No 592 The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

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‘Do you hear? That is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours too.’

I have wanted to take part in one of Simon and Karen’s year events for quite a while, so when I saw that the 1951 club was coming up I had a good rummage through my books and (assisted by Wikipedia!) found I had two possibilities for books published in 1951, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier and The Grass Harp by Truman Capote.

I haven’t reviewed any Capote on the blog before and I am a fan of In Cold Blood and Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp then, was a lovely surprise – a sweet, amusing and heart-warming tale of friendship, family and finding your place in the world. The Grass Harp ultimately reminded me, at the end of the day, of what a bloody god writer Capote was and how his personality and legend can sometimes overshadow the beauty of his prose.

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Based loosely on Capote’s early life, The Grass Harp is narrated by Collin, who is looking back on his childhood. Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, Dolly and Verena. Verena is the formidable matriarch of the family, a shrewd business woman who is stern and controlling. Dolly, on the other hand, is a warm homebody, looking after Verena, taking Collin under her wind and making her dropsy cure that she sells via the postal system.  Dolly is a dreamer, living in her bright pink bedroom and never straying far from the homely kitchen where she spends her time with Collin and her toothless friend Catherine.

If some wizard would like to make me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary bakery spells

Residents in the town refer to Dolly as being ‘gone’ in the head, a charge sometimes laid against Collin too. It is an unusual household for a young boy on the cusp of manhood, but the situation becomes more unusual when Verena tries to commercialise Dolly’s dropsy cure by purchasing a factory with the help of the mysterious Morris. Dolly is having none of it and together with Catherine and Collin they run away and take up residence in a tree-house. While there, they are joined by a rebellious teen Riley and a widowed and retired Judge, Charlie Cool.

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Image: Shuterstock

 

To say anymore would be to spoil the story, but what follows is a comic yet emotional parable of what you need to do to find your place in the world. Dolly, considered to be slow, ‘possibly insane’ by her townsfolk, Collin, the orphan and Catherine, the crazy black woman are all outcasts in their own way, outsiders who yearn for acceptance and belonging.

As they pass cosy but fraught hours in their treehouse, they find allies in Riley and Judge Cool and that acceptance turns to friendship and even love.

It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except, we know there is, somewhere: and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.

They briefly and sweetly find their place and their freedom and this one, ridiculous, headstrong action opens up a world of possibility to these characters, reminding them that they can still make decisions that matter, they can still take responsibility for their own lives.

“Is it true, Charlie” Dolly asked, as a child might ask where do falling stars fall? and: “Have we had our lives?”

The Grass Harp is filled with some lovely writing, descriptive yet simple, with not a word wasted.

Wind surprised, pealed the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose

Capote, always so good at characterisation, excels here, with every character leaping off the page. Even background characters, such as a local bakery owner, or the girl that Collin is in love with are fully realised, creating a world that hums and glows with a warm, nostalgic light. For the most part, Capote eschews the conventions of Southern fiction and by doing so creates a timeless, vivid novella that reminds us that

Love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 155

Number Remaining: 591

The Books That Built the Blogger with Liz Dexter

Happy Easter Monday to everyone!

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Today on The Books that Built the Blogger, I am delighted to welcome Liz Dexter who blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

I love Liz’s blog – she reads books that I am often not the most familiar with and gives me ideas to look in different corners of my TBR for what to read next! For The Books That Built the Bloggers, Liz has chosen to intersperse her choices with a mention of her Enduring Reading Pleasures, which gives her books a great context within her reading and her life.

My name’s Liz Dexter and I’m a book blogger at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com . In my day job, I’m an editor and transcriber, and a writer (under my maiden name, Liz Broomfield) and I’m also a happy runner.

Anyone who knows me will think that I’m going to start this off with PONY BOOKS. But while I love pony books, and they have proved an enduring pleasure, they have not made me think differently about my reading and my world. With Cathy and the kind readers’ permission, I will intersperse these choices with five Enduring Pleasures that have run in threads through my life and reading, entered in the order in which they came, between the shocks and new discoveries that perhaps set me on new paths.

So, Enduring Pleasure 1 has to be pony books and children’s classics. We’re talking Nesbit, Hodgson Burnett, all those lovely old books, but mainly pony books – the Pullein-Thompson books, the Jill series … I was so happy when Jane Smiley started a pony book series, and Victoria Eveleigh’s modern pony stories have continued to enthral.

