Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2008

Mystery

Declan Hughes offers another look at modern Dublin’s dark side in his latest suspense novel The Price of Blood.  Private eye Ed Loy is down on his luck and broke, so he has no choice but to take what seems to be an unsolvable missing persons case. All he’s got to go on is “Father Vincent Tyrell,” a priest who’s been reported missing by his brother F.X., a prominent racehorse trainer. A bit of luck not only puts Loy on Father Vincent’s trail, but also might very well implicate other members of the Tyrell family. As with Hughes’ first Ed Loy book The Wrong Kind of Blood, The Price of Blood is a fine page-turner, which provides a revealing look at the underside of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
($24.95 / 320 pages / William Morrow)

It is easily one of the most curious developments in the Irish literary scene that John Banville – arguably the most interesting contemporary novelist with a literary/intellectual flavor – has donned the pseudonym Benjamin Black and churned out three suspense novels. Following Christine Falls and The Lemur, Banville/ Black now offers up The Silver Swan. If Declan Hughes suggests that Dublin has a dark side today, Benjamin Black suggests the very same was true 50 years ago.  Black’s protagonist Garret Quirke, a pathologist, is asked by an old friend not to perform an autopsy on the body of his wife, Deirdre, the victim of an apparent suicide. Of course, this would not be much of a mystery if Quirke actually listened to his old pal, so Black goes back in time, bringing Deirdre to life, and revealing an underground system of blackmail and deception so vast it threatens Quirke’s own family.
For better or worse, there is not much of Banville the intellectual novelist in the Benjamin Black books. But they offer memorable characters, as well as (in the case of The Silver Swan) a fascinating exploration of Ireland in the 1950s.
($25 / 304 pages / Henry Holt)

Fiction

David Park’s novel The Truth Commissioner could have been a bland Orwellian satire, in which matters of justice and retribution are taken out of the hands of soldiers and victims and become the work of robotic bureaucrats.
Instead, Park has taken a fascinating premise – the creation of a truth commission to bring closure to the people of Northern Ireland – and has chosen to focus less on the closure and more on the people. This is the right choice, as he proves in The Truth Commissioner, an engrossing read which tells us more about the personal, rather than political, cost of The Troubles.
At the center of Park’s novel is a teenaged Catholic boy who disappeared from the North over a decade ago. This development links two ex-IRA men and the Englishman (with some Irish roots) who is presiding over the North’s Truth Commission.  Of particular interest is the former IRA soldier who is drawn back into the Troubles after he has relocated to Florida, where all he wants to do is marry his pregnant girlfriend. Park pulls off a very difficult achievement with this novel. He offers something fresh, new and interesting about the Troubles.
($25.95 / 372 pages / Bloomsbury)

The premise of Cláir Ní Aonghusa’s new novel Civil and Strange is a little shaky. Ellen, a married woman pushing 40, finally escapes from a loveless marriage in Dublin and retreats to the picturesque village where she spent lovely days in her youth. Go figure – Ellen just might find love again. You might want to call this “How Ellen Got Her Groove Back.”
But overall Aonghusa makes this work, thanks in large part to the book’s second most important character, Ellen’s Uncle Matt, who himself knows a thing or two about unhappy marriage, but also dispenses undeniably sage advice about life and love.
Aonghusa has written poems and short stories – Civil and Strange is her first novel.
($24 / 320 pages / Houghton Mifflin)

Poetry

Formerly the editor of the Galway
literary magazine The Burning Bush, Michael S. Begnal is an accomplished poet, whose new collection Ancestor Worship has just been published. Though American-born, Begnal mingles the Irish and English languages in his work, which reflects on ancient history as well as pop culture. Take, for example, this sample from the title poem, which recalls Frank O’Hara: “It’s like when Lennon laid / his New York album on you, / and appeared in pictures / in his new image– / Revolutionary, / sudden Irishman, / Manhattanite.” Begnal’s poems are filled with similar humor and the joys and anxieties of living in the shadow of those who came before us.
(12.00 euros, 80 pages
www.salmonpoetry.com)

Non-Fiction

Wartime heroism is often a deserved celebration of those who have displayed bravery in the face of danger. There is another kid of war hero however who is usually a symbol more or less created by the public and the media so that the trauma of war becomes slightly more tolerable.  This is not a new phenomenon, as an excellent new history book notes.  Drummer Boy Willie McGee, Civil War Hero and Fraud, by Thomas Fox, tells the story of the boy who gives this book its title, and is credited, at the tender ago of 15, with capturing several hundred rebel prisoners during a key battle in Tennessee.
At just 15, Willie McGee, an Irish kid from Newark, New Jersey, became a public sensation. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, then joined the army three years later, only to, more or less, disappear from history.  Fox fills in the blanks, which include an intricate web of lies, murder, bigamy and a New York bartender who may or not be the famous drummer boy. This is an Irish-American story that has gone unexplored for far too long.
($35 / 267 pages / McFarland)

Acclaimed historian R.F. Foster’s latest book, Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970, is now available in the U.S.
Considered one of the foremost interpreters of Ireland’s recent past, Foster has also written a celebrated biography of W.B. Yeats. In this latest book, Foster attempts to explain how the foundation for the Celtic Tiger Ireland of the 1990s was laid. He argues that politics, economics, religion and, yes, a dash of luck turned one of the most sluggish economies in Europe into one of the most miraculous.
As we all try to make sense of the massive changes which have taken place in Ireland over the past two decades – from the fall of the church and the end of the Troubles, to the new immigration and the downside of all of that available money – R.F. Foster is probably the place to start.
($29.95 / 228 pages /
Oxford University Press)

For a less weighty, more colorful look at Irish life, pick up Ireland Memories by Patricia Tunison Preston (with art work by Nora Keane). In this sort of catch-all gift book, watercolors of famous Irish scenes stand alongside recipes, travel recommendations, poetic descriptions and more.
($14.99 / 90 pages / Destinations Press)

Memoir

When Bill Watkins’ first memoir A Celtic Childhood was released almost a decade ago, the world was awash in Frank McCourt-mania, so Watkins’ book might have slipped under the radar,  dismissed as “just another Irish memoir.”
But Watkins’ book, about growing up in England and Ireland with a Welsh father and Irish mother, was infused with humor and poignancy. He has now written another memoir, entitled The Once and Future Celt, which recounts time Bill spent in his early 20s with Romany Gypsies (including his efforts to woo a forbidden girl), as well as his efforts to find employment in Birmingham, England, and his father’s decision to offer up some juicy family secrets.  Watkins is among the best of many people these days who are exploring the nature of Celtic – as opposed to strictly Irish – identity.
($16.95 / 344 pages / Scarletta Press)

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