Book reviews, book features, BOOKS!

Escape to the Irish Village by Ann O'Loughlin
Escape to the Irish Village by Ann O'Loughlin



Title: Escape to the Irish Village


Author: Ann O'Loughlin


The Sunday Independent


12th May 2024


Judith is the Grande Dame of Killcawley Estate and at 75 has as active and interesting a life as anyone could wish for, regardless of age. Her son Miles lives in New York and thinks his mother is decrepit and should move into a retirement village or assisted living.


As a compromise Judith advertises for a PA/ general dogsbody which brings young Englishwoman Emma to her door with nothing except the designer suit on her back.


After a brief interview Emma is hired and moves into the ‘big house’ with Judith. It’s obvious to the old lady and her two best friends Marsha and Hetty that Emma is hiding a big secret. Judith herself is an open book – a self-confessed show-off and Drama Queen, she dresses flamboyantly and likes to be the centre of attention. One of Emma’s tasks is to film her daily TikTok video where she showcases her vintage designer outfits and vast collection of hats. Fashionistas and clothes lovers are in for a treat as O’Loughlin gives a vivid description of all her various styles.


When plans for a motorway threaten to cut through Killcawley and demolish several houses in the village, (including Hetty’s), Judith, helped by Emma, turns her talent for self-promotion into a massive campaign to save the town. Miles is unimpressed by all of this and, not unreasonably, quite suspicious of Emma, her unknown background and her increasingly close relationship with his mother, so he comes back from the States intent on making some big changes to his mother’s life.



Judith, as open as she is, has a fair few secrets of her own, things even her best friends do not know. Despite some violence, this is a really sweet book and I admit I did shed a tear at the end.

Author John Connolly
Author John Connolly




Title: The Instruments of Darkness


Author: John Connolly


The Sunday Independent


5th May 2024


The Instruments of Darkness is the 21st book in John Connolly’s hugely successful Charlie Parker series.  The books successfully place the traditional hard-boiled private detective format into a world where powerful supernatural forces secretly exist.


The narrative begins with echoes of both Madeleine McCann and the Casey Anthony case in the US. Two-year-old Henry Clark is abducted from his parents’ house while his father is away on a business trip. The story of the missing child dominates the media, with a public outpouring of sympathy for Henry’s parents Colleen and Stephen. When, a few days later, a blanket drenched in the child’s blood is found hidden in his Colleen’s car, the mood changes. She is arrested for murder and quickly convicted by TV pundits, newspapers, and social media. Stephen also seems determined to find her guilty and immediately cuts ties.


Colleen’s lawyer, Moxy Castin, hires Parker to find evidence that either exonerates Colleen or at least undermines the case against her. As Parker investigates he runs afoul of many, from the District Attorney to a mob of modern Nazis – an eclectic group ranging from stereotypical thugs to extremely smart and sophisticated public figures.


As with every Charlie Parker book, Connolly explores a range of contemporary themes and demonstrates that no matter how evil other-worldly creatures may be, humans are often worse. In this instance he casts his eye on the way society treats women. As Parker cautions Colleen, “you’re in the public eye, and the jury will be drawn from people who read newspapers, watch TV, and gossip with their friends….It’s harder for a woman accused of a crime than a man…. Women are held to a different standard in life”. Even Colleen’s struggles with pregnancy and motherhood, pretty common ones, which she had sought help for, are leveraged against her by the court.



Connolly, rather unusually, drops big hints early on about who may be behind the toddler’s disappearance. When all is eventually revealed it’s not the neat denouement the reader might hope for. However, there is a delicious twist at the very end that I would challenge any mother not to cheer loudly at. I did.






Title: The Best Way to Bury Your Husband


Author: Alexia Casale


The Sunday Independent


21st April 2024


It's Lockdown and Sally is cooped up with her husband.  Sally married the much older Jim when she was 17 as she was desperate to escape from the home of her violent and abusive father.  By 20 Sally had two children and was trapped in a bad marriage.  By the time the Pandemic hits both her adult children have moved out.


Facing yet another physically agonising consequence for a trivial misstep Sally unthinkingly grabs her Granny’s iron skillet and accidentally kills Jim.  Instead of grief Sally is overwhelmed by relief.  She is giddy with freedom knowing that she can eat what she wants when she wants, dress how she pleases and do behave as she pleases.


These opening chapters of The Best Way to Bury Your Husband are great, there’s nothing funny about domestic abuse or murder but the newly liberated Sally is very funny.  And while her antics are entertaining Casale also neatly answers the eternal question of ‘why did she stay?’.  The insidious and gradual escalation of control, isolation and violence are laid out in a way the reader can understand. 


Within days Sally has met three other women who have also killed their abuser.  The ladies band together and come up with a plan to dispose of their recently deceased spouses. 

I get that Casale is trying to show that domestic violence can happen to any woman regardless of colour, faith, or social status as the quartet of women includes a black lady and a Muslim but it becomes farcical.


Survivors of spousal abuse take years, sometimes decades to recover from what has been done to them so the four women, with the added turmoil of having just killed someone embarking on an Ocean’s 11 style caper to provide an alibi and dispose of the evidence just didn’t ring true. 


The opening chapters of the novel prove that Casale is a good writer and her ambitions for this book were certainly brave but for me it just didn’t work.  I will read her next book.

Reading Writing Fantasy
The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown



Title: The Book of Doors


Author: Gareth Brown


The Sunday Independent


14th April 2024



Cassie lives a very quiet life in New York. She works at a book shop and spends her spare time reading. When one of her regular customers, the elderly Mr Webber, dies quietly in the store, he leaves behind an odd notebook for her.

She soon discovers that the book is magic and can take her anywhere in the world, so she and her flatmate Izzy have a great time hopping from country to country. Izzy, who is far more extrovert than Cassie, is worried that the book might be dangerous. She is right. There are lots of people who want to get hold of it and most of them don’t have good intentions, especially ‘The Woman’, a truly terrifying figure.


