Tag Archives: Irish writers

#Bookreview ‘A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom’ by @john_boyne

Where to start? A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne is like no other book I’ve read. It’s a historical, classical, contemporary mash-up which takes a group of characters on a journey through the centuries, starting with Palestine in AD1 and ending in AD2080 living in a colony in space. The same group of characters feature in each chapter, advancing in time and moving location, each time with different names though always starting with the same letter. John Boyne

In Palestine we first hear the voice of our, in the beginning, unnamed sole protagonist. This is his story told in soundbite chapters. He starts with his own origins, the meeting of his father Marinus and mother Floriana and progresses across two thousand years to the near future. At times there is violence, much against women but also brutal murder, torture and random killing. There is betrayal, cruelty, prejudice, foolhardiness and bravery, love and loyalty. Essentially it is the story of one family – mother, father, two brothers and a sister. One brother has the strength and brutality of his father, the other has the creativity of his mother.

As the decades pass and the story progresses, the brothers progress through childhood to adults, they fight, argue, divide, meet and divide again. Each chapter offers a snapshot of a place and time in history, sometimes set against the backdrop of real events and people. And always the family is placed at the centre of the action, with a supporting cast of recognisable characters who re-appear.

To explain the story here is too complex and would contain too many spoilers. Read it for yourself but prepare to be challenged. The print book is 407 pages long. I read it on Kindle and it seemed longer than that. Some chapters whizz by, others creep. Each new time/setting includes a little recap from the end of the previous chapter, a device essential in the first third of the book but I think dispensable once the structure and device is familiar to the reader.

Such an ambitious project, I read it with a spirit of adventure, never knowing what was coming next.

Read my reviews of these other novels by John Boyne:-
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave
A History of Loneliness
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
A Ladder to the Sky

If you like this, try:-
‘How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig
The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett
Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A TRAVELLER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM by @john_boyne #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4TK via @SandraDanby

#Bookreview ‘When All Is Said’ by Anne Griffin @AnneGriffin_ #Irish

Anne GriffinThis book stayed with me a long time after I finished it. Three words sum up When All is Said by Anne Griffin. Masterful. Emotional. Funny. It is the story of Maurice Hannigan as he sits at a bar one evening. He drinks a toast to five people and tells the story of his life. It is one of those Irish novels which makes your emotions tingle and say ‘yes, it is like that’, which makes tears prick your eyes and laughter rise in your chest. This is Griffin’s debut novel but she is an accomplished prizewinning writer who knows how to tell a story. It is unbearingly touching and will, without fail, make you cry.

Maurice is in the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel in Rainsford, Co Meath, Ireland. At the beginning we don’t know why he is there, the first few pages are an introduction to Maurice, how he feels his age, as he conducts an imaginary conversation with his son Kevin who lives in America. His first drink is a bottle of stout and as he drinks, he tells the story of his brother Tony and their childhood. A key incident in this section has reverberations throughout Maurice’s life and throughout this novel; a gentle reminder that we all may grow old, we may live in the same place or move away, but our childhood and our actions stay with us. We are introduced to Emily, owner of the hotel, and Svetlana, barmaid. Griffin has a talent with sense of place; she makes the hotel come alive.

Four more drinks follow. For Molly, a glass of Bushmills 21-year old malt. For Noreen, a bottle of stout. For Kevin, a rare whiskey, Jefferson’s Presidential Select. And for his wife Sadie, Maurice drinks a glass of Midleton whiskey. “Svetlana places my final drink down in front of me: Midleton, you can’t fault it. Majestic stuff. I look at it like she has just handed me the keys to a new harvester. It’s the autumn colours that get me. It’s the earth of it, the trees, the leaves, the late evening sky.”

As each story is told, Anne Griffin weaves in the present day so the two strands blend and the past explains Maurice’s situation, why he feels as he does, why he longs for what he longs for. This is a beautiful Irish novel about love, dyslexia, grumpiness, family, bullying, forgiveness and whiskey. I loved it and didn’t want it to end.
Read more at Anne Griffin’s website.

