I HAVE MORE THAN A FEW BONES TO PICK WITH GORMAN’S DEBUT

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bone-and-bloodCvrSome books are said to be read like a swimming pool, you leave it there and dip in and out when you feel like it. That’s usually reserved for reference books or coffee table behemoths and other  handy door stops. Most books are treated like a meal owing to the way stories are usually laid out with a starter, mains and dessert. This brings me to the first book review of 2018. It’s Bone and Blood : A Berlin Novel by Margo Gorman, published by Matador www.troubador.co.uk in September 2014.

Bone and blood follows the relationship between Aisling and her great aunt Brigette when they are thrown together in Berlin following the death of Brigette’s daughter Katherina from cancer. Aisling, a university student from Dublin, wrangles a trip to Berlin to represent her family at the funeral, thinking it would be a great chance to see the city. However,  she is forced to share her great aunts house, when in stark opposite to Irish burial times there is a three-week wait on Katherina’s funeral. While sharing the house with someone almost four times her age, she starts to get to know her great aunt and delves into Brigette’s past and how an Irish woman came to spend most of her life in Germany. Through their conversations Aisling discovers Brigette was imprisoned in a concentration camp outside Berlin during the war. But what of Katherina’s father? Where did they meet ? How did Brigette get out of the camp and will Aisling get enough material for a graphic novel telling her great aunts story?

I didn’t like this book, because there was a lot of bones in this story (Think Herring / Mackerel) and gristle too, which made it rather tough to chew and get through. Harking back to my meal reference in the opening lines of the review. If this book was a meal, then the starter should set you up for the main course, but if that  isn’t very good , as in this case, then the rest of the meal turns out to be a let-down and struggles to keep the diner interested.  The first chapter of this book is over complicated and rather hard to decipher and gives no indication as to where the reader or the story is going.

Another point against this debutante Irish writers book, is that there are too many characters to keep track of, especially when you take into account that this was a book group selection and with most book groups you have a certain time scale with which to read a book; in our group its a month. In my case, this period was further reduced to a week, owing to my other reading commitments. This doesn’t allow  one much leeway for over-complicated beginnings. The chapters after that do start to come into focus to an extent but there are still a lot of threads in this story which one must try and keep hold of.  In my own  case I gave up half way through.

The book had a mixed reception at the book group in December at which it was discussed, but myself and a small contingent railed against the general good reports of the other members and were quite scathing. Which sort of came back to bite us, when after an hour’s discussion, the host promptly introduced a surprise guest…. Margo Gorman herself, who was a friend of the host, had been upstairs writing and had heard none of the mixed reviews downstairs.  My wife said she’d never seen me so lost for words, especially when Margo was seated next to me. I did gather my composure along with the others and in a lively and light-hearted discussion afterwards, Margo admitted that she was aware that there was a lot going on in the book and that her editor has asked her to trim the next book down and keep it to one or two main threads.

Margo Gorman

Margo Gorman

This is Irish Author Margo Gorman’s first novel (www.margogorman.com) , although having worked with international bodies for a number of years she has written numerous books and reports for them. She was educated by Seamus Heaney  in Belfast and now divides her time between Donegal and Germany.

The informal questions & answer session over wine, cheese and mince pies with Margo, also covered her inspiration for the book which came about because of a work trip she made to Ravensbruk concentration camp a couple of years ago, where she discovered the stories of Irish women who were imprisoned there and in other camps during the war.

I wouldn’t dissuade you from reading this book, but it can be a bit of a challenge and as I mentioned in our discussion at the book group, there are easier works of fiction inspired by the holocaust to read. Namely Block 46 by Johana Gustawsson which I reviewed last October. But, yes if you want to support a new Irish writer, go down to your local book shop and pick up a copy, but make sure its read in good company, preferably a very nice glass of wine.

