A Good House for Children
The Sunday Independent
The Reeve, a small mansion, stands atop a cliff on the Dorset coast. With its wonderful architecture, spectacular views, and large garden it seems like the ideal family home. The plot of A Good House for Children follows two families, forty years apart, who move there for the good of the children.
In 2017 painter Orla arrives with her baby daughter and small son Sam who refuses to speak. Her husband Nick works away taking the car and Orla is completely isolated during the week. In 1976 newly widowed Sara purchases the house so she and her four children, can take a year out, away from real life, including school. The action in 1976 is from the point of view of Lydia the nanny who comes with them from London.
As both timelines advance both Orla and Lydia quickly realise that something is not right at The Reeve. They respectively see glimpses of things, hear footsteps and snatches of songs and conversations. Orla realises that “ the solitude she had welcomed so readily when they first moved, the isolation that she had held both arms out to embrace, now threatened to overwhelm.” Her husband thinks she is having a breakdown.
There are also parallels between Orla’s son Sam and the eldest of Sara’s children, the sensitive 8-year-old Philip. From the perspective of the 2017 timeline the reader knows that something terrible happens in 1976 (and it is utterly heart-breaking when it does).
This is a book that the reader will want to race through as the simultaneous storylines are highly compelling, but it really deserves to be read slowly as it is not a traditional haunted house story.
Apart from the content the delivery is sublime, that this is Collin’s debut is frankly astonishing. Her writing is well-crafted and takes readers from the real to surreal and back again with ease.
The Sunday Independent
The Institution is a remote hospital for the criminally insane (the easiest way to reach it is by helicopter). The ‘Heaven’ ward is where the worst inmates are held, violent prolific serial killers.
Criminal profiler Connie has gone undercover on the ward to find out who killed heavily pregnant nurse Tara and removed her baby. “It was called foetal abduction, and it was the worst crime imaginable as far as Connie was concerned. No small claim given how high her professional experiences had set the bar.” Connie needs to find the vulnerable baby quickly while knowing her removal must have been done by a staff member. She knows that the killers will quickly guess why she is there.
Dr Ong, who is in charge of the ward, is a Do-Gooder who imagines he can cure his patients – or clients as he instructs everyone to call them. Both the medical and auxiliary staff think he is as deranged as his charges. His deputy Dr Roth is a sadistic angry woman. Then there are the ‘clients’ five violent men, any one of whom could have murdered Tara.
As a teenager Connie spent time in a psychiatric institution herself. By necessity all staff live within the walls of the Institution and Connie begins to struggle in the closed claustrophobic world. Then there’s a storm and all the power goes down which means the locks on the doors open.
I struggled a bit with the first chapter as I found Connie speaking to Tara’s corpse toe-curling but I’m so glad I carried on. Fields has delivered both a thriller and Whodunnit where the tension never lets up. Connie doesn’t know who to trust and nor will the reader as there are more twists and turns than in a bowl of spaghetti. A right riveting read.
Someone Else's Shoes
The Sunday Independent
From The Prince and The Pauper to Trading Places, the ‘life swap’ has always been a popular fictional theme. In Someone Else’s Shoes Jojo Moyes reimagines the classic plot in modern London.
Sam is a very put upon woman. She has a stressful full-time job, demanding aging parents, an unemployed husband suffering from depression who does nothing – not even letting their elderly dog out for a wee when he needs one (or cleaning up the mess) and a teenage daughter. Her new boss is a bully who is determined to make her working hours difficult.
By contrast New Yorker Nisha is rich beyond measure and even more entitled. Their lives intersect briefly at a gym. Sam, in a hurry, grabs Nisha’s bag on the way out. By the time she realises her mistake she has no option but to wear Nisha’s Chanel jacket and red Louboutin heels to a series of business meetings that day. The expensive designer shoes make dowdy Sam feel confident and they garner respect from clients.
Nisha has a driver, so she leaves the gym in a bathrobe. When she gets back to the fancy hotel where she’s staying in the Penthouse, she is locked out. Her ruthless husband’s security serve her with divorce papers, and she’s not allowed to retrieve her clothes. All her cards have been cancelled and she is left wandering around London in gym flip flops with only her rapidly dying mobile phone for company.
This is a modern day feel-good fairy tale and all the more satisfying for it, because, unlike real life everyone gets what’s coming to them. What is very authentic though is the portrait of middle-aged women and the bonds that tie them regardless of social status or nationality. I can almost guarantee the Epilogue will make you cheer.
The Sunday Independent
Vanity Fair, despite being published in mid-1800s, is a surprisingly modern book. Given the social mores of the time author Thackeray managed to make his anti-hero, Becky Sharp, a ‘bad woman’, into a character that everyone roots for. Thackeray’s Becky, an orphan, having no family, no money and as a female, no power, has no option but to manipulate her way into a safe, settled position by any means necessary.
In Sarah May’s retelling, teenager Becky, after a brief stint as a nanny for the media mogul Pitt Crawley, begins working in the febrile atmosphere of 90s tabloid journalism. May follows her unstoppable rise from the typing pool of The Mercury newspaper to CEO of the parent company in just under two decades.
Becky is from a disadvantaged background and her first ‘fake news’ story is herself – a carefully curated fiction in order to get ahead in a sexist and somewhat classist industry. She remarks that when she does tell the truth “people are far more likely to doubt it than when I lie.” Her first rebranding is her own name – insisting on Rebecca, which ties in nicely to the plot.
Much of the story comes from recent history – royal scandals, the disappearance of a teenage girl and the eventual discovery of her brutal murder, the tabloid campaign against paedophiles, historical child abuse cover-ups and phone hacking. The only thing missing is where an old man gets a pie thrown in his face.
It’s an unfortunate irony that the novel Becky, like its heroine, is attempting to be something it is not. Vanity Fair remains a masterclass in storytelling and Becky while a very good read pales in comparison to the original which is a shame.
really good, actually
The Sunday Independent
Fans of Dr Who will know that Time Lords live for thousands of years, but routinely have to regenerate into a new physical body.
While reading ‘really good, actually’ I felt as though the legendary Bridget Jones had regenerated into Maggie, a newly single 28-year-old living in Canada, and I mean that as the highest of compliments as this is one of the most enjoyable, smart, observant, honest and funny books I’ve read in recent years.
Maggie is getting divorced and is living completely on her own for the first time ever – her ex, who she started dating aged 19, took the cat. “I wasn’t making some grand comeback to single life, this was my debut.” Maggie thinks she is handling things very well (hence the title), she downloads all the dating apps and has copious sex with both men and women, she has a hobby of ‘having hobbies’ (for “void-avoidance) and fills her time going to free introductory classes.
Thanks to technology there are now several outlets for making a holy show of yourself and Maggie avails herself of all of them – social media, texts, emails, WhatsApp. What Maggie sees as liberation her friends and family view as a breakdown.
‘Really good, actually’, accurately portrays life for modern young women who have to present so many faces to the world. With a less talented author this could be grim, exhausting, and cliché-ridden but Heisey is a wonderful writer with a distinctive wit and the novel grabs you from the very first sentence and does not let go. The end is a surprise and a glorious one.
This isn’t just a book for young women either because as Maggie says, “not everyone is divorced but everyone has had their heart broken.” Treat yourself.
The Sunday Independent
“Violence is never the answer”, is a sentence that most of us have trotted out frequently. Yet, who hasn’t secretly thought “good” when hearing about a bit of rough justice being meted out to a violent sex offender or murderer inside the prison walls? If you haven’t, read no further, as Pretty Evil is a revenge fantasy about ‘bad men’ being punished for their crimes agains women.
Camilla Black is the revered editor of a top fashion magazine – think Anna Wintour-type power and influence. (That is where all comparisons with Wintour end). She has it all, the top job, the wardrobe, the money, a fabulous Mayfair flat and sex on tap.
Black is also a relentless serial killer. She hunts down abusive men and gruesomely murders them. “Nothing’s more fun than playing a player at their own game. Drugging the druggers. Abusing abusers. Controlling controllers.” Camilla considers her actions a public service, and there are plenty of readers (mostly female I imagine) who will agree with her.
Camilla decided to enact her own version of justice having been violently abused as a child. Despite reporting it, her abuser was found not guilty in court and walked out a free man. She was labelled a liar.
Nobody has any idea that the famous fashion editor has a very guilty secret, except for Detective Chief Inspector Glen Wheelan who is determined to prove his suspicions about her.
Alongside the violence there is a great deal of sex which has led to Pretty Evil being compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. I think the comparison is unfair as Zoe Rosi’s sex scenes are actually sexy. I hesitate to say this is a fun read but vicariously punishing predators via Camilla has its merits and I certainly enjoyed it.
The Sunday Independent
Critic's Choice 2022
Best Six Crime & Popular Fiction
The Sunday Independent
2022 has been a vintage year for characters old and new. Again, Rachel (Michael Joseph €22.40) brings back one of Marian Keyes most-loved characters twenty years on. Keyes is always at her best when writing about the Walsh family and Again, Rachel is no exception. The ‘happy ever after’ at the end of Rachel’s Holiday didn’t last - life got in the way. This is a book that is utterly heart-breaking at times but also laugh out loud funny.
Ian Rankin’s Rebus is back in A Heart Full of Headstones (Orion €23.00) and readers are in for a shock as our favourite cop is now in the dock! Rankin keeps us guessing, and second guessing as to why. This is a must read for Rebus fans and includes not just his former protégée Siobhan Clarke and nemesis Ger Cafferty but also Malcolm Fox the man from the ‘Complaints’.
The Ink Black Heart (Sphere €23.00), the long-awaited sixth book about detective duo, Cormorant Strike and Robin Ellacott, written by JK Rowling using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is a real page-turner. While the plot focuses on the myriad of dangers social media and the internet have loosed upon society, the relationship between Robin and Strike continues to fascinate.
An Irish woman writing Scandi-Crime sounds a bit odd but Jo Spain nails it in The Last to Disappear (Quercus €14.99). Set in the fictional town of Koppe in Finland, Brit Alex Evans arrives to investigate the circumstances in which his wayward sister drowned. He discovers she’s not the first woman to come to harm. Fans of Wisting and other Scandi dramas will love this book.
On the surface Alex Marwood’s, The Island of Lost Girls (Sphere €26.59) seems to be a thinly disguised version of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes against young women and girls. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see the similarities between grotesquely fat and monstrously rich Matthew Meade and his daughter Tatiana, to Robert and Ghislaine Maxwell. There’s also a Prince that everyone is keen to impress. Marwood however, goes beyond high end trafficking, and looks at the misogynistic culture that allows exploition to thrive. It’s grim but gripping.
On the flip-side Jane Fallon’s Just Got Real (Michael Joseph €20.99) is a funny romp about three middle-aged women who having been duped by the same man decide to enact their revenge. Sometimes there’s a thin line between comedy and crime.
The Sunday Independent
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford is one of my favourite books so I approached India Knight’s modern retelling, Darling, with apprehension. The Radlett family, based on Mitford’s own, were, even by the standards of the early part of the 20th century, wildly eccentric. Updating them seemed unlikely.
I’m delighted to admit that I was entirely wrong. While sticking closely to the original plot and characters Knight manages to shift them easily in the modern world. The story is narrated by Franny, the daughter of ‘The Bolter’ (she ‘bolts’ from relationship to relationship) who has been reared and home-schooled at Alconleigh the home of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie and their four unconventional children.
Uncle Matthew is now a retired rock star who has decided to raise his family in a deserted area of Norfolk to avoid the excesses of modern life. Like the original he is “a man of violent passions, and explosive, random-seeming dislikes and prejudices,”. The list of his dislikes goes on for three pages and includes ‘wellness’ and he wonders “why would I take advice from posh girls with eating disorders?”. In a book that’s full of great quips and hilarious lines he gets all the best ones.