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But the first book I read that made me THINK was J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit. I was a precocious child, very intelligent, able to read before I went to school and devouring everything in the school and village libraries. Then, when I was 7, a misguided (or were they?) teacher gave me The Hobbit to read. Yes, it was within my reading comprehension. But it was HARD. I didn’t understand the motives, the epic nature, good and evil. I was getting a bit lazy, coasting, being proud of having read all the Readers. This gave me pause. Books can be Hard, and sometimes you have to grow up a bit before you can appreciate them. Good lesson.

I read both Toeckey Jones – Go Well, Stay Well, about the friendship between a black and a white girl in apartheid-era South Africa (this was in the 1980s) and another, now lost, book about a Danish boy in WWII, trying to work to resist the Nazis, from the Teen section of the village library in my early teens. With the emotional maturity developing to understand these books, they brought home to me very clearly social injustice and war and their effects. Living in an affluent, monocultural village, this was the first time I really realised about others’ experiences in this way.

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We had all of Enduring Pleasure 2 – Georgette Heyer’s novels in the school and village libraries and I devoured them with that love of a long series maybe only an early teen reader truly has (I worked my way through Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and the other historicals and (really?) Ian Fleming at the same time). I’ve always come back to Heyer for a comfort read.

This is an important one, because it introduces the Person Who Supplied the Books that made the Blogger. Mary was a beacon of socialist, feminist, home-made ice cream-making, soup making wonderfulness in the village. She acted as a kind of naughty extra grandma or fairy godmother to the girls in the village in particular, teaching us to knit and make jam and to read and explore and question. It was she who introduced me to Iris Murdoch, and one of her early books I read was A Severed Head. What a sheltered 14-year-old got out of this tale of incest and psychoanalysis, who knows, but I felt terribly sophisticated having read it, and it started off a lasting love of the author. I bought all her books that were out, the next ones as they came out, I read her oeuvre every decade or so, and I have done an academic study on her and ordinary readers.

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Mary, with her “you can read anything from my bookshelves” policy, also introduced to me to so many more Enduring Pleasures 3 – Virago books, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, great writers and imprints that have been woven through my life since. Nothing couldn’t be borrowed, and you could talk or ask about anything. Thank you, Mary. I try to be a Mary in other younger people’s lives now.

Fast forward to my life in London. One important point here is that I started keeping a reading diary in 1997, something I still keep today even though I blog online (which I started doing in August 2005). I lived in New Cross, on my own for much of the time, and got the Routemaster 36 bus round to Lewisham every weekend to change my library books. Lewisham being a very diverse borough, the library had a wonderful selection, and it was here that I devoured so many books, fiction and non-fiction, about other, different lives – LGBQT lives, lives of colour. Paul Magrs – Does it Show? represents these – what a revelation to read magical realism about people living on a council estate in the North-East, people so different to me but written about so warmly.

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A contrast to all this otherness was found in Enduring Pleasure 4 – Persephone books. The publisher started up while I lived in London, and while the books are mainly about white, middle-class people in the middle of the 20th century, they are varied, tell lost stories and are very valuable and marvellous, and predictably good. I love reading these and discussing them with blogging friends.

I kind of carried on with these reads and, of course, my not-very-mentioned love of biography, travel writing, sports writing … I also started to take part in reading challenges – first making my friends read all of Iris Murdoch, then working my way through Elizabeth Taylor, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf … I was picking up new books by old authors, and somehow through the world of my blogging friends I realised I would probably like Anthony Trollope. Starting with The Warden, I found I very much did, and I’m slowly working my way through his series, with Mrs Oliphant to come. I know I have blogging friends who are also reading him, and that sense of community is lovely.

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Just before I introduced myself to Trollope, I was made to realise by my friend Bridget that while I had loved George Eliot’s Middlemarch for years and read it several times, I actually had the Enduring Pleasure 5 of The Rest of George Eliot to enjoy, too! I have been working my way through her novels ever since, loving all of them and looking forward as I go to re-reading them in time.

Many thanks to Liz for sharing her choices, I love the idea of Enduring Pleasures as a way to follow a path through your reading life! A wonderful way to approach the challenge. Plus, I don’t know about anyone else, but I really want that copy of The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. What an amazing cover!

 

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!

 

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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

Reading Ireland Month Wrap Up!

Well, that’s us for another year!

Yet again, Reading Ireland Month was a great success with over 100 posts on everything from Van Morrison to Molly Keane, Elizabeth Bowen to Lenny Abrahamson.

Niall at Raging Fluff has compiled a great list of all the posts so you can still check out all the contributions. 

Unfortunately, sickness took over for the last week and there were lots of books I didn’t get round to reviewing. This means that April on 746 Books could still have a strong Irish flavour. The books I still have to review include:

The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

House of Names by Colm Toibin

It’s not often that my reading outstrips my reviewing to such an extent, but right now I have a lot of catching up to do! I may end up doing short mini-reviews, but some of these, if not all, really deserve a post to themselves!

