The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

I reviewed Annemarie Neary’s novel Siren last year and enjoyed the clever plotting and sharp writing very much. Her new novel The Orphans lives up to that initial promise and delivers a thoughtful, subtle thriller that explores childhood trauma and how the ghosts of our past can define who we become.

The book opens in Goa in 1992, where Sophie and William are living with their two young children Jess and Sparrow (Ro for short). They are living the hippy dream, but that dream soon becomes a nightmare when the couple disappear from the beach in plain sight while their children play by the water’s edge. William’s body is discovered, but Sophie has vanished, leaving these two children orphaned in a strange country. Pursued by the tabloids and eventually taken in by friends and relatives, Jess is left as the protector of her younger brother at just the age of eight. 

What follows is both a thriller in the sense that there is a need to uncover what actually happened on the beach that day, and an exploration of what happens to children who face grief at such a young age.

 Now grown-up and living in London, Jess has overcome her childhood adversity by attempting to create the perfect life. Married with a baby daughter she is a successful lawyer, living in a beautiful house overlooking the common. There are cracks in the façade though, including issues at work, a crippling mortgage and questions over her husband’s fidelity.  

However, Jess has such a need for control and security, that she turns a blind eye to her problems and tries to convince herself and everyone around her that her life is perfect. 

Ro has taken a much different path, spending the intervening decades travelling the world searching for clues as to the whereabouts of his mother. When a passport turns up in Ireland, Ro follows the trail to his mother’s old friend Mags, who suggests that his mother is still close to Jess. This news is the spark that lights the touch paper and Ro’s ensuing actions have a devastating effect on all involved. 

Like Siren, The Orphans explores the psychological fall out of events of the past and the choices that are made in the light of what has gone before. Where Jess seeks control, Ro embraces chaos. Jess likes rules and boundaries, in her life and in her work, while Ro is always clutching for the impossible. None of these approaches is bringing either sibling happiness, and Neary deftly explores the lasting pain of childhood abandonment and how it is difficult to escape.

The book is also strong on exploding the myth of the hippy lifestyle to show the darker side of trying to live a simpler life. As Jess and Ro explore their parents’ lives, they discover not the idyll they remember, but lives marred by drugs, infidelity and uncertainty.

 As with Neary’s previous novel, The Orphans is well plotted, going back and forth from Jess to Ro’s point of view, teasing out the truth little by little and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. A sub-plot about a harassing work colleague adds to a sense of tension and unease, but sometimes distracts from the main story. 

The ending is not as explosive or unexpected as some readers may hope for, but eventually the resolution to the crime that was committed becomes less important than the pervading sympathy for the children at the heart of that crime. In Jess and Ro, Neary has created two fascinating characters and it is to her credit that the reader’s sympathy stays with them to the unforced and affecting conclusion.  

The Orphans is a different kind of thriller, subtle and compelling with an emphasis on strong characterisation and a great sense of place. From the sunlit beaches of Goa to a dank common in London, this is an atmospheric and gripping read. 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor

Joyride to Jupiter cover

Nuala O’Connor’s stunning new collection of short stories Joyride to Jupiter opens with the line ‘I knew something was going to go wrong as sure as I knew west was west’ and closes with the promise that ‘All will be well.’ Things do go wrong in these stories, sometimes very wrong, but O’Connor moves seamlessly from despair to hope in this witty, humorous and moving collection.

Loss permeates a lot of the stories in Joyride to Jupiter as relationships falter, adulteries happen and familial ties are tested.

In the affecting Tinnycross estranged brothers are fighting over the inheritance of their family home, while the narrator of Consolata looks back on the childhood moment when she caught her father having sex with a nun. ‘How could my Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me?’

In Futuretense a copywriter for a fragrance company reflects on the suicide of her brother as she comes up with the blurb for new scents; while Squidinky depicts a tattooist grieving for her dead partner.

Yet this is not a depressing collection by any means. What makes these stories successful is the deft blending of wit and tenderness coupled with effective and welcome moments of humour. O’Connor is also skilfully aware of the importance in the short story of allowing nothing in particular to happen; yet when dramatic moments come they feel cohesive and well-timed.

In the wonderfully named title story, a man struggles to deal with his wife’s dementia and her regression into child-like precociousness. She starts wearing tracksuits and cheap teenage make-up and becomes more and more reliant on her husband.