When Cassie discovers that the magic notebook is also a time machine she’s thrilled and uses it to visit her grandfather whose death has left her stuck in the past and unable to get on with her life.


I expected The Book of Doors to be a traditional fantasy novel – good vs evil, lots of battles between opposing sides and a happy resolution. And while the plot does start that way it becomes something far more complex and satisfying.

This is a story about many things – the past and how it affects both individuals and the future, “Too many things that (Cassie) … now knew were connected all the way back to what had happened to her grandfather. It was a chain that couldn’t be broken.”, the power of friendship and platonic love, loneliness and how strong emotions are created and manifested.


The plot is exquisitely crafted, and I was astonished to find, after I’d finished reading, that this is writer Gareth Brown’s debut. I’m looking forward to reading his next.

Anna O by Matthew Blake
Anna O by Matthew Blake




Title: Anna O


Author: Matthew Blake


The Sunday Independent



24th March 2024





Anna O is the first novel by Matthew Blake and boy does he ever knock it out of the park! A good debut is generally a promise of what is to come but Blake has already arrived with a book that is pacy, riveting and contains genuinely fascinating facts about ‘resignation syndrome’ – where patients fall into a deep sleep and don’t wake up again.


Anna O is infamous. At 25 she had “glided through life with barely a care. The nepo baby with her fancy politician mother and tie-less financier father. The liberal, artsy, Bedales-style boarding school. The hallowed quads of Oxford. Then enough start-up capital to bootstrap a small magazine and pose as a media entrepreneur.” Then she brutally murders her two best friends and business partners.


Nobody knows why as since the night of the crime Anna has been in a deep sleep from which she can’t be roused. After four years with time to take the case to court running out Anna is put in a fancy private sleep clinic in a last bid attempt to awaken her.


The story is mainly told by Ben, a sleep expert, who is trying to revive Anna. The cruel irony is that her crimes directly led to the ruination of Ben’s life. His wife was the first officer at the scene of the murders and became the lead detective in the subsequent investigation. The stress, media intrusion and the prolific online communities dedicated to the case resulted in the couple’s divorce.


The only criticism I had was that Ben droned on a lot about his daughter with the irritating nickname KitKat, but even that had a reason. Anna O is a proper page turner, with many twists and a very surprising reveal at the end.

Nita Prose author
Nita Prose author



Title: The Mystery Guest


Author: Nita Prose


The Sunday Independent


10th March 2024


The Mystery Guest is Nita Prose’s second novel featuring Molly, the Head Maid at fancy hotel, who solves crimes in her spare time. Prose’s first book, The Maid was a runaway bestseller and garnered praise from such luminaries as Stephen King.

When famous author JD Grimthorpe drops dead in the Regency Grand, poisoned, ahead of making a much anticipated announcement, there are no end of suspects. Molly herself knew Grimthorpe and spent a lot her childhood in his house where her Granny was a cleaner. The story unfolds along two timelines, the present and Molly’s childhood.


Said childhood is positively Dickensian which considering it would have been the early 2000s is hard to credit. To be honest there’s a lot that’s utterly defies belief even allowing for the liberties that can be taken in the Cosy Crime genre. I could forgive the fact that staff routinely gather in the public areas of the hotel for a chat or a bite to eat if that was the only flaw.


Unfortunately, the entire story is completely unmoored from reality and is full of internal logical inconsistencies. Molly’s fiercely protective Granny thinks nothing of regularly leaving her alone with a sexual predator. Similarly, the constant penury they live in is inexplicable as Granny is a fantastic, reliable, and honest cleaner – they can usually write their own paycheck.



Apart from Molly herself everyone is a two-dimensional stereotype. We are told things about them rather than the characters revealing themselves through their actions. Maybe the first book was fantastic, and this is ‘that difficult second album’, but either way, there are better ways of wasting time than reading The Mystery Guest.



Murder, mystery, suspence, books, reading, writing,
Tom Hindle author of Murder on Lake Garda




Title: Murder on Lake Garda


Author: Tom Hindle


The Sunday Independent


3rd February 2024


Murder on Lake Garda is a proper old-school murder mystery – think Agatha Christie in a contemporary setting – posh people, extended family, secrets, and grudges. Italian Eva Bianchi is a beautiful and glamourous influencer who is marrying upper class Brit Laurence Heywood. Their wedding is taking place in a small castle on an island in the middle of the spectacular Lake Garda.


In the days leading up to the wedding Laurence’s ‘side’ are all staying in a large fancy villa on the coast of the lake, but despite the spacious surroundings tensions run high. Margot the widowed matriarch, Godfather Jeremy and Laurence are all determined that his younger sibling Toby gives up his dreams of owning his own bar and joins the family financial firm HCM.


Toby’s girlfriend Robyn has never met any of his family before and she soon realises why Toby isn’t that fond of them. Both Margot and Jeremy are cold and condescending, while Laurence and his two schoolfriend groomsmen are arrogant, snobby, and patronising. Despite Robyn’s best efforts to be pleasant to Toby’s family they only bother to talk to her when they’re attempting to get her to convince Toby to join HCM. The only people who attempt to make her feel welcome are Laurence’s best man, Stephen, and his pregnant wife Abigail.



On Eva’s side things are also far from happy. The bride’s only sister hates her. Harper, Eva’s agent, has spent a year trying to recover the career Eva derailed (ignoring Harper’s advice), and is treated like a dogsbody as thanks. Dad Vito is in deep debt and now the shady characters who lent him money are calling their favours in. Apart from her smitten fiancé Eva has alienated everyone except for her parents but shortly before Vito is due to walk her down the aisle they have a furious row, and she tells him she hates him.


