The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney – book review

0223620_the-blood-miracles_300I picked up Lisa McInerney’s debut The Glorious Heresies a few days after it was published based on the utterly brilliant cover. Shallow I know, but there you have it. Colourful graffitied Virgin Mary, glowing praise from Kevin Barry, and a blurb setting up a dark comedy realistically set in post-crash, post-Catholic Ireland – all these things were catnip to me. After practically inhaling it and pressing it on everyone who asked me for book recommendations (and many who didn’t!) I was totally convinced of McInerney’s talent. I wasn’t a bit surprised when word-of-mouth snowballed and the justified awards started rolling in. The downside of this was I awaited her next novel with Big Expectations.

“This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s f**k-ups, begins with ecstasy”

I didn’t realise until I got my mitts on it that The Blood Miracles is a sequel of sorts – it features some of the characters from The Glorious Heresies, but works as a standalone novel also. Rather than the multiple narratives of the first book, The Blood Miracles focuses on Ryan Cusack – a half-Corkonian half- Neapolitan drug dealer, whose sociopathic boss has decided to use him to open a new black market route between Ireland and Italy. This aspect of the story could be described as ‘Love/Hate in Cork’- although infinitely better, there is the same addictive danger that made that RTE series so popular. There are enough alliances and complex transactions to keep any reader guessing, and the action comes thick and fast.

Ryan is perfectly portrayed – he is highly intelligent, complex and somehow poetic, and there is a simple tragedy in how his circumstance have led him down the path of crime. The one light in his life, his beloved girlfriend Karine, is beginning to think he is a lost cause and he is a man on a precipice…Torn between two places, two worlds, two versions of himself, it is a pleasure to watch Ryan navigate through riotous scenes of violence, clubbing, drugs, crime and sex.  All of McInerney’s characters are skilled at spinning gold into straw – Ryan is particularly good at making a hames of things, and it makes for very good reading. This is a different beast to Heresies – the focus is tighter, and it is less funny – but it is no less worthwhile (and this is from one who went in with Big Expectations). Read this one now so you can say you have when it starts showing up on award shortlists later in the year!

The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney is published by John Murray Press on 20th April 2017. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Earth – an Object Lessons book review

earthI loved the sound of Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton (one of the Object Lessons series published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic). Object Lessons is an essay and book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things – however, this book takes a different approach to the others. We don’t often consciously think of the earth as an object, and certainly it seems incongruous listed among the other objects in the series – Bookshelf, Egg, High Heel, or Tumour for example. Earth is more philosophical than factual, a thoroughly human depiction of the Earth in the form of letters between a planetary scientist and a medievalist.

It is rare to find a truly co-disciplinary approach to any subject, but the form of this book – a back and forth of letters/skype/FB messages between Elkins-Tanton and Cohen – allows viewpoints equal weighting of disciplines while creating an interplay of ideas. Both share a fascination with the wonder of the pale blue dot we call home, and it is a pleasure to ‘eavesdrop’ on their correspondence, which is increasingly personal as a friendship develops. This book really helped me to visualise the beauty and complexity of the Earth as they examine it from different scales and perspectives, veering off into asides on beauty, perception, creativity and the imagination. The writers describe this as a “little book about an impossibly large subject”, albeit a subject every reader will view with fresh eyes for having read it. I was expecting more facts, less philosophy (although there are some science bits) but this is my favourite of the Object Lessons series I have read so far.

Earth is published by Bloomsbury Academic. I received an ecopy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák – book review

The Signal FlameSet in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains in 1972, The Signal Flame is a lyrical, quietly beautiful novel about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War. The family has just lost their patriarch, Jozef Vinch, who survived WWI as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and travelled to American to build a life for his family. If you have read The Sojourn you are already aware of Jozef Vinch, and of the power of Krivák’s writing – but this is not a sequel per se, and knowledge of the events of The Sojourn is not necessary.