And then she laughed because laughter falls from her now as it never did; it falls and pools around us, the one good thing. I knelt and stepped her feet into her knickers and pulled them up. I put her arms into the sleeves of her blouse and fiddled with the tiny buttons. She was childlike in her pliancy. I kissed her forehead. ‘You’re my dolly’, I said.

Poignancy soon gives way to unease as O’Connor skilfully portrays the unreliability of our narrator and as with all these stories there is a sense for the reader that we are never quite sure where we are going to be taken.

There is a strong sense of place in these stories, from rural Ireland to Naples via Rio de Janeiro, with vivid descriptions of landscape that often catch the breath.

Tonight there is a moon-rind, a nicotined fingernail, hanging low over the lake; above it, a Swarovski sparkler of a star

Being in a place or being away from a place are often the crux of these stories, whether it be a Ukrainian chambermaid watching her child grow up via Skype or a young emigre working in Manhattan and thinking of her mother back in Galway. These characters might as well be on Jupiter for the distance they have to breach.

My face is a shadow. My Mammy’s features blur and slip out of focus. I put my hand to the glass and rub at it to try to conjure her again. And I am flattened by the truth of things; no more than the poor little maneen from Ballinasloe, I will never look into my Mammy’s eyes again.

O’Connor’s characters are often ‘flattened by the truth of things’ and a lot of the stories rest on a moment of realisation and clarity. Whether or not anything will come of these moments of revelation is often tantalisingly left up to the reader.

Narrative voices are well-captured, particularly in the hilarious Penny and Leo in Married Bliss, where Penny’s anger at her belief that Leo is cheating, online and in real life, doesn’t stop her from fantasising about a tryst with the local priest.

Ah, he’s a fine thing though. God forgive me but I’d bounce up and down on Father Hugh Boylan all night, given a chance

The seemingly ironic nature of the title of the story does not play out the way you would expect and the story turns on its head to suggest that happiness comes in many forms.

In Joyride to Jupiter, the shortest pieces are no less affecting, unsurprising given O’Connor’s experience as a flash fiction writer. In Fish a neighbouring man and woman see each other in a state of undress, ‘and none of it could be undone’ while in the affecting Girlgrief a mother deals with the death of her grown son by looking after his daughter she has never met before. The ingenious Yellow verges towards science fiction as couples try to catch flying babies in a net – the style of the story perfectly capturing the surreal nature of infertility treatment.

Joyride to Jupiter is a collection that shows a writer with complete mastery of her craft. The best of the stories hint rather than shout but all are poignant and complex, riding on the dichotomy between hope and despair. She is clear-eyed when exploring the dark realities of human behaviour, but the humour and wit displayed within her affecting prose allow this collection to soar.

 Nuala O'Connor author 2

Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018.

www.nualaoconnor.com

 

No 593 The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

 

The Butterfly Cabinet was one of my books for Reading Ireland Month and I am delighted to have Bernie on the blog today answering questions about this beautiful book and her writing in general.

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The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story set in Portstewart, Northern  Ireland and it tells the story of the death of 4 year old Charlotte in 1892 from the point of view of the child’s wealthy, aristocratic mother Harriet, who has been jailed for the child’s death and from the point of view of Maddie, a housemaid working for Harriet, who carries her own guilt about what happened that fateful day.

Harriet Ormonde is a cold, cruel mother. As a punishment for wetting herself, she locks her daughter in a wardrobe with her hands tied. Several hours later, Charlotte is dead. The story moves forward in time as Harriet’s grand-daughter Annie is visiting Maddie, one of the servants in a nursing home. Maddie is near death and decides it is time for the family to know the truth. She gives Annie a prison diary belonging to Harriet and tells her the secrets that she has been carrying all these years. Secrets that change the family beyond what anyone thought it was.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a beautiful novel charting the lives of women in Northern Ireland against a backdrop of history and changing socio-economic times. It is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of motherhood, the yearning for personal freedom and the decisions that can have consequences for any number of lives.

Life is fluid. We are the ghosts of all the people we might become, peering forward to catch a glimpse of what could be, our future selves staring back at us, at who we might have been, never were.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a hauntingly beautiful book and I am delighted to welcome Bernie to 746 Books!

 

Bernie McGill author pic

The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story. How did you discover the story of the Montagu family and what was it that drew you to it?

