Thursday, 2 June 2022

Panenka by Rónán Hession


166 pages

Publisher: Bluemoose

 

Blurb

His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story. Panenka has spent 25 years living with the disastrous mistakes of his past, which have made him an exile in his home town and cost him his dearest relationships. Now aged 50, Panenka begins to rebuild an improvised family life with his estranged daughter and her seven year old son.

But at night, Panenka suffers crippling headaches that he calls his Iron Mask. Faced with losing everything, he meets Esther, a woman who has come to live in the town to escape her own disappointments. Together, they find resonance in each other’s experiences and learn new ways to let love into their broken lives.

Review

I read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession just under a year ago and adored the book. As I wrote at the time, ‘it is a quiet read…sweet, uplifting, and all the more thought-provoking for it’. So, I went into Panenka with high expectations and I’m very happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed.

Like its predecessor, Panenka is anything but an action-filled page turner. And yet, the story gripped me from the very start, and I would have found it next to impossible to put the book down for long. Thankfully, there was no need for me to be away from the story for any length of time after I started reading.

This is very much a character-driving story. A story about life, the moments that define us, and the always present opportunity to choose differently and, maybe, do better. For the most part (and with the possible exception of Panenka himself), the issues the characters in this book face aren’t huge, or earth-shattering. That makes them all the more recognisable. And the same is true for the way they deal with their situations. And that’s what made this book so special for me. It doesn’t create drama for the sake of it, because life, with its ups and downs, is dramatic enough without overstating the facts.

What most impressed me about Panenka and its predecessor is the apparent discrepancy between what appears to be a simple and subdued story and the glorious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking language in which is told. So many sentences and paragraphs stopped me in my tracks. I’d re-read them while pondering the message or admiring the choice of word, the imagery, the depth. I’m sharing a few examples below, but I was spoiled for choice in this book and could easily have come up with a much, much longer list.

“It struck him how unreliable age was as a measure of anything. All it did was count the distance from the start when what truly mattered was the time remaining.” (p.63)

“Well look at us. I could have asked for the full tour – you could have shown me around all your own facts and circumstances, given me the tourist board version of yourself. A whole story that I would later have to revise or unlearn based on who you turned out to be. Bit if I start with what you’re actually like, pick you up where I found you, then at least I’m starting with my information. I can sketch you my won way, and then colour you in over time.” (p.99)

“At times this place has been like quicksand. At other times like the centre of the world.” (p.112)

“Sometimes, as I get older, I wonder whether all that’s left are the unfixable things.” (p.115)

“Loneliness is a torch. It can show you things about yourself.” (p.123)

“But isn’t that what allowing yourself to be loved is all about – letting something greater than fear into your life?” (p.160)

 

Long review short. Panenka is a treasure of a book. The quiet story it tells is filled with humanity. It touched me deeply without ever turning sentimental. Between Leonard and Hungry Paul and Panenka, Rónán Hession has earned his place on my list of ‘must-read authors’.



Sunday, 17 April 2022

Girl A by Abigail Dean


326 pages

Publisher: HarperCollins

Book Club Read

 

Blurb

Lex Gracie doesn't want to think about her family. She doesn't want to think about growing up in her parents' House of Horrors. And she doesn't want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother and four younger siblings. It's been easy enough to avoid her parents--her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can't run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her siblings - and with the childhood they shared.

 

Review

 

Yet another book where I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

This is what it says on the back of the paperback:

‘Girl A’, she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’

I am Lex Gracie: but they call me Girl A.

I grew up with my family on the moors.

I escaped when I was fifteen years old.

NOW SOMETHING IS PULLING ME BACK…

 

And that is followed by ‘The biggest mystery thriller since Gone Girl’ – Elle.

The description and the blurb sounded intriguing and pulled me in as soon as I read them. But… Whatever this story is, it is not a mystery or a thriller. It’s a fascinating story, that’s for sure, but in a ‘car-crash-I-should-look-away-but-I-can not' sorta way. Sure, there are one or two shocking and unexpected revelations (which for obvious reasons I won’t go into) in this book, but most of what the reader gets is revealed in the blurb and in the first chapter.

