Book Review: Actress by Anne Enright

Some authors you read for the story, and others you don’t care so much what the story is, you just love them for the writing. Anne Enright falls into the latter category, and this is probably why she’s won awards and has been reported in the Sunday Times as ‘One of the most significant writers of her generation.’ She’s kind of literary then.

So I was mad keen to grab her new book, Actress, as soon as it came my way. There are a lot of minor characters in the book adding a cast of theatre and film people, but mainly it’s about Nora FitzMaurice, now in her sixties, looking back at her relationship with her mother, the celebrated actress of stage and screen, Katherine O’Dell. The book wonderfully conjures up the world of drama, film producers, agents and artistes of various kinds seen from the point of view of the young, fatherless girl who watches from the wings.

It’s not a happy story. Katherine is soon revealed has having descended into some kind of madness, peaking with her shooting a producer in the foot, before dying well before old age, her career having died long before. Nora is also a little adrift – emerging from her teens somewhat promiscuous and beginning to wonder who her father might have been. In the background we have a glimpse of the Troubles – a chunk is set in Dublin in the 1970s – and there’s plenty of that dry kind of Irish wit which is at its best when it is self-aware. This is particularly so with Enright.

The play may have been about homosexuality, or heterosexuality, or it may just have been about loneliness. It was certainly about a young curate who flees, after a difficult day, from the kindness of a busty, frilly-bloused, female parishioner. The role was played by an Englishman because, rumour had it, no Irish actor would take it on.

For much of the novel, I was reading thinking this is just a bunch of interesting aspects about the famous actress – her growing up with her theatre parents, her time in America, her marriage – balanced with Nora’s delving into her mother’s life, revelations of her own affairs and eventual settling down. How Nora has to step up and be the parent when her mother goes mad and during her final illness, the quirks of their relationship.

I laid the carton on the table, very casually, and she pretended, very casually, that they were not there. I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed it a little. Two hundred fags sitting between us, a blue oblong of desire.

Then about three quarters of the way in there was suddenly a pivotal moment and the story, the structure and everything else came together and it occurred to me that I’d been distracted by the smart writing and intriguing anecdotes. I had failed to notice the big things happening – the way fame and beauty and talent can be gobbled up mercilessly by the less-than-scrupulous with ruinous effect. And that what everyone really wants is just to be loved – I wonder if that isn’t what Enright’s books aren’t aways about one way or another. And so beautifully told in a way that’s very real and personal but universal too. Just perfect. So it has to be a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter

An atmospheric setting does wonders for any mystery series. In Treacherous Strand, we’re way up in the Irish county of Donegal, and the Inishowen Peninsula. Small-town solicitor, Ben (Benedicta) O’Keefe is badly hung-over when she learns a client and friend, Marguerite Etienne, is dead. Her body washed up near the shoreline, clothes neatly folded on the beach, suggests suicide but Ben isn’t convinced.

On the night before she died, Marguerite had called in to see Ben about making a will, revealing plans to leave her few possessions to a daughter of 23 she had not seen since the girl’s infancy. It was the end of the day, and Ben’s secretary had left work, so there was no one to witness the document. Ben promised to draw up the will ready for Marguerite to sign over the coming days, but never saw Marguerite alive again.

Ben is a troubled woman, plagued with guilt for not being able to save her sister and now she’s got this to reckon with. No wonder she sits up late at night getting through the red wine. She also has a problematic relationship with Sergeant Molloy, who’s in charge of the case – there was some kind of romantic spark that didn’t quite happen in the first book, Death at Whitewater Church, which still haunts Ben in this book. (I really must learn to read these crime series in order.)

Talking to witnesses reveals that Marguerite had a difficult past, escaping a religious sect, the Damascans, but unable to take her daughter with her. Marguerite’s neighbour, an overtly charming Scottish artist, Simon Howard, immediately takes a shine to Ben when he calls in to her office to reveal that he’d agreed to be executor of Marguerite’s estate. Meanwhile Simon’s troubled son, David warns Ben off. His dad’s a terrible womaniser, he says, and surely that puts Simon at number one on the suspects list.


Further suspects soon pile up, including a town councillor, and Marguerite’s therapist, both of whom seem to have fallen in love with the victim. Throw in some lively characters: Phyllis, the owner of the bookshop where Marguerite worked and Ben’s bestie, Maeve the vet, plus a bunch of quirky locals, and you get plenty of small town colour. Another thing I really liked about the book is that Ben is a proper solicitor. She has to fit her amateur sleuthing in around real work and the author, having been a lawyer herself, makes this seem very real.