I came across the story in a local parish magazine and was immediately intrigued by it. Cromore House, where the young Montagu child died, is only a mile or so from where I was living at the time. I didn’t know anything about the family or the circumstances of the child’s death, so I started to do some newspaper research with a view to writing a short story. The details of the mother, Annie Montagu’s, arrest and trial were very well documented in the Coleraine Chronicle of 1892. The more I read about those events, the more drawn in I became. Not much was written about Annie Montagu herself. She came across as an enigmatic figure, rather cold, somewhat severe, so of course I wanted to explore her story through fiction.

The book spans over 70 years and a lot of Northern Irish history. Do you approach the process of writing differently when historical research is involved?

For both of the novels I’ve written, I’ve done a lot of research. It’s partly to do with equipping myself to write with confidence, I think, but for me it’s an opening into the fiction as well. I tend to make reams of handwritten notes, in the margins and on the reverse of copies of primary sources. There’s something about defacing the printed page that I find very satisfactory. It must be the hidden vandal in me. To anyone trying to decipher it, it would probably look like a tangled mess. To me, it looks and feels like potential beginnings.

Short stories require a degree of research but with mine the settings are all contemporary or near-contemporary and, crucially, they’re short. If you’re half way through writing a two thousand word story and you think it’s not working, it doesn’t feel like such a dreadful waste of time to leave it and start over with something else. But because I write slowly, and rewrite a lot, to give up on an historical novel when you’ve done so much reading around the period and the events, feels like a massive potential failure. It’s a big investment of time. I’m quite fearful about doing it, but then I do it anyway.

The key themes of the book appear to be motherhood and freedom and how these two concepts are inextricably linked. Did the themes arise from the story, or did you particularly want to explore the changing nature of motherhood over time?

 The themes arose from the story but I wouldn’t have been interested in writing that story if I hadn’t been interested in those themes. I found out that at the time of the child’s death at Cromore House, her mother Annie Montagu had given birth to eight children and was pregnant with her ninth. The child who died was the only girl in the family. I’m the youngest of ten children myself. I didn’t really think about that at the time, but looking back on it, that must have had a part to play in my interest. I have a certain degree of empathy for Annie Montagu. Although she was financially well-off and in a privileged position in society, I wonder if she felt that her choices were restricted? The limited amount of information I had about her seemed to point to a woman who was unconventional among her peers: she was a renowned horsewoman; she ‘broke’ her own horses; she bartered over prices in the market place; she rode to the hunt while pregnant. There was a sense of unfiltered disapproval regarding her activities which, if it had been expressed, would have amounted to this: she didn’t behave as a woman ought to; she strayed into the realms of the men.

What part does Ireland play in your writing? Do you consider yourself an ‘Irish’ writer or part of an Irish tradition?

I do consider myself an Irish writer by identity, but I’m not sure that I see myself as part of any writing tradition. It wasn’t something I thought about when I started writing. I studied English and Italian at Queen’s and afterwards completed my Masters in Irish Writing. By the time I’d graduated, I’d read a lot of work by dead white men. Afterwards, I discovered writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and I was blown away by their work, by my personal response to what they were writing, so I stayed away from Irish writing for a while because I didn’t feel that emotional connection. I’ve come back, of course. I read lots of contemporary Irish writing now. I name the women writers below but among my favourite male writers are Donal Ryan, Niall Williams, Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry and Eoin McNamee.

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You write short stories and novels. Is there a form that you prefer, or do stories fit more with one genre than the other?

 I think there are some stories that demand the scope of a novel. When I began to write about Annie Montagu, I thought that would be a short story, but it soon became clear that the short form wouldn’t contain her story. I do prefer to write short stories for the simple fact of finishing something sooner: the length is so much more manageable. But there is a sense of achievement with finishing the marathon run of the novel too. I wish there was a stronger market for the short story. There’s always talk of how healthy the form is, how we’re on the cusp of a revival, but ask any publisher what they want from a writer and not one of them will answer: ‘A short story collection.’ They’re a hard sell.

Your short stories have been included in the recent anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Do you feel that those collections are helping to shine a spotlight on women writers from Ireland? Who are your favourite women writers from Ireland?

 I think they absolutely shine a light on women writers from Ireland, past and present. Those are wonderful collections, but I have to confess to a bias towards The Glass Shore which contains stories by women writers from the North of Ireland. Of those stories I loved Margaret Barrington’s ‘Village Without Men’ and Caroline Blackwood’s ‘Taft’s Wife’. Despite having been written some time ago, they both had a very contemporary feel to me. Of the women who are writing today, I love the work of Claire Keegan and Lisa McInerney, also Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Sara Baume. And I’m reading Jan Carson’s Children’s Children at the moment and loving the stories. They’re little jewels, every one.