When Eva is found murdered – stabbed by an ornate dagger of historical importance, the guests/suspects are isolated on the island for several hours. Robyn having trained as a journalist starts using her investigative knowledge to figure out who killed Eva and why. But then there’s a second murder…


Hindle effortlessly brings classic crime into the modern age with plenty of glamour and opulence but never at the expense of the story which has plenty of twists and turns and is a proper page-turner.

rehab, mystery, alcoholism, recovery, crime, drug addiction
The Clinic by Cate Quinn



Title: The Clinic


Author: Cate Quinn


The Sunday Independent


21st January2024


The Clinic is a vast, remote, and exorbitantly expensive US Rehab. Due to its inaccessibility and high walls, it guarantees anonymity to its high profile clients.


When Meg, who works undercover in a Casino, catching cheats and loan sharks, hears that her estranged sister Hayley Banks, a famous country singer, has killed herself whilst resident at the Clinic, she is convinced that Hayley has been murdered. Meg decides to investigate her sister’s death posing as a patient. As she is too fond of alcohol and Oxy herself, her boss is only too willing to pay the vast fees. The clinic is managed by perfectionist Cara and the action unfolds from her perspective and Megs.


Overall, The Clinic is a great piece of escapism – who doesn’t love a story about the scandalous rich and famous whether real or fictional. While Meg is at the clinic, her investigation, and the interactions between the other inmates including a rock star, a veteran actor, and a washed up supermodel, are pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of time for Meg to get to Rehab and the last chapters are superfluous to the plot.


Quinn wrote The Clinic after her own successful stint in Rehab, and she spends a lot of time pondering on the nature of addiction and various psychological conditions. While I understand completely why this fascinates her, (I’ve been in recovery myself for over two decades) attempting serious insight while having a Big Reveal that really does push the boundaries of credulity is an unhappy mix. Quinn cites our own Marian Keyes as an inspiration, but unlike Keyes she’s not able to blend fact and fiction so seamlessly. Take the fun and ignore the rest.





The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson
The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson



Title: The Christmas Guest


Author: Peter Swanson


The Sunday Independent


26th November 2023




The Christmas Guest is a novella which can be read in a couple of hours.


The story kicks off with the diary of Ashley, a young American woman, studying art at a prestigious university in London in 1989. She’s “a loud American… A little of her goes a long way.” When her classmate Emma, who she is not particularly friendly with, invites her to her family home for Christmas, she’s delighted to accept.


Emma’s family are very posh and live in Starvewood Hall, a large Country House on the outskirts of a small village. It’s everything that the California native expected England to be and she loves it all, especially Emma’s twin Adam. He is the epitome of 80s style “leaning against his sporty car wearing a long tweed coat… smoking a cigarette,” not only “beautiful” but extremely charming.

When Ashley finds out that Adam usually has more than one woman on the go at any time and, more importantly, that he is the only suspect in the recent murder of a young woman, it only makes him more attractive.



Halfway through the book everything suddenly changes and it’s quite the shock. I loathe spoilers so I’m not going to reveal any details and the same goes for the other twist which occurs towards the end of the story, which I defy anyone to predict.


I was tempted to say that there are three stories being told in The Christmas Guest but actually it’s more accurate to say that it’s the one story being told in three ways. Either way, it’s compulsive reading.


Peter Swanson is a genius, and this is one of those stories that will remain embedded in your memory forever as it’s funny, clever, sinister, and extremely gripping. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Roisin Meaney
Roisin Meaney



Title: A Winter to Remember


Author: Roisin Meaney


The Sunday Independent


12th November 2023 



A Winter to Remember is told from the perspective of four different women. Emily who owns a restaurant, Heather, an American who moved to Ireland as a teen, Lil a young librarian and Christine, a recovering drug addict.

As the book begins Emily is living with Bill, Christine’s Dad, and together they are bringing up his grandson Pip who is almost two. Christine ran away from home soon after Pip was born and has been missing since. 

Heather lives with Shane and their blended family – his two sons, her a ten-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and their baby girl. It’s never fully explained why Heather whose parents are rich, lives in such cramped conditions. When her seriously high maintenance Mum shows up from the US there are seven people in a house with one bathroom, which given her mother’s personality is hard to credit. Lil and her fiancé Tom live in Emily’s old flat above her restaurant.

Shortly after the action starts Christine reappears after spending three months in a post-Rehab half-way house. After a few overnight visits with Pip and encouraged by her Dad, Christine takes full custody of him – without social services support or any sort of plan. Childless Emily, who has been a de facto mother to the little boy is, justifiably, devastated. “Every day she suffered the lack of him. She’d lost a bit of herself.”

Many of Meaney’s characters have featured in previous novels so readers who already know and love the individual women will probably enjoy the continuation of their stories. I was hoping for some easy escapism, but I felt overwhelmed by too much drama.  Meaney could easily have more than one book with the material, and I wish she had. 

Comedy. cancellation, trans, Graham Linehan, Father Ted
Tough Crowd by Graham Linehan




Title: Tough Crowd


Author: Graham Linehan


The Sunday Independent


20th October 2023 


In 2010 when I joined Twitter (Now X) Graham Linehan one of the first people I followed because he’s the comedy genius responsible for Father Ted,The IT Crowd and Black Books. Since 2018 his name is no longer synonymous with making people laugh as he’s now regularly called a “bigot”, a “fascist” and even a “Nazi”. Linehan’s fall from grace was swift, brutal, and ironically, enabled by Twitter.

The second half of the book deals with his cancellation - Linehan has lost everything, his marriage, his home, his career, and most of his friends for tweeting the commonplace view that ‘gender identity’ doesn’t change someone’s biological sex.


I won’t dwell on that section of the story except to say that whilst his frustration and disappointment rise off the page he never strays far from his need to entertain and make the reader laugh.


The first section of Tough Crowd covers the more familiar ground of memoir – Linehan’s life from nerdy bullied boy to successful writer.