The story cranks up the tension nicely – Ben gets the sense that someone is warning her off and opens herself to some dangerous situations. Sergeant Molloy is not best pleased. Over all it’s a decent enough crime novel, although I must confess to getting confused from time to time with the many characters and having to skip back to check who was who. So this one’s probably more of a three than a four from me.

Book Review: A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

It seems I just can’t get enough of Irish fiction, with A Shameful Murder taking me this time to the city of Cork. In this series, Harrison whisks us back to 1923, a time of Civil War as the Republican Army upsets the peace with sporadic guerrilla assaults on government entities. Cork at this time is also under siege by the elements, it’s always raining, and built on islands in the River Lee, flooding is inevitable. It’s OK if you’re wealthy and live on higher ground, but the poor struggle terribly with the damp, poor sewerage, cramped dwellings and not enough to eat.

Enter Reverend Mother Aquinas, an elderly nun who works with the impoverished, educating their children in the hope they will find useful work and better themselves. When she finds the body of young woman dressed in a fine satin ballgown washed up on her doorstep, she calls for Police Sergeant Patrick Cashman. Patrick was once a pupil at her school, and the Reverend Mother is quietly proud of his systematic assessment of the crime scene, his tidy notes, his serious manner.

It turns out that Angelina Fitzsimon, the daughter of well-to-do Joseph Fitzsimon, had gone missing after the Founders Ball. When Joseph identifies his daughter at the morgue, more by the dress than by the bloated face of the corpse, suicide is suggested the likely cause. But neither Patrick nor the Reverend Mother are convinced. Along with the police advisor, Dr Scher, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the three make a wonderful team of sleuths, as they start to pick apart Angelina’s life.

One of the most worrying concerns is that Angelina’s mother has been mouldering in a mental asylum, allowing Joseph control of her money. Angelina’s own future seems to have been precarious because of an inheritance and, with a wastrel brother running up debts, her father had been eager to marry her off to a tea planter. Angelina meanwhile helped the poor and had dreams of university study. A thoroughly nice girl from a problematic family.

We’re all set for a brilliant cosy mystery. I love nosy old lady detectives and none is more determined or more conniving than the Reverend Mother and with her assorted contacts in high places, she gains access to witnesses and calls in favours. There are some wonderful minor characters: the RM’s charming sister, Lucy, with her own sad secret; Eileen, the ex-pupil turned journalist/freedom fighter who wears breeches and carries a revolver – to name but two.

The RM is like a spider in the middle of a web, directing the action as the plot works up to a thrilling ending. I hadn’t expected it all to be so much fun and like all good mystery novels, Harrison had me guessing ‘whodunit’ right until the end. I shall definitely be returning to Cork for more. Four out of five from me.

Lockdown Reading 3: The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

The second book in McTiernan’s DS Cormac Reilly series takes us back to Galway and a case that threatens Reilly’s relationship with his partner Emma Sweeney, possibly even his career.

Emma works as a research scientist for Irish pharmaceutical giant Darcy Therapeutics on Galway University campus. When a young woman is killed in what at first appears as a hit and run at the university, Emma finds the body. Being so close to a prime witness, Cormac should step away from the case, but his fellow sergeant, Callie O’Halloran hasn’t had a weekend off in months and is desperate to go home. Cormac, finally allowed to move on from cold cases, steps in as SIO.

But things get more complicated when the ID card found in the victim’s pocket turns out to belong to Carline Darcy, an up-and-coming scientist and granddaughter to the drug company’s founder, John Darcy. Emma recognises the Stella McCartney cardigan the girl’s wearing too. Only Cormac discovers Carline alive and well in her fancy penthouse flat, unaware apparently of how the girl got the card or the cardie.

It takes a while to track down the victim, as no students seem to be missing. It’s only when a teenage boy calls into the police station worried that his sister hasn’t texted him in a few days, that Cormac finally gets a break. And so begins a tidy little mystery fully of secrets, subterfuge and professional jealousy, set in the high-stakes world of drug research.

Meanwhile the issues that dog Cormac’s career aren’t going anywhere, mostly around his relationship with Emma, a victim of an assault that left her battered and traumatised, as well as a murder suspect. Several in the police team feel that somehow Cormac managed to sweep Emma’s crime under the carpet, so when a murder happens on her doorstep, it is too easy to put Emma on the suspects list. And how can Cormac remain impartial as well as manage the sensitive issues around his relationship with Emma?

