#20 Books of Summer – An Update

20 books


It is safe to say that my 20 Books of Summer Challenge is not going to plan at all.

With just under 4 weeks to go, I have read 10, reviewed a pitiful 5 and am half way through 2 more. 20 seems very far away right now and if my summer continues the way it has been, there is no way I’ll complete the challenge.

15 still might be possible, so I’m going to focus on that. I still have plenty of time for reading, but workload, kids-load and holidays have meant that I have little time for reviewing. I could give up sleep I suppose, but that probably wouldn’t help in the long run.

Having said that, we had a wonderful week’s holiday in Donegal, in glorious sunshine – YES, sunshine in Donegal – and I managed to read four books (although not all out of my 20 books pile!). If you get a chance to read Ruth Fitzmaurice’s new memoir I Found My Tribe, DO. You won’t regret it.

Work at Seamus Heaney HomePlace continues to be all-consuming and incredibly busy, but yesterday I spent the day with the legendary Bernard MacLaverty, so I can’t really complain.


I have, however, been very slack at keeping up with everyone else’s progress and blogs, so do let me know how you are getting on and I promise, I will try to resume normal blog upkeep very soon!

One of the positives to come out of this year’s less than successful challenge is that I read one of the most stunning books I’ve encountered in years. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a true masterpiece and while I’m not going to review it here today, it will get its own in-depth review because I loved it so much. If I read a better book this year, I’ll be amazed.

So, here are some more mini-reviews of the books I have managed to read from my 20 Books of Summer pile:

No 586 Gig: The Life and Times of A Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage


Simon Armitage’s entertaining and eminently readable collection of essays doesn’t exactly fit with its dramatic subtitle. If you know that Simon and his friends formed a rock band again in their mid-forties and you are looking for some insight into that, you won’t find much of that here.

Not that I’m complaining. Gig is a series of reminiscences, reviews and lyrics, strung together by Armitage’s undoubted love of music. So, you get reviews of gigs he has been too and some he missed, and family stories centred on music and most entertainingly, tales of funny, strange and downright surreal poetry readings. These are interspersed with some really powerful lyrics that Armitage wrote with prison inmates while making a documentary for Channel 4.

From being asked who would win in a fight, him or Jarvis Cocker, to being approached to be the face of Tetley Tea, Armitage is never less that engaging and self-effacing which makes for some laugh out loud moments, particularly when he describes coming across a copy of one of his poetry collections in a second hand shop – inscribed ‘To Mum and Dad’ in his own handwriting. He clearly loves music, and talks Dylan, The Fall (‘if you don’t like them, you’re wrong’) and The Smiths and his respect for those who make their living making music is evident.


His own attempts at the rock star life are covered in the final few chapters of this entertaining and amiable book, as he forms a band with his wife, Speedy Sue and friends and they write and record a few songs. But it is clear that the gigs he is most comfortable with are more the poetry variety and long may he continue to perform them.

 Read On: Book

Number read: 161

Number Remaining: 585


No 585 Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner


I had such high hopes for Dead Stars, a vicious satire on Hollywood, fame and celebrity. The book features some real life characters, including Michael Douglas who is attempting to remake ‘All that Jazz’; 13 year old Telma, the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor, who has just been usurped of her title by a 6 year old; Jacqui, a photographer who rose to fame taking naked pictures of her children and is now trying to revive her career photographing by dead babies, and her son Jerzy, a paparazzi photographer who specialises in up skirt shots of young female celebrities. Dead Stars is, for the most part, wilfully offensive. Prolonged descriptions of pornography and sex abound and chapters are labelled as either ‘Explicit’ or ‘Clean’. Intriguingly, most of the best writing is in the ‘clean’ sections, but these are few and far between. Some scenes are fantastic, particularly when a failing writer gets the chance to have a meeting with David Simon, but the novel is bogged down with satire free, unpleasant characters whose spiel is often difficult to read, let alone empathise with.

