fintan O’Toole  

The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland 1916-2016 – Michael Dervan 

The Glass Shore – Sinéad Gleeson 

MY PREDICTION: THE GLASS SHORE

I haven’t heard a lot about the books on the Newcomer of the Year list, although I did enjoy E.M. Reapy’s Red Dirt when I read it earlier in the year. You can check out my review here. 

Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year

Himself – Jess Kidd

Red Dirt – E.M. Reapy 

The Last Days of Summer – Vanessa Ronan 

The Maker of Swans – Paraic O’Donnell 

The Things I Should Have Told You – Carmel Harrington 

This Living and Immortal Thing – Austin Duffy 

MY PREDICTION: RED DIRT

Tana French makes the Crime Fiction Award shortlist with The Trespasser, although I have a feeling this category might be won by Liz Nugent for Lying In Wait – I don’t think I’ve seen such positive online buzz about a book in ages!

Books Are My Bag Crime Fiction Book of the Year

Distress Signals – Catherine Ryan Howard 

Little Bones – Sam Blake

Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent 

The Constant Soldier – William Ryan

The Drowning Child – Alex Barclay 

The Trespasser – Tana French 

MY PREDICTION: LIZ NUGENT

Another visitor to Seamus Heaney HomePlace will be Patrick Deeley who will be reading from his moving and poetic memoir The Hurley Maker’s Son in December alongside Donal Ryan. I am halfway through this gorgeous book, so fingers crossed it wins in the National Book Tokens Non Fiction Book of the Year category. 

National Book Tokens Nonfiction Book of the Year

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy – Paul Howard 

Ireland The Autobiography – John Bowman 

The Hurley Maker’s Son – Patrick Deeley 

The Supreme Court – Ruadhán Mac Cormaic 

Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir – John Banville & Paul Joyce 

When Ideas Matter – Michael D. Higgins 

MY PREDICTION: PATRICK DEELEY

What’s most fantastic about the Irish Book Awards is that from here on in, the voting is down to the reading public. Voting is open online until 11 November, with the ceremony taking place on 16 November. May the best books win!

Have you read any of the shortlisted books? Who would you cast your vote for?

 

National Poetry Day – ‘set the darkness echoing’

As it is National Poetry Day, I thought it was an apt time to explain my recent blogging absence.

Two months ago I started a new job in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace and on Thursday night, we officially opened the Centre in his home village of Bellaghy, in the presence of the Heaney family, the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland and many notable friends and guests.

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The Opening weekend was amazing and exhausting and a highlight of my working career so far. There were talks by Christopher Reid, Tom Paulin and Michael Longley and performances by Paul Brady, Stephen Rea and Fiona Shaw.

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The Centre has a theatre, craft shop and café and at the centre is an exhibition dedicated to exploring the life of Seamus Heaney growing up in Bellaghy and the people and experiences that inspired his work. The exhibition also features recordings of Heaney reading his own work.

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For National Poetry Day, The Prince of Wales has recorded a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem The Shipping Forecast which was aired on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as part of the nationwide celebrations. The recording will also be featured at HomePlace today and visitors can listen to the piece throughout the day.

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The work that has gone in to the planning of the Opening weekend was phenomenal and I was working 12 and 14 hour shifts so blogging has had to take a bit of a back seat. After work, home and family, I had little time or energy to write blog posts – even though I have been managing to read quite a bit and have a few reviews just waiting to be written.

squat-pen

I’m hoping that I can get back in to the routine of blogging regularly and reading all my favourite blogs again. I miss it and I miss all my blogging pals and I didn’t realise how much this little corner of the internet means to me, until I started to abandon it!

Today, in celebration of National Poetry Day, I’m going to share a Seamue Heaney poem, Personal Helicon, which was read at the opening of HomePlace and whose last line is one of my favourite lines of poetry.

 

PERSONAL HELICON

For Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

 

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket

Plummeted down at the end of a rope.

So deep you saw no reflection in it.

