- 20 Dec 23
Our man in the library, Pat Carty, selects the books that floated his boat over the last year.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” So said green eggs and ham advocate Dr Seuss. Here then is a selection of recent tomes from the last twelve months - in no particular order - that’ll take you all over the shop.
The Bee Sting – Paul Murray (Penguin)
As good as Murray’s previous novels are, he sailed past them with this tragi-comic Tolstoyan doorstop. During the good times Dickie Barnes took over the car dealership form his father, allowing the auld lad to hightail it abroad for golf and cocktails. He married Imelda and everything was rosy. To paraphrase Ray Davies, the good times are gone and ghosts haunt the Barnes family as things fall apart. Teenage daughter Cassie has developed an attachment to the bottle and their son PJ is being bullied but it’s the layers of the past being pulled back that are the real problem. Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song is great but this masterful epic was our vote for the Booker.
My Father’s House – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
O’Connor must have danced a jig of delight when he came upon the true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the Kerry-born priest stationed in the Vatican during World War II. O’Flaherty was directly responsible for helping around 6,500 people escape the clutches of the Nazis as the forces of darkness surrounded the Holy See. He’s a hero to cheer for, opposed by a proper boo-hiss villain in Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann, and the supporting cast – everyone from The Pope to London wide boys - is equally strong. The master story teller delivers crackling dialogue, tense and thrilling set pieces, and beautiful prose. A bank holiday movie in book form.
Old God’s Time – Sebastian Barry (Faber)
A Beckettian rumination on the loneliness of old age as retired policeman Tom Kettle shuffles around Dalkey, remembering dodgy haircuts and the purchase of swimming trunks. Next thing you know, he’s crying in the street and fashioning a noose. He’s saved, sort of, by the doorbell and the past, in the form of an old case involving clerical child abuse. From there, things turn dark. Beautiful recalled memories of his late wife June and “the kneeling people” in the wake of the Dublin car bombs of 1974 flash by as this unreliable narrator’s mind is battered by past and present swirling together. Harrowing, haunting, and moving.
The Wren, The Wren – Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
Another astonishing exhumation of a family history from Enright. Ostensibly, it concerns the relationship between mother Carmel and daughter Nell although it’s really about the aftermath of lauded poet Phil McDaragh absconding from family responsibilities back in the 70s. The more we learn about McDaragh – despite some beautiful poetry from Enright herself – the harder it is to like him. He left Carmel’s mother in her sickbed to head off roving, the cad. Told from several points of view including the poet’s memories of growing up around Tullamore which deserves a book of its own. This is as good, if not better than, The Gathering.
Close To Home – Michael Magee (Hamish Hamilton)
Although it’s set in 2013 West Belfast Magee’s debut’s gripping account of class, masculinity and the need to escape from where and who you came from could be based anywhere. Sean and his mates are mired in poverty, fiddling automatic supermarket checkouts, stealing pints and being evicted but what’s harder to get away from is the macho notion of the ‘hard man’ exemplified here by Sean’s car crash of a brother Anthony. Magee is too good a writer to paint in just two dimensions, however, so even Anthony earns sympathy as his story is fleshed out. If this is even slightly autobiographical then fair play.
Ordinary Human Failings – Megan Nolan, The Late Night Writers Club - Annie West, The Well Of Saint Nobody – Neil Jordan, Prophet Song – Paul Lynch, How To Build A Boat – Elaine Feeney, So Late In The Day – Claire Keegan, Soldier Sailor – Claire Kilroy, The Land Of Lost Things - John Connolly, The Lock Up - John Banville
Showbusiness With Blood: A Golden Age Of Irish Boxing – Eamonn Carr (The Lilliput Press)
Former Horslips tub thumper and all-round renaissance man Carr had a glorious second act as a journalist writing about the things he loves especially boxing and, as he says himself, this coincided with a belle époque of Paddy pugilism. Carr was there for it all, in the dressing rooms, at the press conferences and hotel bashes, and, most importantly, at the fights themselves which he brings to life again in prose that George Plimpton would have considered a good day’s work. It’s all recounted, from the tragedy of Darren Sutherland to the triumph of Katie Taylor, with humour and insight. The book the sweet science warrants.