This is the story of a family in crisis. Of a father becoming so obsessively religious that he puts his children in mortal danger, and a mother who isn’t strong enough (or too devoted to her husband?) to interfere on behalf of her children. It gives a fascinating view of how the circumstances affect every child a little differently. While they all suffer, they don’t suffer or deal with their suffering in identical ways.

Alexandra (Lex) – Girl A; the one who got away and saved her siblings.

Ethan – Boy A; as the oldest child he had privileges or was being groomed by his father to follow in his footsteps. He creeped my out, especially since he is referred to as a sociopath by one of his siblings. What creeped me out even more was that none of the siblings felt the need to warn his wife-to-be about the risks she faced if she married him.

Delilah – Girl B; described as a bit of a pretty airhead, she may have been smarter than the others in that she managed to charm those around her, including her father to some extent.

Gabriel – Boy B; ruined by his adoptive parents’ dreams of fame based on his nightmarish past as much as his horrific real family and everything that happened there.

Noah – Boy D; the only one young enough to have no memories of the horrors inflicted on the others and for that reason kept away from his siblings in an effort by his adoptive parents to give him a ‘normal’ life.

Evie – Girl C; the sibling closed to Lex.

Daniel – The only child without a chapter who would have been ‘Boy C’.

Of course, since the book is told only from Girl A’s perspective, we don’t necessarily get an accurate description of how her siblings experience and deal with their early years. All we know is what Girl A has observed and the conclusions she has drawn from that.

Although Lex’s escape and some of the horrors leading up to that moment are revealed very early on, there were huge stretches of the story where things didn’t seem that bad. The horror of their situation creeps up on the reader, just as it would have crept up on the children. As a result, the read became increasingly uncomfortable for me. I knew things had to get horrific in order to live up to both the book blurb and Lex finding the courage to escape the chains that bound her, but there was a long stretch where it was possible for me to believe that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

As I said, this book didn’t read as a mystery or thriller for me. It felt more like a character study; a description of how even when trapped in the same nightmare, all participants come out of it with different memories, different defense mechanisms, and different (lasting) consequences.

Finally, there is something I didn’t know before I started this book and now that I do know, I’m not sure how I feel about it. As it turns out, this story is based on a real-life domestic tragedy known as the Turpin family saga. Click the link if you would like to know more about that.

Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about this book. While it was a captivating read, it wasn’t at all what I expected. There were a few questions I would have liked a (clearer) answer to and, most frustratingly, I have no idea how the book ended. I mean, I read all of it, but I couldn’t tell you if that ending was hopeful or heart-breaking. The fact that I don’t really care what the answer to that conundrum is, explains my 3 ½ stars rating.  

 


 


 

 

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

 


Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

275 pages

Book Club Read / Part of The Art of Reading Book Club with Colm Tóbín

 

Blurb

 

When you leave Ireland aged 22 to spend your parents’ money, it’s called a gap year. When Ava leaves Ireland aged 22 to make her own money, she’d not sure what to call it, but it involves:

  • A badly-paid job in Hong Kong, teaching English grammar to rich children;
  • Julian, who likes to spend money on Ava and lets her move into his guest room;
  • Edith, who Ava meets while Julian is out of town and actually listens to her when she talks;
  • Money, love, cynicism, unspoken feelings and unlikely connections

Exciting times ensue.

 

Review

I may have gone into this book a little prejudiced. My daughter warned me I probably wouldn’t like it. As much as I would have loved for her to be wrong, I’m afraid she knows me very well and was spot on. It appears that Colm Toibin and I are not on the same page when it comes to preferred fiction…at all.

I didn’t like Ava. I know young people (myself included at that time) can be rather self-obsessed, but I found Ava particularly selfish. Everything is about her and if she does consider others, i.e. Julian and Edith, it is mostly in terms of how they relate to her, how they affect or improve her life. Sure, towards the end of the book she does appear to go on a bit of a journey and seems to gain some insight into how her actions and lack thereof affect Edith, but for me it was too little too late. What’s more, if I had been Edith, I would have told her as much and moved on…fast.