 

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch

Fructified like any aquarium.

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch

A white face hovered over the bottom.

 

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

 

The Privileged by Emily Hourican

 

Emily Hourican’s The Privileged, is a well-written entertaining story focusing on the friendship between three south side Dublin girls on the brink of adulthood. The title gives it away, but this is a tale of upper middle class teenagers with upper middle class problems, which means that sometimes it’s hard to be as sympathetic to their plights as the plot would wish us to be.

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Stella and Laura are life-long friends who are outsiders at their exclusive school (I’m unsure as to why) until they form an unlikely friendship with the beautiful and popular Amanda O’Hagen who draws them into her world of wealth and privilege. The three become inseparable, until Amanda’s work in the modelling industry leads to constant partying and drug taking. The arrival of a Huw, a rich English man with his own penchant for self-destruction, eventually drives a wedge between Amanda and everyone around her.

The book opens with the women now in their thirties as Laura, a journalist and Stella, a lawyer, meet in London to try and save Amanda from a very public and dangerous downfall.

The book skilfully moves from present to past, exploring the lives and career paths the three girls have followed and exploring how friendships, no matter how strong, can disintegrate at an alarming rate. Hourican is also effective at exploring Amanda’s toxic relationship with her mother and how it ties in with her self-destructive descent into drug addiction. The heady atmosphere of that time between school and university when the world is there for the taking is also well captured and the bonds of teenage friendship and the belief that it will last forever will be recognisable to many.

Ultimately though, these are characters who are often hard to care about. The very privilege that allows the story to flourish, also means that the stakes never feel high enough. These are the children of artists, solicitors and stockbrokers and their disappointment at where their lives have ended up is dramatically unconvincing. To my mind, Laura is the most interesting of the three girls, but her story is somewhat eclipsed by Amanda’s Amy Winehouse-style fall from social grace and Stella’s tangled love life. As Hourican is herself a journalist, Laura’s work life in the newsroom, trying to balance ethics with the problem of declining newspaper sales, is vivid and intriguing in comparison to Stella’s sterile work in a New York law firm.

However, this book is about Amanda and while it is to Hourican’s credit that Amanda’s descent into a life of addiction and degradation is convincing, I found Amanda herself to be a bit of a cipher. Amanda is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, charming, charismatic and adored by all and yet little of a personality comes through.

They had read into her something that spoke more clearly of their own dreams and hopes than of anything that was actually there. Photographers saw a muse, her mother had seen glory, Stella and Laura escape, their friends from college excitement.

That is maybe the intention, the idea that we can never really know someone, but as the lead character of a book, it leaves a bit of a vacuum. As a reader, I was interested in Amanda, but not invested in her and the ‘betrayal’ between the three, which changes the course of their friendship, is equally underwhelming.

Despite these issues, Hourican has crafted a very readable and timely story. She writes well and has a skill in capturing those moments in youth that can feel momentous and life-changing, but overall the book didn’t wholly convince.

I received The Privileged from the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest review

‘Clearances that suddenly stood open…’

Seamus Heaney died three years ago today and the world lost one of its greatest poets. 

In memory of his passing, here is one of my favourite passages from his poem Clearances.

When all the others were away at Mass

 I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Red Dirt by E.M. Reapy

 

All cassowary species are at risk in the wild and are classified as vulnerable animals.

 EM Reapy’s timely and terrifying new novel Red Dirt follows three young Irish people – Murph, Fiona and Hopper – who have travelled to Australia following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland. Escaping the economic disaster of their home country, they have come to find a better life halfway across the world, yet in the chaos of backpacker hostels, factories, farms, drugs and drink, they are discovering that you can try and escape your country and your past, but you can’t escape yourself.

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Red Dirt is told from the point of view of three main characters, whose stories overlap and are linked in more ways than one.

Murph has come to Australia to get away from the shame of his father’s bust building firm, which caused the loss of many jobs in his home town. Along with this friend Shane, the reality of life in Australia is starting to hit home. Living in hostels, missing out on jobs because of failed drug tests and drinking constantly, they realise they have to come up with a plan.