While the Radlett parents feature heavily throughout, Darling is the story of their second daughter, the beautiful and charismatic Linda. Franny, the same age as Linda, absolutely adores her cousin (everyone does) and details Linda’s quest for romantic love. In the original book neighbour Lord Merlin was fabulously rich and debauched, now he’s simply Merlin a very rich and famous fashion designer who exudes a ‘dark glamour’. He introduces the naive and unworldly Linda to glitzy society in London.
After a brief career as a model and recreational drug user, Linda rushes into marriage with the ridiculously rich son of a right wing captain of industry. Her second union is with posh Eton-educated Christian Talbot a little known writer who likes to pose as working class and left-wing. “He had no interest in ordinary life… or about subjects that weren’t politics, mistreated animals or Christian Talbot.” Between marriages Linda falls in love with Ballymaloe Cookery School and Barry’s Tea.
Knight has managed the impossible, kept true to the original story while wonderfully satirising our modern world. It’s a testament to the power of Knight’s words that even though I knew how the story ended it still hit me like a brick to the face.
The Sunday Independent
Mia is the Cat Lady of the title. She has the perfect life, a job she loves, a husband, lovely home and a sixteen year old cat called Pigeon who she adores. And yet…. In the first chapter Mia goes to a self-help group for people who are grieving for dead pets. The participants seem to have come from ‘Stereotypes R Us’ – a bald tattooed angry man, a, I kid you not, ‘jolly’ black lady, a Cat Lady from central casting and an Insta-ready beautiful young Asian woman. O’Porter apparently recognises this herself when later in the novel it transpires that the Instagram Gal was an undercover reporter. Her hit piece in a daily newspaper notes, “If the cast of characters were in a novel, the author would have leaned too comfortably on the stereotype.”
In chapter two Vegan Mia prepares steaks for a dinner party with her husband’s friends – two couples and his ex-wife Belinda. (Belinda is an almost constant presence in Mia’s home). They are all gargoyles with no redeeming characteristics at all. The conversation revolves around Mia’s cat and her veganism both of which they all disapprove of. Mia has been married seven years and they’re still at this?
Mia works for a small jewellery company named after the owner Isabella May – a former It Girl and socialite whose business survives on regular handouts from her superrich father. Isabella is a narcissistic nightmare. Now if Mia was a timid 28 year old with low self-esteem the fact that she would put up with some of these people (including her wimpy husband Tristan), might make some sense. Instead, Mia is a successful self-contained woman of 45 so none of it rings true.
Midway through the novel Mia’s life implodes and she loses her husband, her home, and her job in one day. And to be fair things do pick up a bit as Mia stumbles from one ‘comic’ set piece to another (just don’t expect any internal logic in her actions). When the reader is finally appraised of the reason why Pigeon the cat has such inflated importance in Mia’s life it makes sense and feels real and relatable. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late. There are the seeds of a decent story in Cat Lady but sadly they are smothered under too much fertiliser.
The Sunday Independent
When I hear the word ‘Courtier’ my mind goes to two places – the Tudor Court as portrayed by Hilary Mantel in the book Wolf Hall, and that of Queen Anne as seen in The Favourite. I think of bejewelled aristocrats, backbiting and backstabbing, jostling for position and power. ‘Courtier’ conjures up an image of people in colourful costume and not the ‘men in grey suits’ so loathed by the late Princess Diana. What Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind the Crown reveals is that while the flunkey’s flounces and frills are now sober suits, the nature of the court remains the same.
Author, Valentine Low, whisks the reader through a head-dizzying number of courtiers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (the book was written shortly before her death).
There are a huge number of court attendants and Low explains the various roles of Equerry, Private Secretary, Personal Secretary and various deputies and media managers. He also takes us through the parade of people who have filled these roles for the Queen, Prince Charles, William, Harry, and Prince Andrew. Each royal household has their own staff and often those staff are sometimes both at war with each other and all the other households.
I was more interested in the ‘principals’ (the royal at the head of a household) and there’s plenty of insight into Charles, Andrew, William, Harry and of course, Meghan. Low was the journalist who broke the story about Meghan allegedly bullying staff. Some might expect his view of the Duchess of Sussex to be slightly slanted but when he analyses the notorious Oprah interview he gives a more than fair account. “Some of it is simply not true. That does not mean, however, that all of it is not true.”
‘Megxit’ (Harry and Meghan’s dramatic exit from the Royal Family) isn’t the only crisis the Royal Family have faced in recent years and Low details the courtiers’ efforts to resolve and defuse various scandals. One of the most interesting, (and from a journalist’s perspective shocking), parts of the book are the details around the disastrous interview Prince Andrew gave to Emily Maitlis when he made the claim that he doesn’t sweat.
There is nothing in Courtiers that wasn’t already in the public domain but Low is a great storyteller. He manages to explain the machinery of Court, which isn’t easy and could have been very tedious, extremely well and delivers a truly entertaining read.
The Sunday Independent
The familiar fairy tales we grew up with are sanitised versions of folk tales which did not always end happily ever after and functioned as a combination of social commentary and warning. These days we’ve got horror and crime fiction, and Netflix documentaries.
Stephen King’s Fairy Tale is a mixture of all of the above with the plot incorporating the past and present, the material and the mythical.
The first part is about the all-too-real world of Charlie Reade, a boy whose mother was killed in a tragic accident and whose father succumbed to alcoholism. But Charlie’s father finds AA, stops drinking, and their life improves exponentially.
While King is a master of spine-tingling supernatural scares, and there’s plenty here, he knows that human beings can be as bad, if not worse, than ‘monsters’.
He refers to and incorporates a plethora of well-known tales and modern horror – everything from the Bates Motel to the Hunger Games, Rumpelstiltskin, and the Emerald City of Oz.
There are plenty of knowing winks to the reader and he even throws in a reference to his own creation, the deranged dog Cujo. King is at his very best writing dogs and Radar, Charlie’s companion as he battles evil, is exceptionally well portrayed.
Charlie is a remarkably likeable hero and although he is unusually mature and responsible for his 17 years, his backstory make his qualities credible. King’s fans will love this unquestioningly and I’d happily recommend it to anyone who likes a good read.
The middle section is slightly long but overall, it’s still a page-turner. Ultimately Fairy Tale is an allegory about modern America and the death of the Dream, and therein lies real terror and the uncertainty of a ‘happily ever after’.
‘Fairy Tale’, Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, €17.99
Ready for Absolutely Nothing
The Sunday Independent
Most people will know Constantine as one half of the TV and writing duo “Trinny and Susannah” but I was in the States when What Not To Wear was broadcast so opened her memoir Ready for Absolutely Nothing knowing very little about the author. And gosh, there is quite a lot to know.
Constantine had a privileged upbringing, dividing her time between the family’s house in London and what they considered their home, a large house on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland. Her parents sound like they’ve stepped out of the pages of a Nancy Mitford book but information about them is non-linear and piecemeal, which is both frustrating and confusing.
Constantine’s first boyfriend was (the then) Viscount David Linley, the Queen’s nephew. By the time she met David, her own mother had succumbed to mental illness and alcoholism and Princess Margaret, contrary to her public image, was a warm and maternal presence in her life. After her long relationship with Linley ended Constantine spent 18 months with Imran Khan, knowing it was never going to last. She’s now been happily married to Sten Bertelsen for 27 years and the couple have three children.
On the surface, and indeed in fact, Constantine led a charmed life. She moved in elite circles, was one of the original Sloane Rangers and something of an ‘It Girl’. Her career in fashion happened rather than being planned. Oddly, Trinny, a friend long before they were famous, is hardly mentioned, but she is spoken of fondly.
While there are plenty of genuinely hilarious anecdotes about posh people, royals, stars and celebrities, the real meat of the memoir is in the darker side of the author’s life. Despite being the daughter of an alcoholic, Constantine spent years denying to herself that she too had an issue. ‘‘I wasn’t a violent, angry or depressive drunk so you could argue it didn’t matter. (But), while everyone else was being their true selves, I was impersonating someone else, and my friends and family were having a relationship with that person rather than me. …I was there physically but not emotionally. My drinking was the worst of me.”
It was only when a friend said they could not be around her when she was drinking that Constantine’s denial was shattered. “I think I hated myself so much I poured my energies into getting others to like me. I wanted to be …. Unique… Special, but there is nothing unique or special about alcoholism.”
I enjoyed Ready for Absolutely Nothing as Constantine is very amusing and a genuinely good writer, with a brilliant turn of phrase and the insider gossip is superb. While she’s very self-aware, this is the opposite of a ‘poor little rich girl’ whinge, I think she’s a smarter and a better writer than she gives herself credit for. Old habits die hard and, while she’s unsparingly honest, I wish she had trusted herself to not need the reader to like her and just let rip.
The Ink Black Heart is the sixth novel featuring the detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott written by J.K. Rowling using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
The action starts where it left off at the end of the book number five, Troubled Blood, with Robin and Strike, both single, on the verge of finally admitting their feelings for each other. But first there’s a new case to investigate – a double stabbing which has resulted in the death of Edie Ledwell and has left her ex-boyfriend Josh Blay critically ill.
Edie and Josh created the successful Ink Black Heart animated series and were attacked in the same secluded spot of Highgate Cemetery where they initially came up with the ideas for the cartoon.
For years prior to her death Edie had been the target of online trolls and a campaign of abuse. As Robin observes “they’re mostly focused on criticising Ledwell for being racist and ableist and… well, pretty much every “ist” and “phobic” you can think of.” (Fans of Rowling will know that she is writing this from experience).
Much of the trolling is done by ‘Anomie’ a super-fan who created online Drek’s Game (based on the cartoon) along with another fan ‘Morehouse’. The game is free but there is a strict rule that players cannot break anonymity or try to contact each other in real life.
The attack on Edie and Josh occurred just as they were about to sign with a film company, and it is the movie executives who hire Robin and Strike to unmask Anomie who is agitating online against the film adaptation.
There’s a wide array of suspects. Drek’s Game has eight moderators and then there’s the original voice cast of the cartoon, many of whom have a grudge against Edie. One of them shuns her publicly saying some of her views were ‘problematic’. There’s Josh’s bitter and manipulative ex Kea, who claims Edie stole her ideas and all the residents of the arts commune where Josh and Edie lived at the time they began the cartoon.
On top of that, it appears that a far-right group, the Odinists (and I imagine the similarity to Onanists is quite deliberate on Rowling’s part), have infiltrated Drek’s Game.
Rowling just gets better with every book and The Ink Black Heart while Dickensian in both scope and delivery is still a tightly executed engrossing murder mystery.
No doubt future historians will reference it as a valuable snapshot of pre-Covid London and the odd hybrid of real and virtual life most of us live in 2022. Ironically I was so immersed in the story that I resented real life every time it intruded on my reading. And it kept me off Twitter for days!
The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys
The Sunday Independent
Debuts don’t come better than The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewer. Leaving aside the historical elements and the fact that Pepys was a real person, this is a page-turning crime thriller. Pepys is a man moving up, but the Restoration Court is fraught by factions and conspiracies. It’s 1669 and Pepys, with his former servant and now friend, Will, is dispatched to Portsmouth to investigate Royal Navy finances and the murder of the last man sent to find the missing money.
As his investigations begin things become complicated. The navy are not cooperative, an attempt is made on his life, and he quickly realises that he cannot trust anyone. All of this is set against the background of the threat of imminent war with the Dutch. Pepys personal life is faring no better. His wife has left him because of his repeated infidelities, someone has discovered a damaging document from his youth that could get him hanged for treason and he’s suffering from severe pain and blood in his urine.
The latter turns out to be massive kidney stones and in the middle of his various investigations he undergoes the most gruesome surgery imaginable – without the aid of an anaesthetic. I had to unclench every part of my body after reading it, men this is your ‘Trigger Warning’.
Pepys is a flawed hero. He’s sexually incontinent, (the book opens with him fleeing a burning brothel), a tad pompous, over-sensitive and a wimp. Yet, he’s also sympathetic, brave and wants to do the right thing.