“The trees were always the first thing his grandfather spoke of in the morning, weaving a forecast for the day based on the curve of leaves or a bird he might see nesting in the branches. Or he would tell a story that began with the planting of a particular sapling…its root pack bound in burlap and sitting in the front seat of his rig like a passenger…”

The Signal Flame centres on Jozef Vinch’s stoic grandson Bo is left to work the family’s 2000 acres of logging land and hope that this newest war will return his brother safely to him. However, Sam is MIA in Vietnam, and he has left behind a pregnant girlfriend – whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. This isn’t an action-packed plot fuelled rollercoaster – it is something more. I was utterly absorbed in this immersive portrait of a family and community in this wooded territory where the cycles of soil and weather set the rhythm of the days. There is a quiet dignity to the portrayal of grief, endurance, and the importance of forgiveness in The Signal Flame, and Krivák’s sense of pace and place is close to flawless. There is a lot of sorrow in this book, and perhaps January was not the best month to read it – so I have waited until now to recommend it to you. And I highly recommend it.

The Signal Flame is published by Scribner, who provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review

The CowsAlthough I hadn’t read any other books by Dawn O’Porter, I was delighted to be approached to review it as I loved the sound of a fearlessly frank and funny book about how women don’t have to fall into a stereotype. The story follows three women: Tara, a single mother who makes documentary films in a misogynistic office; Cam, a childfree blogger who documents her life and loves online; and Stella, grieving the loss of her twin sister to breast cancer and facing a decision to have a prophylactic mastectomy. One night, and one very public action, creates ties that bind the three women together in unexpected ways. Lots of topics we don’t read enough of are discussed in a refreshingly frank way – single motherhood, working moms, choosing to be childfree, online dating, the pressure to conform, fake friendships, female masturbation, public shaming, trolling. It’s a heady list, and the language is realistic rather than po-faced.

First things first – this is a rattling read, clipping along at a great pace and with several laugh out loud moments. There were also a few full body cringes at times, in that delicious way that made The Office so enjoyable to watch. I wish I had read it on holiday (I wish I was on holiday!) because it’d be a great poolside read. I devoured the first half of the book in one evening, and was eager to pick it up the next day. So far so good.

Plotting issues started to become a big problem for me in the second half of the book. Stella’s story escalated from grief to elaborately Machiavellian scheming in a not particularly convincing way. As someone who has invested a lot of money in Fortress Uterus I can assure you it’s not that difficult to get knocked up, she really could have tried shagging around a bit first. Jason went from the usual level of unrealistic you can expect from a leading man (so handsome, so kind, so loyal, so amazing in bed and yet waiting for true love, so wealthy but so grounded etc etc) to just a bit of an idiot. Nevermind that is not in any way realistic that this guy would be consistently dumped by stone-cold career women when he says he wants a family (seriously, he is what every single woman I know is actively trying to meet). Are we really supposed to believe he was the only person in the UK if not the world to have seen the endless twitter, tabloid, TV, newspaper coverage of Walthamstow Wank Woman? And the biggest problem for me – Cam. This book was so baffled at what to do with an independent, successful, sexually active, loved, and childfree by choice woman that *SPOILERS after the jump!*
Continue reading “The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review”

Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

41hICu+LvaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I put off reading Undying because I was afraid my usually stone-cold cynical heart could not cope with it. From the queasy raw intensity of his genre defying masterpiece Under the Skin, to the sweeping Victorian expanse of The Crimson Petal and the White, something about Michel Faber’s writing grabs me utterly. His directness of tone and immersive descriptions are a heady combination – and one that made his first slim volume of poetry slightly frightening. Undying chronicles Faber’s attempts to process the six-year battle with cancer; death; and absence of, his beloved wife of 26 years Eva.