The first series of Father Ted aired in 1995, and it’s now so ingrained in pop culture that it’s easy to forget how different things were then. Linehan and his writing partner Arthur Matthews worried most about ‘Paddywhackery’ which “would kill us. We didn’t want to go back to Ireland and be chased everywhere like a kind of evil Beatles.” 


Linehan has made the shift from sitcom writer to author seamlessly. He’s simultaneously eloquent and chatty and even manages to pack in a lot of information about the workings of writing, comedy, and TV production without obstructing the flow of the narrative. Honestly, anyone who fancies themselves as a writer would do will to read this book as it’s a great primer on technique and structure.


The only criticism I have is that I’d have loved to hear more stories about Linehan’s Mum as they left me helpless with laughter. I think she is the main source of his funny bones.

There’s plenty of giggles in Tough Crowd but also great sadness. The saddest thing about this memoir though is the fact that the very people who should read it, to hear the facts - Linehan never received any caution from the police, for example, probably won’t. They’re not a Tough Crowd just an intractable one.












Title: The Running Grave


Author: Robert Galbraith


The Sunday Independent


8th October 2023 


Robert Galbraith is the nom-de-plume of JK Rowling and The Running Grave is her seventh book in the crime fiction series about private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott.


This time the pair have been employed by a very desperate and exceedingly rich Sir Colin Edensor who wants their help in getting his son Will out of the outwardly respectable Universal Humanitarian Church (UHC). The organisation is led by the handsome and charismatic Jonathan Wace and his deeply strange and creepy wife Mazu.


From humble beginnings on a run-down farm and former hippy colony, over the decades the new religion has spread globally, with lavish ‘temples’ in major cities and plenty of celebrity endorsement.

It's only after taking the case that Strike realises that he and his sister lived briefly at Chapman’s Farm along with their mother when they were kids. The commune was subsequently raided by the police as it was a front for a paedophile ring.


Former members refuse to talk about UHC which, now immensely rich, uses lawyers and other less savoury methods to silence them, so Robin goes undercover. What follows is classic cult indoctrination – a lack of sleep, starvation rations, uniform clothing, and endless repetition of mantras.


Questions are likely to result in humiliation and physical punishment - as Robin observes, “practices that in the outside world would be considered abusive or coercive were excused, justified, and disguised by a huge amount of jargon”.


Members of the Church are expected to have sex (‘spirit bond’) with anyone who demands it, regardless of attraction or sexuality (Jonathan and Mazu are deeply homophobic). Any babies that result from these encounters are taken away from their mothers as attachment to ‘flesh objects’ is deemed ‘materialism’. Robin has to battle hard to stay sane, let alone get information for the case.


The real life backdrop to the events in the book is the period before and after the Brexit Referendum – which is very apt as it shows how susceptible people are to manipulation when they don’t know what to think or do.



Rowling just gets better with each book.  The Running Grave isn’t just Grip Lit, it’s a totally immersive universe. The plot and subplots are all finely worked, and I was totally blindsided by the ending. Be warned though, Rowling is the woman who killed Dumbledore and none of her characters are ever really safe.

The 19 Steps, Stranger Things, Books, Reading, World War 2
Millie Bobby Brown



Title: The Nineteen Steps


Author: Millie Bobby Brown


The Sunday Independent


17th September 2023 



Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown is as a talented actress, has a very successful cosmetics line and a long-term lovely boyfriend and is still only 19.  Given her Midas Touch I expected her debut novel The Nineteen Steps would be pretty good. Sadly, I was disappointed.


The story revolves around Nellie, a young woman, living through World War II, in Bethnal Green, London. Her two best friends are brother and sister Babs and Billy. Billy is in love with her, but his dreams are shattered when she meets the handsome American GI Ray.


The pivotal event in the narrative is a real tragedy that occurred in 1943 when 173 people were crushed to death at the entrance to the unfinished Bethnal Green Tube station which was being used as a bomb shelter. To give Brown her due, this section of the tale is well-handled.


As for the rest – Brown gets the big facts right but utterly fails to grasp the historical period she’s dealing with and has cheerfully imposed modern social mores and values onto the past. An unmarried mother is loved by all, and no one judges. Ray, a farm boy from the end of nowhere in Michigan speaks to Nellie’s Dad about “American isolationism”. The female Mayor is addressed by an official as “Mrs Mayor”.


Irritations like this add up but worse is that Nellie herself has no discernible character apart from being oh so lovely – just like everyone else - it’s EastEnders by Disney and the only villain is Hitler.


As celebrities go, I’ve always liked Brown and think has been sorely let down. There’s little doubt that The Nineteen Steps will sell well to her young fans, but given a few more years and a rigorous editor, Brown might have written something a bit more substantial. 

Baltimore, The Wire, Baltimore Sun, Crime, Books, Reading
Laura Lippman author of Prom Mom



Title: Prom Mom


Author: Laura Lippman


The Sunday Independent

10th September 2023 


I’ve been a huge fan of Baltimore journalist and best-selling author Laura Lippman since she began writing novels in the late 90s. Her latest, Prom Mom, is loosely based on a news story that gripped the US in 1997.


At 16 Amber Glass was an awkward swotty girl with a massive crush on Joe, the most popular boy in school and her elder by two years. He, rather unenthusiastically, took her to his Prom, because she asked him to and he was, as everyone said, a nice guy.


The morning after, Amber woke up covered in blood with a dead baby lying beside her. Nobody, herself included, had any idea she was pregnant, and her mind is a blank on what happened the night before.


Twenty years later Amber, having been found guilty of murdering her baby and being placed in a juvenile jail until her 18th birthday, returns to her hometown for the first time since. She’s no longer a gawky teen, but a sophisticated and successful woman. Thanks to the internet she’s aware that Joe is still handsome, that he’s married to a beautiful plastic surgeon called Meredith and they live in a huge house despite having no children.