Sickness also delayed the announcement of the winner of my Illuminate giveaway. I shall rectify that right now by saying that the winner of a copy of Illuminate and a host of Seamus Heaney HomePlace goodies is 

 REBECCA FOSTER!

Congratulations to Rebecca and thanks to everyone who commented and tweeted.

Thanks must go to Niall at Raging Fluff for being the best co-host as ever and to all of you fab bloggers who read and reviewed Irish authors, commented, tweeted and liked. Your enthusiasm is so infectious and so appreciated. 

Here’s to next year!

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.

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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.

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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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 A User’s Guide to Northern Ireland Slang for St Patrick’s Day!

If I was to say to you ‘spy thon latchy cove down the far Duke’ * would you have any idea what I was talking about?

How about ‘scran the pure heap, sham’ or ‘I’m going for a scobe with my blade’?

Welcome to the world of Northern Ireland slang. Or to be really specific, Ballymena slang! In Northern Ireland we have some amazing words and phrases that are immediatly recognisable depending on where you live. Belfast slang is different from country slang and certain words are unintelligable if you go a few miles down the road.

I live in Ballymena, which is thirteen miles from where I work in Bellaghy but I have said things that have left my work colleagues looking at me blankly. Similarly, when I was told to ‘clod’ something over to someone in the office, I had no idea they wanted me to throw it!

This is a place where a dander is a walk, a boat is a kiss, gutties are running shoes, a poke is an icecream and where going out for a wee run means taking a drive in your car. Generally round the north coast. On a Sunday.

In Seamus Heaney HomePlace, we have an installation called the ‘Word Hoard’ a floating mobile of colloquial words like hoke and glar that appealed to Heaney’s love of language and how language is deeply rooted in a place. 
So, for St Patrick’s Day, here is my word hoard – a collection of my favourite Northern Irish phrases and sayings….and of course, their translations!

Craic – fun or banter, ‘what’s the craic?’ ‘That was great craic altogether’ ‘ sure the craic’s ninety’

Sham – a person or friend, ‘Alright sham?’

See also: mucker, bailer, doner, cove or yer man. Everyone in Northern Ireland is yer man. And it is assumed that you know him

Plastered – drunk, ‘Yer man was so plastered last night, the head’ll be hanging off him this morning’

See also: hammered, paraletic, wrote off, pished, rat-arsed, banjaxed, steaming, half-cut, bloottered.

Catch yourself on – be sensible 

See also: Wind yer neck in, wise the bap, your head’s cut, away an’ shite, yer head’s a marley, yer head’s full of wee sweetie mice.

Thran – intentionally stubborn, ‘He’s so thran he wouldn’t go even if he wanted to’

Keep her lit – to keep going ‘keep her lit now, that’s great, we’re suckin’ diesel now’

See also: keep her between the hedges

Scran the heap – eat everything, ‘I am pure starving. I could scran the heap’

There is a pizza restaurant in Ballymena which has a pizza with all the toppings on it. It’s 18″ and is called, you guessed it, The Scran the Heap!

Fernenst – alongside, ‘yer man’s field is fernenst the road’

Go for a scobe – taking a drive around the town to see who you can see ‘I’ve the lend of the car, let’s go for a scobe round the circuit’

Eejit – an idiot ‘yer man’s a wile eejit’

See also: melter, head the ball

Neither use nor ornament – useless, ‘I’m so hungover, I’m neither use nor ornament to anyone’

Feel wick – to be embarrassed ‘Did you see what she did? Feel wick for her’

See also: take a reddner, scundered

Dead on – alright or ok. Very often used sarcastically, ‘aye right mate, dead on’. 

Cowp – to fall over ‘I cowped over that wall and hit my head a quare gunk’

Footer – to tinker with ‘Is yer Da still footerin’ with that engine?’

Gulder – to shout ‘My ma was ragin’ and was gulderin’ at me’

Clarried – covered in, ‘I cowped in the ditch and now I’m clarried in muck’

See also: clabbered

Hoke (or hoak) – to rummage or look for ‘have a hoke in your bag and see if you have a tissue’

One of the main things to remember in Northern Ireland is that everything, regardless of size, is ‘wee’, sarcasm is used a lot and it takes us a while to say goodbye on the phone.

Do any of these phrases take your fancy? What about your own word hoards? I’d love to hear the words or phrases particular to your area!

* ‘Spy thon latchy cove down the far duke’ translates to ‘Do you see that tall man at the end of the road?’. Yes, really.