If you like this, try:-
A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne
Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín 
That They May Face the Rising Sun’ by John McGahern

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
WHEN ALL IS SAID by @AnneGriffin_ #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Qg via @SandraDanby

Book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

John BoyneFrom the first sentence I was entranced. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne starts with such an opening sentence, full of conflict, hypocrisy, resentment and hope, it made me want to gobble up the pages and not put the book down. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is the life story of one man, Cyril Avery, but also of a country and its attitudes to sexuality. The story starts in Goleen, Ireland, in 1945; a country riven by loyalty to, and hatred of, the British, at the same time in thrall to its Catholic priests whose rules were hypocritical, illogical and cruel. Cyril narrates his story, starting with how his 16-year old mother was denounced in church by the family priest for being single and pregnant. She was thrown out of church and village by the priest and disowned by her family. On the train to Dublin she meets a teenager, Sean, also heading for the big city. Wanting to help someone so obviously alone, Sean offers to let Catherine stay at his digs until she finds lodging and a job. These first friends she make are some of the most important in her life, and re-appear at important times also in Cyril’s life. Catherine gives birth and, as she carefully arranged, her baby is taken by a nun and placed with a waiting adoptive family. We the readers therefore know the identity and story of Cyril’s birth mother from page one; he doesn’t. As he grows from quiet boy to quiet teenager, falling in love at the age of seven with Julian, Cyril begins to lead a life of lies and shame forced on him by Ireland’s attitude to homosexuality and his inability to be true to himself. Cyril negotiates the first 30 years of his life, trapped between lying in order to stay safe or being truthful and getting arrested. Then he finds himself at the marriage altar. What happens next changes his life in so many ways, ways in which don’t become fully apparent until the last third of the novel.

This could be a depressing novel. It isn’t. It is charming and funny, but can turn on a sixpence and make you gasp with anger, despair or sadness. The characterisation is masterful. I particularly enjoyed Cyril’s adoptive mother Maude Avery, a chain-smoking novelist who detests the growing popularity of her books; his adoptive father Charles Avery who starts off being an awful snob with a talent for unintentional insults; and Mrs Goggin, who runs the tearoom at the Irish parliament with a rod of iron.

I loved this book. Honest, sad, laugh-out-loud funny, touching, with paragraphs I just had to read out aloud to my husband. It is about being true to yourself, the need for honesty in relationships, and the power of love. My favourite book of the year so far.

Read my reviews of Stay Where You Are & Then Leave and A History of Loneliness by John Boyne.

If you like this, try:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith
‘Tipping the Velvet’ by Sarah Waters

‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne [UK: Black Swan]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by @john_boyne #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3iJ via @SandraDanby







Book review: Himself

Jess KiddI loved this book from the first page. It defies pigeonholing: at once a literary crime thriller, a fond comic tale of an Irish village, an investigation of long-buried secrets of murder and illegitimacy. Jess Kidd is a refreshing new voice, I don’t remember enjoying a debut novel this much since Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites though the two books are completely different.

In 1976 Mahony walks into the village of Mulderrig, seeking the truth of his birth twenty-six years earlier. From the forest around the village, and the houses within it, the dead walk out to greet him. They are a silent cast throughout the book, do they hold the answer to the mystery?

Kidd has created a village which feels alive, filled by a cast of characters so clearly drawn, and which swirls between the horrific beating of a nurse, downright nastiness, belly laughs and hallucinogenic drugs. The cast includes a pinched, controlling priest; a wizened old actress who organizes the village play from her wheelchair; a bogeyman who reputedly lives in the forest; and a pub landlord who tries to court the Widow Farelly, a nurse who has the sourest disposition visible to everyone except him. Mahony grew up in a Dublin orphanage, knowing only that he was left there as a baby with a letter marked ‘For when the child is grown’. What he reads in this letter sends him to Mulderrig to find out what happened to his mother, Orla, in 1950.

Did she disappear, running away to a better life, as most of the villagers tell him; or was she murdered? And why was she so hated by her neighbours?

As Mahony, Bridget Doosey, Shauna Burke and the indefatigable Mrs Cauley investigate his origins, the true nastiness of the village emerges.

If you like ‘Himself’, try these other Irish authors:-
‘A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne
‘Ghost Moth’ by Michele Forbes
‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power
‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd [UK: Canongate] Buy at Amazon

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A book which defies pigeonholing: HIMSELF by @JessKiddHerself #bookreview via @SandraDanby

Book review: Somewhere Inside of Happy

Anna McPartlinYet again, Irish author Anna McPartlin tackles difficult issues. Grief – as in the superb The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes – dementia and homophobia. And there is laughter and tears. It is a thoughtful book with strongly drawn characters, Irish humour and a fair amount of ripe language. It is the story of Maisie Bean, a single mother who has fought bravely to escape a violent husband and raise her two children, Jeremy and Valerie. The story starts, on January 1, 1995, when Jeremy disappears.

Ever since his mother found the strength to leave her abusive husband, Jeremy has been the man of the family. He has been responsible, thoughtful, helpful, caring for his grandmother Bridie who suffers from dementia, keeping an eye on his younger sister Valerie. In doing so he has repressed who he is because he doesn’t really understand who he is, all he knows is that he is different.