Despite what Ava continuously tells herself and the reader, I couldn’t help feeling that Julian was her victim too. Surely the fact that he does ask her to move to Hamburg with him indicates that he is more attached to her than he has been willing to admit. Surely her initial agreement followed by her last moment change of mind means that she now inflicts the same level of hurt on him as she inflicted on Edith earlier in the story? Does she even let him know she’s changed her mind about following him?

To be fair, I didn’t have a hard time reading this book and I wasn’t tempted to not finish it at any time. On the other hand, I found it impossible to connect to any of the three main characters. I never figured out why they were attracted to each other or what they got out of sharing time (and bodies). While Ava’s motivation seems obvious that is only true when it comes to her finding a luxurious roof over her head without having to part with money. What either Julian or Edith gets out of being with Ava never became clear to me.

A few notes I took while reading:

  • I wonder if this book is (somewhat) pretentious, or if that’s ‘just’ me?
  • Is it me or is Ava rather pathetic in her neediness? Sure, she’s young (23) but is that an excuse for her using Julian and/or allowing Julian to use her?
  • Why is she attracted to Edith?
  • On page 149 I came across an observation Edith makes about Ava that feels rather apt:

 

“You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal. I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you don’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself you’re especially bad.”

 To me that sounds like just more self-indulgence. If she tells herself she’s bad, she doesn’t have to take a close(r) look at why she acts the way she does.

  • It would help if I understood why both Julian and Edith want Ava in their lives. Nothing in her narrative makes her attractive in my eyes.
  • It’s funny how, in a book written from a first-person perspective, I never felt as if I got the know Ava. Mind you, Julian and Edith, as seen and described by Ava, weren’t any clearer.
  • Conclusion: MEH! 

Maybe it is time for me to admit that (some) of the upcoming Irish writers are just not telling stories aimed at me. On the other hand, maybe I have to consider that I may be missing something when I’m reading books like this one. The long and short of it is that while this book was easy enough to read and the story enough of a trainwreck to keep my attention, I’m not overly impressed. ‘Exciting’ is not the term I would choose to describe the times in this story. For me ‘desperate’ would have been a more appropriate term.



Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan


 116 pages

Publisher Faber & Faber

Part of The Art of Reading Book Club with Colm Tóbín

 

Blurb

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.

The long-awaited new work from the author of Foster, Small Things Like These is an unforgettable story of hope, quiet heroism and tenderness.

 

Review

“The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the net door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.” 

What to say about this book?

What to say about a story that left me both happy and dissatisfied?

Basically, this is the tale of a good man, Bill Furlong, paying it forward; performing an act of kindness that mirrors the similar act decades earlier, performed for his mother. I loved this aspect of the story. What’s not to like about a man confronting, facing, and overcoming his fears in order to do what is right?

I’m less happy that the story ended on the act, without showing us any of the consequences. Of course, it is easy enough to predict what might happen next, but I would have liked to see it unfold. As it is, I can imagine two very different outcomes and in an ideal (reading) world, I would have read about the positive option playing out. Maybe not immediately, but I like to think that in the end, Bill’s act of kindness would have been met by those who care for him, backing his decision. As it is, I will never know.

Then again, maybe that’s for the best. Rural Ireland in 1985 is not a place I recognise. Of course, my first visit to Ireland didn’t happen until two years later, but even what I saw, learned, and intuited at the time is nothing like what I encountered in this story. 1985, it doesn’t feel that long ago, but it is fair to say that Ireland has come a very long and mostly positive way since then. Based on the little I do know about those times and public attitudes back then; it is just as easy to imagine Bill’s act leading to the destruction of everything he holds dear.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the contrast between the way the story is told and what it is about. The writing is easy, gentle, and almost entirely without a sense of urgency. The content on the other hand is edgy, pressing, and filled with tension. Especially the first part of the book left me with the impression that I was reading a gentle vignette of times gone by. But the longer I lived with the words I’d read, the darker this apparently simple tale turned.