O’BRIEN’S FIRST NOVEL IN A DECADE SLUMPS DOWN IN ITS LITTLE RED CHAIR AFTER ATTEMPTING SHOCK AND AWE

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Little red Chrs cvrDuring my wedding weekend in Lincoln in June, Lincoln castle had some very important guests. they were a segment of the 888,246 ceramic red poppies that were installed in the Tower of London in 2014. The poppies represented the British men and women who were killed fighting in both world wars. This isn’t the first time inanimate objects have been used to represent those slain in battle, on the 6th April 2012 an art installation was unveiled on Sarajevo’s main street, it consisted of 11,541 red chairs which represented the victims of the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from the 1992-1995. In the midst of this audience of empty red chairs were 643 little red chairs representing the children killed during the siege, and that is the inspiration for the title of this month’s book, it’s The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien.

The story centres around the arrival of a mysterious foreigner to a west of Ireland village, he claims to be a faith healer and soon sets up a practice, where he uses his charismatic personality to bring the villagers under his spell. One woman in particular, Fidelma Mccarthy, falls heavily for his charm. When the strangers past – he’s responsible for war crimes in the Balkans – catches up with him, the untimely ending of the relationship in the glare of the media and the close-knit community has long and harrowing repercussions for her. So to try and distance herself from the fallout she goes away to what she thinks is a new life in the UK.

When I said harrowing , I really mean down right in your face gratuitously violent, one scene especially. If O’Brien is going for ‘Shock and Awe’, she hits you straight between the eyes. After that, the rest of the book is rather tame and very weakly stitched together.

At the recent book group meeting at which this book was being discussed, this was the main topics of discussion. There was divided views whether it was really necessary. Some of the members found it quite difficult to carry on reading after that scene , taken along with the inept actions of the main character leading up to this event, they found it a poor piece of writing by one of Ireland’s leading literary figures .

The book is basically two stories, the first part which is the story of the stranger from the Balkans arriving in the village, the relationship and its climax.Then the part of the story set in England reads more like a series of short stories about the lives of refugees in the so called land of the “Bright Lights” and “Streets Made of Gold”.  It was generally agreed that O’Brien had seemed to run out of steam after the ending of the relationship and instead of just writing some sort of short story or Novella, she either decided or was advised by her editors to hang a couple of short stories off the end to give it some sort of substance, which I feel it doesn’t.

Born in Co. Clare Ireland in 1930, Edna’s mother was a strict Irish mammy and O’Brien has often described her Irish upbringing as “fervid” and “enclosed”. She trained as a pharmacist and after marrying the Irish writer Ernest Gebler, against her parents’ wishes,they emigrated to London, where she still lives. There, she started writing full time. Her first book of 17 novels, The Country Girls was published in 1960, others included August is a Wicked Month (1965), Zee & Co (1971) and finally The Little Red Chairs in (2015) published by Faber & Faber. She’s also written nine collections of short stories as well as Plays, TV scripts and works of non-fiction.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien

O’Brien is among a select and elite group Irish literary luminaries who have had their books previously banned in Ireland, but as history has often shown, banning something doesn’t make it less popular but on the contrary more desirable. The majority of her books  express her despair over the condition of women in contemporary society in particular, they criticize women’s repressive rural upbringing. Her heroines search unsuccessfully for fulfillment in relationships with men, often engaging in doomed love trysts as a escape from their loneliness and emotional isolation, something which is seen clearly in The Little Red Chairs.

Near the end of the book Fidelma visits her ex-lover, now a convicted war criminal – whose inspiration is clearly Radovan Karadzic . The scene is so out of place and really does nothing for the story that again begs the question as to why it’s there? If its to take the rough edge off the story and conclude it somehow, it doesn’t reach any real conclusion just adding  a few extra pages to justify the print costs maybe?

Sarajevo Chairs

The Red Chairs of Sarajevo

The characters in the village are stage Irish and are in keeping with a style of character that often populates O’Brien’s books. They are always 20 years out of date, if it was an attempt to see how the remnants of modern warfare might fit it modern Ireland, firstly you have to write about modern Ireland and stop harking back to “The Quiet man”. As for the London stories, they are not really believable and have been written better by other Irish writers.

