Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2008

Recommended

The Likeness by Tana French

Tana French made a surprise splash with critics and readers when her debut novel In the Woods was released last year.  Aside from spending weeks on numerous best-seller lists, In the Woods also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

In the Woods explored the murder of a girl in Dublin, which is where French grew up. (She also spent time in Italy, the U.S. and Malawi.) Now, French’s detective heroine Cassie Maddox is back with another densely plotted psychological thriller, The Likeness.

As The Likeness opens, Maddox is still trying to get her head straight, following the grim events which unfolded during In the Woods.

That’s not likely to happen since Maddox’s next murder case is lead by a detective she may or may not be falling in love with.  Furthermore, the victim is named Lexie Madison, the very name Maddox once used while working undercover.

Oh by the way, the victim also bears a striking resemblance to Cassie.

So, naturally, Cassie (after some convincing) assumes the identity of the victim, in an effort to draw the killer out of hiding.

The Likeness is one of those books which might strike some readers as highly imaginative – and others as excessively coincidental.  Either way, French is doing something right. The Likeness is already being shopped as a great vehicle for a Hollywood actress.

Whereas In the Woods had a sub-plot involving the construction of a major highway, which allowed French to explore the rapid pace of change in today’s Ireland, The Likeness is a bit more psychological, with Cassie becoming entangled in her dual identities, and police fearing the case will fall apart.

In the end, French absolutely delivers with this substantive thriller.  ($25.95 / 480 pages / Viking)

 

Fiction

Just in time for election season, Dermot McEvoy gives us a political novel which is as acidic and insightful as it is humorous.

Our Lady of Greenwich Village explores a heated New York City congressional race in which the Virgin Mary appears to have made herself available to a Republican Congresswoman.

Not surprisingly, the vision is exploited for political purposes, and the game is on – with tabloid columnists from The New York Daily News and The New York Post stoking the flames.

Meanwhile, in the name of theological bi-partisanship, a liberal spin-meister named Wolfe Tone O’Rourke also has a meeting of sorts with Jesus’ mother and decides to challenge the Republican.

Our Lady of Greenwich Village is a raucous read, with cameos by real-life politicians, as well as lots of characters who more than resemble past and president politicos.  This book should have a lot of New York and Washington insiders squirming, as they read closely.  McEvoy portrays the modern day Village as a bastion with a rich past yet still filled with rogues.  Anyone with an interest in the kind of big city political history they don’t write up in text books should read Our Lady of Greenwich Village. ($22.95 / 384 pages / Skyhorse)

Roseanne McNulty is about to turn 100 years old in a Roscommon Hospital when she decides to write her life story.

But in The Secret Scripture, a new novel by Sebastian Barry, Roseanne’s future is just as important as her past.  It turns out Roseanne’s hospital is about to close and doctors need to decide which patients can live on their own.

One doctor in particular begins to look into Roseanne’s past and discovers secrets – about her and himself.

Barry, whose past novels include A Long Long Way (a finalist for the 2005 Man Booker Prize) as well as The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne, is in top form again, though he does casts a particularly harsh eye on the role the Church played in 20th Century Ireland.  ( $24.95 / 300 pages /  Viking)

 

Young Adult Fiction

Eoin McNamee brings his cast of characters from The Navigator back for City of Time.  Cati, Owen and Dr. Diamond return and they have a daunting task: to stop what appears to be the world’s inevitable end.

As readers may recall, in The Navigator, the evil force known as the Harsh attempted to destroy time.  That is until Owen and the Resisters saved the day.

This time around, the moon seems to be moving perilously close to the earth, wreaking havoc on nature’s cycles.  So, McNamee’s team travels to the book’s titular city (where time is literally for sale) to see what they can do to ease fears.

McNamee, who lives in Sligo, is perhaps best known for his book Resurrection Man, set in Northern Ireland and later made into a movie starring Stuart Townsend.  This time around, in City of Time, the adventure is quite a bit more child-friendly, but no less imaginative.  ($16.99 / 336 pages / Random House Children’s)

 

Non Fiction

Ireland Since 1939: The Persistence of Conflict by Henry Patterson does a solid job of highlighting the events which laid the foundation for the far-reaching changes which took place in the 1990s and 2000s.  As Patterson’s title makes clear, change is far from recent in Ireland.