You are working on a new book. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

Yes, it’s called The Watch House and I’m on the final proof read. It will be published by Tinder Press in August 2017. It’s set on Rathlin Island in 1898 at the time of the Marconi experiments. It centres around a fictional island woman called Nuala Byrne who becomes an assistant wireless operator. I love Rathlin. I went there first on a Writers’ Weekend organised by Ballycastle Writers years ago and I’ve always wanted to write something about the place. I wanted to write a story about the impact the visit of Marconi’s engineers might have made on the islanders at the time. My interest was in exploring the phenomenon that radio was in the late nineteenth century: the extraordinary idea that your words could travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. The story’s about the power of words as well as the dangers of suspicion. That’s all I can tell you for now.

My thanks to Bernie for taking the time to share her thoughts with me. If you’d like to find out more about her work (and I urge you to!) check out her website or follow her on Twitter @berniemcgill

Bernie’s first collection of short stories, was published in May 2013 by Whittrick Press and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2014. The title story was first prizewinner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US) and the collection includes ‘Home’, a supplementary prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport Short Story Prize and ‘No Angel’, Second Prizewinner in the Seán Ó Faoláin and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Prizes. Her work has been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back and in the forthcoming The Glass Shore. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council Awards including an ACES Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast and an award from the Society of Authors.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 154

Number Remaining: 592

The Rise of Irish Young Adult Fiction

To round off Reading Ireland Month, I have the brilliant Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek to discuss Irish YA fiction. Led by Louise O’Neill, Irish authors are excelling in this genre. Not having read enough to comment, I asked Rachel along to share her expertise in the books to look out for!

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that our wee island has some pretty talented people. From Joyce, Wilde, Yeats, and Heaney, to Doyle, Binchy, Keyes, and Donoghue. As an avid reader, I’m always a little disappointed in myself that I don’t indulge in enough Irish literature, and it’s a promise I keep making that this year, I will.

2017 rolled around, and with it came another Reading Ireland Month, an event I was finally going to participate in. When looking around at the (many) unread books on my shelves, I realised I had a couple of Young Adult books by Irish authors, and decided to do a little more research to see what Irish writers are creating for the younger target market.

YA, or Young Adult literature, has seen an unprecedented boom in recent years – becoming one of the fastest growing and most lucrative genres in publishing. Therefore, I thought it was pretty reasonable to assume that there would be a plethora of YA literature by Irish authors… apparently not.

Not to worry, I did manage to come across a few corkers… and the odd dud. On to the books!

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

This 2015 debut won the Irish Bookseller’s Book of the Year award, and with good reason. O’Neill’s debut novel is a dystopian, with feminist undertones, that is sure to strike a chord with readers, both young and old(er). Many have compared this to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which is surely praise indeed. Check out my full review of Only Ever Yours.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

O’Neill’s follow-up was even better than her debut, in my humble opinion. This book is complex, and sometimes dark, but so very, very important. Sexual assault, rape culture, and victim blaming, are all covered in this YA novel that has also been rereleased with a different cover for the adult fiction market. So strong were my feelings about this book, that I was prompted to write #NotAskingForIt. A must read for all ages and genders. Check out my full review of Asking For It.

Through the Barricades by Denise Deegan

I was pleasantly surprised by, and thoroughly enjoyed, this historical novel set in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916. I’m not entirely sure the author intended this work for a YA audience, but the two protagonists are teenagers for much of the novel, and though a great read for us grown ups, it would work equally well for a YA audience. She was willing to sacrifice everything for her country. He was willing to sacrifice everything for her. Check out my full review of Through the Barricades, and my Author Spotlight Interview with Denise Deegan.

Rockadoon Shore by Rory Gleeson

I was so excited when I saw this book. It looked modern and fresh, and the blurb was so enticing, but the execution was very disappointing, the plot practically non-existent, and the characters flat. If this is a realistic portrayal of Ireland’s youth, I’m concerned for the future of this country. I’m on the lookout for some really great Irish YA to make me forget that I trudged through what should really have been a DNF. Check out my full review of Rockadoon Shore.

Honourable Mentions

I read these books when I actually was a young adult, which was a few years ago now (cough), but I remember loving them, so thought I’d give them a little extra love.