The scene is set for a psychological drama where Amber enacts her revenge on Joe, who survived the tabloid frenzy about the ‘Prom Mom’ relatively unscathed. He moved to Texas to stay with his uncle, a successful realtor and deferred university for a year and then carried on with his charmed life.


But Lippman does not go down this obvious route. It is Joe who can’t stay away from Amber, despite repeatedly telling himself he will. Joe is determined to be a ‘good guy’, but he lies - mostly to himself. He’s repeatedly cheated on his wife and has re-mortgaged their large home without telling her, to finance a property deal his uncle (and boss) refused to touch.


The Covid lockdowns destroy any hope he had of making money on the deal and as the deadline for a large repayment quickly approaches Joe panics about losing his home. His situation is further complicated by being unable to shrug off his latest mistress. Desperate, he turns to Amber for help. Still smitten, she agrees, even though she risks going to jail, again.


The story whips along with ever-increasing tension until the inevitable truth is revealed along with a hell of a twist. I loved it. 

Books, writing, reading, Hannigan
Rosie Hannigan, The Midnight Gardening Club



Title: The Moonlight Gardening Club


Author: Rosie Hannigan


The Sunday Independent

20th August 2023 


The Moonlight Gardening Club by Rosie Hannigan (aka Amy Gaffney) is a love story, just not the one I was expecting.  Frankie is a struggling single mother, she had to drop out of university when she became pregnant and then, her fiancé died before her son Dillon was born.


Frankie had been abandoned by her own mother, Nicole, when she was two weeks old and was reared by her Granny, Aggie.  As the book begins Frankie is struggling – financially, emotionally, and practically, in the wake of Aggie’s death and feels very alone.  Castle Cove, where she lives, is a thriving seaside town, popular with tourists, and Frankie gets to clean up after them in hotel rooms and chalets.


Ruby is a sophisticated, middle-aged widow, who grew up in Castle Cove and returns to the town, thirty years after she left,  in the hope of finding some solace for the grief she still feels 18 months after the death of her husband James.  It is blindingly obvious to readers from the beginning that James was not a very nice man, and that Ruby is in complete denial.


Ruby and Frankie get off to a bad start due to a misunderstanding and confrontation.  They find common ground working on the Moonlight Garden – a community project. The garden is specifically designed to look it’s best at night, hence the name.  Childless Ruby comes to think of Frankie as the daughter she never had.  But then James, from beyond the grave, manages to destroy their close bond.


This is a fabulous book, the writing is superb, the characters (including the town itself) are fully realised and credible, especially six-year-old Dillon.  Writing convincing children is difficult for even the most seasoned of writers but Hannigan has done a brilliant job in creating a very real little boy.  I yearned to reach into the pages and give him a hug.  Yes, The Moonlight Gardeners Club melted my cynical old heart which says an awful lot about how good it is.









Judge Rinder Strictly Come Dancing Robert Rinder
Judge Rinder aka Rob Rinder author of The Trial



Title: The Trial

Author: Rob Rinder


The Sunday Independent

7th July 2023 


Criminal Barrister Rob Rinder (aka Judge Rinder) is one of my favourite people on television. Whether he’s presiding over his TV Court Room, dancing on Strictly or hosting breakfast news, he always comes across as sharp, smart, and funny. I had high hopes for his debut novel The Trial.


The story kicks off with a bang. Britain’s ‘Top Cop’, Grant Cliveden, adored by both public and press, drops dead in the witness box while giving evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey. The police quickly establish he’s been poisoned and arrest Jimmy Knight, a criminal with a grudge, for murder.


Adam, a Pupil (trainee) Barrister, is left with the responsibility of providing a defence for Knight as his ‘Pupil Master’ Jonathan thinks the defendant is a lost cause and, besides, he’s being paid out of Legal Aid and would prefer to concentrate on more lucrative clients. Adam is convinced Knight is innocent as he realises early on that Grant Cliveden was not the ‘good guy’ he pretended to be.


Given Rinder’s legal background the book is very strong on Court procedure and the way the legal world works especially for Pupils in Chambers vying to get a permanent place. “As well as (a) shoplifting case, Adam had defended two burglars, a drunk driver and an indecent exposure that week… the late nights preparing for cases and the long days defending them.”


The story takes a little while to properly get going and Rinder has an unfortunate tendency for cliches. The glamourous Judge Charlotte Wickstead has a voice as “pure and clear as crystal”, her Judge’s robes “billowing around her like a witch’s cape”, her “razor stare”, a juror with “raven hair extensions.” Then there’s the frankly bizarre “she glided in with the elegance of tall reeds swaying in the breeze.”


Once the action starts The Trial becomes quite the page turner, with an ever-growing list of people who had a reason to want Cliveden dead. Like the best classic crime fiction there are plenty of red herrings.


Adam’s background is slowly revealed which works extremely well in the context of the case he’s working on. There are several twists at the end, some of which were inevitable but some that come as a genuine surprise.


The Trial is not for serious crime buffs, but it is fun so I’m looking forward to Rinder’s next book and he still remains a telly favourite.

Books, reading, cults, Jim Jones, Jonestown
Children of the Sun by Beth Lewis



Title: Children of the Sun

Author: Beth Lewis 


The Sunday Independent

2nd July 2023 


I was really looking forward to reading Children of the Sun, as author Beth Lewis and I share a fascination with cults. The book is set in 1982, not long after the Jonestown mass suicide and the ‘Children of the Sun’ share a lot of similarities with the people led by Jim Jones. They live communally in a secret location called Atlas where they must abide by the draconian rules laid down by enigmatic leader Sol.


Everyone in the commune has made terrible mistakes and Sol's promise is, literally, a clean slate, in a parallel dimension via a ‘Golden Door’. The plot unfolds from the perspective of three people, James, an investigative reporter who embeds with the community in Atlas; Eve a former member who is determined to find and kill Sol, and Root, a six-year-old ‘Sunbeam’, one of Sol’s ‘special’ children, who are vital to his plan.