Currently a professor of politics at the University of Ulster, Patterson gives the infamous Troubles their due, but also sets a keen yet sober eye on other forces – both positive and negative – which have shaped the island of Ireland.  Patterson’s previous books include The Politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA. ($16 / 429 pages / Penguin )

In Finding Ireland: A Poet’s Exploration of Irish Literature and Culture, Richard Tillinghast explores how he came to be an Irish resident and how Irish culture has affected him as well as the nation’s famous literary canon.

The foundation he lays (about Ireland’s changes as well as Irish American myths about Ireland) are somewhat familiar, and Tillinghast’s forays into architecture and music feel a bit strained.

Finding Ireland is at its best when Tillinghast celebrates the likes of Yeats, as well as contemporary writers such as William Trevor and Brian Friel. ($25 / 272 pages / Notre Dame Press )

Alice Taylor’s 1988 memoir To School Through the Fields was an enormous success, celebrating rural Ireland, and the cycles of life that come with this seemingly simple, yet complicated existence.  The irony, of course, is that Taylor published this book just as Ireland was about to undergo rapid changes.

Fittingly, Taylor’s latest book, The Parish, explores how towns and rural sections of Ireland have survived (or in some cases, perished) in the face of recent changes.  Taylor still has a magnificent eye for touching details, and this book is particularly relevant because there is no more stark symbol of the changes which have taken place in Ireland then the fallen stature of the Catholic Church.  Yet Taylor manages to show how Catholic parish life survives, even flourishes, on faith and reverence, as well as the less-miraculous yet very necessary business of fund-raising.

Some will accuse Taylor of nostalgia, but readers – especially those who have personally been jarred by 21st Century Ireland – will take comfort in The Parish, and probably argue that Ireland should not rush blindly to leave the past behind.  ($33.95 / 221 pages / Brandon – Dufour)

The Irish experience in the southern U.S. has long been a neglected area of study, though that is changing.  Two new, though quite different, books explore the Irish south.

Mystery of the Irish Wilderness: Land and Legend of Father John Joseph Hogan’s Lost Irish Colony on the Ozark Wilderness (by Leland and Crystal Payton) is a fascinating look at a forgotten experiment led by a visionary Catholic priest who attempted to create a colony for refugees of the Irish Famine in the Ozark mountains of Missouri.  The Priest was John Joseph Hogan, from Limerick, and his plan was to give struggling Irish Catholics a foothold in America, even if they would have to live side-by-side with the Scotch Irish, with whom they often battled.  The land became known as the Irish Wilderness, and many of the Catholic Irish were displaced during the U.S. Civil War, never to return. Almost 100 years later, a land dispute brought this story back into the public eye and the Paytons are right to suggest this is an important chapter in the Irish American story.

“Many themes comes together in this story,” the authors explain. “Immigration, war, and the challenges of being Catholic in a fundamentally Protestant culture.” ($18.95 / 128 pages / Lens and Pen Press)

 

Memoir

Continuing the theme of the Irish in the south is the latest memoir from Rick Bragg, best known for It’s All Over but the Shoutin’.  Bragg – a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times writer – has now written The Prince of Frogtown, about the life and legacy of his father.

His father lived a hard, fatalistic life, yet Bragg makes it clear that these people also knew how to have a good time.  In part, these seeming contradictions can be explained by their Irish roots.

The Braggs, after all, descended from ancestors who, at night, “beat Irish drums, tooted tin whistles and plucked dulcimers as they danced across dirt floors, and sang in lilting, tragic voice of lost homes, lost love and lost wars,” as Bragg puts it. ($24 / 255 pages / Knopf)

With all due respect to great cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York, the Irish have settled and prospered in many other large American cities.  So, it’s great to come across Life with Mae by Neal Shine, a memoir about the Detroit Irish.

Mae is Shine’s mother, born in 1909 in Carrick-on-Shannon. Her own father worked as a distributor for Guinness, while Mae became a housekeeper at just 14 years old.  Quickly, Mae saw that her future in Ireland was limited, and headed for the mid-West before she was 20, settling in Detroit.

She raised three sons and, as reported by Shine, left an indelible mark on her family and community.

Shine himself is one of Detroit’s more influential Irish Americans.  He was editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, as well as a professor of journalism, who was a driving force in the Motor City’s civic life for decades.  Shine himself died just last year at the age of 76. ($24.95 / 248 pages / Wayne State University)

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