My advice is, read it if you are a fan of dark tales about repressed Irish women stuck in another era, otherwise a more enjoyable book set in the aftermath of the Balkan war is People of The Book by Geraldine Brooks, previously reviewed on this site.

NO LONELY PLANET FOR CITY OF BOHANE, BUT AN EXCELLENT JOURNEY TO THE DARKSIDE.

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city-of-bohane-orangeThere’s a new doctor in the house. No, I’m perfectly fine. It’s a Sci-Fi reference and if you’re still lost I’m talking about the recent appointment of Peter Capaldi as the new doctor in the long running BBC drama Doctor Who. If the 12th  Doc’ was to open the door of the TARDIS in the next series and find himself in the setting for this month’s book, then it would be a very interesting episode indeed. The book is City of Bohane by Kevin Barry.

The story is set in the fictional city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland (pronounced Bo-Haan, I’m reliably informed by other members of the book group). It’s a seedy, malevolent place where life is cheap and sex and drugs are what fuels its economy. Control of the different parts of the city and the profits from its illicit trade are run by various gangs, the largest being the Hartnett fancy gang and their leader Logan Hartnett. A number of rival gangs from the other side of the city are itching to get their hands on his business so it looks like the tenuous peace of the city is about to be shattered, as well as that Hartnett’s old nemesis  Gant Broderick has returned to the city after a twenty five year absence. He has unfinished business with Hartnett’s wife Macu but is that all? What of the younger members of the gang? Is Logan facing trouble from within his own ranks? Will life and the balance of power ever be the same in the once great metropolis of Bohane?

kevin Barry

 

This is Limerick born writer Kevin Barry’s first novel, he’s previously written two collections of short stories ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ in 2007 and ‘Dark Lies the Island’ in 2012.  The book won the 2013 Dublin IMPAC literary award and it is the first time I have had cause to actually agree with the judges on their choice. Usually it’s the shortlisted runners up that I’ve thought were more deserving of the top spot. IMPAC is far from the world’s best known literary prize, but it is growing in recognition and stature behind its all conquering neighbour in the UK, the Man Booker. Thanks in part to it having the largest prize in the world of €100,000.

This maybe very different from any Irish book I’ve read before but its now one of the best. Firstly, Bohane itself is a mishmash of various other cities both fictional and real. It’s like Barry took Gotham, New York, Dublin and Paris then stitched them all together. This is not surprising as he lived in seventeen different places before he was thirty six years old, including Cork, Santa Barbara and Barcelona.  Bohane does seem to be set in an alternate universe, where there are no cars and very few pieces of technology like phones or TV’s but they have trucks and an ‘EL’ train. No guns either, all the fighting is done by hand or with knives.

One of the nicest things about the book is the language, its fruity to say the least and quite knackery. At first it’s hard to imagine where in Ireland you are, sometimes inner-city Dublin other times the west of Ireland. Phrases like “Sweet Baba Jay” when taking the lords name in vain reminded me of Hill Street Blues Lt. Hunter, who often exclaimed “Judas Priest!!!” or “Judas H, Christmas!!!” The down side to the rich flowery dialect is that it often slows the reader down as you try to translate what the characters are saying but don’t let that take anything from a warming and descriptive element of the book. It’s not surprising that this book wasn’t nominated by libraries from outside of Ireland for IMPAC, as with the release of the film The Commitments in the US, readers not acquainted or related with the Emerald Isle might require a small list of translations to help them on their journey through Bohane.

The book shows the influence of films such as Blade Runner and Sin City, owing to the very sepia styled imagery and gothic themes running through it. Also the Mad Max movie Beyond the Thunderdome came across to me as inspiration for one tribe WillyWonkacalled the “Sand Pikey’s” who live in the dunes outside the city. Meanwhile the whole gang rivalry storyline is rather weak and seems like a bad episode of the internationally acclaimed RTE hit ‘Love Hate’. However, it is emboldened by the vivid descriptions of the settings and the myriad of weird and wonderful characters, like the local paper Editor Dom Gleeson, his hunched back photographer, Mary Grimes and Logan’s two henchmen, Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, while Hartnett comes across as a rather dandy character who dresses like Willy Wonka.