The story is great and there’s a huge twist that is absolutely brilliant. The individual histories of Sol’s followers are compelling and believable. The worry about Sol’s ‘sunbeams’ and their fate is visceral as we know early on that that a little girl has already died. Eve’s narration is easily the most absorbing, especially when she discovers Sol’s real identity.



Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Root and James. Like most children in fiction Root is preternaturally smart for his age, yet he speaks at the ‘Me Tarzan’ stage of a much younger child, “Leaf roar like lion… He half off edge and he try pull up grass”. Fair play to Lewis for experimenting but unfortunately it quickly becomes extremely grating. James just grates, he’s a mess and unbelievable as any sort of journalist. Lewis is undoubtedly a talent, with a wonderful imagination and if you can get past the irritations Children of the Sun is well worth a read.

Ann O'Loughlin author of The Irish House
Ann O'Loughlin author of The Irish House



Title: The Irish House

Author: Ann O’Loughlin


The Sunday Independent

25th June 2023 


Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell famously said, “to lose one parent… may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Lord knows what she’d make of poor Marianne the heroine of The Irish House, a romantic novel that blends The Field with P.S. I Love You.


At only 26 the New Yorker has lost her Aunt, both her parents, her beloved grandmother Collie, and her job in quick succession. Collie has left her the rather grand, but faded, family home Kilteelagh House in County Wicklow. The bequest is made with two conditions, first that Marianne return both the house and extensive gardens to their former glory, and second that she provides a home for her orphaned cousins, Katie (6) and Rachel (15), who Collie had been rearing since their mother’s death. 


Collie’s only surviving child Katherine, who has a husband and two children of her own, is furious, as she nursed the old woman throughout her long final illness. “I spent every waking hour with that woman, and what did I get?...nothing personal or of sentimental value for her only living daughter.” Katherine vows that she will make Marianne hand over Kilteelagh House and the two girls to her and enlists several of her dreadful snobby friends to help.  They’re all for knocking down Kilteelagh House to replace it with a housing estate because they’ll make money. 


Luckily for Marianne, her late grandmother’s best friend Dolores and handsome local handyman Jack, provide emotional support and practical help in the face of Katherine’s campaign to get her to leave.


At the start of every month Marianne receives a letter from her late grandmother, containing advice, memories, and a few surprises.  While learning to parent two grief-stricken girls,(one a teen determined to act up) and going full Grand Designs on the house and garden, Marianne decides to relaunch her career as a fashion designer. And, as this is a romance, despite everything on her plate Marianne love is ever in the air with Jack the handsome handyman. 


I’m one of nature’s cynics and while most readers will probably sigh over Collie and her doomed love, I was irritated at the waste of a life.  I guessed the twist but then I devour crime fiction, and instead of it endearing me to the late Collie, I felt even sorrier for poor Auntie Katherine.


My scepticism aside, I can honestly say I enjoyed this book no end; I imagine if you are a fan of romantic fiction you will love it. The plot and pace are faultless, and O’Loughlin, whose sixth novel this is, has created very credible characters. Aunt Katherine could easily have slid into a caricatured baddie, but the author has created a woman who is conflicted, confused and, for many good reasons, quite resentful of her late mother. The Irish House is also a love letter to the beauty of County Wicklow, where O’Loughlin lives.



Definitely one for fans of fashion, romance, and handsome men with power tools. 

Books, Reading, Writing, Publishing, Authors
Author Annie Macmanus




The Mess We're In

Annie Macmanus



The Sunday Independent 

3rd June 2023 




It’s 2000 and 21 year old Orla after three years in university in Ireland and a year learning music production in Cheltenham, moves to London to finally start living her life.  “A shop called Liberty.  A place called Angel. All these dreamy names, free and full of hope.”


Her journey is shared by her bestie Neema who is going to study law.  The pair are moving into the attic of a house shared by Neema’s brother Kesh and his two band mates.  They are a proper band, signed to a label, touring, and making records which is good news for Orla as she is desperate to get into the music business.


At the start low self-esteem is something that Orla aspires to, “I look like Gwen Stefani if she had a weight problem and a face like a potato.” she desperately wants love and for everyone to like her.  She engages in awkward and unfulfilling sex with a boy she fancies despite him not being bothered to pretend to care.  Then she takes up with a shady character called Vinnie (that he nicknames her Oral says everything about him) but at least the sex is good.  Despite her people pleasing goals, Orla is self-obsessed to a level where she can’t see what’s right in front of her. 


Living in Kilburn and working some shifts in an Irish pub opens Orla’s eyes to the lives of the previous generation of Irish immigrants.  “I can pick them out on the High Road now.  The women, too, hardness etched on to their faces… I’m a different kind of Irish to them. I didn’t come here when I was a teenager to send money home to my family like they did.  I didn’t lift bricks until my hand bled.”


Like many middle-aged Irish mammies, I identified with much of Orla’s story, because I lived it – the pure hedonism, the crushing hangovers, the wrong men, the hope, disappointment, the friendships, and the fun.  Being young and trying to be free is never easy, especially when time passes rapidly as Orla discovers, “a feeling of trying to stay afloat in stagnant water while everyone else moves with the current.  It’s a feeling of life leaving me behind”. 


McManus is a truly talented writer as evidenced by the snippets of conversations between Orla and her sister at home in Ireland where she manages to reveal a character from dialogue alone.













Books, reading, writing. novels,
Carmen & Grace by Melissa Coss Aquino



Carmen & Grace

Melissa Coss Aquino



The Sunday Independent 

7th May 2023 


I must admit to getting a stab of envy as a writer when I read a debut novel as good as this one. Carmen and Grace is the work of a confident and accomplished author, with a fantastic plot and distinctive, well-formed characters. 