The Switchers Trilogy by Kate Thompson

The Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

Children of the Famine Series by Marita Conlon-McKenna

Do you have any great recommendations for Irish authors, particularly Irish YA? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to add more to my to-read list!

Many thanks to Rachel for this great YA round-up. Do check out her great blog!

No 594 The Miracle Shed by Philip MacCann

Whatever happened to Philip MacCann?’ is a phrase that crops up if you do even a cursory internet search of this elusive author. I’m not even sure if I am right to include MacCann in Reading Ireland Month as he is possibly not Irish.

Some sites say he was born in Belfast, more that he was born in Manchester. That he studied at Trinity College Dublin is fact though, along with the indisputable evidence that he was hailed as a new literary talent when his short story collection The Miracle Shed was published in 1995. Time Out called him ‘a totally original, new literary writer of intellectual power’ while the Observer mused ‘if I had to choose just one voice it would be Philip MacCann’s’. He won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and MacCann was named in The Observer newspaper’s list of ’21 Writers for the Twenty-First Century’ in 1999.

Despite this high praise, MacCann has never published another book. Some of his literary reviews can be found online, along with an article deriding much contemporary Irish fiction at the time and his thoughts on a writing class he took with Malcolm Bradbury, but aside from that, The Miracle Shed is all that we have.

Last year I wrote a piece on The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s seminal work on the nature of the short story. While discussing the differences between the novel and the short story, O’Connor notes that the e best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.

That submerged population changes from writer to writer, from generation to generation … it does not mean mere material squalor, though this is often a characteristic of the submerged population groups. Ultimately it seems to mean defeat inflicted by a society that has no sign posts, a society that offers no goals and no answers

O’Connor could have written this specifically about The Miracle Shed which is filled with protagonists who are powerless and dispossessed, living on the fringes of society. The glue sniffers and drug addicts, the poor and the perverted. These are people who have internalised their pain, or who have numbed themselves from it. They are almost abstract characters who are presented with no external context, no back story. It is as if MacCann is opening doors just a chink for the reader to peer through, creating a strange voyeuristic experience when reading.

Each new tale drops the reader straight into the characters heads, which means all the narrators are unreliable most are also unlikeable as MacCann explores human degradation in all its forms, but he always maintain a sympathy for even the worst of the characters found here.

Although set principally in Dublin and Belfast, the geography of these stories is not the important thing. In Stories at El Hajibands, the action moves to Africa, while Love Marks in set in London. No matter what the location, the skies are heavy, the clouds ominous and the problems are the same. Although set in and around the Troubles, they don’t feature in these stories – for MacCann, the poor and the dispossessed could be living anywhere and doing anything to distract from the poverty and boredom of their lives.

Even something like love was a pigment on the world’s canvas like everything else, not at all transcendental or anything. It looked nice – like those hackneyed heavens – but it was basically grubby, and simply mass-produced. Some love was grubbier than others of course.

In Tender a man and boy sniff glue on the outskirts of Belfast, while in Street Magic, a young couple try to find work and get by in Dublin. At Freeform Joe’s, a group of young people try to find answers through a Ouija Board, while in the title story The Miracle Shed some fairground workers live in a hut and pass the time aimlessly working on a car and planning pipe dreams for a future that even they seem to know will never come. In the dreamlike , almost Beckettian Harvestman, we are inside the head of an old man as he takes out his rubbish from his flat. His stream of consciousness belies his own mental illness mingled with his fantasies about a young girl.

There is a strong sexual element to these stories, sometimes discomfiting, particularly in Dark Hour where a young boy is pimped out by his older brother for cash. The propriety of relationships is blurred, particularly in Naturally Strange, a wonderfully odd story where a teenage boy has to share a bed in a squalid flat with his pregnant mother. MacCann seems drawn to relationships that are taboo and if there is one way in which the book feels slightly dated is in it’s depiction of homosexuality, attitudes to which have changed drastically in the last 20 years.

Take beings. Beings need happiness. True? Take me. I am a being. I want salt. I want air. I want happiness. These are essentials for each and every day. Picture life without them. Life would be not as it should.

The bleakness of this collection, featuring so many lives being ‘not as they should’, is punctuated with some dry humour. In Grey Area, school boys enter into an ill-conceived plan to have their Latin teacher shot by paramilitaries in revenge for his teaching them a subject they hate. Their plot is merely a way to fill their time and alleviate their boredom and the lack of insight for the consequences of their actions belies the improbability of what they have tried to do.