Somewhere Inside of Happy is an examination of generalisations, assumptions and misunderstandings, how the crowd dynamic and a troublesome media can turn a whisper into fact. How a community looks the other way whilst a drug-addict father neglects his son and how gays are referred to as ‘queer’ and worse. The mirror held up to society is not a pretty one. It is a reminder to us all to be more respectful of others, to stop ourselves being unfair and condemnatory about things we do not understand. The setting is Ireland in the Nineties, not that long ago. The title of the book is actually a place within Jeremy, to where he retreats, curled up, when the outside world gets too much.

If I have one criticism, it is the Prologue set twenty years after the main story. It tells us so many things I would expect to discover through reading the book.

My favourite character? Bridie. She is drawn with such affection, a ‘game old bird’ dancing with her sixteen-year-old grandson.

Read more about Anna McPartlin’s other books at her website.
Read my review of The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.

If you like this, try these other novels set in Ireland:-
‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien
‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín
‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power

‘Somewhere Inside of Happy’ by Anna McPartlin [UK: Black Swan] Buy here

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Love + ignorance: SOMEWHERE INSIDE OF HAPPY by @annamcpartlin http://wp.me/p5gEM4-21A #bookreview by @SandraDanby

My ‘Porridge & Cream’ read: Shelley Weiner

Today I am pleased to welcome novelist, Shelley Weiner who will share her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read.

“Tiring of a well-worn book is like outgrowing a friendship, or a fashion statement, or a taste for cheap confectionary – depressing but, sadly, a fact of life. We change, our tastes change, the priorities that seemed so immutable ten years ago can alter or become irrelevant And so, having scoured my bookshelves to find a ‘Porridge & Cream’ read, I had to conclude that the old faithfuls by the authors I chose (sorry Carol Shields, apologies Jane Smiley …) no longer moved me.

Shelley WeinerI might have darted back to Dickens, to Austen, to Tolstoy, for classics of that calibre are beyond fatigue. Instead I consoled myself with a movie – the excellent screen adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn – and a large tub of popcorn. And as I sat in the darkness imbibing salty kernels and Irish angst, I recalled the spare beauty of Tóibín’s prose and resolved to return to the novel.

Which I did.

And – relief upon relief – it’s as I remembered it; as simple and quiet and engrossing as when I devoured it on publication eight years ago. It’s the kind of writing I identify with and aspire towards, confirming for me the power of understatement.

Brooklyn focuses on young Eilis, who ventures from the limitations of small-town Ireland to the strangeness and dislocation of New York. It’s a story of immigration, a rite of passage tale that reminds me how the deepest and most important universal truths can resonate through discipline and restraint. Tóibín has the rare ability to disappear into the heart and mind of his character; his lack of authorial ego means that no point does the reader stop to admire his turn of phrase or philosophical astuteness. We’re with Eilis entirely – feeling for her, laughing and crying with her, identifying in the most profound way with her plight. Tóibín revisits the same small-town community in the excellent Nora Webster – a more recent and slightly darker work, satisfyingly alluded to in Brooklyn.”

About ‘A Sister’s Tale’ by Shelley Weiner [Constable]
Shelley WeinerMia is dumpy, earthy and responsible, while her sister Gabriella is flighty and spoilt – a prima donna. Middle aged, their lives in a mess, they find themselves alone together in a parched Israeli town. Is it the promised land or a last resort? As the sisters wait together in the sultry heat for something, anything, to happen, they watch each other and remember. They think back to their isolated Jewish childhood in London; the devastation of their father’s sudden death; their mother languishing hopelessly in bed. They conjure up Mia’s Irish Catholic romantic lover, father of her child; and Gabriella’s well-heeled and ‘suitable’ husband. Meanwhile, at the entrance to their flat, an unexpected visitor arrives in time for a fish supper. A Sisters’ Tale is a wicked yet poignant story about the complex and powerful bond between sisters.

Shelley Weiner’s Bio
Shelley Weiner’s novels include A Sisters’ Tale, The Last Honeymoon, The Joker, Arnost, and The Audacious Mendacity of Lily Green.
Her 60-minute guides to writing fiction are published by The Guardian. She is a regular tutor for the Faber Academy and trusted mentor on the Gold Dust Mentoring Scheme. She has presented workshops for Guardian Masterclasses, Norwich Writers Centre, and the Cheltenham Literary Festival. A former Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, Shelley has also taught fiction for – among others – Birkbeck College, Anglia Ruskin University, the Open University, the British Council, and Durham University Summer School.