Apart from the odd Queen, historically women were largely ignored. Jewer takes time to include the voices and perspective of females. Seventeenth century women lived in constant fear of male violence both in their homes and in the streets with little official protection. Enter proto-Feminist Lady Charlotte de Vere and her very literal take on empowering women. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I really approve of her methods. I’m sure many other women will too.
Jewer, like the best historical novelists, has done his research. He recreates the world of 1669 in a vivid, realistic, and natural way. Fashions change, slang changes (the men in the book frequently refer to their ‘cods’) but people remain the same and Jewer’s characters are as relevant today as they were 300 years ago.
When I Close My Eyes
The Sunday Independent
This novel is proper old-school Grip Lit. The opening chapter is a masterclass in exposition without obviousness. All the information the reader needs to know is revealed without the flow of the writing being interrupted. Wayne moves easily between past and present as Lilith, the main character sets the scene.
Lilith, once an awkward teen from Marlow, is living the dream in LA. She is fabulously rich, has her own TV show which she writes, directs, and produces. She runs along the beach and goes to yoga before work. She’s been with handsome and lovely Patrick for four years. Everything in her life is fantastic. Well not everything. Despite the length of her relationship with Patrick she refuses to spend the night with him, or to let him stay over at her home.
As a child Lilith began walking in her sleep and developed OCD as a result. She blamed her name ‘Lilith’ and feared she was predestined to be a vengeful creature of the night. She changed to Lil and began obsessively performing rituals to try to prevent herself from doing harm. The reader knows that some terrible incident happened in her teens and her rule for sleeping alone has freed her from obsession, sleepwalking and the unrelenting fear of doing something horrific while unconscious. She’s so free from anxiety she’s reverted to Lilith and the “feminist accounting of my name… powerful woman; not demon.”
Lilith’s perfect life is upended when Cassius, her best pal from her teens and sometime boyfriend arrives at her door late one night with his three-year-old daughter Jessie. Despite their former close relationship, she hasn’t seen Cassius (the handsome rich golden boy at school) for a decade. He’s now widowed.
Despite her rule she lets Cassius and Jessie move in with her and almost immediately she begins to sleepwalk again. And something dreadful does happen. While Lilith risks everything for her friend, the canny reader will see the clues that she fails to. Of the two twists I did not see one coming at all. A real page turner.
The Sunday Independent
The Club is just the sort of book the world needs now – a diverting reminder of a much simpler time.
The club in question is the Home group. A select members only institution for the very special few with not just the money for the fees but who are ‘cool’. Ned Groom, the man who created Home, is celebrating the 25 years since he opened his first club in Covent Garden. Since then, he has opened increasingly more opulent Homes around the world culminating with the launch of Island Home – an entire island off the coast of Sussex.
On the first night of the launch only a handful of stars are invited for dinner with Ned and the team he’s had with him for the last quarter century, loyal PA Nikki, membership manager Annie, and younger brother Adam Groom. The dinner guests are actor Jackson Crane, “so famous that it was quite hard to imagine a time when you did not know who they were”, younger actress wife Georgia, former boyband sensation turned talk show host Freddie Hunter, artist Keith Little and Kurt Cox, an up-and-coming young film director, the son of a much-beloved Hollywood couple. Unfortunately for his guests Ned Groom has a few surprises that they won’t like.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Annie, Jess the last-minute hire as head of housekeeping, Nikki and Adam. All of these narratives are joined together by excerpts from a Vanity Fair article called Murder on the Island. The plot unfolds gradually – we know from the start that there is a murder, but we don’t know who. Equally, motives emerge gradually as more than one person has reason to want revenge.
The Club combines the best of Grip Lit and the glamorous blockbuster world of the late Jackie Collins. The authors (Ellery Lloyd is a writing duo) have a clear-eyed view of fame and celebrity and they know how to tell a cracking good story.
Jennifer E. Smith
The Unsinkable Greta James
The Sunday Independent
Greta James is in her early 30s and a rock star. Having spent her 20s plugging away at small “indie” gigs, she finally arrived a few years ago and has been living out her long-cherished dream. When her mother dies suddenly, while Greta is on tour, she is at first numb. When she returns to the stage, attempting to sing a song written for her mother, she is pole-axed by grief and breaks down on stage. The footage goes viral, and Greta stops performing, worrying that her career is over.
A few months later Greta’s brother guilt-trips her into taking her mum’s place on a cruise around Alaska with her dad, Conrad, and two other couples. Greta’s relationship with her father has been difficult since she was in her teens and is not improved by the fact that her breakthrough hit ‘Told You So’ was a verbal two fingers to Conrad.
Author Jennifer E Smith has written many books for younger readers, and it’s hard to believe this is her first foray into adult fiction as it’s so accomplished. The novel, despite having a rock star as its central character, is wholly based in reality. The characters and relationships are all very authentic. The action happens mostly over the week of the cruise and Smith makes every word count.
Conrad, who grew up poor, worries that Greta is not financially secure or in a stable relationship. He would prefer if his daughter had a steady job, a spouse and three children, like her brother. When her mum was still alive she was able to intervene between the two, but now they struggle to communicate.
Then there is an unexpected holiday romance with Ben, a handsome but nerdy professor who is on board giving lectures about the great love of his life – Jack London and his adventure novel The Call of the Wild. While the pair ostensibly have nothing in common (Ben has to google Greta to find out who she is), they are both equally passionate about their work. Ben is separated from his wife but is still a very present father to his two young kids.
The father/daughter relationship is central to this book. Most readers will identify with the complicated relationship all adults have with their parents – even if it is not as fraught as the one Greta has with her dad. And, while loss and grief are central themes, this is a genuinely lovely book. It’s charming, funny, diverting and a cracking good story.
Wish You Were Here
The Sunday Independent
Diana is 29 years old, and her meticulously planned life is perfect. She has the job she always wanted in Sotheby’s New York and is on the verge of promotion thanks to being hand-picked by Kitomi Ito to sell her famous Toulouse-Lautrec painting, a wedding present from her famous musician husband Sam Pride. (A very thinly disguised John & Yoko).
Diana lives with her boyfriend Finn, a junior doctor in a busy hospital. They are about to go on the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ to the Galapagos Islands that they have saved for years for. She knows he is going to propose as she accidentally found the ring.
Then Covid happens. Finn has his leave cancelled and tells Diana she should still go without him. Diana arrives on the main island of Isabela just as the island shuts down for two weeks quarantine and everything, including her hotel, is shut.
A kindly old lady takes pity on her and offers her an apartment. The internet/phone only work sporadically so when Diana comes across a stash of postcards, she goes old school and starts writing cards to Finn.
While staying in the apartment Diana meets a young girl, who like her, has been abandoned by her mother, and her sexy moody Dad, Gabriel. Rather inevitably she starts to fall in love with Gabriel. Finn is not forgotten as occasionally an email he has sent pops up on her phone.
Picoult is at her very best bringing the magnificence of the Galapagos to life in all it’s strange and colourful glory. ‘In this (lagoon), the water is almost magenta, and in the centre a sandbar rises like an oasis. On it, a dozen flamingos stand folded like origami and they dip the heads into the pool to feed.”
The beauty and serenity of the island are juxtaposed with Finn’s descriptions of how Covid has affected New York. Each email is more despairing than the last as he and his colleagues struggle to try to treat the illness while watching their patients die. Finn is frustrated with the virtue signalling of lighting up the Empire State and banging pots and pans for carers. He is exasperated by “people who say (wearing) a mask is a gross infringement of their bodily rights…You don’t have any bodily rights when you’re dead.”
Halfway through the book Diana is caught in a rip tide, starts to drown and everything changes. I won’t reveal what happens because I don’t want to spoil it for readers.
A few hours after finishing Wish You Were Here I broke down in tears. The book triggered many hard memories as, like Diana, I had a parent with Alzheimer’s who died from Covid. Despite this I found her hard to warm to because of the way she treats Finn; she prioritises her inner world over his brutal reality of struggling with Covid and death daily.
Yet, this is a book worth reading, reminding us that our futures are not guaranteed or inevitable.
Best of Fiction 2021
The Echo Chamber
Ross O'Carroll Kelly
Aisling and the City
Sarah Breen & Eimar McLysaght
The Man Who Died Twice
Apples Never Fall
The Sunday Independent
It’s become a truism that we live in times too strange and ridiculous for satire. Somebody should have told John Boyne. The Echo Chamber (Doubleday €13.99) is a brilliant parody of virtue-signalling, social media saints, and cancellations. Boyne takes no prisoners with his skewering of those who exhaust themselves trying to look as if they’re doing something good. I choked laughing.
Ross O’Carroll Kelly has been holding a mirror up to Irish society for two decades and in Normal Sheeple (Sandycove €9.80) his father CO’CK is the (Trumpian) Taoiseach. Sorcha is now a minster and hopes to outlaw cattle and sheep farming to stop global warming. Ross is as laugh out loud funny as ever, but age is catching up with him. In the entire book he only cheats on Sorcha once and manages not to kill any animals despite the streets of Dublin being overrun with cows, sheep, and angry farmers.
Aisling, created by authors Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, has also become a staple of Irish life. In book four, Aisling and the City (Gill Books €11.99), our girl takes a swish job in New York. I took the same journey in my mid-20s, and Aisling’s New York is (mostly) spot on. (The ‘Irish Mafia’ were called the ‘Murphia’ in my day.) Aisling is a nice, sensible girl but she is gut-bustingly hilarious. I may not be the target audience for her antics, but I adore her. Be warned, it ends on some cliff-hanger.
From the young to the old. Richard Osman’s four elderly detectives are back in The Man Who Died Twice, (Viking €8.99), the sequel to the hugely successful The Thursday Murder Club and are as entertaining as ever. The formidable Elizabeth receives a letter from a dead man and before you know it the fearsome foursome are involved with dodgy diamonds, the Mafia, MI6 and most terrifyingly, local thugs. Osman’s wit, charm and kindness are ingrained in every page.
Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall (Michael Joseph €28.00) also features elderly people and the difficulties they face retiring after a very active and busy life. I am a huge fan of Liane Moriarty who with every book outdoes herself and this is her best yet. I could write a thesis on the many layers there are to this novel. There is not a word wasted, everything no matter how casual or throwaway, matters. I could not put it down.
The Sunday Independent
There can be no doubt that Stephen King is one of the most talented storytellers alive. Few others can create sinister characters, suspense and supernatural eeriness like King. While there are a few disturbing characters in Billy Summers, all the evil is provided by human beings, making the novel a horror story but not a supernatural one.
The titular Billy is an ex-marine sniper who now makes his money as a top assassin, but he only shoots “bad guys”. Despite being reared by a neglectful mother in a trailer park, before being put in a group home, Billy spends the opening chapter musing on Emile Zola. As opening chapters go, it’s not exactly riveting.
When the novel gets going, though it’s a good read, Billy, using a false name and posing as a novelist, moves into a rented house and, rather hilariously, rents an office to write his book. (I know many successful writers who don’t have an office outside of their home, the idea that someone writing their first book could afford one with a reception area is risible.)
Billy makes friends with all his neighbours at the house and various people who work in his office building.
Halfway through the novel, he assassinates his target and disappears into a new fake identity. Despite wearing a physical disguise and living in the basement of a building in a less well-off part of town, Billy develops a ludicrously close relationship with a couple from another apartment.
Billy also rescues a young woman, Alice, who had been drugged and raped by three men, and dumped at the side of the road. Later he enacts revenge on the three and, I can’t lie, I enjoyed that part very much.
When Billy does not get paid for the hit job and realises that Nick, who hired him, was planning on killing him after the job was done, he decides to kill him. He and Alice set off together on a road trip to find him. Then there’s a big twist – a twist that should have worked but, for me, fell flat.
