Category Archives: Irish

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a HeatwaveAlas, this was the last Maggie O’Farrell I had left. Ever since discovering The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (my first and still favorite, I admit), I’ve moved her books to the top of the top of the To-Be-Read piles with regularity. Now that I’ve finished, I suppose that will make room in my brain (or ears) for other TBR titles, at least for a few years. Years. Well, that merits at least another ‘alas.’

London in 1976 might be in the midst of a heatwave, but Gretta Riordan isn’t going to let the stifling temperatures keep her from baking fresh bread. As he does every morning, her husband Robert tells her he’s off to the newsagents to pick up a paper before they eat. He’s already laid out the dishes, butter, marmalade: “It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved.” But then Robert doesn’t return.

Still disbelieving, Gretta must let the children know of their father’s disappearance; he is not lost and he has not met with an accident, she knows, because he’s taken his passport, as well as withdrawn bank funds. Once a close, contented family, the five Riordans have scattered through the decades. Michael Francis, who lives nearest, has just finished another tedious year teaching high school, knowing full well he should have been a lauded professor had he not made the proverbial mistake of getting his girlfriend-now-wife pregnant before either was ready. Monica is barely enduring her stifling second marriage, forced to play stepmother to two unyielding girls. Aiofe, the much younger youngest, is across the Pond in Manhattan; she’s a photographer’s assistant in love with her renegade soulmate, but she suffers on the verge of losing all because she’s unwilling to admit her illiteracy.

Called home, each adult must pull his or herself out of lethargy and face mistakes, past and present, in order to move forward. Michael Francis must cease the blame and allow his wife her own life, Monica must stop punishing Aiofe for a betrayal she never committed, and Aiofe must realize that admitting the truth doesn’t mean losing independence. Even Gretta has shattering secrets to divulge, the release of which might lead the family back to reunion and so much more.

Interestingly enough, for the first time in many, many titles, Heatwave seems to have finally released veteran narrator John Lee from my own imposed pairing with all titles Orhan Pamuk (even when I’ve read Pamuk on the page, I ‘hear’ John Lee!). Certainly that’s testimony to O’Farrell’s convincing storytelling. So much so that if Lee decides to take on O’Farrell’s next, my ears will be waiting impatiently!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken HarborWith Broken Harbor finished, my Tana French days are over … at least until her next title comes along. Who will be her next victim – that is, not just the unfortunate next corpse(s), but the next member of the Dublin Murder Squad who will not only have to make sure that corpse gets some sort of justice, but will have to reveal the most devastating details of his or her very soul in the process. Rob had his murderous childhood in In the Woods, his partner Cassie her lonely isolation in The Likeness, her former boss Frank his violently dysfunctional family in Faithful Place, and here his colleague Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy his proximity to tragic mental illness.

Three-quarters of the Spain family are dead; the fourth barely hanging on to what’s left of her life. At first entry, their home seems an ideal haven for the perfect family of beautiful, childhood sweetheart parents and their two adored young children. But, of course, beneath the stylish veneer lurk secrets and lies just waiting to be discovered.

The Spain home is part of Ocean View, what should have been a posh, modern development in a Dublin suburb called Brianstown that collapsed with the recent economic downturn. With Patrick Spain out of work, Jenny Spain did everything she could to keep the family – and what should have been their dream house – together. But not only is the shoddy construction crumbling, the walls are literally riddled with mysterious holes and openings that even careless craftsmanship can’t explain …

When Mick and his newbie partner Richie are sent in to investigate, Mick is forced to confront his own tragic past that lies in Broken Harbor, Ocean View’s original name before its attempt to go upscale. Broken Harbor is where Mick’s family was shattered decades before by suicide, his sister lost to mental illness, and his recurring doubts originated about his own stability. He’s been able to keep his personal and professional compartments wholly separated thus far … but this time, the tide might prove too relentless to escape.