Pilgrim Soul: W.B. Yeats And The Ireland Of His Time – Daniel Mulhall (New Island)
Just as he did for Joyce with Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, former ambassador Mulhall aims to provide a guide to our national poet that’s aimed at the general reader. That’s not to say there’s anything amateurish about his understanding of what was great about Yeats or his in-depth knowledge of his life and times. One might argue that he slightly overplays Yeats’ influence on the Ireland around him, although there’s no doubt his words were in the air as our nation was born, but there’s no denying that the greatest poetry sprung from the poet’s “indomitable Irishry.” Pilgrim Soul works as both social history and artistic critique.
The Long Game: Inside Sinn Féin – Aoife Moore (Sandycove)
Timely and fascinating examination of how Sinn Féin went from the very minor partner to the IRA back in the 1970s, who were disdained even by members of the ‘Ra, to where they are now, a major political force both north and south of the border and a potential ruling party in the republic. Derry journalist Moore puts the party under an unflinching microscope and Gerry Adams – who does not come off well - looms large as she documents how outside influences like Brexit and social crises in the South have helped Sinn Féin take its place amongst the election front runners.
Dirty Linen: The Troubles In My Home Place – Martin Doyle (Merrion Press)
What Irish Times Book Editor Doyle’s book does very well is humanise the troubles, which are still thought of as something distant by a many in the south, especially at this remove. It’s eye-opening to read how his parents in Laurencetown, County Down would leave him in the car while they went shopping because that would keep the bombers away or how his mother would put the kids to bed in the dark after several local sectarian killings. Doyle also, admirably points towards the humanity of people like the family of the slain protestant child Alan McCrum as a factor in keeping the events in the North from turning even darker.
The Power Of Art: A World History In Fifteen Cities – Caroline Campbell (The Bridge Street Press)
Campbell – the director of the National Gallery Of Ireland, so she knows her onions – explores how art and history are intertwined by examining fifteen cities at a time when creativity blossomed within them. Renaissance Florence, Ancient Rome, Vienna, Jerusalem, and modern New York are all obvious ports of call but the Kyoto of a thousand years ago, the kingdom of Benin in 16th century Africa and, especially, Pyongyang are less so and all the more interesting because of it. The influence of economics, the church, philanthropy and, especially in the Korean case, the state are all expertly analysed.
Rough Beast: My Story and the Reality of Sinn Féin – Máiría Cahill, A Thread Of Violence – Mark O’Connell, Who Really Owns Ireland – Matt Cooper, To Boldly Go – Luke O’Neill
Victory City – Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)
Not only a rip-roaring fantasy epic that spans hundreds of years and finds room for magic forests, imperialistic pinks monkeys, and more kings and queens than you might find on a Vegas card table, this also manage to speak to religious tolerance and gender equality. Despite being written before the horrendous attack on Rushdie last year, it’s hard to read this and not think he possesses some kind of foresight as characters are blinded but the power of words that create the truth win out. Rushdie’s narrator says he’s “merely a spinner of yarns” but the man himself is so much more than that.
The World And All That It Holds – Aleksandar Hemon (Picador)
Hemon’s epic fourth novel lives up to its grand title by including almost everything between its covers from stories told to make sense of life to an absent God “knowable only in the imperfection of his creation.” His everyman Rafael Pinto is buffeted like dust in the wind from place to place by history, beginning in Sarajevo the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, the moment that “broke the world in two”. He endures a cruel odyssey encompassing morphine addiction, starvation, and loss across the east because love is forever stronger than the world that tries to crush it.
The Fraud – Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
For her first historical novel, Smith takes the real life Tichborne case – a rich heir goes missing and a highly unlikely claimant steps forward - that was the cause célèbre of Victorian London and uses it to examine a Great Britain indulging itself in falsehoods. While the court case itself is highly entertaining, we see the harsh reality of slavery illustrated through Andrew Bogle. The main character Elizabeth Touchet lives the lie that society forces on her gender while hopeless novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, a man who can’t abide being disliked, asks if he’s the fraud. A novel worthy of any of the literary greats who populate the society she captures.