So, that’s where I’m at. Somewhat confused about how I feel about this story. It was beautifully written and deceptively easy to read. It was also darker than I expected, and it has left me with enough food for thought to last me days, if not weeks. While I’m not sure how much I liked Small Things Like These, I am very glad I’ve read it and I’m looking forward to (eventually) discussing this little gem with my book club.



Monday, 21 February 2022

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 

372 pages

Publisher: Tinder Press

Book Club Read

 

Blurb

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. 

Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

 

Review

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this book.

The story is well written and flows with an ease I envy, which means it was a mostly effortless read for me.

I also found Hamnet a very easy book to walk away from. While reading was easy for as long as I had the book open, it was even easier to ignore the story, forget about it even, when I wasn’t reading. Given Maggie O’Farrell received the Women’s Prize for Fiction for this work in 2020 and taking into account the glowing blurbs from other authors, I’m inclined to blame myself for not being gripped by the story.

Maggie O’Farrell is very generous with her words as a writer. Everything gets a full description. Very little is ever hinted at. While some of the descriptions and clarifications were glorious both for the language used to share them and for the emotions they evoked, there were at least as many occasions when I thought a few simple words might have painted a similar, if not vastly improved, image.

I love the idea of taking the combination of Shakespeare’s deceased son and the play that shares his name and tying the two together. But the story didn’t touch me. I would have expected an emotional reaction to Hamnet’s dying and to the subsequent grief his surviving family members deal with, all in their individual ways.

It didn’t.

For me, those emotions got lost in the descriptions which I’m sure were meant to amplify the pain and suffering. I took it all as fact without feeling a connection. I just didn’t care about Agnes, Will, Suzanna, or Judith. In fact, the character that was most alive for me, was Hamnet, although his death means he has less of a presence in this book than any of the others. And even that connection with Hamnet didn’t mean I was touched when he died.

Of course, it is quite possible that the set-up of the boy’s death, making it his choice, has a lot to do with that disconnect. While I had no problem with Agnes’s mystical powers, making Hamnet choose to take his sister’s place was one step too far for me in the unbelievable stakes.

While the book may be titled Hamnet, the Shakespeare title that came to mind most while reading this story was ‘Much ado about nothing’. Not that I would ever describe the death of a child as such, but the surplus of words, and the resulting loss of direct harshness, made the reading experience rather bland for me.

 


 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 245

Book Club Read

Blurb

Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.


In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Review

Before I get to my thoughts about this book, I want to say this. I won’t be going into the story or try to outline it. I’m not sure I know where I should begin or how I would put it into words. What’s more, I feel that anything I might reveal would constitute a spoiler, so I’m afraid, the blurb is all you get.

With that out of the way:

Twenty-six pages into this book I had two thoughts:

1.     I’m not convinced (most of) my book club members are going to be impressed with this choice.

2.     Looks like this is one of those books that is going to leave me intrigued and totally confused by the time I finish reading it.


The house is valuable because it is the house. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end. - Page 61


Since the book club meeting won’t take place for another three days, I can’t say anything about how right or wrong I was in that first assessment. As for my second thought…

I am definitely intrigued. In fact, I was intrigued and engrossed from the moment I started reading. It’s fair to say that for about the first quarter of the book I had no idea what I was reading or what the story was supposed to be, but whatever it was, I was captivated.

As far as Piranesi is concerned, the House is the world. It is not quite that simple for the reader. I guess you can look at the House as a metaphor for Piranesi’s confused mind. Or you can embrace the mythical, surreal atmosphere of the narrative and accept the House as a different world, only accessible for familiar with the old knowledge. And it now occurs to me that there’s a third option in which the House is a combination of real-world and confused (d)illusions.

The main character, called Piranesi by his only human companion, the Other, came across as innocent and childlike. He doesn’t question his surroundings, his world, or anything else for that matter, when the story starts. What’s more, if it hadn’t been mentioned that he was male, I would have guessed Piranesi was female. But that innocence allows us to better view the world – aka the House – and Piranesi’s life there. Piranesi’s thoughts are very descriptive which allows the reader to see the halls and the statues. And I loved how Piranesi’s character was revealed through how he deals with the human remains he finds and again when he postpones his own requirements to meet the needs of nesting birds.