Off our faces all the time and running too low on dollars. I didn’t want to go robbing. It was supposed to be a fresh start here.

They get the opportunity of work on a fruit farm through an acquaintance called John Anthony and along with the lost and unpredictable Hopper, they set off on a car journey which ends in disaster and has far-reaching consequences for all involved.

Fiona is in Australia to get over the break-up of an abusive relationship. Her story is told in the second person, a tricky narrative voice to get right, but it is done here in a skilful way. We are drawn in to Fiona’s thoughts and experiences which means that, for me, this is the strongest section of the book. As Fiona struggles with her finances, her confidence and her self-worth, she stumbles into a nightmarish scenario of dependency and sex-trafficking which is as heart-breaking as it is terrifying.

I’m afraid. Every day, I’m so afraid. Of the past. Of Ireland and here. Of men. Of sleeping. Of what happens next. Of myself. I’m afraid of myself

The third section of the book follows Hopper, devastated by the realisation that the child in Ireland he thought was his has been fathered by another man and prone to arson and casual violence. Directionless and abandoned, he befriends an older man, has a drug-induced conversation with kangaroos and does his best to control his anger – ‘the fizz’ – before it controls him.

He wanted his life to be better. He wanted his life to be okay. He wanted to be on this buzz without thinking like this. Of them. Of his parents. All the bad.

Many Irish writers are tackling the issue of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent financial crash, but by exploring the lives of those who emigrated to Australia, EM Reapy channels their experience in a fresh and unique way. Fuelled by cheap drink, available drugs and a lack of responsibility, her characters end up in a spiral of self-destructive behaviour that mirrors the self-destruction of the Irish economy. Where Australia would once have seemed like the Promised Land to the young people of Ireland, it’s now just somewhere else to fail in. The Irish have become a source of cheap migrant labour and the locals don’t like it.

We came along, desperate for jobs and undercut the locals. Not our problem. The farmers could …also still employ the people from the area, like. But would you, if you could get cheap workers?’ You shrug. ‘I’d exploit the shit out of them’

They are being exploited, working hard for not enough money and hearing echoes of the attitudes the working Irish once faced over 50 years ago. As someone comments, ‘misfortunate breed, the Irish’. The same societal structures exist in Australia as in the Ireland they have left behind, where those arriving with money succeed and those looking to make money are taken advantage of.

‘Celtic Tiger’s no way dead man’ the red chinos guy says. ‘It’s just on fucking holidays Down Under, like. My bank account can totally prove it.’ They hear-hear. You nearly gag. You think about the misery at home with the redundancies. The evictions. The suicides. Ones in the signing on queue wearing hats and sunglasses. All the parked up cars. All the unlived in property. All the full exile planes.

This is no holiday for our characters and like a modern day Lord of the Flies, these young people are trapped on an island with no one to look out for them, making the wrong decisions and tearing themselves apart. These aren’t trust fund kids taking a year out to back pack, these are young people with no safety net. Their frantic parents have no means of helping them out and they are ill-equipped to help themselves.

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Image: Shutterstock

 

It is the story of desperate choices leading to terrifying consequences and the novel is taut with a sense of tension and imminent disaster. The different voices and overlapping time frames create a charged sense of dread and there is an almost cinematic manner to the descriptions of the vast, arid spaces of Australia. Reapy is also very good at capturing the naivety and innocence of her characters, so that even when we know they are making terrible decisions, we can’t help but wonder what we ourselves would do different.

She could have been a million Irish girls with her splash of freckles and highlighted hair. Her new Penney’s summer clothes unpacked and put away neat into a locker. Cheap and hopeful.