The novel feels like three different stories roughly wedged together and connected only by Billy. Then there’s Billy’s story, which he actually writes while posing as an author, with plenty of detail about his time as a sniper in Afghanistan, which is genuinely riveting.
Nonetheless Billy Summers is for diehard King fans only.
A Slow Burning Fire
The Sunday Independent
Hands up, I was one of the few people who did not love Paula Hawkins bestselling debut The Girl on the Train. Her new book, A Slow Burning Fire is far more my thing – an old-school psychological thriller about slightly odd people.
There’s no ‘unreliable narrator’ in this book, instead there are five who are all too self-aware. Elderly lady Irene shared a great love of books with her next-door neighbour Angela, both of them having a preference for PD James and Ruth Rendell and the influence of both venerable writers clear to see in a story where disparate characters’ lives intersect, often with dire consequences.
As the story kicks off Angela has been dead some weeks, having fallen down her own stairs. Nearby, on Regents Canal ‘hobbit’-like book-lover Miriam, an overweight, unattractive middle-aged lady, who resides permanently on a canal boat, gets a bit twitchy about the boat in the berth next door overstaying his allotted time. Going aboard to tell him she instead finds the young man dead, gruesomely murdered. The murder victim is Daniel, the only child of the recently deceased Angela.
Daniel’s only surviving relatives are his aunt Carla (Angela’s sister) and his uncle Theo, Carla’s husband who she lives apart from. Rounding up the cast of characters is ‘Mad Laura’ a very damaged young woman who runs errands for Irene and having met Daniel at his mother’s house hooks up with him on the boat for sex. They row, it becomes physical, and Laura becomes the prime suspect.
Prior to their respective deaths Daniel and Angela had been estranged from Theo and Carla. The couple’s only child, Ben, died as the result of an accident while in Angela’s care. Theo blames alcoholic Angela for the loss of his beloved toddler and refuses to have anything to do with her again. And then there’s Theo’s bestseller, The One That Got Away, excerpts of which appear within the pages of A Slow Fire Burning. The novel, originally published under a pseudonym was famed for seeing the point of view of all the characters and even making a murdering rapist sympathetic. Unfortunately for Theo Miriam claims that his famous book is in fact a plagiarised version of her memoir.
Like Theo, Hawkins gives all of the characters reasons for the readers to feel sympathetic. Carla is a stuck-up madam, but she lost her baby in a horrific way. The death of his son ruined Theo. He could no longer write. His wife moved out. ‘Hobbit’ Miriam and ‘Mad Laura’ are well aware of their individual flaws. Both have horrific back stories and while the behaviour of both is unattractive and annoying their pasts play on the readers sympathies.
Irene is a normal 80-year-old who gets fed up with people stereotyping her just because she is old.
This is a proper page-turner and where it veers from Rendell and PD James is in the tone which isn’t constantly dark. Disinhibited Laura can be very funny sometimes even intentionally. I also loved the brief mention of online ‘Crowdfunding’ as ‘the kindness of hipsters’.
The twists are many and the first, which comes early on, made me laugh out loud. I could almost hear a laughing Hawkins saying “Got you!”
The Sunday Independent
Monica McInerney is a very successful Aussie writer (voted Australia's favourite novelist four times in the last decade), who began her career in 2001 with A Taste for It - about an Australian chef called Maura travelling around Ireland. Her latest novel, The Godmothers, takes her back to our shores once again.
The Godmothers centres on Eliza, a buttoned-down, uptight 30-year-old who, in the space of a week, loses her job and her apartment in Melbourne.
The reasons for Eliza's control-freakery are very apparent. After a childhood with an erratic and unconventional, but loving, single mother, Jeannie, who dragged her from pillar to post, Eliza has played safe and spent her entire working life toiling for narcissistic nightmare Gillian, building up Gillian's business for no thanks and little reward.
Having no father, no siblings, grandparents or any other family, the only constants in Eliza's life have been her two godmothers, her mother's boarding school chums. Maxie is a famous actress who started out in Australian soaps and has become a British television institution.
Olivia is a pragmatic businesswoman whose (older) husband is in a care home with Alzheimer's. She has been left with the responsibility of running her husband's top-notch hotel in Edinburgh while trying to accommodate his two sons, Alex and Rory, and his late wife's mother, the demanding and demented Celine.
Eliza has no idea who her father is. Jeannie always promised she would tell her everything on her 18th birthday but she died shortly beforehand, leaving Eliza emotionally devastated.
After her life suddenly implodes, she decides, despite having developed a phobia of flying since her mother's death, that her godmothers' offer of a holiday in Edinburgh is one she can't refuse.
Making the long journey to Scotland is the first step to finally finding out who her father is. What she hasn't bargained for is that her godmothers, feeling parental towards her, have kept many of Jeannie's secrets and that her late mother wasn't quite the person that Eliza thought she was.
Eliza already knew that Jeannie was a creative storyteller but when some of her lies are exposed, she feels cheated.
"For 13 years. I've done nothing but try to be the best behaved person I can, to try to keep everything bad at bay, stop anything else terrible happening to me. But it was pointless, wasn't it? Because I was in the dark all that time. My life could have been so different."
Eliza is also shocked to discover that the godmothers don't know who her father is. The most likely suspect is an Irish man called Emmet whom her mother met in London and shared a house with in Australia. In between, Jeannie had worked in his family's pub in Ireland, in view of an ancient castle. With so many castles in Ireland, the search seems pointless until they get a clue courtesy of a Mel Gibson film. (The actor is "pocket-sized. It's all done with trick photography," according to gorgon Celine, who gets all the best lines. )
Eliza's physical and emotional journey changes her life. After 13 years of being shut down and cut off, she finally starts to live again. Surrounded by handsome men in Edinburgh, she even finds a bit of romance.
Readers will be delighted to hear that the Irish characters actually speak like real Irish people. McInerney perfectly captures the rhythm of speech and uses Irish-isms properly. The pacing is good throughout, letting readers enjoy the vivid scenery but not getting bogged down with extraneous details.
Being able to travel to Australia, Scotland, London and Ireland virtually, while we are stuck at home makes The Godmothers the perfect antidote to lockdown.
The Sunday Independent
Anne Marie Scanlon
This was the year when best-sellers went from being a guilty pleasure to an absolute necessity - escapism no longer being a luxury. Marian Keyes's great talent, apart from making readers laugh, has been to weave serious themes into her comic novels. Grown Ups (Michael Joseph, €14.24), her 16th, features another quirky family - the Caseys who each have their issues, but it is Cara's story of bulimia that keeps the pages turning. Eating disorders don't sound especially funny or escapist but in Keyes's capable hands, Cara's struggle is riveting.
Carmel Harrington's My Pear-Shaped Life (Harper Collins, €18.20) also takes on the issues around weight, fat-shaming and the multimillion-euro global diet and fitness industry. Greta Gale has always been the 'jolly fat girl' making herself the butt of the joke but the 30-year-old is also a struggling actress, trying to make her way in an industry that is obsessed with body image. Greta is addicted to sleeping pills and crashes her car. After rehab, she goes to the US in search of her favourite self-help guru and meets extremes of female bodies. Touching in some places, very funny in others.
Readers expecting Graham Norton's third novel Home Stretch (Coronet, €12.99) to provide riotous laughs may be disappointed. The novel which won the An Post Popular Fiction Book of the Year begins with a car crash on the eve of a wedding in 1987. The bride, groom and bridesmaid are killed while the bridesmaid's sister is left in a coma. Two young men walk away unscathed and the novel tracks their lives. There may be no gags, but Norton is brilliant at capturing life in a small town and the dialogue of those who live there. In the end, it's a story of hope, not defeat.
Finally, one of my perennial favourites - Ross O'Carroll Kelly stars in his 18th outing Braywatch (Penguin Ireland, €10.99). Once again, Paul Howard knocks it out of the pork, as Ross himself would say. Ross gets a job in Bray (of all places!) while his daughter Honor channels Greta Thunberg. The prologue, written well before the US elections, makes me wonder if Howard has access to a crystal ball. Waterproof mascara a must as you will howl laughing.
The Dirty South
The Sunday Independent
Charlie Parker’s last outing A Book of Bones was a massive undertaking encompassing several different points of view and timelines, a number of different countries, countless periods in history and a vast cast of characters including more than a few ‘not of this world’. It was a masterpiece and fans wondered what John Connolly would, or even could, do to top it.
For The Dirty South Connolly has pared it all back, this is Charlie Parker unplugged. The book is set in 1997 when newly widowed Parker is on the hunt for the sadistic killer who murdered his wife and child. The plot is straightforward, linear and occurs over a few days. There is only the merest whiff of the supernatural.
In his pursuit of the man who killed his family Parker passes through the small rural town of Cagill, Arkansas. Despite Clinton being in the White House the town is dying of poverty – the only thriving business is the illegal production of Crystal Meth. Three young black women have been killed and the county Sheriff Jurel Cade isn’t in any great hurry to find out who is responsible - as his family will make a lot of money in land sales if a proposed deal with a company called Kovas goes ahead.
The Cade family are a nasty bunch who will let nothing stand in the way of their ambitions. They aren’t the only ones who are prepared to look the other way if it means that Kovas will come to town. Connolly’s books, whilst often dealing with the supernatural, have always shone a light on human nature and how corrupt it can be. The local pastor is keen to see the town prosper so he can have a nice new church. Connolly highlights the hypocrisy that many ‘men of the cloth’ suffer from as the Pastor, a serial adulterer, blames Satan for his sins while congratulating himself for persevering “in his calling.”
As with all the Charlie Parker books Connolly throws in just enough humour to stop the bleakness becoming overwhelming such as describing an attorney as “wearing a smaller man’s suit, along with the kind of untrustworthy moustache that caused sensible folk to lay a protective hand on their wallets.”
When the truth is eventually revealed it serves as reminder of the ‘banality of evil’. While the supernatural may scare us, John Connolly knows that there is little as terrifying as soured human nature.
How to Fall Apart
The Sunday Independent
A decade ago, when my son was three, we started doing ‘Movie Night’ – watching films snuggled up in bed and eating sweets. Ten years on the snuggling and sweets are gone and have been replaced by Pizza - we even have a designated ‘Pizza Towel’ to lay over the bed as I’m so particular about my pristine white bed linen. I have never told anyone the details about Movie Night for fear of being judged, so I was thrilled to read in How to Fall Apart that Liadan Hynes does exactly the same thing with her little girl, including the pizza. (Not only do Hynes and her daughter cuddle up in the bed but her Dad and her brother often squish themselves in too.)
Liadan Hynes did things ‘the right way’. At 26 she met the man she subsequently married, had a child and by the time she was almost 40 Hynes found herself suddenly single, when her marriage failed. How to Fall Apart is an honest recounting of how she coped or didn’t in some instances. Hynes’s marriage wasn’t ripped asunder by cheating or poor behaviour but rather petered out with both parties becoming uncomfortably aware that things were over. The parting was mutual, but even in these post-Gywnnie ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ times a breakup is never easy, especially when there is a child involved. As Hynes puts it “in the minefield of co-parenting, strewn with everything from the corpses of best intentions, to unexploded bombs of rage, how you intend things to go, is usually quite far from how they do go.”
Hynes is very honest about the fact that until the end of her marriage she’s had a fairly uneventful and happy life – that she never endured a major trauma and “it felt for a time as if my future had closed down… (it was) a place full of gaping holes caused by the thing I had lost.” To be fair to Hynes, even though she is sad and grieving the loss of her marriage (an gruelling process) she throws everything she can at coping with her new life as a mother, and non-wife. She tries an exhausting list of, as she calls it herself, WooWoo – life coaching, therapy, yoga, crystals, (“a veritable entourage of healers and wise women that was positively Kardashian”) admitting that she was highly cynical about ‘wellness’ before her marriage ended.