I love the way McTiernan slowly reveals back story through this series. The first book The Ruin was very much about Cormac, and an historic case that defines his early career and which comes back to haunt him. The Scholar brings in Emma’s history, creating layers of tension as Cormac has to deal with prejudice and bring in a killer before he kills again. It’s good character-driven crime writing, with engaging characterisation and an evocative setting. A solid four out of five from me.

Review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Set mostly in Galway, McTiernan’s debut crime novel, The Ruin, introduces Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, freshly arrived after a lengthy stint with the anti-terrorist mob in Dublin. He has good reason to make Galway his home – his partner, Emma, has a top-notch research job in Galway and with a more settled, peaceful Ireland – this is 2013 – it was time to look for a new career direction.

Only taking on a bunch of cold cases isn’t quite as challenging or adrenaline charged as what he’s used to. And why he does get the feeling that his colleagues are all whispering behind his back? Just as well his old friend from police school, Danny, is on the team or he’d feel well and truly isolated.

The past keeps creeping back as well. Twenty years ago, Cormac was a rookie cop, called out on a miserable night to a decrepit manor house in the middle of nowhere to rescue two children. Their addict mother is dead from an overdose, the children, five-year-old Jack and fifteen-year-old Maude, look malnourished and cold. His squad car radio is broken so Cormac can only pile them into the back seat and take them to the hospital. The scene makes a compelling opening to the novel, and you just can’t wait to find out what has happened to the three of them in the intervening years.

Flicking forward to 2013, a suspected suicide turns out to be the same Jack, now a twenty-five-year-old engineer, with a stable relationship and a baby on the way. Had the past found a way of catching up with him too?

The Ruin is a solid detective story, with engaging characters and a ton of secrets ready to be revealed. There is plenty of action to keep you engaged, with an edge-of-the-seat ending that has you biting your nails. Cormac is a good cop, without the bad habits or lurking darkness that so often beleaguers fictional sleuths. Yet McTiernan makes him interesting. As well as settling into a new job and discovering who he can trust and who he can’t, Cormac has a new relationship. There are hints around how me met Emma during a previous investigation which are yet to be revealed.

The next book, The Scholar, is already out, and with another due to appear in March, the series is off to a flying start. I shall definitely be stopping by to see how Cormac is getting on. Three and a half out of five from me.

Review: Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers by Conor Bowman

Back in Ireland again with a novel set mostly in Galway. The Hughie of the title is a small boy at the beginning of the book, but by the time he’s twelve he’s had to cope with a lot of hard stuff: losing two toes due to an accident with an out of control lawnmower; overhearing his parents reveal that he’s adopted; being sent to boarding school at the age of twelve; losing his mother to suicide and thinking that it’s all his fault.

But Hughie is a determined young lad, and he loves his mother so very much that he embarks on a plan to bring her back. This is impossible you say, she’s dead. His dad knows this, his best friend Nyxi knows this, but when unusual things happen to Hughie it begins to seem possible after all.

Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers is very much a character-driven novel, always a plus for me. There’s Hughie’s difficult father, a philandering surgeon; Nyxi, the girl he meets in hospital after the foot incident, with a badly burned arm. The two become inseparable. ‘Sure but you have three good feet and three good arms between you’ says the lady who sells ice creams. There’s a bunch of peripheral characters you wish you had more time to get to know, such as Hughie’s grandmother in Dublin who is a real trouper towards the end of the book with her no-nonsense manner and hair-raising driving.

But one of the most interesting characters of all is Galway, the setting for a large part of the novel. Galway is lovingly described and seems to have a personality of its own. By the time I’d finished reading the book, I was ready to book my flight. The 1970’s music adds a touch of nostalgia and makes me wonder: are coming-of-age novels set in the past more appealing to older readers than the YA genre aimed at a younger demographic and what deep down is the difference?

I found this coming-of-age novel a quick and charming read, well-written and with an original storyline. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

normalNormal People won the last Costa Award, as well as being long-listed for the Man Booker and the Woman’s Prize for Fiction. So I knew it would be good. And it is in many ways. The novel concerns Connell and Marianne, two young people who at the outset of the novel are in the same year at school. They kind of click even though Marianne’s family are wealthy and Connell’s mother cleans their house.

The story follows their on and off again relationship over their last year at high school and through university – they both go to Trinity College in Dublin. What gives the book its dramatic tension is that both characters are damaged – Connell being the kid from a bad family, with all the insecurities which that implies, while Marianne feels unloved, is mocked at school and suffers abuse at home. Throughout, they somehow remain friends, see other people, do a lot of soul-searching and struggle with their emotions. Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”