Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2007

Fiction

In books such as The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, Patrick McCabe has displayed a great interest in the macabre. McCabe’s latest, Winterwood, could be his darkest work yet, with a strong dose of Stephen King tossed into McCabe’s reliably strange brew.

Once happily married, Redmond Hatch can only stand by as his family crumbles before his eyes. So distraught is Redmond that he fakes his own death and assumes another identity, only to be made more miserable by the (apparent) suicide of a local oddball with whom he was acquainted.

Redmond begins stalking his family, before he descends into complete madness and (apparently) commits a horrible crime.
If McCabe’s plot seems straight out of a B horror movie, the way he unspools this story is a bit more complicated. The chronology is jumbled, even confusing, creating an impressionistic effect, one which seems to mirror Redmond’s befogged mind.
Winterwood is not for everyone, but then again, you could say that about McCabe’s entire body of challenging work.
($23.95 / 242 pages / Bloomsbury USA)

John Banville’s heady books have garnered a small but dedicated audience. This time around, Banville has written a mystery novel under the pen name Benjamin Black (see interview with the author on pages 62-63). Entitled Christine Falls, the book begins with Garret Quirke, a pathologist from a prominent family who stumbles upon a murder conspiracy in 1950s Dublin. Though he’s using a pseudonym, Christine Falls is classic Banville.

The prose is lush and poetic, and the pacing is excellent, as the book moves from Ireland to the U.S. (Banville fans will recall that several of his earlier literary novels such as The Book of Evidence had many elements of crime or detective stories.)

As the conspiracy unfolds, Catholic officials as well as members of Quirke’s own family seem to be implicated. This is reportedly the first in a Quirke series from Banville. Let’s also hope Banville does not abandon challenging fiction such as Shroud and The Sea, the
latter of which won the Man Booker Prize last year.
($25 / 352 pages / Henry Holt)

NONFiction

Arcadia Publishing has filled an important niche by producing intensely local and unabashedly nostalgic books about American towns and cities. Its latest release, Irish Seattle explores a topic that surely would not have been covered otherwise.

Loaded with over 200 photos, the book  informs readers that Judge Thomas Burke, referred to as “The Man Who Built Seattle,” was the son of Irish immigrants, as was Washington State’s second governor, John Harte McGraw. The fourth mayor of Seattle, John Collins, was himself an immigrant.

Irish Seattle was assembled by John F. Keane, who left Ireland for the U.S. West Coast in 1967. He settled in the Seattle area and has been active in the area’s Irish scene ever since.
($19.99 / 128 pages / Arcadia Publishing)

One of America’s most insightful academics, John Patrick Diggins, has written two books recently about towering figures in Irish-American history: Ronald Reagan and Eugene O’Neill.

Diggins, whose parents came from Cork and Kerry, is the author of numerous books, including On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History as well as The Proud Decade: America in War and in Peace, 1941-1960.

Late last year he published Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History. Like Diggins, the future president was also of Irish descent. “Reagan’s father, John Edward Reagan, known as Jack, was of Irish ancestry, with roots in County Tipperary, a peasant land that had been devastated by the potato famine of the 1840s,” writes Diggins, who adds that Reagan’s father was a “practicing Catholic.” Jack, however, was eventually baptized into his wife’s Protestant church.

Diggins argues that Reagan – a Republican who was tremendously popular with many Irish Catholics who had been loyal Democrats for generations – was much more sophisticated than many of his critics believe.
($27.95 / 512 pages / Norton)

Up next for Diggins is a book about the greatest American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who exorcised his own Irish Catholic demons in plays such as Long Day’s Journey into Night and Moon for the Misbegotten. Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire Under Democracy is due out in May.
($29 / 288 pages / University of Chicago Press)

Mystery- thriller

Three beloved Irish sleuths are back. First there’s Jack Taylor, Ken Bruen’s brooding protagonist. Bruen’s latest thriller is called Priest, in which the Galway investigator is still battling his inner demons (alcoholism and dementia) while also trying to solve a gruesome crime centered around an abusive priest. ($23.95 / 304 pages / St. Martin’s Minotaur).

Adrian McKinty wraps up his Michael Forsythe trilogy with The Bloomsday Dead. Forsythe, on the run again, finds himself in Peru, where he is picked up by men working for his former lover. Either Forsythe goes on a mission to Belfast for his old flame Bridget Callaghan, or he dies.

Set in McKinty’s native Northern Ireland, as well as Dublin during the annual June 16 Joyce hysteria, Forsythe uncovers a kidnapping scheme hatched by an IRA fringe group.

Never afraid to ratchet up the violence and chaos, The Bloomsday Dead will not disappoint fans of McKinty’s earlier two books The Dead Yard (2006) and Dead I Well May Be (2003). ($24 / 304 pages / Scribner).

Finally, Rhys Bowen’s sixth Molly Murphy book is out. Not as dark as McKinty or Bruen, In Dublin’s Fair City is nevertheless another satisfying, historically informative read. Set at the turn of the 20th century, Bowen’s latest effort follows Molly as she leaves New York City and returns to Ireland to take on a case involving a girl who fled Ireland during the Famine and disappeared. Even before Molly gets to Ireland, she discovers a dead body on the trip over and the game is afoot. Things only grow more complicated when a stash of weapons is discovered in a suitcase. Suddenly Molly finds herself in the middle of a murder as well as the Irish war for independence from Britain.
($23.95 / 265 pages / St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Young Adult

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson is a charming fantasy which raises a question many people have pondered: Where does the time go?

In Thompson’s story, J.J. Liddy is a 15 year-old from a family of musicians. But life in the village of Kinvara has gotten busier and no one seems to have time to play or listen to music. When J.J.’s mother kiddingly wonders if, for her birthday, she could receive the gift of more time in the day, she sets this tale in motion. J.J. actually begins to look for lost time. Naturally, he finds his way to Tir na nOg, the land of eternal youth, where he learns something about his family as well as the town’s new policeman.

Blending real life with mythology, Thompson has come up with an enchanting winner, which also includes a glossary for those unfamiliar with some of the Irish terms in the book.
($16.99 / 442 pages / Greenwillow)

Memoir

John Lanchester was born in Germany, grew up in Asia and went to school in England. To top it all off, his mother, who was once a nun, was born in Ireland.

Needless to say, questions of cultural identity are at the center of Lanchester’s absorbing book Family Romance: A Love Story.
Part of what drives the narrative in Family Romance is that Lanchester’s mother has secrets she hid from the family. Among other things she assumed a false identity and lied about her age to her husband.

The author of novels such as Fragrant Harbor, Lanchester knows he’s got a fascinating story to tell, so he allows the details to unfold with skill and economy.
($27.95 / 384 pages / Putnam)

A new edition of Maura O’Halloran’s popular book Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Monk has just been released.

O’Halloran left Boston (her dad Fionan Finbarr was an immigrant from Kerry) and began studying Zen in Japan. By the age of 27, in 1982, she was recognized as a Zen Master – then died in a bus accident just months later. This new edition includes letters and other writings from O’Halloran, as well as an Introduction by her mother and an Afterword about O’Halloran’s influence.
($17.95 / 352 pages / Wisdom Publications)

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