There are books where you identify with the characters and circumstances and for me this wasn’t one.  Despite familiarity with many of the places, I entered a world totally alien to me and I’m better off for it. 


I fear I won’t be able to do the novel justice as it’s so good on fine detail but in extremely broad terms this book is The Godfather reimagined in the first 20 years of this century, set in the Bronx among the Puerto Rican community and, most importantly, is female dominated. 


Carmen and Grace are cousins but as close as sisters. When the female gang boss dies, a power struggle ensues, and Grace is determined to win at all costs.  Carmen, newly pregnant is determined to get out and put the Bronx behind her as quickly as she can. 


This alone would have made for a gripping read but this book is about so much more than a gang of drug dealers. Grace is motivated not just by money, but what money can buy – not just for her but the women in her gang, - education, power and freedom from the constraints placed upon them by a male-dominated society. 


“Every single girl on the block lives for the day some (guy) will put a ring on her finger and walk her down the aisle in a white dress. Even if she ain’t seen a wedding in three generations of her family, she is still Cinderella sitting around with three kids waiting for her prince. Pure bullshit. Pure poison. And that shit is holding every single one of them back.”


By giving the women, and their children, a chance to better their lives, Grace’s form of feminism does liberate them, but, at the same time they are not free because she demands absolute loyalty. There is no leaving as her desperate cousin finds out. 


While the book is very focused on women, their friendships, their place in society it’s also an indictment of modern America and how whole sections of society are failed by the system. One of Grace’s favourite topics is “the Kennedys, and the mob… How everybody who got rich in this country started dirty. Slave trade. Moonshine. Gambling.”


I can foresee this book getting the ‘Daisy Jones’ treatment from some streaming service and that would be great, I’d certainly watch it, but I’d urge people to read the book too, because it shouldn’t be missed.  








Royals reality show: Crowning a raft of new titles for the coronation


The Sunday Independent  



One of the best reality shows in history is ‘The Firm’, the name the Royal Family have given themselves. There have been spin-off series ‘The Real Housewives of Windsor’ originally starring Princess Diana and Fergie, but latterly following the relationship between Kate and Meghan. As soon as ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ was taken off-air, Harry and Meghan began acting like participants in a new posh version – accusations are regularly flung, all that’s missing is the lie-detector and DNA tests. For now.


A bonus for Irish people is that we get all this entertainment for free as the British taxpayer funds it.


Any journalist, writer or media commentator will tell you that the Royals sell by the shedload – newspapers, magazines and books all fly off the shelves. And that’s just most of the time, when there’s a big royal occasion, frenzy doesn’t cover it. With the Coronation imminent there are more royal-related books around than even the most devoted monarchist could read in a lifetime. There’s plenty of biographies and factual books but there’s also Coronation-inspired fiction, royal fashion and food, enough children’s books to fill several libraries and even a ‘Harrody’.


Robert Jobson’s biography “Our King: Charles III: The Man and the Monarch Revealed” (John Blake Publishing €30.80) is the perfect book for anyone who is interested but doesn’t want to hear about every letter the new King wrote or every speech he gave. Jobson knows how to tell a good story and is master of the understatement noting that “Oprah did not ask Meghan to back up the veracity of her claims.”


Pitkin have two coffee table type books out, “King Charles III” and “Diana, The Life and Legacy of the People’s Princess” by Brian Hoey. Both cost €18.19 and are lavishly illustrated with formal and informal photos. Seasoned royal-watcher Angela Levin’s biography “Camilla: From Outcast to Queen Consort” (Diversion €25.99), was published late last September but the paperback has come out in time for the new Queen’s big day.


Harry and William are not the first pair of royal brothers to fall out. The late Queen’s uncle Edward VIII famously abdicated for ‘the woman he loved’, but that was only part of the story. Alexander Larman dishes the royal dirt in “The Windsors at War: The Nazi Threat to the Crown” (W&N €32.99) – Wallis and David (as the ex-King was called) were big fans of Herr Hitler. 


Diana and her siblings famously disliked their stepmother Raine, calling her ‘Acid Raine’.  “Three Times A Countess” by Tina Gaudoin (Constable €28.46) is Raine’s compelling story. Flicking through Hoey’s book on Diana, it’s noticeable that she spent her 20s dressing like a frumpy middle-aged woman and it was only in the 1990s that she found her iconic look. “The Royal Wardrobe” by Rosie Harte (Headline €25.99). is a wonderful book about the fashion and style of individual monarchs from Henry VI right up to Charles today. (Diana’s famous ‘Revenge Dress’ gets a mention too).


For food-lovers there’s "The Royal Heritage Cookbook: Recipes from High Society and the Royal Court”, by the Honourable Sarah Macpherson (The History Press €19.99) who has based her recipes on those found in the archives of stately homes in Britain and Ireland.


Kids love stories about kings, queens, and fairy princesses so it’s no surprise that there are so many children’s books dedicated to King Charles and the Coronation.  From renowned children’s writer Michael Murpurgo there’s “The Boy Who Would Be King” (Harper Collins Children’s Books €16.79). Scholastic have added “King Charles III”, by Sally Morgan and illustrated by Sarah Papworth (€9.99), to their Life Story series aimed at ages 9-11. The series Little People Big Dreams by Francis Lincoln Children’s Books (€14.00) are simple illustrated biographies aimed at ages 4-7 and “King Charles” by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara is the latest.


Disney are no doubt hoping that Charles does for Pooh what the Queen did for Paddington with “Winnie-the-Pooh Meets the King” (Farshore, €9.99, co-authored by Jane Riordan).


In fiction, Charlie Higson was commissioned to write his new Bond book, “On His Majesty’s Secret Service” (Ian Fleming Publications €17.95) specifically to commemorate the Coronation, while Jennifer Robson’s historical novel “Coronation Year” (William Morrow €16.00) is set in 1953 and around the events leading to the late Queen being crowned.