Some sense does come from the Woo as Hynes realises that while she cannot choose her fate, she can choose how she reacts to it. Another lesson is the futility of comparing your own internal struggles to the exterior of other people’s lives. (Fronting isn’t just for Facebook). How to Fall Apart isn’t really about the ending of a marriage but the beginning of a new life, that Hynes is determined to forge for herself and her daughter. One of the strongest themes of the book is how the friendship and strength of other women – family and friends helped her through the worst and helped her celebrate the best. Hynes’s has a number of really solid female friends and reading this it’s easy to see why as she comes across as a lovely person, the type who would inspire great love and loyalty.
Ending a marriage and separating, whatever the reasons may be, is a massive trauma for anyone. Hynes’s Life Coach tells her that “Fear is everything. Fear is what blocks us. We can use other words – depression, anxiety, anger – but I use the blanket word of fear. Everything is fear.” Alongside fear there is deep grief, for what was, what could have been and what no longer will be. Hynes’s endures profound heartache and an anger that she tries very hand to deny, because she’s not one of nature’s angry people. Despite this she has no option but to get on with things for the sake of her daughter, despite finding that “running (a home) on your own as a single parent can feel relentless.”
How to Fall Apart isn’t just an ordinary memoir but also a ‘self-help’ guide. Hynes has negotiated the emotional and practical difficulties of ‘starting over’ and generously mapped it for the next woman in the same position. The chapters are all very short and the heading reflects exactly what is in each. They do not flow in a linear way and at first, I found the scattershot nature of the narrative difficult. However, as I read on, I realised that anyone just out of a relationship would probably find focus and concentration difficult and appreciate the method of being able to go straight to the bit they want to read.
Above all How to Fall Apart is one long love letter to Hynes’s little girl, and that’s beautiful.
The Recovery of Rose Gold
The Sunday Independent
Given the hype The Recovery of Rose Gold has had in publishing circles I was expected great things from this ‘literary suspense’ debut by Stephanie Wrobel.
The premise is extremely promising. Rose Gold Watt’s mother Patty is just out of jail where she spent five years for child abuse.
Patty suffers from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) a mental health condition that leads a caregiver, often a mother, to get positive attention by deliberately harming their child in order to make them seem ill.
Patty had methodically poisoned her daughter for eighteen years ruining her health, her looks and her teeth. Rose Gold is obsessed with getting her teeth fixed.
In the five years that Patty has been away Rose Gold has become a single parent herself and met the father she never knew she had. (He bursts into her life abruptly and departs in the same fashion).
Rose Gold has also purchased her mother’s childhood home and invites Patty to come and live with her and the baby. For reasons that are never addressed she has also painted a large eye on the ceiling downstairs.
Adult mother/daughter relationships are always fertile ground for writers and MSBP is gruesomely fascinating (as anyone old enough to remember the crimes of Beverly Allitt can attest to).
Despite the surfeit of possible material, The Recovery of Rose Gold falls flat. Rose Gold (the constant repetition of her name becomes very irritating) has no personality at all. It’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for a character who is so bland.
Within Patty there are the germs of a truly great character – she’s abrasive and grimly funny but she never gets beyond two dimensions. Patty’s motivations are never examined other than a by-the-numbers abusive childhood that’s referred to but never explored in depth.
At the end there is an unexpected twist which explains a lot of earlier, seemingly pointless, plot, but it’s just too little too late.
Fleishman is in Trouble
The Sunday Independent
25 August 2019
Fleishman is in Trouble is a great novel, made extraordinary by the fact that it is author Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut. Brodesser-Akner has arrived fully formed with her own unique style and voice.
On the surface the plot surrounds Toby Fleishman, recently liberated from a bad marriage to Rachel, and waiting for his divorce to be finalised. Toby is a well respected doctor with a salary in six figures but it pales in comparison to that of Rachel, an agent, who runs her own company. Toby is adjusting to his single man status and finds his life empty - “everything stayed the same every day. Nothing moved”. He finds solace in his dating app and the opportunity it gives him to have sex with countless women – a novelty for him as he was never a big hit with the ladies.
The story is narrated by his university friend Libby, a writer who worked for a men’s magazine before leaving to devote time to her children. “The hardest job there was was being a mother and having an actual job, with pants and a commuter train pass and pens and lipstick.”
Toby’s newly found bachelorhood is disrupted when Rachel vanishes. Toby is left trying to juggle his two children Hannah 11 and Solly 9 along with his medical duties (and his dating app). Toby finds this less irksome than many men because in his relationship with the high-powered Rachel, he was, as his divorce lawyer tells him, ‘the wife’.
The first two thirds of the book leave the reader in no doubt that Toby is lovely, (he’s always been the parent to go to school and sporting events, cook and play with the kids), and Rachel is a prize bitch. Libby, while decrying the fact that her career as a writer was hampered by the fact that she is female, loathes Rachel – who has not let biology or social expectations get in the way of her professional success. It is only in the last third of the book the reader gets to see what has happened to Rachel and why.
Both Libby and Toby and their old pal Seth are facing their respective ‘mid-life crisis’. Toby feels that Rachel’s success has held him back professionally, while handsome Seth, an avid bachelor, wants to settle down. The male mid-life crisis is a much examined phenomenon but Brodesser-Akner also focuses on the dissatisfactions women in their 40s face, especially those who are mothers. “There were so many ways of being a woman in the world, but all of them still rendered her just a woman, which is to say: a target.” Libby reflects on the fact that women never truly achieve equality and that the men she interviewed for magazine articles “hadn’t had any obstacles. They were born knowing they belonged, and they were reassured at every turn just in case they’d forgotten.”
Weighty themes, but delivered with a lightness of touch, humour and insight, make this a thoroughly enthralling read.
The Book Of Bones
Hodder & Stoughton
The Sunday Independent
7 July 2019
Fans of John Connolly may find it hard to believe that 'the detective', aka Charlie Parker, has been around for two decades whilst at the same time trying to remember a fiction landscape that didn't contain him.
To celebrate Parker's twenty years of giving reader's pleasure, John Connolly has delivered an epic tome in A Book of Bones. This is Parker's 17th outing, and as with all the books about him, can be read as a standalone novel.
A Book of Bones is a much longer and more complex novel than any of it's predecessors. The locations have changed; Parker's adventures are usually firmly US - based. Connolly now takes the detective and his loyal aides Louis and Angel out of all that is familiar to them and fans alike.
This is an impressive blockbuster that encompasses the globe from the US to the UK via Amsterdam and time from the pre-Roman period to the present day. Few authors could present a work which touches on the Sinaloa drug cartels, the criminality of the art world, the IRA's 1970s bombing campaign, Amsterdam's book industry, English farmers, police and lawyers, Jack the Ripper, pre-Christian deities, Islamophobia and a long-distance driver and serial killer with echoes of Peter Sutcliffe.
Few authors could manage this scope. Even fewer could manage to make all these disparate threads coherent. Connolly doesn't just make them coherent, he makes them compelling.
The plot, in short, is that Parker, Louis and Angel have come to Europe in pursuit of Quayle and Mors, the other-worldly and unsettling villains from The Woman in the Woods (Charlie Parker 16).
One of the recurring themes of The Book of Bones is that the past is always with us, not just in the sense that the present is the outcome of all of the events leading to it ("the accumulated burden of the past") but that time is flexible and past, present and future are all occurring simultaneously.
Despite Connolly's obvious encyclopaedic knowledge of history and his excellent ear for accents - events in Britain occur in London, Newcastle and the farming country in the North of England, - it is his humanity that makes his work so compelling. No matter how small a walk-on part a character has, be they a retired teacher with a hated first name, a single mother prostituting herself or a Jamaican handy-man who believes in 'duppys', the reader cares about them.
As with all Connolly's books there is a thread of humour (often grim) throughout. Sellars, the Sutcliffe-like serial killer, who hears a voice in his head, is upset when his wife want a divorce and muses, "Lauren was leaving him because of his past failings, when he was so much better now... Okay, so had progressed from sleeping with women to killing them, but no man was perfect."
As a fan of both Charlie Parker and John Connolly I can say without hesitation that A Book of Bones is his best novel yet. Be warned though, it's a commitment, I couldn't put it down and it took me the best part of a week to read it. Take it on holidays and take time to enjoy it. There is a terrific twist at the very end, like a little present from Connolly to his readers. It was so unexpected and so moving that I almost cried.
The Wych Elm
The Skeleton in the Tree
The Sunday Independent
3 March 2019
The Wych Elm is Tana French’s seventh novel and ostensibly the first ‘standalone’ work. Readers familiar with her first six books will know that despite the ‘Murder Squad’ link each novel is unique and different. The major change with the Wych Elm is the point of view – instead of the police searching for answers it’s one of the suspects.
Toby has led a charmed life. He went to a ‘good’ school where he was a popular rugby player. He’s well aware that he’s a “lucky bastard” as he’s good looking, naturally charming and people take to him. He’s never felt the need to bully or intimidate, he’s always had a good relationship with his parents, has a good career in PR, is still pals with his two besties from school and has a perfect relationship with girlfriend Melissa. And even though he’s an only child he has a semi-sibling relationship with his cousins Leon and Susanna who he shared magical summers with at their Uncle Hugo’s home The Ivy House.
All this changes when he is brutally beaten up by two burglars and almost dies. French is brilliant at conveying the sudden terror that overwhelms someone who has never experienced any sort of crisis. The assault leaves Toby changed both physically and mentally. While he struggles to cope with the pain, memory loss and emotional trauma, the worst aspect for Toby is that who he is, is irrevocably changed. “If stuff gets better… so what? …Even if I end up running a marathon, I’m not the same person any more. That’s the point.”
The theme of identity is one that permeates the entire book. Toby realises that being a ‘good person’ is easy when life has been easy – when there are no difficult challenges to face or when circumstances don’t force a moral dilemma. His cousin Leon recalls not wanting to come out because “It was the thought of people seeing me as something different. Not being a person to them any more, not being just me, ever again; being a gay.” Another theme is how power and conversely powerlessness are linked to identity.
While Toby is recuperating his favourite uncle, Hugo, a genealogist, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and both he and girlfriend Melissa go to stay with him at the Ivy House. It is during this stay that a skull in found in the Wych Elm of the title and skeletons – physical and figurative begin to emerge.
French writes beautifully and lyrically and can conjure up a sense of place and atmosphere like few others. The Wych Elm is both entertaining and thought-provoking but its uneven in execution - the critical event, the finding of the skull, doesn’t occur until almost half way through. French is usually brilliant at creating three-dimensional believable characters but not once in 511 pages does the saint-like Melissa lose her cool which stretched my belief more than her wearing pretty vintage dresses day and night. Not French’s best, but still better than the rest.
Seedy World of a Sex Addict
The Sunday Independent
24 February 2019
Adèle lives with her surgeon husband Richard and their 3-year-old son Lucien in an upmarket Paris apartment. She has a high profile job as a political journalist. She is thin and beautiful and has it all. But Adèle is a sex addict.
Sex addiction can easily be dismissed as a laughing matter but this gripping novel by Leïla Slimani (a follow up to her international bestseller Lullaby about a nanny who murders the children she looks after) reveals the grim reality of compulsive sex, “her obsessions devour her. She is helpless to stop them.”.
Like all addicts Adèle is seeking oblivion and relief rather than thrills. Slimani nails the compulsion in the opening chapter where Adèle eyes up a variety of unattractive men on the train thinking that one of them ‘will do’. In order to maintain her ‘habit’ Adèle lies to everyone and lives with consistent stress and paranoia on top of the guilt and shame she feels. She resents her husband, (wishing him dead at one point), her child and her employers for getting in the way of her pursuing sexual encounters.
Adèle has one good friend, Lauren, who she mistreats in a casual off-hand way and she overspends in order to feed her addiction. While other addictions destroy families the added multiple intimate betrayals involved in sex addiction make any sort of understanding or forgiveness of the addict near impossible.