How can you say goodbye to the love of your life? How can you reconcile the wonder of finding your perfect partner with the horror of losing them in slow motion? These poems are tender and devastating – there is a vulnerability and a rawness to them that shredded my heart. Read them – and then hug your lover close, call your mother, grab your pet and give it a big snuggle – be thankful you are alive. Faber doesn’t shirk from depicting the ravages of cancer, but even the darkest of these poems are suffused with hope and love. For me, the darkest poems come after Eva has passed, as Faber struggles to adjust to a world without her in it.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

Above all, these are love poems, in the deepest truest sense of the word. I read my first Michel Faber novel 17 years ago, and read all his fiction published since. I never really thought about his private life until I heard his announcement that he would not write any more fiction after Eva’s death and the publication of The Book of Strange New Things. After reading Undying, I feel I know Eva – that she was extraordinary, and that the world is a poorer place in her absence. These poems are more than a searing testimony of grief, they are a celebration of the impact we can make in life, the death-defying ripples of a life lived in kindness:

You worked covertly, nurturing by stealth.
You lifted people up, nudged them to transcend
their limitations…
You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
But you left lucencies of grace secreted in the world,
still glowing.

Four short-ish book reviews (one is more a dire warning!)

Yet again, life has flared up in unexpected, time-consuming, sometimes work but often health related ways, so poor old Eats Plants, Reads Books has been neglected of late. I even let its one year anniversary pass unmarked *shameface* I’ll make up for it with a giveaway later in the year. I’m going to try out combined posts for a while – not just to clear the backlog, but to give shorter reviews a go, because as my lovely subscribers know I am normally a ranter! If you strongly approve/disapprove, lemme know in the comments*.

gallery-1466012493-emma-cline-the-girlsThe Girls – Emma Cline

This was one of the big hype books of summer 2016, and, ever the contrarian, this made me predisposed to dislike it. It didn’t help that press kept breathlessly hailing Emma Cline as the voice of her generation – making me think of Hannah Horvath in HBO’s cult hit Girls “”I think that I may be The Voice of My Generation… or at least a voice of a generation”.

Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogues with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

Set in 1960s California, inspired by Charles Manson and his ‘Family’, The Girls is suffused in a sun baked headiness of social and sexual awakening. The book is told from the point of view of teenage Evie Boyd, who becomes embroiled in the cult not because of the cult leader Russell but because of her need to be accepted by his female followers. She sees them as impossibly cool and beautiful, and as her family falls apart Evie’s longing to be loved and accepted by these women is almost a physical need.  There is something languid, blurry, and vaguely stoned about the writing that captures the situation and time-period perfectly. In short – it turns out this was an increasingly rare case of justifiable hype. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to read more from Emma Cline.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff fates-and-furies-cover-image

This is another hyped book, that it took me a while to get around to because I couldn’t face another book described as the next Gone Girl. First things first – this book is not at all like Gone Girl. A book with different points of view on a marriage is not automatically like Gone Girl – just as, sadly, my dark hair and green eyes do not make me like Olivia Wilde.

As the blurb would have it – every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. Fates and Furies skips forward and back through the 24-year marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, telling the story firstly from his point of view, then from hers. Gone Girl fans who go in for the thriller pace and big twists are set up to be disappointed, as this book is more about subtle complexity and some truly beautiful writing.

Neither Lotto nor Mathilde are particularly likeable – they are beautiful, rich, privileged white people – but they are interesting, which is better. Reading this book is reading the same story twice, but the different viewpoint recasts everything you think you knew. Lotto is the ‘Fates’ seeing his relationship as a great love story; Mathilde the ‘Furies’ who has a surface that belies her true interior.

Fates and Furies isn’t the easiest read – if you want a turn off your brain thriller, you’ll find it hard work. However, once you get past the slow pace of the start, it becomes extremely rewarding – there is a reason Barack Obama named this his book of the year shortly after its release. It is a dream book for book clubs – holding a mirror up to real life in a way that is bound to get the conversations flowing at your BC meeting. If you have already read it – I’d be interested to hear if you are Team Lotto or Team Mathilde!