A momentum developed , we goaded each other on, producing ever finer points, choosing the best day to strike; we even dreamed about the scheme and came in the next morning with divinely ministered details. And finally, and at last, when we held under our gaze a strategy, perfect and monstrous and unwanted, a baffled and ugly thing independent now, with its own life and unlovable demands, there was one moment of embarrassment when we each agreed silently, without saying a word more, to ignore it.

The writing in this collection is also incredibly beautiful, in comparison to the subject matter. The prose is vibrant, unexpected and lyrical and the style is elusive. A part of town is ‘freckled with oil stains and smelled of closing time‘ while a bad smell ‘was getting in the flat from the street, like the brightness gone bad‘. These stories are hard to pin down, there is always a subtext, an underlying atmosphere that is suggestive of impressionism rather than realism. The stories are meandering and dreamlike and ultimately hard to pin down.

His work reminds me of that of Carson McCullers or Denis Johnston, in so far as he, like them is giving voice to outsiders. The Miracle Shed is also reminiscent of Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. Not that MacCann, I feel, would appreciate any comparisons.

Philip MacCann Irish Literature The Miracle Shed

Philip MacCann…possibly

These stories will not be to everyone’s taste. Tonally, all veer towards pessimism and deviance which can be draining if the collection is read as a single piece of work. However, the writing and the use of language is dazzling and totally unlike anything I have ever read and it is that ambition and uniqueness that is to be admired, even if it is hard to love.

A silent author is always a fascinating one – Harper Lee being a prime example, and it is interesting to note the theories that surround MacCann’s subsequent publishing silence. On one online message board, a contributor theorises that,

MacCann was a young member of a secret society related to the Knights Templar. He was ordered to desist from writing by his Grand Master.

Whatever the reasons for his retreat from publishing life, it now seems like a new work from Philip MacCann is as vague a dream as those of the characters in The Miracle Shed. He may prove me wrong. I would love  it if he did.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 153

Number Remaining: 593

No 595 The Reckoning by Jane Casey

Things weren’t great for Maeve Kerrigan at the end of The Burning, the first in the series of crime novels by Jane Casey. Attacked by a serial killer; dealing with the machismo and misogyny of her fellow police officers and starting a perilous relationship with her colleague Rob Langton had left Kerrigan in a fragile position.

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When we meet Maeve again at the start of The Reckoning, things aren’t much better. She has moved into a new flat with strange neighbours; she can’t reconcile working with and sleeping with Rob and her beloved boss Godley has paired her up with the obnoxious, chauvinistic Josh Derwent.

Kerrigan and Derwent are working on a series of murders of registered paedophiles – all horrifically killed, but in very different ways. Given the nature of the victims, there is little impetus for the police to solve the crimes, but Maeve sees past the unsavoury nature of the victims’ characters and believes that murder is murder no matter who the victim is. Derwent, does not agree – either with Maeve’s determination to solve the crimes, or with her usefulness as a police officer.

Derwent was still talking, oblivious. “According to the boss, this is an important case and needs sensitive handling. That’s why he assigned you to work on it with me, which makes some sort of sense. The last thing I need is one of those hairy-arsed DCs from the team clumping around offending the families by saying the wrong thing.”
“I’ll do my best to avoid that,” I said stiffly.
“That’s the thing. You don’t have to do anything at all. Just stand back, look pretty, and let me do all the work.” Derwent squinted out through the windscreen and I was glad he didn’t look in my direction, because the expression on my face was nothing short of murderous.

Thankfully Maeve ignores Derwent’s advice to rest on her looks and the more they investigate, the more complex the situation they are in becomes. John Skinner, a well-known gangster with a grudge against Godley is involved. His daughter Cheyenne has gone missing and there are links to another woman’s disappearance 18 months before. Meanwhile, it seems as if someone within the police force is leaking information and someone is stalking Maeve, taking pictures of her without her knowledge.

If the plot sounds complex, it is. At the half way mark there is a U-turn, a change of focus which is cleverly handled without leaving the reader to feel the rug has been pulled from under them.

There is a lot packed into The Reckoning, and it is to Casey’s credit that nothing feels like filler and subplots are made to feel like part of the bigger picture. The reckoning of the title refers to a lot of happenings in the book and the result is a well-paced, sharply plotted thriller.