When Adèle’s husband inevitably finds out that his wife has been leading a double life he is devastated. “Adèle had ripped up his world. She has sawn the legs off the furniture, she has scratched all the mirrors… Memories, promises… none of it means anything any more. Their life is a fake.”
Adèle is a woman of contradictions who can have sex with a total stranger in an alleyway yet fear that strange men might rape and attack her. Fear is constant – fear of being found out, fear of not getting what she wants and fear of getting it.
Slimani never lets us really know why Adèle is compelled to have increasingly dangerous liaisons with strangers, just that it is not a choice.
Forget Cold Hard Crime, Cozy is just as thrilling.
Forget New Year Resolutions, fight the cold hard months of Winter with a dose of Cozy Crime writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
January is, without doubt, the most dismal month of the year. Traditionally a time of empty pockets and tight waistbands, we make things even worse by punishing ourselves with self-denial and resolutions we can’t keep.
Those with the cash escape to warmer weather but you don’t need to jump on a jet to find solace in the long dark cold nights. A ‘Cozy Crime’ mystery does exactly what it says on the label and banishes the bleaks
The ‘Cozy’ is a subgenre which unlike much modern Crime Fiction doesn’t grab headlines. Despite the lack of publicity Cosies regularly appear on the best-seller lists, although a consistent definition of what constitutes one is elusive.
Mystery author Amanda Fowler describes the genre as having “an amateur sleuth, an unsuspecting victim, a quirky supporting cast and a trail of clues and red herrings.”
Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver books has a simpler explanation - “someone gets killed but no one gets harmed.”
I asked McPherson why such a popular genre hadn’t garnered more attention. McPherson thinks there are two issues, one being sexism. Cozy Crime, like traditional Golden Age Crime, is penned mainly by women and the derision aimed at it echoes that usually reserved for traditional Romance.
Secondly, McPherson says, the name itself lacks “cool” and “is problematic. You do hear a lot of people denying that their books are “Cozies” insisting they’re called “traditional mystery”.”
Many Cozy Crime stories, like McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series, The County Guides series by Ian Sansom and the Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are all set during the “Golden Age” period and feature country houses, picturesque towns, village fetes, posh people and clever plots. The settings are intimate with a limited amount of characters and suspects.
The joy of these books is that although it is fun to read them in sequence they all work well as standalone novels.
Bangor-based Ian Sansom has created a Holmsian-style character with Swanton Morley, the ‘People’s Professor’ in the, to date, four County Guide novels (Fourth Estate), all set in the 1930s and narrated by the character Stephen Sefton who is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
The latest Dandy Gilver escapade A Step So Grave (Hodder & Stoughton €29.39) is her thirteenth outing having gone from a new bride struggling to make sense of the aftermath of the Great War to now being a mother-in-law fearing the coming of another cataclysmic war. In true 'Classic' style the action all takes place in a ‘Big Hoose’ (while Dandy is English she’s married to a Scot) on an island. The islanders, including the inhabitants of the Big Hoose, all speak Scots Gaelic and fervently believe in pre-Christian superstitions which are seamlessly woven throughout the plot.
Similarly, Kate Shackleton’s latest outing, her tenth, in A Snapshot of Murder (Piatkus, €12.99) is set in 1928. The detective’s photography society have taken a trip to Haworth for the opening of the Bronte home when one of their number is murdered in plain sight. Like McPherson, Brody manages to weave in plenty of facts for Bronte fans.
For modern readers the historical Cozies represent the best of both worlds as we get the atmosphere and setting of a classic, added humour and none of the casual racism, sexism and anti-Semitism that jar so much when you come across them unexpectedly in a Golden Age novel.
Then there are the novels that are historical Cozies with a twist. Some characters are too beloved to die – even when the author has. Dorothy L. Sayers’s aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey was resurrected for three books by Jill Paton Walsh while Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth, Poirot, has been brought back to life by Sophie Hannah, a best-selling author famous for her domestic noir titles.
Hannah’s books are all cleverly plotted which made her a natural choice to continue Christie’s legacy. The Mystery of Three Quarters (Harper Collins €17.99) is Hannah’s third Poirot book, which sees the famous detective exercise his little grey cells over letters, purportedly sent by him, to a number of people accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, an old man who died accidentally. As befits both Christie and Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters has an extremely labyrinthine plot.
Cozies are not confined to the interwar years – the bestselling Agatha Raisin series by “Queen of Cozy Crime” M.C. Beaton, has a contemporary setting as does A Clean Canvas (Constable €11.19), the second of a, hopefully long, series featuring Lena Szarka, a Hungarian cleaner and amateur detective by Elizabeth Mundy.
The unifying theme between the historical Cozies and the contemporary kind are they both eschew overt sex and violence. While that might make them sound twee, they’re not. Both Lena and Agatha are formidable and funny woman who like men. Lena keeps getting in her own way with her policeman friend and in her latest jaunt Agatha Raisin and the Dead Ringer (book number 29, Constable €25.19) Agatha finds true, although not necessarily lasting, love.
It’s too cold to be cool in January. Get Cozy.
Ghosts in a Gothic mansion, terrible parents and a hidden killer.
Pick your winner from six first-class writers who reflect the fantastic array of modern Irish crime writing, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Pity the judges who have to pick a winner from the Irish Independent Crime Fiction of the Year category in the An Post Irish Book Awards. All six nominees are extremely strong contenders and are great examples of just how much diversity the ‘Crime’ genre contains.
A House of Ghosts by W. C. Ryan (Bonnier Zaffre) is a wonderful old-school, Agatha Christie-style mystery with a supernatural element. Set during the First World War a seemingly disparate party of house guests are assembled in a Gothic mansion, formerly an Abbey. The Abbey is situated on an island which due to bad weather becomes cut off, the phone lines are sabotaged and the ghosts start to gather.
As the tension rises the previously connections between the guests, the Russian Psychic, the Playboy, the Lady Clairvoyant and government spies Kate and Donovan begin to emerge - mostly the death of loved ones during the war. A House of Ghosts is wonderfully written and a jolly good read.
At the other end of the spectrum One Click by Andrea Mara (Poolbeg) is bang up to date. Lauren is a psychologist and amateur photographer. On holidays in Italy she impulsively posts a picture of a beautiful girl on a beach. Her post goes viral and amid all the glowing feedback there’s someone, VIN, who is insistent on knowing who the girl is and where they can find her.
When Lauren returns to Dublin and her exceptionally creepy client Jonathan, VIN becomes more insistent and more threatening. Mara gives us twists and turns aplenty in this thriller. By the end I suspected everyone except the real culprit. The only problem with One Click is that after reading it you’ll want to delete your entire online presence and live ‘off-grid’.
The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan (Sphere) is a good solid police procedural. Like Andrea Mara, McTiernan keeps the reader guessing right until the end. Within the story itself the theme of children and motherhood are central and how both can negatively impact each other. When a woman chooses her addiction over her children it leaves them at the mercy of other adults, while an unexpected pregnancy, if continued, will ruin a trainee surgeons career.
Liz Nugent pursues similar themes in Skin Deep (Penguin Ireland) – the damage bad or neglectful parenting can have on children as with her heroine Cordelia and how pregnancy and motherhood can derail a woman’s life. Skin Deep while being as grippy as any thriller is also a damning indictment of the way women have been treated in Ireland.
The Confession by Jo Spain is also an indictment of modern Ireland especially those who benefitted from the Celtic Tiger years but escaped the consequences of the subsequent crash. The story begins with prominent financier Harry McNamara being battered around the head with his own golf club. The assailant JP immediately turns himself in and the subsequent narrative delivered from his point of view, that of Julie, Harry’s wife and detective Alice slowly reveals the motive. Spain goes from strength to strength with every book and The Confession is a gripping page turner.
Thirteen Steve Cavanagh (Orion)is a classic John Grisham-style courtroom drama but with an added twist. Set in New York usually low key attorney Flynn finds himself at the heart of the ‘Case of the Century’ defending Hollywood’s latest darling Bobby Solomon against the charge of double homicide – his wife and bodyguard. (This is where all similarities with OJ Simpson begin and end.)
Bobby swears he’s innocent despite the evidence being stacked against him and his inability to provide an alibi. Meanwhile the real killer, a serial killer who has gone undetected for decades, is on the jury and determined to convict and God help any juror who looks like they might acquit. In a story that’s full of twists and action there’s a fantastic twist at the end that the reader will not see coming.
A Spark of Light
Hodder & Stoughton
Picoult's Light Sparks Debate
The Sunday Independent
04 November 2018
Given Jodi Picoult's track record of tackling moral and ethical issues in the U.S. it’s perhaps surprising that it's only now, with A Spark of Light, that the author has confronted the contentious issue of abortion.
Like her previous novels A Spark of Light is meticulously researched but in a radical departure from her usual form the story is told in reverse chronology.
The novel begins in crisis with anti-abortion gunman, George Goddard holed up with hostages in ‘The Centre’ - (as in real life, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi). Chief negotiator Hugh McElroy’s job has been complicated by the fact that his 15-year-old daughter Wren, and his older sister Bex, were in the clinic when the gunman arrived.
The reverse narrative works exceptionally well. The reader has no idea why Bex or Wren are there and can make only the obvious assumptions. Similarly knowing that certain characters are dead from the offset makes for a huge emotional impact when the reader encounters them later on in the narrative.
Picoult’s sympathies are fairly obvious but she takes care to present ‘the other side’ as fully rounded, multi-faceted characters with genuine reasons for their stance. The gunman is not the only one in the clinic who is anti-abortion; one of the hostages is a woman from the permanent picket outside disguised as a patient.
Surprisingly given the subject matter the core of this novel isn’t about mothers or motherhood but rather about the father – daughter dynamic. Both George the gunman, and negotiator Hugh, are single fathers who have raised their respective teen daughters alone. They are both “good” fathers, doing the best they can for their children.
Another of the books more memorable characters is Dr Louis Ward, a devout Catholic African American who travels around different States providing abortions. It is he who makes the very pertinent observation that the “waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun.”
Dancing With the Tsars
Ross O'Carroll Kelly
Ross Waltzes Off with another hilarious tale
The Sunday Independent
07 September 2018
Dancing with the Tsars is the 18th book from the best rugby player Ireland never had, Ross O’Carroll Kelly.
It's two decades since Ross began life as a spoof about five “goys” who played rugby and their Foxrock Fanny parents. Both he, the 'goys" and the books have moved on since, with each new novel being an almost impossible combination of hilarity, social satire and a barometer of contemporary life in Ireland.
Dancing with the Tsars is very much focused on Ross and his immediate family. He and Sorcha have split up. Again. They continue to share the family home so Sorcha can pursue her political career in the Seanad and Ross can care for their four children, 11-year-old Honor and toddler triplets Johnny, Leo and Brian.
The triplets are in Ross’s own words “thugs” and “so thick they make me look like Edward Einstein.” Ross hopelessly struggles to get the boys to appreciate his one true love. “I’m in the gorden, trying to interest the boys in a rugby ball and I might as well be trying to teach economics to pigeons”.
The triplets are a great addition to the Ross universe and come out with some of the most imaginative swearing ever committed to paper, (as a result I can't quote it here). I cried laughing almost every time this trio of tiny terrors appeared.
While Ross appears to be mellowing with age – he manages to get through the book without killing any pets, or indeed ‘specky focker’ Fionn, who may be the father of Sorcha's unborn child. While Ross has calmed down, his son Ronan appears to be a 'chip of the block' as he's "riding rings round himself'.
For this reason, Ross tries to get Ronan to cancel his upcoming wedding. Despite his worries, Ross nonetheless organises Ronan’s Stag weekend in Spain and arranges a ‘Big Five’ Safari to spot notorious Dublin gangland figures who have ‘retired’ there. As ever Ross is at sea amongst Ronan’s Northside pals (appropriate as they think he dresses like a sailor) and laments Northsiders drinking his beloved ‘Ken’ “It’s wasted on them. It’s like feeding sourdough to the ducks.”