It’s a shame, as there are some nice themes at play here – the need to be famous, any kind of famous, at all costs and the pain of mortality and how we face it. However, any insight is drowned out by pages and pages of unpleasant scenes, descriptions of pornography that are completely unnecessary,  and thinly drawn, caricatures of characters. One to avoid.

Read On: iBooks

Number Read: 162

Number Remaining: 584


No 584 The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Over Hollywood by James Mottram



James Mottram’s well researched but somewhat dry exploration of the independent film-makers who rose to prominence in the wake of Steven Soderbergh’s incredible success with ‘sex, lies and videotape’, covers much of the same ground as Peter Biskind has done previously in his superior exploration ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’.

Taking Soderbergh as the starting and finishing point, Mottram explores the work of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne and links them thematically to the so-called ‘golden age’ of 1970s cinema when Spielberg, Altman, Scorsese and DePalma were riding high.

It’s an interesting premise, detailing how the Sundance Film Festival brought these filmmakers to the attention of the big studios who saw a financial incentive in championing them. He also explores how the filmmakers themselves played the system and tried to maintain that sense of ‘independence’ within big-budget cinema. Using Soderbergh’s career as the back-bone of the book, Mottram explores how these artists are using the Hollywood machine to create their vision of what cinema can be.

This is a comprehensive book but it has clearly dated in the intervening years since it was written and is in some ways lessened by its own constraints. By exploring only those filmmakers he considers part of the Sundance gang, other artists like the Coen Brothers or foreign directors like Alfonso Cuaron are omitted. Even English directors like Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle go unmentioned, meaning there is no wider cinematic depth to Mottram’s case. The book also focuses heavily on long, uninspiring descriptions of films, which give no real additional insight to the argument being made. Mottram is also clearly

The question also remains at the end of reading this book, did the Mavericks actually take over Hollywood, or did Hollywood use them to their advantage? Mottram himself remains undecided given Hollywood’s continuing deification of the blockbuster and the ultimate importance of the bottom line.

The Sundance Kids is an entertaining enough read for a film buff like me, but does suffer a little in comparison to Peter Biskind’s work. Still, after reading it, I have a lovely long list of movies new and old that I want to check out!

Read On: Book

Number Read: 163

Number Remaining: 583

 So there we are, 8 out of 20 books reviewed! I will be reviewing No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July, which I liked a lot and the wonderful Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson hopefully very soon, I will try not to leave it another month before I post again!

Please do let me know how you are all getting on and what kind of summer you are having!




My Top Ten Books by Irish Authors

I thought I would kick Ireland Month off with a pretty impossible task – that of choosing my Top Ten Books by Irish Authors. This list has now gone through several revisions as I think of some other book I want to include, but as of now it will have to do! Included are books I read over 25 years ago alongside books I’ve only just read in the last few months.

In compiling the list I noticed that there are a lot of books that I read in the early 1990s that I love. This is probably the period in my life when I was reading the most, and definitely a time when I was reading a lot of Irish fiction and checking out authors I had never read before. Looking at all the books on my list, I wondered if there was anything particularly ‘Irish’ about them and the most I can say is that they all deal with a form of loneliness, dislocation and otherness – a sense of exile, even from those closest to you.


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1. Light A Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy
This was one of those, what I would call, ‘transition’ books, a book I read when I was moving from children’s books, through teen books to adult books. Published in 1992, all my friends in school read this story about two girls, one English and one Irish, thrown together in the aftermath of the Second World War and their friendship over the next 20 years. It’s a timeless, warm hearted book, and I still have my mother’s hardback copy from 33 years ago!

2. Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty
I sometimes wonder if a book like Lamb could be written today. The subject matter of a priest who befriends a boy he teaches would now be read under the shadow of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, but in 1981 that wasn’t the case. In this graceful and moving novel, Brother Sebastian, nee Michael Lamb, runs away from the bleak boarding school where he works, taking with him twelve-year-old Owen Kane. The media and the police call it a kidnapping but for Lamb, it is an innocent attempt to find happiness for himself and the abused boy, a rescue from a hopeless place. Lamb is a beautifully written book, which ultimately asks us ‘What would you do for love?’ and it has the most heartbreaking ending I think I have ever read. It has also been made into an equally powerful film starring Liam Neeson.

3. Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996, Reading in the Dark is a kind of metaphysical detective story, part memoir, part thriller as a young boy looks back on his childhood growing up in Derry in the 40s and 50s as he tries to solve the mystery of a family secret, which unfolds through lies, betrayals and long hidden wounds. This is a poetic and vivid evocation of childhood and a breathtakingly beautiful book that I have returned to again and again.


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4. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
“When I was a young lad, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent”. So begins The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel which tells the story of Francie Brady and his descent into madness and violence following the breakdown of his family life. Told in a stream of consciousness that places the reader right inside Francie’s shattered brain, this is a darkly comic and often horrifying picture of mental illness, family breakdown and small town life. It’s not a book you will be able to shake. And I mean that in the best way.

5. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
What can I say about Skippy Dies? If you’ve read it you’ll understand. If you haven’t – what are you waiting for? It is funny. So incredibly funny and moving and heartbreaking. The clue is in the title. Skippy , Daniel Juster, does indeed die at the beginning of the book, during a donut eating race with his best friend Ruprecht. What follows is a wondrous ride through boarding school, adolescence, string theory and grief. It is a frothy page-turning wonder with a heart of very recognisable darkness.

6. A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
I only read A Girl is A Half Formed Thing last month, but the impression it has made on me has been significant. My review will be on the blog this month, but this pungent, pugnacious and heartbreaking book about a young girl’s coming of age affected me like a blow to the stomach. The themes are typical of Irish literature – a coming of age tale with an absent father, a cruel mother and an inappropriate sexual relationship and the narrative style, although lauded has been done before (it reminded me of The Butcher Boy in particular) but the marriage of the two makes for something entirely unique.


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7. Emily’s Shoes by Dermot Bolger
When I was 17, I read Emily’s Shoes three times in one year. It started to become a running joke with my parents when they noticed I was reading it again and again. I haven’t read it in about 20 years so I wonder if it would resonate so much now, but I adored this quiet, unassuming story of Michael McMahon, whose obsession with collecting and wearing women’s shoes stems from the loss of his parents at a critical moment in his teenage life. Bolger perfectly captures the joy and the shame that comes from Michael’s predilection and his examination of his past leads to the possibility of a healing and understanding. This is not an erotic, or titillating book, the subject matter is not there as a gimmick, but is used as a symbol of a young boy’s pain and loss.

8. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
I could have picked any one of Brian Moore’s novels for this list – Cold Heaven, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, Lies of Silence – all completely different, but all particularly Irish in their own way. There’s a reason he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize three times! This is not a happy book. Judith Hearne, is a middle-aged Irish spinster and an alcoholic. This might be a book about an alcoholic, but it’s not about drinking, it is about what drives someone to alcoholism, the shame, the fear the loneliness and the longing. This is a short book, but it is unflinching in it’s portrait of a life half lived, but never devoid of hope.

9. Riply Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
Riply Bogle was published in 1989 when I was an 18 year old English student in Belfast. Robert McLiam Wilson was 26 at the time and something of a literary rock star in Belfast amongst us undergraduates – young, handsome and feted as the next great literary talent. The novel is set in London and follows our titular hero over four days as he wanders the streets of the city, homeless and musing on his life, directly addressing the reader. There are flashbacks to growing up in West Belfast during The Troubles, his move to Cambridge University and his subsequent decline into homelessness, all of which had an autobiographical edge. Hailed as a new Amis, McLiam Wilson produced a debut that is by turns angry, amusing and unforgettable.