The_Blade_ArtistThe Blade Artist – Irvine Welsh

BEGBIE IS BACK!!! Ok, got that out of the way… but really that was my first, and repeated, thought when I first heard about this book. Franco Begbie is an electrifyingly realised amoral psychopath, undoubtedly Irvine Welsh’s greatest character (and brilliantly portrayed by Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting). But this is Begbie as we have never seen him before… now known as Jim Francis, he is a successful sculptor with a beautiful wife and two adored daughters, living the good life in California. He has had a lot of therapy (he is married to his art therapist from prison) and he has become skilled at anger management. He is also (as ever) played by Robert Carlyle in my head.

Begbie’s past actions are put in the context of being the anger response of the trapped working class with a horrifically violent childhood. As he works on his breathing to push down his anger, as he makes his art over Guns n Roses blaring, Welsh makes us wonder – has Begbie broken free of his conditioning into violence? Or has he learned a veneer of behaviour to hide his true nature?  The death of his son brings him home to Scotland, and it is here, in the face of the expectation of those who know him as a psychotic violence machine, not to mention the endless irritation of dealing with Tesco mobile, the Begbie we know and fear comes closer to the surface…  if you liked Trainspotting, you have to read this. If you don’t like Trainspotting – you won’t. If you haven’t read/watched Trainspotting – what have you been doing with yourself?!?!?! Rectify that, and then see advice above for The Blade Artist.

Behind Closed Doors – B A Paris Behind-closed-doors-cover

Oh jaysus. This book.

In general, I try not to be savage in my reviews. Books are subjective just like everything else, and even when something isn’t really my cup of tea I try to figure out who would enjoy it so I can pitch it to the correct audience in my review. I’m always very conscious of the time and effort an author put into their work, and small though my sphere of influence is I am always hesitant to be utterly damning. However, since this book is mystifyingly popular, I have no fear my unfettered opinion is snatching bread from the author’s mouth, and so can tell you I loathed it with a fiery passion and resent every second of time I spent between its pages. (I only finished it because it was one of my book club selections, otherwise I would have read 30 pages and then gifted it to someone I hated).

The entire plot is basically summarized in the blurb on the back, posing the question ‘the perfect marriage or the perfect lie?’ What a shocker – it’s the latter. Jack, the psychopath husband, is So Very Villainous I wouldn’t have batted an eye if he started ‘mwah ha ha’-ing into his elbow as he wrapped a cape around himself after a good old mustache twirl. This is not domestic noir, it’s pantomime – and his threats of ‘asylums’ belong in a Gothic novel, not a contemporary setting. This isn’t Gotham City, and besides Millie is a smart, capable girl with Downs Syndrome who attends a prestigious boarding school. Despite the borderline offensive portrayal of Downs in the book, Millie is still clearly more capable of adult functionality than Grace is. Grace, the trapped wife, is in her situation because of such abysmal life choices it’s impossible to pity her. Hot tip – don’t give up your career prospects, your family, your friends to focus exclusively on one person – anyone who allows you to do that, let alone encourages you to, is a controlling ball of negativity, and you will end up regretting it wholeheartedly. Always. Now take this universal advice to Grace’s extreme of choosing someone that you know for less than six months over your beloved sister for whom you are guardian. Then have that person vanish on your wedding night, and rock up the next day demanding you not make a fuss and you hand over your passport to him as you go on honeymoon. Sorry what? What?! “I can’t help thinking it’s a shame he’s such a sadistic bastard, because he has wonderful manners” – classic Grace. Honestly, I have nothing good to say about this, despite the piles of 5-star reviews from other bloggers (including ones whose opinions I usually value). I warn you you read at your own risk – and know before you do that Jack also horrifically kills a puppy.

*hmmm, these aren’t actually that short! Brevity never my strong suit – oh well. I received copies of The Girls, Fates and Furies and The Blade Artist from their respective publishers in return for an honest review.

Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!