Charles O’Carroll Kelly, Ross’s father, has evolved from a crooked businessman to the leader of a populist political party (sound familiar?), while mother Fionnuala spends an inordinate amount in Russia. Sorcha becomes woke and throws herself into radical feminism, (prompted by hearing Mná is an anagram of 'man'). Sorcha displays her wokeness and RadFem cred by randomly putting 'man' in front of words ('mandescending', 'manthematics' and 'manabler') in the manner of 'mansplaining' Daughter Honor has set her sights on the 'Goatstown Glitterball', the award for a ‘Strictly’-style competition at her school Mount Anville, or 'Westeros' as Ross calls it.
Ross himself may not be ‘Edward Einstein’ but Paul Howard is a genius. Not only has he created a character, in Ross, who is monstrous and despicable, but he’s given him enough humanity for the reader to root for him. Doing this once was a neat trick. Doing it eighteen times is extraordinary. Future historians will probably use these books as a primer on Ireland over the past two decades, especially the rise, fall and rise of the Celtic Tiger. If they can stop laughing long enough.
Up Lit - newest writing style shines a light on darkness but people struggle to define it.
Up Lit is the latest literary genre but writers, readers and publishers struggle to define what it means writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Just like couture, fashions come and go in the book world. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl launched the Grip Lit phenomenon six years ago and it has dominated bestseller lists ever since. Since Gail Honeyman’s debut hit Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine last year, a new genre, Up Lit has been gaining ground with readers. Perhaps ‘genre’ is too strong a word as Up Lit currently has no agreed definition and encompasses a variety of different books.
RTE Gold broadcaster Rick O’Shea, who runs the hugely popular Rick O’Shea Book Club on Facebook, (which currently has over 17,000 members) agrees that as a category Up Lit is difficult to define. “It’s fashionable to talk about at the moment It seems to encompass everything from Eleanor to self-help books.”
One book that definitely fits that Up Lit profile is Your Second Life Begins When You Realise You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano (Bantam, July 12th) which is ‘Self-Help’ in the form of a novel. Originally published in France in 2015 it has already sold over one and a half million copies. Parisian Camille is overwhelmed, her grumpy husband lives behind his computer, her 9-year-old son gives her sass and she hates her job. When her car breaks down in a rainstorm she meets Claude a ‘routineologist’ who offers her a lot more than the use of his phone. While this is by no means the greatest novel ever published, it is strangely compelling and indeed extremely uplifting.
Cathryn Summerhouse, an agent at leading literary agency Curtis Brown is slightly sceptical about Up Lit being a genre but offers the view that broadly it encompasses “upmarket commercial fiction that deals with life’s problems and sometimes big issues – mental health, old age, childlessness but has an ultimately redemptive ending, although not a neat Chick Lit and 'they all lived happily ever after'.” Summerhouse sees the trend as being a response to the realities of life in the first world, “times are hard, Brexit, Trump, the doomed NHS, and we are all poor. Books have become big gifting items again as people can’t afford more expensive presents and Up Lit fills a fantastic gap in the market – books that are brilliant but also quite nice!”
Alongside Up Lit, the romance novel also appears to be having a moment in the sun. “I don’t think Romance has ever been out (of fashion) but a new generation of authors are definitely breathing new life into it,” O’Shea comments. Summerhouse agrees and notes that “old-school romantic escapism rather than Chick Lit” is in the ascendant. Her client Molly Flatt’s debut The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, (Macmillan) combines both in “a perfect example of more contemporary, future looking Up Lit. It is life affirming but also not afraid to tackle big issues from workplace anxiety, imposter syndrome, quarter-life crises, even death. It ultimately makes you feel empowered – and satisfied, but not without a few major bumps along the way.”
Alex Moore also addresses the things that make us who we are. How experiences and memories define who people become, how their storyline evolves from events big and small that are deeply rooted in the psyche. “Patterns made up of Memories… Memories create narratives about who we are. And those narratives, in turn, influence how we behave.”
The Possible World (Hutchinson) explores the same themes about how identity is shaped by the past but in a completely different way. Author Liese O’Halloran Schwarz agrees with both O’Shea and Summerhouse that the need for escape and ‘uplift’ is powered by the constant upheavals the world has witnessed over the past few years. “I think it would be a remarkable coincidence." she says, "if this interest in ‘cheerful’ and ‘hope’ wasn’t connected to the ‘Apocalyptic Dominoes’ around us."
O’Halloran Schwarz’s published her debut novel 28 years ago before starting a demanding career as an ER Doctor. The author recalls seeing “the saddest most terrible things” as a medical professional but adds “every single shift there was one person who made me feel that the world wasn’t going down in flames. I came away from all those years in medicine feeling more hopeful than logic would dictate.” The Possible World doesn’t shrink from grimness and is as grippy as any crime novel yet is ultimately joyful and optimistic.
Hope is also a theme in Irish writer Helen Cullen’s debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf (Penguin, Michael Joseph). William has abandoned his dreams and his marriage is in trouble. Cullen presents readers with the mundane reality of ‘happily ever after,’ and how real life can undermine the greatest of romances. The novel is realistic without being grim but again, in the spirit of Up Lit, offers hope for change and transformation.
While Up Lit continues to grow in popularity O’Shea doesn’t see the genre stopping the Grip Lit juggernaut. “I don’t think the two are antagonistic, sometimes you need something uplifting that reaffirms your belief in good and in the human soul, sometimes you just need to read about sociopaths killing with impunity.”
Cross Her Heart
The Sunday Independent
Although Behind Her Eyes wasn’t Sarah Pinborough’s first novel it was the breakout number one hit that made her a familiar name to fans of psychological thrillers. Cross Her Heart, her much anticipated latest novel, suffers a bit from ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome. This book is narrated from three perspectives. Lisa is a single Mum not unlike Louise in Behind Her Eyes, weak, wet and hasn’t had a boyfriend for a very long time. The other perspectives come from Lisa’s sixteen-year-old daughter Ava, and her best friend Marilyn.
After the furious page-turning of Behind Her Eyes the first section of the Cross Her Heart was a bit of a slog. Lisa is so listless it’s hard to care about her in any meaningful way. Ava is a mardy teen (and also hard to like) in love with a mystery man she’s met online but not in real life. You don’t need a pack of Tarot Cards to see where this storyline is leading.
In true teen fashion Ava thinks she’s sophisticated and clued-in. She knows all about online predators but also knows that her romance is the real deal. Far from sophistication Ava seems younger than her years - for example when she suspects she may be pregnant she consoles herself thinking “it’s the summer holidays. If I ned an abortion, I can do it while Mum’s at work. She’ll never know.” Like Ava Marilyn is also hiding a secret. In public she appears to have a charmed life but in reality is regularly beaten-up by her abusive husband Richard.
Throughout the first part of the book there are hints about Lisa’s past but when her secret is revealed it is a huge shock and the pace of the plot picks up accordingly. While some plot points are hard to credit (Marilyn’s relationship with Simon a rich businessman, and indeed, Simon’s romantic interest in Lisa) they don’t matter. Pinborough is back in proper ‘Ripping Yarn’ territory with plenty of Red Herrings and twists.
Unlike the shock twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes I did guess this one, but not until it was almost revealed. Despite that it is still a fantastic twist and will no doubt shock many readers and even if Pinborough hasn’t outdone her previous book she still streets ahead of many of her contemporary Grip Lit authors.
Dear Mrs Bird
A Bridget Jones for the Blitz
The Sunday Independent
Dear Mrs Bird, while set in London during the Second World War, is very much contemporary women's fiction. The wartime detail is good but this is less Hilary Mantel and more Bridget Jones Does the Blitz.
Plucky secretary Emmy wants to become a ‘Lady War Correspondent’ but ends up accidentally taking care of the titular Mrs Bird’s advice page in the old fashioned magazine Woman’s Friend.
Mrs Bird herself is a rather substantial lady - think Miss Trunchbull meets Dolores Umbridge, who takes a dim view of most things. She refuses to reply to any letters, either in print or privately, that contain “UNPLEASANTNESSES,” (she tends to ‘boom’ in capital letters) or include “Affairs…losing their heads… babies… and NERVES.” The high standards of her new boss leave Emmy feeling “as if I had been brought up by a group of exceptionally awful prostitutes or had made a habit of punching the infirm.”
Despite the fear that Mrs Bird inspires in everyone Emmy decides she knows better and starts answering the letters that don’t meet her superior’s impossibly high standards. Shortly after starting her new job Emmy's enlisted fiancé Edmund elopes with a nurse. Despite her alleged heartbreak Emmy rallies pretty quickly and there’s a handsome army officer on hand to help distract her.
Being wartime, tragedy is never far away, and Emmy does experience some personal loss. None of this diverts her from her mission of bringing succour to the readers of Women’s Friend and she soon starts sneaking her advice on to the printed page (Mrs Bird is too busy Do-Gooding to actually proof or read her own copy). Naturally Emmy’s deceptions eventually catch up with her.
While many readers will find the story warm and uplifting I found Emmy’s contemporary tone jarring against the background of wartime London. Similarly, A.J. Pearce's detailed descriptions of the destruction wrought by the Blitz, for me, sit uneasily beside a 'Keep Calm and Carry On' jape.
The Woman in the Woods
Hodder & Stoughton
Great Injustice as Women Lose in Man's World
The Sunday Independent
The universality of certain experiences is reflected in the latest works of two Irish authors. Liz Nugent’s third novel Skin Deep and John Connolly’s The Woman in the Woods, while very different in style and setting, both centre around the disenfranchisement of women in modern society.
Skin Deep’s Delia Russell is like a mythical goddess of destruction, beautiful, alluring and leaving a trail of devastation in her wake. However, Delia is no psychopath – ill luck follows her rather than being deliberately perpetrated by her.
At the start of the novel Delia has killed someone and the reader doesn’t know who. Nugent then takes us back to the beginning, to the tiny insular Island of Inniscrann where Delia grew up. Delia’s father is a violent man unnaturally obsessed with his daughter, he tells her stories (scattered throughout the book) with a common theme – that women suffer to make men happy.
When teenage Delia becomes pregnant in the early 1980s, she feels trapped. She doesn’t want a baby but the decision isn’t hers, instead it’s that of three old men - her adoptive father Alan, a devout Catholic, the boy’s father Declan, a hypocrite who sits up the front of the church yet knows far too well how to get an abortion in England, and the local parish Priest.
Forced into having a baby she doesn’t want and marrying a husband she doesn’t love Delia finds solace in her new life in England by indulging in champagne and cocaine with her posh friends. One of them has no problem telling Delia that all Irish people are ‘peasants’. Younger readers might find this shocking while those of us who remember the 80s and 90s in London certainly won’t be.
Delia’s looks are marred in a fire and superficially that’s what the title refers to. Skin Deep is also about what happens when you scratch the surface of a ‘civilised society.’ Delia is a product of a culture that valued ‘decency’ at all costs and actively covered up any and all behaviour that didn’t conform to the Catholic ideal. (Similarly Delia’s posh friends for all their airs behave disgustingly in private). Delia is the agent of destruction in this book, but the real culprit is the lies, hypocrisy and double-standards she’s been forced to live with. On top of that there’s a couple of nice, unexpected twists near the end.
Across the Atlantic John Connolly’s detective Charlie Parker returns for his 16th outing in The Woman in the Woods which, like Skin Deep, revolves around the relative powerlessness of women in a supposed age of equality.
In this instance though the woman of the title is dead and buried. Her remains been preserved enough for police to know that she didn’t die as a result of a violent act and that she gave birth shortly before dying. But where is the baby?
A star of David marks the grave and lawyer Moxie Castin hires Parker to find out what happened to the infant. The search brings Parker into conflict with two very creepy characters – Quail and Mons.