If I were to rank the Murder Squad, Mick would settle to the bottom. Introduced as an unlikable thorn in Frank’s side in Faithful Place, he never quite outgrows that virulent arrogance in Harbor. While he never reaches the sliminess of an especially jealous colleague, I shudder to think that nemesis might be in line for center stage in a future novel. Still, curiosity will not let me stay away … a French murder in Dublin? Morbidly, I’ll be there.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful PlaceTana French has a method to her mysteries: While all four of her titles are standalone thrillers, you’ll get more out of each if you read them in chronological order because each book’s protagonist is connected to the next. Rob opens the Dublin Murder Squad series with In the Woods, his partner Cassie takes control in The Likeness, her former boss Frank Mackey narrates this, Faithful Place, and his nemesis colleague Mick Kennedy stars in last year’s Broken Harbor.

If you choose to take Faithful on the run (as I’ve done with all the French titles so I can attest that the miles fly by), narrator Tim Gerard Reynolds adds just the right tinge of sinister, properly paced throughout. Interestingly enough, Faithful is one of Reynolds’ first-ever audiobooks … and he happens to have lived a “somewhat parallel [life]“ with Tana French, complete with geographic overlaps.

Digression aside, what makes protagonist Frank Mackey an effective detective also makes him a difficult (impossible?) husband and father. He’s managed to maintain a civil-enough relationship with his ex-wife, and his young daughter still loves him, although even she is growing wary of his unreliability. When Frank’s younger sister urgently calls him home to Faithful Place, a harsh working-class Dublin neighborhood Frank escaped as a teenager and expected to never look back, he’s forced to return – literally – to the baggage of his troubled past.

That recovered suitcase is Rosie Daly’s, who more than two decades before was Frank’s unrivaled first love, who vanished on the very evening the young lovers had planned to abandon their stifling lives and start afresh in England. Rosie never showed up for their journey out, so Frank walked away alone, his heart irrevocably shattered and rendered incapable of true love since.

Then a body is found. And Frank faces searing loss – over and over again: even the torture of that never-healed cardiac wound pales to what he has to face when he re-enters the confines of his estranged family. ‘Dysfunctional’ barely describes his bitter parents and his left-behind siblings. But determined detective that he is, Frank allows little to get in his way solving the latest murders (yes, the body count doesn’t stagnate) – not his desperate family, and not even his precious little girl.

While the whodunit surprises keep the pages (or tracks) moving swiftly, the most intriguing narrative twists belong in Frank’s head. As with her two previous protagonists, French is a master of mental manipulation, creating complicated, unpredictable characters who demand attention long after the case files get stamped and stored. ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy – I’m coming for you next!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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The Likeness by Tana French

LikenessIn the second installment of Tana French‘s Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie Maddox hasn’t quite recovered from Operation Vestal of In the Woods, the series’ debut. While she gained a caring, supportive, all-around good guy lover, she lost her partner who was also her very best friend. She’s given up the murder squad for now, and is working somewhat under the radar in Domestic Violence.

And then a young woman named Lexie Madison is found stabbed to death in an abandoned stone cottage. The problem is, Lexie Madison shouldn’t exist. Cassie and her former Undercover boss, Frank Mackey, invented everything about her – name, family, life story – for an assignment for Cassie years back. But that’s still not the most freakish detail: this ersatz Lexie is also Cassie’s doppelgänger.

Determined to solve this multi-layered mystery, Frank wheedles Cassie into returning to Undercover and literally bring Lexie back to life. Coached and wired, Cassie moves into the mansion outside Dublin where Lexie lived an insulated, rather halcyon life with four roommates, all graduate students at nearby Trinity College. Living, laughing, sharing everyday life with perhaps her own murderer, Cassie’s struggle to remain detached and objective gets ever more challenging.

Likeness is most obviously a murderous thriller, although it rises far above typical genre fiction with deeply psychological observations of the fluidity of identity. Lexie Madison tosses identities aside, while Cassie willingly sublimates her own – far beyond the call of career duty. Her tough exterior hides her lifelong fragility: her parents’ sudden death at a young age, her loving but distant aunt and uncle who never managed to make her feel like a permanent member of their family, the ever-temporary quality of her rented, anonymous living spaces, her loss of the most constant person in her life, her limited relationships, all collude to make Cassie vulnerable to the lure of intimacy, of permanence with her new housemates. Her loss of objectivity is almost expected, as her resistance to the inviting sense of belonging lessens meal by meal, tear after tear, day by day.

