#38. Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers (Rosamund Burton)

Book: Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers: Adventures along Ireland’s St Declan’s Way, by Rosamund Burton

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel/pilgrimage, 2011

Where I got it: Gift from a friend, last year (read in July; reviewed in October)

Length: 288 pages

Briefly, it’s an account of a trek along an ancient Irish pilgrimage path which is being restored / revitalized

Comments: This was a re-read.  Having just completed my second Compostela book this year (see my last post) and deciding that I’ll never do it, I turned to this book again, in which Rosamund Burton treks the much shorter, much less known, and much less supported-by-amenities (such as hostels) St Declan’s Way in Ireland.  Running from Cashel in Co. Tipperary to Ardmore on the Co. Waterford Atlantic coast, it’s about 100 km altogether, over some low but not easy mountain terrain, as well as along river paths and pleasant country paths.  In this re-read, I saw that the author really pads out her account of the trek with a lot of stories about the people she met, their family history, the history of their houses, etc.  Many of these people were already known to her, as she lived for a time locally before emigrating to Australia.  These padding-stories are not uninteresting, by any means, but they were not exactly what I wanted to read about right now.  It’s a well-written book by an author who isn’t quite sure whether she’s “really” Irish or not, and who explores this question well in these pages, without letting the work degenerate into an angst-fest.  Burton belongs in the “spiritual but not religious” category, and finds a lot of spiritual meaning in her trek.  St Declan’s Way is an unusual trek, and this is a new slant on a popular theme (the pilgrimage journal).  Hopefully the Way will become a bit more popular in the future, but hopefully too it will never become part of the “pilgrimage industry” in the way that the camino to Compostela has.

Challenges: Non-fiction challenge; Full House Challenge for the Category “Re-read”; Reading Round Ireland (Waterford – where the author lived for a time)

#18. The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan)

Book: The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

Genre: Contemporary fiction – longlisted for the Man Booker prize, 2013.

Where I got it: Won it!  (To be strictly accurate, I bought the Kindle version of the book with a voucher that I won).

Length: 160 pages

Briefly, it’s set in a small Irish town in the aftermath of the economic collapse.  A builder/developer goes bankrupt, and the consequences are far-reaching…

Comments: This is an excellent book.  Each chapter is narrated in a different person’s voice.  The title of each chapter is simply the name of the person narrating that chapter, so potential confusion is avoided.  A picture builds up slowly, each perspective adding some new information, but above all adding a different slant.  Not everything is spelled out, the reader has to make some imaginative jumps, but that’s part of the appeal.

The one thing that I did not like was the continual use of the colloquial construction “they do be” – they do be saying, they do be eating, etc.  It seemed overdone, stage-Irish.  Even if it is how people really speak in Ryan’s part of the country, I could have done with less of it!

Nevertheless this is a great book; a big story in a short number of pages.

Challenges: Full House Challenge, for the category “Won or borrowed”; Reading Round Munster personal challenge, for Tipperary (Donal Ryan’s native county); ebook reading challenge 2014.

#4. Soul Murder (Andrew Nugent)

Book: Soul Murder, by Andrew Nugent

Genre: Murder mystery

Where I got it: Kindle download (bought)

Length: 357 pages

Briefly, it’s a murder mystery set in a boarding school for boys in Ireland, the third book by Nugent to feature police investigators Denis Lennon and Molly Power.  The author is a Benedictine monk.

Comments: This book is simply brilliant.  I couldn’t put it down – even when I was supposed to be working, and there was the possibility that my boss was going to step into the office.  Nugent is a monk in a monastery which runs a boarding school for boys (Glenstal Abbey), so he really knows the psyche of both boys and teachers very well.  He portrays both boys and teachers convincingly and sympathetically.  Dark subjects are treated with sensitivity and realism.  I read Nugent’s first book, The Four Courts Murder, a number of years ago, and wasn’t terribly impressed, but this is superb.  

Challenges: (1) Reading Round Munster, for Limerick (Andrew Nugent lives at Glenstal Abbey, in that county); (2) Full House challenge for the category “Best read so far in 2014”; (3) Ebook challenge.

#2. The Ballad of Mo and G (Billy Keane)

Book: The Ballad of Mo and G , by Billy Keane

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: Kindle download (bought)

Length: 224 pages

Briefly, it’s the story of a young woman (Mo) who marries into a violent, criminal family, told from the perspective of her friend and would-be lover (G), who wants to rescue her from the situation.