If this book was ever to be developed into a visual format, I could see it as a graphic novel initially. But you only have to see that graphic novels and darkly drawn comic heroes have an excellent track record in crossing over to the big screen. In an interview in 2012 Barry confirmed the book had been optioned and that he’s written a first draft of a script.

So take my advice, forget about packing your copy of lonely planet. put on your best Pikey or Oirish accent, along with a decent pair of knuckle dusters and prepare for a very enjoyable trip into the shadowy environs of Bohane.

CECELIA MISSES THE POINT BY NINETY TWO NAMES AND NEEDS MORE THAN A PEDALO AND A COUPLE OF FREE-LOADERS TO GET BACK ON TRACK.

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100 namesA list of one hundred names is found in the files of a dead journalist, no one knows why the list has been compiled and none of the people on the list knows why they are on it or what connects them to each other. It’s up to a down on their luck investigative journalist to discover the truth, is it something sinister? The only person who knows is the daughter of a disgraced politician. Sound like the plot for a highly charged thriller? If Grisham, Patterson or one of the new batch of rising Swedish writers had gone to their publishers with it, they’d be biting their hands off to get it completed and published. But it’s not as it seems, the only part that’s true of the above is the daughter of a disgraced Irish politician, yep it’s the synopsis of Cecilia Ahern’s latest book One Hundred Names.

Kitty Logan’s best friend, boss and mentor Constance Dubois, is in the final throes of  her battle against cancer. When she asks her protégé to find a list in her office and tell their story. What kitty finds is a list of one hundred names and that’s it, no clue as to what the story is or why Constance had kept these names. But Kitty also has her own problems, she’s just been fired from her job on the national TV station in Ireland after she wrongfully accused a school teacher of having an affair, now someone’s targeting her flat with dog pooh and graffiti, which isn’t making her long term rental prospects look promising. On top of that her boyfriend has moved out and she’s getting it in the ear from her friends and being used and abused by other so called friends.

As for the list she can only get a small number of them to talk to her and they each have very differing stories and backgrounds. There’s Cecelia Ahern, Schriftstellerinan elderly lady cast aside by her family who plans to claim a bet placed years ago, a young woman who’s a carer for her invalided mother while also offering makeovers to the terminally ill. Then there’s a ex-con who thinks he hears peoples prayers, a woman who runs a butterfly farm but is too shy to accept an invite to address a group of fellow Lepidopterists from around the world, a couple who are forever blagging free meals and drinks by pretending to propose to each other as well as a two of immigrants who want to get into the Guinness book of records for being the fastest two men in a pedalo. Eventually this ragtag bunch and kitty head off on a mad cap road trip. While all along Kitty’s  editor on the monthly magazine that Constance ran is pressurizing her with a deadline, to write these stories as a  tribute piece to her late friend. Can she do it?

I have to hand it to Cecelia; she’s gone from strength to strength since writing P.S. I Love you in 2004. Followed up with a movie deal and a reasonably successful American sitcom,  as well as the subsequent eight other books she’s written. All along she’s tried to avoid the moniker of “Chic Lit” Author. But with this outing it is nothing more then a jog down a well worn “Chic-lit” path.

The title it’s self is misleading as she never even goes near one hundred names, eight is the most. So why she didn’t call it ten names – fifty names. In my view I think she bit off more than she could chew but her editor thought ah, 100 sounds interesting. Yes it does, but at least have Kitty  interact with half the names on the list.

pedaloAs for the stories of the eight, they’re plausible to an extent. I couldn’t see any self respecting immigrant or native for that matter trying to break a 100m pedalo dash for the Guinness book of records. Okay so people do some strange things to get mentioned in the fabled book, but a pedalo dash.