Shelley Weiner’s links



What is a ‘Porridge & Cream’ book? It’s the book you turn to when you need a familiar read, when you are tired, ill, or out-of-sorts, where you know the story and love it. Where reading it is like slipping on your oldest, scruffiest slippers after walking for miles. Where does the name ‘Porridge & Cream’ come from? Cat Deerborn is a character in Susan Hill’s ‘Simon Serrailler’ detective series. Cat is a hard-worked GP, a widow with two children and she struggles from day-to-day. One night, after a particularly difficult day, she needs something familiar to read. From her bookshelf she selects ‘Love in A Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford. Do you have a favourite read which you return to again and again? If so, please send me a message via the contact form here.


Discover the ‘Porridge & Cream’ books of these authors:-
Jane Cable
JG Harlond
Jane Lambert

Shelley Weiner


‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín [UK: Penguin]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Why does author @shelleyweiner love BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin? via @SandraDanby #books http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1QZ

Book review: The Betrayal

Laura ElliotThis book by Laura Elliot didn’t really get going for me until the last few chapters, which I didn’t expect when it is billed as a ‘gripping novel of psychological suspense’. A case I think of a publisher trying to catch the coat tails of The Girl on the Train. I would describe it more as a family drama. That aside, this is a well-written study of a teenage relationship which, when it falters and is left to fester into adulthood, can mess up a whole family.

This is an examination of the marriage breakdown between two empty-nesters, Jake and Nadine, who are then messed around by Karin, the ex-friend from hell. Yes, there is a stalker. Yes, there are accidents and co-incidences. There are some colourful sections to Jake and Nadine’s viewpoints which I enjoyed reading – the band Shard, Alaska, the container village – but these seemed like diversions when I spent a long time waiting to find out what the actual betrayal was. Perhaps an insight into Karen’s mind would have helped to balance Jake and Nadine’s story.

A small aside, sadly I had another issue: for a traditionally-published book, my Kindle version was littered with grammatical errors.

Click here to read my review of Stolen Child by Laura Elliot.

If you like this, try:-
The Accident by CL Taylor
Butterfly Barn by Karen Power
‘The House at the Edge of the World’ by Julia Rochester

‘The Betrayal’ by Laura Elliot [UK: Bookouture] Buy now

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THE BETRAYAL by @Elliot_Laura #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1K1

Book review: Nora Webster

nora webster by colm toibin 11-9-14This novel is such a slow burn. I came to it after reading a thriller, so perhaps that’s why the pace seemed so slow. And then I took a deep breathe and let myself sink into the deep pool of the story. Reading this book was a little like listening to my mother tell the story of her life, tiny baby steps. The everyday voice of Nora, a kind of everywoman, is so clear. An ordinary woman, she is grieving for her husband Maurice and living in a world of echoes. This is a novel about grief, living with grief, and the slow re-awakening of life. Tiny baby steps.

Nora cannot indulge her grief. For one thing, money is short and her two young sons must be cared for. Her two daughters too, though older, need their mother although they don’t think they do. Nora struggles to get through her own day in which every minute is shadowed by her loss, but life gets in the way, decisions must be made. Day to day she does the best she can, trying to get the everyday detail right but not seeing how her sons’ grief is manifesting itself. Instead she worries about paying the bills and avoiding people in the street who want to pay their respects. Colm Tóibín [below] has created a timeless rural Ireland where everyone knows everyone else from childhood, where the etiquette of grief is followed, where it is difficult to have secrets.

[photo: theguardian.com]

[photo: theguardian.com]

As readers we experience all of this in Nora’s own mind, we are inside her head: this is Tóibín’s real skill. It would be easy to say this is a book about the grief of an Irish woman, and not much else. And to be fair, there is not a lot of action in the first half of the book. Then, unable to say ‘no’ to an invitation as it would be impolite, Nora starts to sing. And that is the first baby step of her re-awakening.

At the beginning, I wondered if I would finish it. When I finished it, I wanted to start reading it again.

For Colm Tóibín’s website, click here.
Why does Colm Tóibín love listening to the radio? Click here to read an interview with The Telegraph.
‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín [UK: Viking]

Great opening paragraph 32… ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ #write

John McGahern“The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.”
‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ by John McGahern

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon
‘The Fortunes of War’ by Olivia Manning
‘The Impressionist’ by Hari Kunzru

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A 1st para which makes me want to read more: THAT THEY MAY FACE THE RISING SUN by John McGahern #books https://wp.me/p5gEM4-mo via @SandraDanby