Comments: Online blurbs (e.g. Google Books) say that this book is set in “an unnamed town in the southwest of Ireland”.  It isn’t: it’s set in Dublin.  Dublin is the only place in Ireland with a public transport system called the Luas, postal districts numbered 4 and 12, and a well-known funeral directors called Masseys, all of which are mentioned in the text.  Dublin is a city (the capital, folks), and it’s on the east coast.  G is not a city boy, but the action is mostly in the city, in and around the Olsen’s compound.

The action is violent.  And it rings frighteningly true.  Mo is a victim.  G is essentially too cowardly to help her in any real way.

For me, the two most convincingly drawn characters are Dermo Olsen, Mo’s thug of a husband, and Dermo’s mother, Maureen, herself a long-standing victim of domestic violence (chillingly, she takes it for granted that Dermo may be beating Mo up when they are locked in the bathroom, when in fact they are having sex in the shower), who sees all that is wrong in Dermo and yet loves him and won’t give up on the possibility of his redemption.

On the other hand, G’s mother and father didn’t ring true to me; they were needed to advance the plot, but never became real people.  “Big Matt”, the police sergeant, I found cringe-makingly stage-Irish.

As for the main two protagonists – yes, and no.  At the beginning of the book G says, “Even though I wished it was me she was married to, I was still hoping Mo would be happy ever after with Dermo Olsen. That was until the violence started. I loved her that much. Can you believe that?’  Well, no, I can’t.  Young love is passionate and hormone-driven and wildly jealous, it is not self-sacrificing and altruistic.  So from the outset I was a bit unconvinced by G.  But perhaps this is deliberate?  Are we supposed to know, or suspect, straight away that he’s a coward, that he’s never going to fight for Mo, that he’s a wimp?  And Mo herself, the girl with a disadvantaged background who had some chances given her and then messes them up and makes choices which trap her in a worse situation than her original one – Mo wins our sympathy, of course, but there are points where her character could have been painted in more depth.  For example, when she chooses to go back to the Compound after one night in the women’s hostel – I would have liked to be taken a bit more inside her head at that point.  Of course, the first-person narration by G imposed limitations in that regard.

We are all victims of our upbringing and our social circumstances, this story seems to say.  There’s not much hope of a way out for any of us.  In that sense, this is a dark novel indeed.

Challenges: (1) Reading Round Munster [personal challenge], for Kerry (Billy Keane runs the John B. Keane pub in Listowel, his home town); (2) Full House Reading Challenge, for the category “published in 2013”; (3) Ebook Reading Challenge 2014.

Good Behaviour

Book: Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: Bought second-hand via Amazon

Briefly, it’s: the story of Aroon St Charles, daughter of an Anglo-Irish family, set in a “big house” in Ireland in the early years of the 20th century.

What I liked: Wonderful writing, it drew me in utterly.  Loved it.  Deserves its “classic” reputation.

What I didn’t like so much: The spoilers in the Introduction by Marian Keyes!  (Virago Modern Classics edition)

Challenges: Molly Keane lived most of her life in Ardmore, Co. Waterford, so this counts as my Waterford book in the Munster section of my Read Around Ireland personal challenge.

House of Splendid Isolation

Book: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: The Open Door secondhand bookshop

Briefly, it’s: about an IRA terrorist on the run, who ends up sheltering in the house of an elderly widow.  It allegedly explores the nature of terrorism, and history, and relationships…

But: I wasn’t convinced.  At the level of the plot, I simply wasn’t convinced e.g. that an IRA terrorist, the wig which he was using for disguise having blown off in the wind, would not risk reclaiming it but would leave it lying around as evidence.  Or, at a critical point in the plot, that he would go back to the “Big House” knowing that it was watched by the Gardaí.  Or that he would have a kind of “aha moment” on reading the widow’s uncle’s 1921 IRA volunteer’s journal.  Or even that the IRA volunteer in 1921 would have kept such a journal, containing such information.  Above all, I wasn’t convinced by his unfailing “niceness” to Josie.

In general, I’m with the reviewers in the The Independent and The New York Times : a good try, with many excellent passages, but overall it doesn’t work.

On the last page, “the child” (a technique I found confusing, slightly gruesome, and slightly bathetic) talks about “go[ing] right into the heart of the hate and the wrong” – but I don’t think the book did that.  It didn’t go into the heart of the hate.  It was too simplistic, in a strangely complicated way.

What I liked: The sections about Josie’s early life and marriage.  This is where O’Brien seems to get it right.  I understand that this is really her forte, and so perhaps I should be open to reading some of her other works in the future.

Challenges: Edna O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare; this counts as my Clare book in my Read Around Munster personal challenge.