Then there’s the couple who go around different bars and restaurants faking grandiose proposals to gain free meals and drinks. this would irritate me in real life and did so in the book. Okay so their story is all about the girl in the partnership who longs for the proposal to be real for once, but they just came across as shallow.

As I write, Film adaptations of two of her other books have just finished shooting in Ireland, I love Rosie – based on her novel Where Rainbows End and Romantic Road an original TV script. I hope to god they’ve made a better interpretation of Where rainbows end then they did of P.S. I Love You.

ps i love u pster

So if you’re an ardent fan of Cecelia, then anything I say is not going to dissuade you from parting with your cash for this book, otherwise take my advice go read or watch John Buchan’s  The Thirty Nine Steps , Jules Verne’s  Around The World in 80 Days  or The Forty Five Guardsmen by Dumas.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com  2013)

JORDAN DELIVERS A DOUBLE DOSE OF DUBLIN LIFE WITH MISTAKEN

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Mistaken cvrThey say everyone has a double in the world. Even if it’s from behind, we’ve often heard stories of people running up to total strangers, tapping them on the shoulder and greeting them like long lost friends. Only for the stranger to turn around and leave the greeter stumped and embarrassed when they realise they’re facing a total stranger. I’ve done it myself, with some very embarrassing consequences.  This is the premise for Irish Film director Neil Jordan’s fifth book “Mistaken”.

Kevin Thunder has a look-a-like, Gerald Spain; they live on different sides of Dublin city. Kevin lives on the Northside and Gerald on the Southside.  But Kevin is forever being mistaken for Gerald, he’s thrown out of amusement arcades, accused of shoplifting and meets girls Gerald has dated and who mistake him for the Southside charmer, eventually he deliberately starts interloping into Gerald’s life. Kevin’s life is that of an only child to a near permanently absent bookmaker father and a loving mother who goes swimming daily and takes in lodgers in a house next door to where Bram Stoker lived.

Gerald grows up in an affluent family on the Southside where he goes to one of the best schools in Ireland and goes on to be a famous writer. We then through the eyes of Kevin and his recanting to Emily, Gerald’s daughter retrace their strange lives and how their paths criss-crossed over the years for good and bad.

The book was recently presented to my local book group and it is a great read, this being echoed by the majority of the group. I found it a nice easy read with a great tour round almost every part of Dublin and a few foreign places. As you would expect from an accomplished film director and scriptwriter it is well written. I found it strangely erotic in his descriptions of the central characters shared romantic involvement, more so then Fifty Shades. Also it’s a very exciting concept, innocently walking into someone else’s life pretending to be them and successfully carrying it off without even trying, it’s like a voyeurs wet dream.

ha__penny_bridge__dublin

Of the two main characters, Gerald is rather washed over, and so are his family, but there is a good explanation for this. The story jumps back and forth through time and geographically when told through one main character, if we’d had it told through both characters the reader would have probably got confused very quickly and given up on the book, this is something Jordan has learned from his film work and from the basic premise of all story telling, “KISS” – keep it simple stupid.

You do start to wonder how these two can look so a like and there were thoughts of something a kin to the “Time Travellers wife” by Audrey Niffenegger or the result of weird medical experiments, when all in all it’s actually a rather mundane reason for their shared resemblances. The minor downsides to this book are some very woefully editing, which was picked by other members of the book group, including the misspelling of the name of a very well known Italian restaurant in Dublin and the re-routing of a certain bus route in south Dublin.

There are a couple of characters who should maybe have been cut from the story in the drafting process, namely Daragh a friend of Kevin’s who suffers a breakdown after getting caught up in their sordid double life and the recurring ghost of Bram Stoker which does nothing to drive the story on.

Overall this is a great read from a master story-teller of the celluloid Neil jordanand print genres, so open this book and let your voyeuristic side out and lose yourself in the back waters and thoroughfares of  Dublin’s fair city.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com  2012)