I have turned a corner. A couple of months ago, I packed up three bankers’ boxes of books to give away. This is the first time I have ever given away books. It took a lot out of me but, like everything, it’s easier when you get started. The longest journey starts with a single step etc. But after all this pain, why are my bookshelves still groaning with books? Why are they still tottering in piles on the floor? A mystery.
It’s been absolutely ages since I posted on books I have read, so prepare yourself.
The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes
This is set in Dublin at the the start of the 1800s. It’s a detective story involving, yeah, you guessed it, the coroner’s daughter. A friend of mine was driven crazy by the anachronisms but I didn’t mind that and quite enjoyed the locations in Dublin which I know very well. Overall, not too bad but not sure I would read another.
A Menmoir: This Is Not About You by Rosemary McCabe
I bought this because I am a devotee of the podcast “Not Without My Sister” which the author hosts with her sister. It’s about all her past boyfriends. It’s pretty detailed and sad and funny in places and I think she’s a really good writer but overall it’s a bit depressing. It is dedicated “[t]o my mum, who will hate this”. She definitely will.
The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman
The author is the brother of Richard and also the guitarist in Suede. To be fair, my fears that he would not be able to write and that the book was published based on his celebrity alone were unfounded. This is about a theatre troop in Shakespearean times with a fantasy element blended in. A lot of research I am sure. I did not enjoy it; the plot dragged and I was unconvinced by the twist.
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
I like Joan Aiken, I like children’s books but this is a book for very young children, say, 6-9 and, if I had my time over it would not be one of the books I brought to read in Argentina last summer. Certainly, as we were all supposed to be sharing books, this cannot be described as one of the better choices. That said, if you have a 6-9 year old on your hands, this is strongly recommended.
Bad times In Buenos Aires by Miranda France
I read this on the flight home from Argentina I think (it’s all a blur). It’s an interesting book from the 1990s (a bit of its time) containing the author’s collected reflections on Argentina. I learned a lot from it and would recommend if you plan to visit BA; otherwise I’m not so sure.
Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin
I remember this being a big hit when it came out. The idea is that the author – an anthropologist by training – looks at the habits of her Park Avenue friends and neighbours from an anthropological perspective. Clever idea but ultimately a bit unconvincing. Funny in parts.
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
I bought three copies of this by accident ( I don’t want to talk about it) and I felt that I had better read one of them. It’s set in Northern Ireland in the 70s at the height of the Troubles and I approached it with very low levels of enthusiasm despite its rave reviews. It is a bit traumatising but it is excellent. Highly recommended. I’ve given away two of my copies all the same, thanks for asking.
Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia by Hadley Freeman
This is written by a journalist and, while I wouldn’t always call that a mark of quality, in my experience these books are pretty easy to read even when the subject matter is difficult, as here. I found this interesting. The author tries to draw from her particular experience of anorexia to some general conclusions. This is an illness relating to control and its her view that the fashion magazines of her day and instagram and tiktok images of today don’t make people anorexic but they don’t help much if you are anorexic. Her mother sounds like a saint. Worth a read, if you’re interested in this kind of thing.
Wavewalker by Suzanne Heywood
I really enjoyed this book about a 6 year old girl (the author) whose parents take her and her 4 year old brother on a round the world sailing trip. It sounds exciting but they end up staying at sea for 10 years and it is actually quite nightmarish. She describes it as “being trapped inside someone else’s dream”.
I was in Enniskerry in North Wicklow and buying some cushion covers made by this very talented woman (recommended if you’re in the market for napkins, cushion covers etc.). I commented to Mr. Waffle that they used to be ludicrously cheap but she had clearly got some advice and now although, still good value, they were no longer the absolute steal that they used to be. A woman tapped me gently on the arm and said, “I’m the artist”. I mean, is this exactly what I would have said had I known she was there? No. Could it have been worse? Yes. Anyhow we got chatting and it turned out that she had been in college with the Wavewalker woman (I bet you were wondering where this was going). She was annoyingly discreet about what Ms. Wavewalker was like but she too had read the book and was amazed that this innocuous seeming fellow student had had quite such a surprising back story. Small world and all that.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
This is about Jesuits in space. It’s terrible. Rosemary McCabe (podcaster and memoirist mentioned above) recommended it. I do not.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Only alright I thought. I’ve definitely read better by this author. It’s a novel about a family with a farm in the pandemic – those pandemic novels are definitely starting to appear now – and their relationships. The mother tells the children the story of her past as an actress and her relationship at a summer reperatory with an actor who becomes famous.
Poor by Katriona O’Sullivan
I thought this was very good. I picked it up at the 10 day loan section of the local library which is always a bit stressful for me. It’s full of enticing best selling books but I rarely manage to turn them around within the ten day timeline but I didn’t have any difficulty with this one. It’s about what it’s like to be poor and it’s absolutely grim. Despite all the awful things she describes the thing that really brought home to me the neglect she had suffered was that she didn’t start brushing her teeth until she was in her 20s. No one had ever bothered to show her how. Honestly, not a misery lit fan but this is worth a read.
Hags: The Demonisation of Middle Aged Women by Victoria Smith
I tell you what, when you look like me, this is a hard one to ask for in the bookshop. It’s grand, I wouldn’t say that I learned anything particularly startling that I didn’t know before. Still, I liked her analysis of how each generation of young women think they will do better than the generation before because that earlier generation was flawed in some way (too conservative, too angry, whatever you’re having yourself) but this generation it will be different.
Everything’s fine by Cecilia Rabess
A clever romance novel about a black woman and a white man working in finance. A bit forgettable but very enjoyable.