This Other Eden – Paul Harding (Penguin)
Taking a deserved swipe at the ‘science’ of eugenics – something W.B. Yeats regrettably nodded at, as referred to in Pilgrim Soul, also on this list – Harding uses the real-world location of Malaga Island off the coast of Maine where a “degenerate colony” was forcibly evicted in the early part of the last century. He embellishes this true story with islanders who are guilty of nothing more than extreme poverty and resultant weakened bloodlines. His writing, whether he’s describing graves being dug up or one child’s discovery of beauty, is deeply impressive as he warns against greed masquerading under the banner of best intentions and progress.
Broken Light – Joanne Harris (Orion)
An angry book, according to Harris herself, written in reaction to the #metoo movement and crimes against women, this is her version of Stephen King’s Carrie. The onset of Bernie’s menopause engenders the return of psychic powers she had before she began menstruating. She also enjoys “a new…freedom…from the male gaze; from the responsibilities of motherhood; from the largely impossible expectations of society.” Harris took guff for this before it was even published which only goes to show how on-target her shots at social media, misogynism, sexism and ageism are. Because her name is on the cover, it’s all wrapped up in a satisfying thriller.
Small Worlds – Caleb Azumah Nelson, Baumgartner – Paul Auster, The Seventh Son – Sebastian Faulks, Normal Rules Don’t Apply – Kate Atkinson, Crook Manifesto – Colson Whitehead, Chain-Gang All-Stars – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, The Sleep Watcher – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, City Of Dreams – Don Winslow, Old Babes In The Wood – Margaret Atwood, Small Mercies – Dennis Lehane, The Making Of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – Tom Hanks
International Non Fiction
Pathogenesis: How Germs Made History – Jonathan Kennedy (Torva)
When science took over from religion it excelled at making human beings feel insignificant. Copernicus and then Darwin pulled the rug out from under our special standing in the universe and Kennedy sticks another boot in by reminding us that bacteria are really Earth’s dominant life forms. His thesis is that infectious diseases have shaped history at every turn, all the way from our primordial forebearers right up to the recent COVID crisis. The Roman Empire, how plagues gave Christianity and Islam a leg up, the black death being indirectly responsible for Columbus’s quest, the industrial revolution – it’s a fascinating trip.
Fancy Bear Goes Phising: The Dark History Of the Information Age – Scott Shapiro (Allen Lane)
Or, the history of the modern age in five extraordinary hacks. Shapiro starts small, back when the world was still analogue, when it wasn’t even clear what to charge offenders with when the word ‘worm’ took on a new meaning. We look into “the Bulgarian Virus Factory”, find out how Paris Hilton’s phone was broken into with a bit of mumbling, and discover how Hilary Clinton’s emails were really dragged out into the light of day. We also learn how your toaster may have already been conscripted into a vast bot army. Read it and then go change your passwords to something more complicated.
Emperor Of Rome – Mary Beard (Profile Books)
Elagabalus (real name – Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) ruled Rome for only a short four years but he knew how to throw a party. If you drank too much, chances are you’d wake up in a room with a lion looking at you. That’s what you get for putting a teenager in charge. This is but one of the stories in Beard’s account of some thirty-one emperors and how such rulers were chosen and how the appearance of rule was managed. How did it go for Elagabalus? His head was cut off his body which was then dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber. Good times.
American Whitelash: The Resurgence Of Racial Violence in Our Time – Wesley Lowrey (Allen Lane)
Lowrey asks “What the hell happened?” in America that took them from the hope he and others felt when Obama was elected – “It feels somewhat silly now” – to “a decade and a half of explicit racial thrashing.” To answer his question he utilises interviews with victims and accounts of the perpetrators of violence, like Glenn Miller who represented himself in court after attacking a Jewish Community Centre in Kansas City to strike “a violent blow for the preservation of my people and for the future of white children.” Despite the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lowrey is not optimistic about American’s future.
Lawrence Of Arabia - Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)
Renowned adventurer Fiennes acknowledges Lawrence as one of his heroes – he took a post in Oman despite knowing little of the region because of it – so he’s well qualified to write another biography of the man. What follows is a boy’s own adventure as Lawrence moves from a lowly intelligence officer to the Emir’s right hand man in the fight against the Turks during World War I. While there’s thrilling detail like the assault on Akaba, Fiennes also paints a fuller picture of the history of the region and supplies plenty of explanatory background detail. Chapman Of Arabia just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.