Jane-Casey

When I reviewed Jane Casey’s previous novel, The Burning, I said that the strength of the book was the characterisation of Maeve Kerrigan and that continues to be the case. Crime novels can be as complex and plot-driven as they like, but if the lead character isn’t memorable, then there is the risk of the book becoming forgettable. However, with Kerrigan, Casey has created a dynamic, sharp-witted protagonist to match classic detectives such as Jane Tennison, or John Rebus. Maeve drives the plot as much as the crimes do and I find myself reading as much to find out about what it going to happen to Maeve.

Casey also explores the male-female working dynamic very well, particularly as it stands in the police force and the introduction of a lesbian character in this book widens out that discussion.

Casey is also careful not to turn Derwent into an all-out chauvinist pig and has created a character with room to grow. The relationship between Derwent and Maeve is an interesting one. They are probably more similar than Maeve would like to admit, both with a fiery temper and the ability to say the things that no one else will say. Despite being as maddened by him as Maeve is, there is also an interesting undercurrent developing in their relationship that I’m sure will carry through in future books.

Jane Casey has just published her latest book Let the Dead Speak to great critical acclaim. For me, she has created a great protagonist in Maeve Kerrigan and her crime novels are the most interesting I have come across in a long time. Meticulously plotted, realistic in the depiction of the slog of police work and with a strong, smart female lead, this series is one I can’t wait to read more of.

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Illuminate by Kerrie O’Brien – A Review and Giveaway for World Poetry Day

Kerrie O’Brien is being hailed as a key new voice in Irish Poetry. Her collection Illuminate is earning rave reviews from writers such as Sebastian Barry (who compared her to Keats) and Joseph O’Connor and it is easy to see why.

Imagine the sun pouring in through a stained glass window – Illuminate captures that warmth, vibrancy and sense of transcendance, all the while being accessible and moving. It is a stunning collection and deserves to be widely read.

O’Brien has a background in visual art and it shows. This collection, which explores ideas of love, beauty and belief is steeped in colours and in light. Rose-golds, reds and yellows create a mosaic of colours. Poems and words glimmer like jewels, each perfectly capturing a feeling or a moment. The imagery is of fire, sunlight, blossoming. Speaking to the Irish Times earlier this year, Kerrie said

I had the title in mind before the majority of it was written. I wanted to visualise a collection that was filled with light, like a rose unfolding

The collection is steeped in the visual, with poems dedicated to Rothko, Diane Arbus, Matisse and Turner. Through these, she exlores the role of the artist and the role that art plays in our lives.

Fire, heart

Bloodsweat

Spilling out

So close and strange

People weep

Sacred –

What we do to each other

And give

Without knowing.

Like art, her work is precise and controlled and yet within that structure it is brimming with emotion. There is a lightness that belies the deep feelings being unearthed, the personal moments shared. There is also a sense of pilgrimage as the poet spends time in Paris, trying finding herself and her way in life. She visits the famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop and looks to Hemmingway for advice.

In one poem, Beckett, she goes to visit that great writers grave;

But get no sense of him –

Because really

On warm evenings

He is at home

Near Cooldrinagh

Still roaming the hills

With his father.

It is this ability to take big ideas, grand works of art and bring them back to the realm of the personal that make this collection such as success. These poems are at heart, about love. Love of art, love for family, love for a partner, and ultimately, love of the self.

I want to thank the well-loved

Bark of my body

For all it has done.

I wantmy spirit to go out

Like a laughing child

Running through the fields

And all along the white

Sands of the sea

Ready for anything.

While reading these poems, I was reminded of a line of Heaney’s from Postscript;

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

That is what Kerrie O’Brien does in these beautifully crafted, deceptively slight works. She illuminates human existence, which is what great poetry should do.

We are all red inside

Brimming with love

All fluid and quiet and fire

Illuminate is published by Salmon Poetry and you can find out more information about Kerrie and her work here. Kerrie has also edited Looking At The Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing aiming to raise €15,000 for the homeless through the Dublin Simon Community. Find out more at www.lookingatthestars.ie

To celebrate World Poetry Day, I have a copy of Illuminate to give away, along with a little goody bag of items from Seamus Heaney HomePlace, including a notebook, pen and bookmark.

To enter, simply comment below and tell me your favourite poem, Irish or otherwise and I will draw a winner by Random Picker on Saturday. I will also ship worldwide.

Good luck!