For those of you who choose to take murder on the run, Heather O’Neill is just the right energetic narrator, with only a small misstep when she attempts a faulty Australian accent. She’s able to take what might be yawn-inducing on the page – I strongly suspect the minutest details of the ongoing exchanges of five roommates would prove flat in print – and ratchet the tempo just enough to discard the burnt toast while keeping the ears tuned to Cassie’s never-stopping reactions. You might solve the whodunit before Cassie does, but the how and why will keep the story firmly stuck in the ears, long after the guilty admits all.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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In the Woods by Tana French

In the WoodsOkay, so Tana French‘s website says that she won the coveted Oscar-for-mysteries Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 2007, but if you check the actual Edgars site which has an ‘I’ve never see this anywhere else, but every award site should have one!’-database, that page says In the Woods won in 2008. I think that might be just about the only detail French got wrong with her debut.

Even if you’re a seasoned mystery lover – and I fully admit I’m not – let me warn you that this one is a tough one, most importantly because it has to do with children. A mind can go rampant, too, given repetitive headlines screaming about little kids’ suffering – and believe me, everyone’s a suspect here because everyone is suspect, especially when the protagonist tells you on the second page, “What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”

Rob Ryan is the only person left in the world with a story “that nobody but [he] will ever be able to tell.” At age 12, he lost his two best friends somewhere in the woods near their home. Rob – who then went by his first name Adam – was found alone, up against a tree, standing in blood-soaked shoes. He was near-catatonic, went silent for two weeks, and lost any memory of what happened.

Twenty years later, Rob is a murder detective (oh, the irony!) in Dublin, partnered with spunky, fearless Cassie Maddox, one of the few women on the squad. He reinvented himself years ago, lost is small-town Irish accent, dresses with a poshness he can’t exactly afford, and gives the impression of being anything but local: “… nobody is likely to link up Detective Rob and his English accent with little Adam Ryan from Knocknaree.” And then a 12-year-old turns up dead outside Dublin … in the same woods from which Rob emerged very much scathed. Rob and Cassie return to those woods – now an active archaeological site (oh, the irony!) – to dig through clues for young Katy Devlin’s murder … and in the process take a shattering, unavoidable run through a deeply buried past of hidden horrors.

Read with immense control by Steven Crossley, the audible version is a chilling thrill and highly recommended. Who to trust, which lies to believe, are never quite clear … and while you might figure out whodunit before book’s end, that won’t stop you from reading eagerly to the final page. Just remember, some things can never be known … especially when you’re at the mercy of a liar.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Astray by Emma Donoghue

Maybe it’s the craziness of the season, but I’ve really been appreciating short story collections. This latest title from Emma Donoghue – the author of the phenomenal Room – is an intriguingly composed compilation: Donoghue presents a story introduced with a specific city and year, then gives the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ historical background that both explains and enhances her fictionalized narrative. Each is part of a centuries-old immigration journey, grouped together in three sections: “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and in the final “Afterword,” Donoghue – herself Irish-born, British PhDed, currently Canada-domiciled – explains “why, on and off, for the last decade and a half, I’ve been writing stories about travels to, within, and occasionally from the United States and Canada.” [If you choose the audible version, you'll get a full cast of effective narrators, but the best reward comes at the end when you get to hear Donoghue herself read the "Afterword" – that leftover lilt is just soooo inviting.]

Like Donoghue who has “gone stray, stepped off some invisible track [she] was meant to follow,” her characters begin in one place and are driven out, run away, move to, or search out somewhere else. In “Man and Boy,” two “self-made prodigies” are willing to accept “[w]hatever Barnum offers” – yes, as in P.T. – and prepare to sail from London in 1882 across the Atlantic toward waiting audiences. A young woman living in 1854 London in dire circumstances in “Onward” finds a surprising benefactor (I hope you’ll be as tickled as I was to learn his identity!) who offers the possibility of a reinvented life in the new world. In “Last Supper at Brown’s,” a slave and his missus flee 1864 Texas, leaving the master “facedown in the okra” (not my favorite veggie, either!).