Our author poster boy in the 1990s - Robert McLiam Wilson

Our author poster boy in the 1990s – Robert McLiam Wilson

10. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor
William Trevor was always going to be on my list, the only question was which book. Love & Summer, Lucy Gault, the short stories, are all stunningly lyrical and quietly moving, but it is this story of a young pregnant girl who journeys to England to search for her erstwhile lover, that iI love most. It has everything I love about Trevor’s writing, but reads like a pyscholigcal thriller as Felicia comes to the attention of the unnerving Mr HIlditch, whose initial care and concern masks an entirely different intention. Trevor is a masterful storyteller and with Felicia’s Journey he is at the peak of his talent.

Now, I know that then moment I hit publish on this post,  will think of a host of other books that I’ll wish I had included, but for the moment, this is my Top Ten.

I have also realised that 4 of my Top Ten have been made into films – Lamb, The Butcher Boy, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Felicia’s Journey – all excellent movies and well worth checking out.

Do you have a favourite Irish book, or have thoughts on any of these novels? Have you seen the movie versions? Do any of these sound like your kind of book? Let me know what you think!

Top Ten Tuesday – Friendship



Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is friendship. Once I’d written my list, I quickly realised that I haven’t exactly chosen books about friendships, rather I have chosen books which contain striking friendships. So, rather than do it all again, I hope you’ll indulge me!


1. Roseanne McNulty and Dr William Grene
From The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Roseanne McNulty, nearing 100 years old has been interred in a mental institution since she was a young woman. With the hospital facing closure, it is up to Dr William Grene to decide where Roseanne should go. In researching what brought her to this place, Dr Grene finds himself becoming more and more attached to his elderly charge and in tracing her unknowable past, shares his own losses and hurts. As they search for their own personal truths in this artfully constructed novel, they find their histories are more intertwined that could have been imagined and their friendship builds to a climax that is both heartrending and moving.

The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. This is a little-known truth, but I think it is a truth nonetheless. Empirically, from all the years of my work, I would attest to that. I know it is a miraculous conclusion, but there it is. We like to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.


2. Owen Meany and John Wheelwright
From A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
During a baseball game in New Hampshire in 1953, one eleven year old boy – Owen Meany, hits a ball that kills his best friend’s mother in a freak accident. But Owen doesn’t believe in accidents and despite being severely undersized, with a voice defect, and tortured by his classmates, maintains a heart-warming and selfless friendship with the friend whose mother he killed and comes to command love, respect and fear before dying his predestined hero’s death.

It makes me ashamed to remember that I was angry with him for taking my armadillo’s claws. God knows, Owen gave me more than he ever took from me—even when you consider that he took my mother.

3. Tyler Durden and Narrator
From Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
“It’s only after you’ve lost everything,” Tyler says, “that you’re free to do anything.”
What does a good friend do? Allow you to be your true self? Give you courage to make hard decisions? Let you make mistakes without prejudice? Then let’s face it, Tyler Durden is a pretty good friend to our insomniac unnamed Narrator in Fight Club. The imaginary friend writ large, Durden is the perfect creation, everything the narrator is not. Or so he believes….


I love everything about Tyler Durden, his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and charming and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free, and I am not.


4. Vladimir and Estragon
From Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

When you think of Waiting for Godot, friendship doesn’t necessarily spring to mind. It’s a play of stagnation. Of waiting for that which won’t come, of the futility of that waiting and of our inability to escape it. But one important thing is, Didi and Gogo and waiting together. Their relationship is one of dependence and intertwinement and it is impossible to imagine these clowns without the other. This is a shared loneliness, and it is their friendship and its stark contrast to the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky that give the play its brief moments of hope, humour and warmth.