While this is a relatively low-key adventure for Parker – the body count isn’t that high and his long-time ally Angel is largely absent due to illness, Quail and Mons are two of the creepiest and disturbing characters Connolly has introduced to date. Quail is a lawyer, who claims to have lived for centuries, and is searching for a document that will bring about the end of the world as we know it. His companion Mons is a product of the British care system – carefully “groomed” to become in thrall to Quail and a cold-hearted killer.
The story of the woman in the woods is intrinsically linked to the story of intimate partner violence and the extremes women have to exhort to in an effort to escape it. Connolly also places the rich and the powerful (not always the same thing) under his forensic gaze and takes a pop at the ‘great and the good’ “who routinely made million-dollar donations to museums and galleries… yet balked at the prospect of paying a living wage to their workers,”.
As with all the Charlie Parker books the plot unfolds at a tight pace, leaving it hard to put down. The characters are all rooted enough in real-life, with all of it’s contradictions and complexities, to make them worth caring for. And, as with every Connolly book there’s a lovely seam of humour that doesn’t impinge on the tension. I laughed out loud at the poor woman “who claimed to have slipped … at a shopping mall, resulting in a fractured ankle, a dislocated shoulder, and sexual assault by a plastic elf.” Of all the disturbing images Connolly has created over the years, this one encapsulates his genius - unsettling, funny and hard to forget.
The Sunday Independent
Molly’s Game, the memoir by Molly Bloom (dubbed the ‘Poker Princess’ in the US tabloids) about her time running the most exclusive poker games in Hollywood and New York, and her subsequent federal indictment, was first published in 2014. The book has been rereleased to coincide with the film, Molly’s Game, on which it is based.
The story works on many levels – in one way it’s a fish out of water tale – young Molly, a small town girl, the eldest of three over-achievers who has worked towards both academic and sporting excellence her entire life, is thrust into the venal culture of LA.
There are some ‘Tell All’ features when Molly finds herself helping her obnoxious boss run his weekly poker game which include A-List actors, media giants and rich financiers. Bloom names some, but not all, of these people, and readers will no doubt be shocked at the behaviour of one particular well-known actor.
The ‘Insider’ world that Molly becomes part of is fascinating and she makes the technicalities of poker playing relatable to the ordinary reader who may not have a clue about the high-stakes game.
Bloom’s narrative voice is engaging and the story progresses entertainingly but with moments of drama, pathos, hilarity and sheer horror. Alongside the unfolding narrative of ‘the Game’, Bloom examines her own life and in particular her relationship with her father, a demanding character who expects his children to excel in everything.
The timing of the current release of Molly’s Game gives it a dimension that it didn’t have first time around – the Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo tsunami of revelations about how men wield power in Hollywood, (and in other industries). The exhaustive accounts of influential men being sexist, sexually inappropriate and bullying shed a new light on to what was already a pretty good read.
The ‘Game’ empowers Molly, she has something that powerful men want – a seat at the table, hence she is treated with great respect. “Most new players were surprised when I turned out to be a young, petite woman,” she remarks. Of course being Hollywood it turns out that that her ‘power’ is ultimately dependent on a man, a very famous actor who enjoys cruelty. An enthralling read.
Faber & Faber
The Sunday Independent
The publicity for Lullaby would have you believe that it’s the next Gone Girl. It isn’t. The comparison isn’t valid as this is not 'Grip Lit'. It’s something more, something better (and I say that as a huge fan of Gone Girl). Comparisons are futile but if pushed I’d say Slimani is a storyteller in the vein of Tana French (only much sparser).
Ostensibly this is a plot about a ‘Killer Nanny’ and the story kicks off with, an opening that is indeed ‘grippy’– “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”. What follows, will extremely gripping, isn’t a slasher thriller but a mature work about modern motherhood, class, race, money, mental illness and obsession. Mostly it’s about motherhood.
Paul and Myriam Massé are a middle-class Parisian couple. After having two children Myriam wants to pursue her real calling – the law, (later in the novel it’s revealed that Myriam is a ferocious defence barrister and good at getting people guilty off the hook).
They hire Louise, a godsend, not only is she a wonderful Nanny, she cooks and cleans, doesn’t mind staying late and in a coup that makes the couple the envy of their friends, she’s white.
In the first few pages alone Slimani captures the contradictions and conflicts of modern motherhood – how it is possible to love your children ferociously yet at the same time find them boring and irritating, as well as the ever-present spectre of death that accompanies each new life.
“Ever since her children were born, Myriam has been scared of everything. Above all, she is scared that they will die. She never talks about this – not to her friends, not to Paul – but she is sure everyone has the same thoughts. She is certain that, like her, they have watched their child sleep and wondered how they would feel if that little body were a corpse.”
Myriam and Paul become as dependent on Louise as their children Mila and Adam, if not more so. However, Louise’s presence in their life starts to make them uncomfortable in part because they begin to realise they’re not as egalitarian as they thought they were.
“(Paul’s) parents had raised him to detest money and power, and to have a slightly mawkish respect for those ‘below’ him. He had always been relaxed in his job, working with people with whom he’d felt equal…. But Louise had turned him into a boss. He hears himself giving his wife despicable advice. ‘Don’t make too many concessions, otherwise she’ll never stop asking for more.’”
Class is a recurring theme, Louise, with her blond hair and heavy make-up, is consistently patronised by her various employers’ despite being excellent at her job.
In a pivotal scene Paul becomes enraged when he comes home to find that Louise has put make-up on his little girl. Most small children, male and female, go through a 'make up' phase and in the hands of a lesser writer Paul’s rage would be questionable, if not downright risible. Instead Slimani, whose every word seems carefully chosen, makes the over-reaction and wrath understandable.
Lullaby is an important book, worthy without being dull, (it’s the opposite of dull). It is one of those reads that you think about long after you’ve finished it. One that will keep you awake at night.
Forget the Faroe Islands, Ireland is the real killer
The combination of fresh authors, old hands and confident writing, as reflected in the six Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year nominees, show why Emerald Noir is putting the Scandis to shame.
The Sunday Independent
For the past decade Tana French has been the undisputed Queen of Irish Crime Fiction, and Karen Perry’s Can You Keep a Secret? (Penguin), which was listed as one of Red Magazines Top Ten Crime Reads for Autumn, is a must–read for French fans as it combines a great plot, realistic characters, magnificent atmosphere (in both timelines) and wonderful writing. Lindsey, a forensic photographer, spent much of her teens at Thornbury Hall, the Anglo-Irish ‘Big House’ inherited by her friend Rachel’s glamourous parents the Bagenals. Twenty-five years later she returns for a weekend reunion with the school pals she hasn’t seen in the intervening years. Told through dual timelines – it’s no wonder the Irish Times said this dark, gripping thriller with a deliciously slow reveal and a stand-out twist was “elegantly written and beautifully paced”.
Old friends prove to be problematic in Cat Hogan’s There Was a Crooked Man (Poolbeg). The action ranges from Marrakesh to a small fishing village in Wexford. Scott, a psychopath with zero self-awareness, has been in exile for two years along with his dogsbody Fran. He decides it’s time for payback against the group of friends who he blames for his troubles – especially Jen. The plot is revealed from the various perspectives of the main characters who are all lying – to themselves and each other. Actor Aidan Gillen (who Hogan pictured as villain Scott when writing the book) says she writes “vividly and unflinchingly,” while author and Hot Press writer Jackie Hayden stated that the villains’ “keep you looking over both shoulders long after you’ve put the book down.”
More old school friends cause trouble in Sinead Crowley’s One Bad Turn (Quercus). Recurring character DS Claire Boyle gets (literally) caught in the crossfire when she and her baby daughter visit Dr. Heather Gilmore. Gilmore has been taken hostage by her old school friend Eileen Delaney, who blames the doctor and her ex-husband, for the death of her teenage son. The Gilmore’s teen daughter Leah has been abducted in revenge. The plot follows Claire’s hunt for the missing girl and ends with a double twist. Fans on Good Reads were almost unanimous in their praise calling it “deceptively twisty” and noting that it was “rooted in contemporary political and financial issues in Ireland.” RTE endorsed author Crowley saying she “masterfully evokes the lives of three very different yet similar women, Eileen, Heather and Claire”
Julie Parson’s whose work the New York Times praised for its “astonishing emotional impact” returns to writing after almost a decade with The Therapy House (New Island Books) a gripping, brooding thriller. Retired detective Michael McLoughlin has just moved to a ‘fixer-upper’ in an old, well established, part of Dun Laoghaire. His next door neighbour is the renowned former Judge, John Hegarty, the son of a famous hero of the War of Independence. When Hegarty is brutally murdered McLoughlin is the one who finds the body and soon secrets about the revered public figure begin to emerge. The Irish Independent compared Parson’s “unflinching exploration of the black heart of humanity” with that of the American writer James Ellroy. She also takes on the black heart of Irish history. Hopefully Parsons won’t leave it ten years before the next one.
Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan returns in her seventh outing in Let the Dead Speak (Harper Collins). A teenage girl returns to her home in an outwardly ‘normal’ London suburb to find to find it awash with blood and her mother missing. Kerrigan’s investigations reveal the horror that lives behind closed doors and the darkness that often accompanies religious zealotry. Good Reads praised Casey’s latest novel saying it was “one wild twisted ride, with darker psychological tones to go along with the standard police procedures.” Fans and critics alike were almost unanimous in their acclaim of the evolution of newly promoted Maeve Kerrigan with the Irish Times noting that she is “a woman in a man’s world…. But Casey leave’s us in no doubt how much more complicated it is for her.”
Stuart Neville, writing as Hayden Beck, has departed his usual style for a thriller set in the United States - Here and Gone (Harvill Secker). Audra experiences every mother’s worst nightmare but with a horrific new twist. Fleeing an abusive relationship in New York, Audra is arrested by a tin pot Sheriff on a deserted stretch of Arizona road. Her two children are taken away; the Sheriff denies he ever saw them and sets about framing Audra for their disappearance and murder. The shady Sheriff has already sold the children to suspicious figures from the Dark Web and Audra isn’t the first person to be set up. The Bookseller praised Here and Gone as a “heart-stopping psychological thriller” while The Chicago Daily Herald noted it was “terrifyingly realistic from the start.”
If you fancy buying any of the above and I'd REALLY recommend the Karen Perry book - the awful title does not reflect just how good it is and The Therapy House, link to blog to get links to all the individual books.
The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde
The Sunday Independent
The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde is two stories which take in the same place, Applecote Manor, sixty years apart. In the modern narrative Jess and Will have moved to Applecote, which is in need of much repair, in order to get Will’s daughter Bella, away from London. There has been some sort of ‘incident’ involving Bella and Jess is worried that she is not just a typical moody teen but perhaps deeply malevolent.
The second narrative which runs parallel to that of Jess is set in the heatwave of August 1959. Four sisters have arrived from Chelsea (then a rackety part of town) to spend the remains of the summer with their aunt and uncle while their gadabout widowed mother takes off to Morocco. The girls, Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot have not seen their uncle Perry or Aunt Sybil for five years, not since their cousin Audrey went missing without trace at the age of 12.
In the modern narrative Jess is left alone with her resentful stepdaughter and her own toddler Romy. Bella, who is in the room that was once Audrey’s, has found out about her disappearance and quickly becomes obsessed by it. Jess is out of her depth and feels increasingly worried that Bella wants to recreate the vanishing using little Romy in the role of Audrey.
While the modern story is perfectly well executed Dot’s narrative is far more compelling. Chase is a talented writer and summons up an enchanted and enchanting environment – reminiscent of classic British children’s literature where the sisters, although somewhat worldly wise (due to their mother’s turbulent love life and chronic lack of money), are still products of their time – naïve about sex and relationships. When two handsome boys join them sibling rivalry rears its head.
This is a study in manners and mannerisms. The girls are too young to begin to understand their aunt and uncles’ grief – the pair are changed, physically and emotionally almost beyond recognition. And of course, in that very British way, nobody ever talks about what happened to Audrey.