In “Counting the Days,” plans for reunion between a waiting husband in Canada and his Irish wife and young children are tragically thwarted. A lawless woman of the Wild West captures a wayward prospector, and acting as her own “judge and jury,” decides to return him to his family with a few adventures along the way in “The Long Way Home.” In “The Gift,” a destitute new mother gives up her daughter in 1877 and spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her. The private lives of a 1639 Cape Cod community are transgressively revealed, then recanted in “The Lost Seed.” And, in my personal favorite, “Daddy’s Girl,” a young woman learns the true identity of her father only upon his death.

Harnessing her own searching spirit, Donoghue ventures through centuries and continents, across oceans and cultures, to present a unique collection of peripatetic characters, each ready to confront, challenge, or flee what life presents next. Be assured: Going rogue never read this good.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Landing by Emma Donoghue

Had I not been so enthralled with Room, I don’t know if I would have discovered Emma Donoghue‘s many other titles, but I’ve definitely been enjoying reading newly discovered authors’ works backwards.

Take a look at the cover and you can probably guess what Landing is about. Yup, it’s a love story. But with Donoghue at the helm, you have to expect some unconventionality at the very least.

So the hand on the left belongs to Síle (pronounced Sheila) O’Shaughnessy of Dublin, Ireland, and the right to Jude Turner of Ireland, Ontario. Síle may be Irish-born and bred, but with an Indian mother, she’s not quite Irish enough for some people. At 39, she’s spent many years as a worldly flight attendant, staying well-connected via her “gizmo,” enjoying a rather glamorous city life when she’s on the ground. At 25, Jude – also a hybrid mix, of a Canadian father and an English mother – is a technophobic Luddite, runs a small village’s tiny museum, and has never had the need or desire to travel very far.

The two meet on a plane over a dead body (!) … Síle working, Jude hoping to survive her inaugural flight (another !). How much more memorable can love at first sight be? In spite of thousands of miles, die-hard habits, missing mothers, past and present lovers, doubting friends, Síle and Jude slowly work their lives together.

Interwoven with the pitter-patter inducing love story is a mindful look at immigration (“emigration sounded noble and tragic, immigration grubby and grasping”), from peripatetic parents criss-crossing the globe to their stay-at-home progeny facing re-invention and relocation. Falling in love outside your comfort zone means borders change, populations shift, cultures adapt, racism threatens, and strangers can become family.

Just a final thought … perhaps Donoghue writes part of her own immigration story here: Like Síle, Donoghue is Dublin-born, and now lives with her partner and their children in … London, Ontario. Love can land you anywhere …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Room by Emma Donoghue

Room will leave you speechless. Listening to the audible version, pitch-perfectly performed by Michal Friedman, Ellen Archer, Robert Petkoff, and Suzanne Toren, is a chillingly addictive experience; even after you’ve turned off your device, you won’t be able to stop Jack from haunting you.

In spite of the book’s widespread media attention, its countless accolades and awards, I had few content details before I picked up the title for which I’m eternally grateful. In this case, less was absolutely more.

Here’s what I did know: a young boy and his mother are trapped in a small room, imprisoned by a violent man who snatched the mother off the streets when she was still a teenage student. The boy, born in captivity, knows only this room as his entire world, created for him by his inventive, fiercely protective mother who keeps him safe and happy at whatever cost.

Here’s what little else you can know: Jack turns 5 on the first page. Room is 11×11 square with a single high skylight. Ma has bad teeth. The unnumbered chapter titles are: Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living.

If you must have something visual to draw you in (although that cover couldn’t be more powerful), click here for the book’s goosebumps-inducing trailer.

To the credit of the superbly talented Emma Donoghue, Room miraculously proves to be funny, uplifting, affirming, even as it is wrenching, brutal, and every parent’s nightmare come true. Listening to Jack narrate what he sees, hears, thinks with such unguarded truth will make you wince, gasp, laugh, mourn, and ultimately believe. Enter Room … and see what happens …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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