Estragon: [on one leg] I’ll never walk again.
Vladimir: [tenderly] I’ll carry you. [Pause.] If necessary


PicMonkey Collage


5. Emilia and Desdemona
From Othello by William Shakespeare
In Emilia and Desdemona, Shakespeare gives us one of the strongest depictions of a female friendship in all its dimension and death. Emilia is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters. Under the influence of her husband, she unwittingly brings about the downfall of Othello and Desdemona, but her courage and loyalty to her friend in her public unmasking of Iago brings a small measure of hope within the tragedy. Their friendship provides the necessary counterpoint to the hypocrisy and plotting of that between Iago and Othello and she remains a loyal, intelligent and forceful friend to the end, sacrificing her life so that Desdemona’s reputation can be restored.

I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest,
Lay down my soul at stake: if you think other,
Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.
If any wretch have put this in your head,
Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse!
For, if she be not honest, chaste, and true,
There’s no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander.


6. Mouse and Mary Ann
From the Tales of The City series by Armistead Maupin
When thinking about Tales of the City, a series of books that always makes me think of friendship, I considered including Anna Madrigal and any one of her charges. But Anna is the obvious choice. Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton are the odd couple, with Mary Ann functioning as the straight, uptight foil to the laid back unshakeable community who accepts everyone. Even her. The friendship between Mouse and Mary Ann survives lovers, murder, children, abandonment, stardom, AIDS and finally cancer. There is no question of not being there for one another, regardless of what has passed – what else should friends do?


It occurred to Michael, that this was the great perk of being loved: someone to tell you that it will get easier up ahead. … Even when it might not be true.


7. Michael Lamb (Fr Sebastian) and Owen Kane
From Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty
It’s hard to imagine that the story of a young disillusioned priest who runs off with a boy from his school would not touch on the theme of child abuse. But Lamb was written in 1981 and this wouldn’t have seemed as odd an omission over 30 years ago. Regardless, it doesn’t feature in this heartbreaking story of Michael Lamb who runs from the school he teaches in and takes with him a 12 year old boy he has befriended who has severe epilepsy in the hope that they can both find better lives. Michael is hoping to save Owen and in doing so, save himself, but the outside world inevitably closes in and Michael’s solution is bleak and uncompromising, but driven solely by his love for Owen.

It was motivated by love. It would be a pure. Of this he was sure.


8. Cathy and Heathcliff
From Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

It may seem strange to include Cathy and Heathcliff in this list, given they are often seen as the most romantic of doomed lovers. A lot of that perception has to do with the film versions, which show them as adults. In fact, in the book, they are inseparable friends from the age of 6 and Catherine is a mere 15 when she decides to marry Edgar with the immature request that he allow her and Heathcliff to continue as they have for most of their lives. ‘Well, if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend––if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own’ No one understands them the way they understand each other to the point that Catherine sees them as being one person and that person cannot be denied.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.


9. Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla
From The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History is probably not the best example of friendship as it exists to nurture and create a loving environment. This is the dark side of close friendship, where a lack of boundaries, too much information and a tendency to bully can have far reaching and dangerous consequences. Henry, Richard, Francis, Charles and Camilla support, help and lie for one another, trapped in a cold complicity, Theirs is undoubtedly a friendship, but one with sinister and disturbing ends.

The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant – the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.


10. Chris and Gordie
From The Body by Stephen King
I read The Body after falling in love with the movie version Stand By Me back in the 1980’s. Both seem to capture perfectly that precarious moment between childhood and adulthood when you are trying to hold on to one whilst simultaneously reaching for the other. The boys banter and ribbing give way to a lovely, nurturing friendship where Chris and Gordie buoy each other u and become each other’s support systems in place of family. It’s a friendship told through rose tinted glasses to be sure, but it’s an unforgettable one.

We were clinging to each other in deep water. I’ve explained about Chris, I think: my reasons for clinging to him were less definable. His desire to get away from Castle Rock and out of the mill’s shadow seemed to me to be my best part, and I could not just leave him to sink or swim on his own. If he had drowned, that part of me would have drowned with him, I think.

So, who are your favourite friendships in literature? Any particularly great ones I’ve overlooked? Do let me know what you think.