Prince Harry’s “Spare” was released at the beginning of the year and provided plenty of (unintentional) comic fodder the latest being parody “Spare Us! A Harrody”, by Bruno Vincent (Abacus €13.99). I have a feeling the word ‘Harrody’ is going to take on a life of its own soon. 


Books Reading Writing Novels Fiction
One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle





One Italian Summer

Rebecca Serle



The Sunday Independent  




If ever there was an example of not judging a book by its cover then One Italian Summer is it. It looks  like a typical summer romance novel and while it is a love story of sorts, it’s not the one I was expecting.


LA resident Katy is thirty and has just lost her mother to cancer. Carol was the perfect Mum, she cooked wonderful meals, had a good eye for clothes and decoration; she was nurturing and highly organised. Katy’s visceral grief is compounded by the fact that Carol and she shared an intense special bond. “I was her great love… I was her one, just like she was mine.” And, like most grief, Katy’s carries a fair amount of anger, “How could she make herself so indispensable, so much a part of my life, my very heart…. Only to leave.”


With her mother gone Katy is thrown into an identity crisis asking herself “who am I in her absence?” She decides to go alone on a long-planned mother and daughter trip to Positano, where Carol once lived, pausing to tell her husband of five years that she’s not sure she wants to be married anymore, before leaving for the airport.


At her hotel in the magical Italian town, she meets a handsome fellow American and they begin to spend time together and I thought I knew exactly where the plot was heading. I was wrong. I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t reveal what happens next but it’s far better than anything I could have imagined.


One Italian Summer is a joyful book, a wonderful read and full of little twists (and a very big one). Serle not only captures the rawness of grief but portrays the town of Positano so vibrantly that you can almost feel the sun and taste the food. It’s an absolute treat.

















Kate Collins, books, reading, writing, spooky, gothic, thriller
A Good House For Children by Kate Collins



A Good House for Children

Kate Collins



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. 



















Crime, Books, Reading, Writing, Publishing, Thriller
The Institution by Helen Fields



The Institution

Helen Fields



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

Jojo Moyes



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.



Tabloids, Scandal, News of the World, Thackery, Vanity Fair
Becky by Sarah May





Sarah May



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

Monica Heisey



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. 


Revenge, Sex, Murder, Crime
Pretty Evil by Zoe Rosi




Pretty Evil

Zoe Rosi



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.

Marian Keyes. Ian Rankin, Alex Marwood. JK Rowling, Jo Spain Crime
Jo Spain author of The Last to Disappear


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.

India Knight Darling Books Reading Writing Mitford
Darling by India Knight







India Knight


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.  








Cat Lady


Dawn O'Porter


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.

Royal Family, The Crown, House of Windsor, Queen, King Charles, Meghan Markle
Valentine Low, author of Courtieres







Valentine Low


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. 

Horror. Myth, Dogs, Cujo, Wizard of Oz, Hunger Games
Fairy Tale by Stephen King





Fairy Tale


Stephen King 


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

Trinny and Susannah, Susannah Constantine, The Queen, Princess Margaret
Susannah Constantine, Ready for Absolutely Nothing





Ready for Absolutely Nothing


Susannah Constantine 


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.




Rowling, trolling and the net’s heart of darkness in

The Ink Black Heart

The Sunday Independent  




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!




Jack Jewer

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.




Jemma Wayne

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.

Books, reading, writing. novels,
The Club by Ellory Lloyd




Ellory Lloyd

The Club



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.

Books, reading, writing. novels,
The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E. Smith





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.











Jodi Picoult

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

John Boyne


Normal Sheeple


Ross O'Carroll Kelly


Aisling and the City



Sarah Breen & Eimar McLysaght


The Man Who Died Twice




Richard Osman


Apples Never Fall





Liane Moriarty


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.


Stephen King, books, reading, writing, thriller, horror, sci-fi,
Billy Summers by Stephen King




Billy Summers

Stephen King


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.


Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train books reading writing
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins




A Slow Burning Fire

Paula Hawkins


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!”


Monica McInerney The Godmothers Books Reading Writing
Monica McInerney Australia's Favourite Author




The Godmothers

Monica McInerney


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.

Braywatch Ross O'Carroll Kelly
Braywatch Ross O'Carroll Kelly

The best books of 2020: Our critics select their picks of the year

The Sunday Independent  




Popular fiction


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

John Connolly


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

Liadan Hynes


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 Recovery of Rose Gold



The Recovery of Rose Gold

Stephanie Wrobel


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.


Taffy Brodesser-Akner, books, publishing, fiction
Fleishman Is in Trouble




Fleishman is in Trouble

Taffy Brodesser-Akner





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.

Charlie Parker, John Connolly, Crime, Fiction, Horror
A Book of Bones




The Book Of Bones

John Connolly

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

Tana French



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.





Leïla Slimani



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.

An Post Book Awards, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Jo Spain, Liz Nugent
Andrea Mara, author of One Click.

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.

Picoult Small Great Things
Jodi Picoult A Spark of Light




A Spark of Light

Jodi Picoult

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.  

Books Writers Uplit
Irish Writer Helen Cullen

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.”

Behind Her Eyes Crime Suspense Psycological Thriller
Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough




Cross Her Heart

Sarah Pinborough

Harper Collins


Heart-stopping Pinborough


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.

Bridget Jones ChickLit Romance Books
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce




Dear Mrs Bird

AJ  Pearce



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.

Liz Nugent, Skin Deep, Domestic Violence, Crime, Thriller
John Connolly's 16th Charlie Parker novel The Woman in the Woods



Skin Deep 

Liz Nugent

Penguin Ireland


The Woman in the Woods

John Connolly

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.


Molly's Game

Molly Bloom

Harper Collins


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.

Motherhood, mental illness, childcare
Leila Slimani author of Lullaby



Leila Slimani

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.