Normal rules don’t apply by Kate Atkinson
I am a huge Kate Atkinson fan but I do not love her short stories. I didn’t love this. Very, very clever and meta but sometimes it just felt like she was getting all the ideas from her extraordinarily creative brain down on paper without any additional material. That said, I did love a couple of the stories and overall it made me think a lot about the writing process.
A Lesson in Malice by Catherine Kirwan
This is a detective story set in Cork. I recognise every inch described in this novel. I loved it. However, not sure about the detective mystery which is, presumably, the draw for non-Cork devotees.
The Long Drop by Denise Minna
This is a really well written story. It’s based on a notorious true story about a Scottish serial killer. I am told that good crime writing often boasts a great sense of place; certainly if you knew Glasgow, you would find this novel fascinating but even if you didn’t (like me) you would still get a sense of what it was like before the slum clearances. Really good but not for the faint of heart.
So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan
This isn’t even a novella, it’s a short story. As always with Claire Keegan’s work, it’s beautifully written, thought provoking and sad.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
This was a Christmas read but what a disappointment on that front. Christmas is only mentioned in the most peripheral way. However, grand standard Agatha Christie fare, if that’s what you’re after.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
This took me the guts of nine months to read. It’s an exceptionally famous, widely read book about town planning. It’s always being quoted in the newspapers and even though it’s more than 50 years old, it is still relevant today. It is dense, however, and feels a lot more like work than play but worth reading for the insights.
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
This description of Ireland descending into totalitarianism and war won the Booker. I did not love it. I found the language irritating. Innocent nouns could not travel unmolested through the text. Our heroine, for example, “sleeved” her coat and “toed” her shoe. Very distracting and annoying. That said, I did find something compelling in the story of terrible things happening in a familiar setting.
Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Elizabeth Jane Howard is so good. This book is charming and funny and sad and also very well written. It’s about complex upper-middle class family dynamics and, unusually, for her work, all’s well that ends well in some respects though shattering tragedy is the main player which is much more common I have to concede.
The Shadow Cabinet by Juno Dawson
I saw this recommended somewhere. It’s young adult fiction. Witches are real. Only alright I thought. All the same, have I ordered another volume from the library? Yes, I have.
The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith
About 1,000 pages. Much too long. I read it while I was sick in bed and mildly hallucinating. I would not recommend this frame of mind for a book about cults. Still, I really enjoyed it and will dutifully buy the next Cormoran Strike detective novel when it appears.
Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution by Ellen McWilliams
This is a most peculiar book. It’s about the West Cork massacre. Sort of. The author is an academic who is from mid-West Cork, went to college in Cork and then moved to England where she has lived since. It’s about her emotional response to the fact that her neighbours were murdered by other neighbours during the Civil War almost certainly with a strong sectarian element to the killings. She is appalled and she seems to only discover it really in her 20s when she is in England and married to a lovely English man, a Cromwell scholar (she wrestles a lot with this too). The book is only very obliquely about the massacre and, honestly, if you knew nothing about it, you wouldn’t emerge very much better informed after reading this. It’s about her emotional connection to it and I thought it was pretty good if really, really odd. Mr. Waffle found it unreadable. Make of that what you will.
Love & Vermin: A Collection of Cartoons by Will McPhail
Funny cartoons. Here’s one I like.
The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue
This is set in Cork during the crash in 2009 and it’s about two friends who live in a small rented house on the north side of the city. I knew every place in Cork they talked about which I really enjoyed (this must be how New Yorkers feel all the time) and it is competently written but yet I did not love it. Fine, readable. Funnliy enough this is another author who like the west Cork woman basically finished her degree in Cork and made her life in England. Even thought the two books could not be more different, I felt there was a similar undertone to both. Maybe a slight preachiness or something I can’t quite put my finger on towards the people who didn’t leave.
Up Late by Nick Laird
I am not at all a big reader of contemporary poetry but this was recommended to me. It’s a collection of poetry and the centre piece is a long poem about the poet’s father’s death. I thought it was all pretty good and readable – not always a feature of modern poetry in my experience. Herself told me she was at a conference where the cosmopolitan moderator said something like “Of course none of us are religious but…” and he was interrupted by Nick Laird who was on the panel and said he went to service every Sunday. I really enjoyed this story and there is something very Northern Ireland about this which I enjoyed also. It made me feel that it might be worth giving his poetry a try. It was.
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
This was short listed for the Booker but didn’t win. Somebody described it to me as the shortlisted Irish book Irish people think should have won the Booker. Now, it’s 650 pages which is at least 300 pages too long in my view. It’s, like the Caroline O’Donoghue book, set in the post-2008 crash. It’s about a family in an unnamed midlands town. The father has the local car dealership which is going under as the crash hits it unmercifully. The book is told from the point of view of each of the characters in rotation: 18 year old girl, 13 year old boy, father and mother. In my view the 13 year old boy has by far the most successful parts of the book. I really enjoyed “Skippy Dies” by this author, and now I know why, it’s all about teenage boys. I didn’t think the other characters were at all as successful. For reasons best known to the author, the mother Imelda uses no punctuation. She’s supposed to be poor and poorly educated, I suppose, but that did not work for me. I mean, overall very readable and the author is a good writer but ultimately I did not love it and I absolutely hated the ending. Let me put it this way, the author is not interested in redemption for his characters.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
I hugely enjoyed this. I thought the characters were hilarious and the writing was excellent. I found the ending slightly unsatisfactory but overall it was one of the best books I have read in ages. It’s about a white girl who steals her dead Asian friend’s manuscript and what happens next. Great descriptions of social media pile ons. No one emerges unscathed and by the end you find yourself wondering whether every single person in the story is self-centred, selfish and, honestly, appalling. Truly recommended.