Great-Uncle Harry – Michael Palin, Space – Tim Peake, The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder – David Grann
Us And Them: The Authorised Story Of Hipgnosis - Mark Blake (Nine Eight Books)
The often hilarious and scarcely believable story of the design team behind some of the most famous record sleeves of the 1970s, the era before photoshop, budgets and the constrained real estate of the cd cover ruined everything. Flying a statue to a Swiss glacier so the sky would look right on a cover for Paul McCartney, hiring a marksman in case Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig slipped free of its moorings over Battersea Power Station (which it did), reimagining Mick and Keith as centaurs and satyrs, or flying to the West Indies for a fifteen-minute photoshoot for 10CC – it’s all here, it’s all ridiculous, and it’s all gas.
Don’t Tell Anyone The Secrets I Told You: A Memoir – Lucinda Williams (Simon & Schuster)
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard her records that Lucinda Williams can write and having an award-winning poet for a father probably helped too. This is the definition of warts n’ all – William’s mother suffered schizophrenia and alcoholism, her parents’ marriage broke up when her father started seeing one of his young students, a series of relationships with “poets on motorcycles”. What emerges is an artist who refused to compromise – the section on her masterpiece Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is particularly eye-opening – and was eventually proven right. It takes place after the book but even a stroke couldn’t slow her down for long.
Nick Drake: The Life – Richard Morton Jack (John Murray)
It’s still amazing to think that Nick Drake couldn’t get arrested while he was alive. The three albums he made are masterpieces but his time in the sun wouldn’t arrive until long after he’d left this world. His story has been told before but the detail and research evident here must qualify as the definitive last word. The early part of the book paints a picture of a perfectly normal young chap but it’s the last section that’s particularly harrowing as the reader knows the end that’s coming and what’s diagnosed as schizophrenia tears him apart. It makes the art he created seem even more remarkable.
The Woman In Me – Britney Spears (Gallery)
Who would really want to be a pop star? Sure, there’s the money and everything that goes with it but when you read a book like this you may end up whispering a silent thanks for your anonymous existence. What Spears has gone through – she was placed under a legal “conservatorship” allowing her father Jamie to declare “I’m Britney Spears now” where she couldn’t see her children or even choose her own food without approval all while performing in Vegas for a very small share of the money – is unbelievable. That she still retains a kind of optimism and is able to talk about it at all is miraculous.
Bee Gees: Children Of The World – Bob Stanley (Nine Eight Books)
The Brothers Gibb are still seen – by some – as a cliché of teeth and chest hair but approximately 220 million(!) in record sales proves they were doing something right. Stanley, a writer with an instinctive understanding of pop (see Let’s Do It: The Birth Of Pop), follows them from the Isle of Man to Australia and then into the charts, pointing out the strain of melancholia in their early classics before Barry’s falsetto conquered the world around Saturday Night Fever. When idiots started burning their records they became songwriters and producers for others but the quality never dipped. Just listen to Barbra Streisand’s ‘Woman In Love’. Marvellous.
Bonus Track: Adventures In Wonderland – Paul Charles (Hot Press Books)
Gentleman Paul Charles’ carefully considered memoir recounts his long trip from fandom in Northern Ireland (through a spot of journalism, something he continues to do in these pages) to becoming one of - if not the - premiere booking agent (“the agent gets the gigs and puts the deals together”) in the British Isles. The big names come at the reader thick and fast although Charles it at his best when telling us why Astral Weeks is so great, describing his lengthy working relationship with Van The Man, explaining how the music biz works through his time with Tanita Tikaram, or building a relationship with Tom Waits out of a chance encounter in Tower Records.
Lou Reed: The King Of New York – Will Hermes, Too Much Too Young: The 2 Tone Records Story – Daniel Rachel, Whatever Happened To Slade? – Daryl Easlea, Sonic Life: A Memoir – Thurston Moore, Chuck Berry: An American Life – R.J. Smith