Murph, Fiona and Hopper may have come to Australia with hope, but they are quickly realising that it won’t take them far. As frightening and real as Red Dirt is though, some glimmers of hope do remain. Fiona and Hopper in particular face unimaginable danger and terror yet find an inner strength they never knew they had to come through their ordeals. Their boss at the factory, Henk says;

Good can always come of bad son

and there is a feeling that although this is rock bottom, they have no other way to go but up and on.

You think about nothing. It’s all you have. Nothing. All you are. Nothing. All your stuff gone. You have no money. You have no friends, no lover, nowhere to go. You have nothing.

You stare at the sky and you realise you are free. You realise this and you say I have everything. ‘I have everything’.

In her short stories Gustavo (compiled in The Long Gaze Back) and The Opposite of a Movie Star, EM Reapy explores how expectations and reality often clash and with Red Dirt, she has taken this theme further to create a thrilling, distinctive and compelling debut that deserves to be widely read.

I received a copy of red Dirt from the publisher, Head of Zeus, through Netgalley in return for an honest review.

The Lost by Claire McGowan

 

the lost

 

In Claire McGowan’s incredibly assured debut novel The Lost, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire looks at the photographs of a group of missing girls and notes

All of them lost, in their own ways

The same could be said for all the characters in this tightly plotted and intricately woven thriller as McGowan explores what it means to be literally and figuratively lost, and how we cope if we are the ones left behind.

The story is set in the fictional Ballyterrin (cased on McGowan’s home town of Rostrevor), a small Northern Irish town sitting close to the border with the South of Ireland. Paula Maguire left Ballyterrin for London in 2000, but now 12 years later, she is called back home to join a Missing Persons Unit, set up to look into cold cases of disappeared lives. Paula has her own reasons for focusing on this line of work and as her team are drawn in to investigating the disappearance of two young girls who had links with a local religious group, the lines between past and present become frighteningly blurred and it seems that history may be repeating itself in the town of Ballyterrin.

The Troubles may be over, but the pain that it wrought is still very raw and the violence of the past clings to the present despite attempts to move on. These girls may just be runaways, but as the team looks into their lives, it seems that the past may have something to do with where they are now.

The story is a good one. As Paula tries to fit in with her investigative team, we also see her trying to fit back in to her old life that she so abruptly ran from all those years before. She must navigate a new relationship with her ex-boyfriend Aidan who is now running the town paper and make amends with her old friend Saoirse, whom she hasn’t spoken to in twelve years. McGowan cleverly explores both how suffocating and comforting small town life can be compared to the anonymity of a city like London and how, in a town like Ballyterrin, your past is never your own. Paula is hiding her own secrets too, she is trying to find something she has lost and it seems that being home is harder than she thought it would be.

Paula is a great character – smart and focused but also reckless and prone to impulsive behaviour, which makes her interesting and relatable. She plays by her own rules and yet is also hiding a great amount of pain. In McGowan’s capable hands, we realise that Paula is as much lost as the girls she is looking for and as the title takes on multiple meanings, the book gains in depth and emotion. The supporting characters, from Paula’s father to her investigative team are also well drawn and the dialogue, peppered with Northern Ireland vernacular is particularly strong.

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Rostrevor

 

The setting feels like a character in its own right in The Lost, the brooding, rain drenched streets of Ballyterrin hiding secrets and lurching from generation to generation without confronting it’s painful past.

Here already were the hills around her home town, the rolling mountains veiled in rain. It must be a beautiful place, people always said – people who didn’t have to live there – and she always shrugged. Scenery was one thing, twisted hatred another. And the past was still everywhere, creaking with spectral life.

McGowan has written a subtle and insightful post-troubles thriller, exploring a different type of crime that has sprung from the sectarian violence that blighted Northern Ireland. She dips her toe into subjects like the Magdalene laundries, the travelling community and long held religious divides with subtlety and care and creates a layered thriller that is evocative of place and character. It is both grounded and realistic, but also incredibly well-paced and builds to a conclusion I for one didn’t see coming. It is also nicely set up for a series and I for one look forward to reading more about Paula Maguire.

I received a copy of The Lost from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.