While I’m on the subject of those statues. I have absolutely no doubt I missed a lot of references there. I’m almost certain that those statues represented old Gods and I would be surprised if their placement in the story isn’t somehow significant. Most if not all of this went over my head, but I can’t say I minded or that I feel as if I missed (vital) parts of the story.

As I said earlier, this story grabbed me right from the start and kept me captivated until the very end. But, what I like even more, is that Piranesi still hasn’t let go. More than twenty-four hours after finishing the book I’m still playing ‘what-if’ games with myself. I’d love to get into those here but that would be very spoilery, so I’ll keep my musings to myself. All I can say is that if you like very well-written books that make you wonder, keep you guessing, and refuse to give you clear-cut answers, Piranesi is probably the book for you.




Home Stretch by Graham Norton


 Publisher: Coronet

362 pages

Book Club read


Blurb

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is shattered by a terrible accident. Young Connor is one of the survivors, but staying among the angry and the mourning is more than he can bear. He leaves the only place he knows, taking his secrets with him.

But the unspoked longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind will not be silenced. And before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

 

Review

 Careful: This review contains spoilers

Honestly? I find the blurb I copied from the back cover of the paperback rather insufficient. When I marked the book on Goodreads, I found the following book description and it works a lot better for me.

 

In this “compelling, bighearted, emotionally precise page-turner” (Sunday Times), the New York Times bestselling writer and acclaimed television host explores the aftermath of a tragedy on a small-town to illuminate the shame and longing that can flow through generations—and how the secrets of the heart cannot stay buried forever.

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is preparing for a wedding. The day before the ceremony, a group of young friends, including the bride and groom, are involved in an accident. Three survive. Three are killed.

The lives of the families are shattered and the rifts between them ripple throughout the small town. Connor survived, but living among the angry and the mourning is almost as hard as carrying the shame of having been the driver. He leaves the only place he knows for another life, taking his secrets with him. Travelling first to Liverpool, then London, he eventually makes a home—of sorts—for himself in New York, where he finds shelter and the possibility of forging a new life.

But the secrets—the unspoken longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind—will not be silenced. Before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

A powerful and timely novel of emigration and return, Home Stretch demonstrates Norton’s keen understanding of the power of stigma and secrecy—and their devastating effect on ordinary lives.


Now for my thoughts:

I have to be honest and start by saying that it took me a few chapters to fully get into this story. Initially, it felt as if I was told far less than I needed to know in order to appreciate what exactly was going on. As it turned out, I was right. What was more, that was exactly what I should be feeling. This story is cleverly composed in such a way that the truth about what really happened and about Connor and Martin, in particular, is only revealed slowly by means of small hints that eventually build up to huge truths.

This story broke my heart several times. It starts with the day of the crash and that in itself was a devastating scene. What follows just makes matters worse. Poor Connor is basically banished from the place where he grew up, only to find himself alone and lost again not much later when his true nature is discovered by one of his housemates in Liverpool.

Which brings me to one aspect of the story that made me both sad and furious. To this day there are those who hate what they are themselves so much that they will take it out on others who are exactly like them. I guess beating up yourself is all but impossible, whereas unleashing that anger on others is relatively easy, but that doesn’t make that form of self-hatred less horrific and devastating.

To think that young Connor would rather have people thinking that he’d killed three other people through reckless driving than have them find out that he’s gay is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. Especially since I have no doubt that for all too many (young) people the fear of being ‘outed’ is so deep and ingrained that they would rather be seen as something – anything – else, no matter how despicable.

But, the flipside of Connor’s banishment and him being forced to find his own feet at a very early age means that his journey made for fascinating reading. The secrets from the past hold him back for so long; he avoids any and all contact with the family he left behind in Ireland for decades. But, while he goes through ups and downs and it takes him a very long time to become his own man rather than what he thinks others want him to be, it is an interesting and eye-opening journey.

All characters in this story are flawed. For a long time, everybody in this book allows their fears, prejudices, and insecurities to direct their path through life. It is easy to sit in judgment of people’s actions when you’re ‘only’ the reader. The wonderful thing about this book is that no matter how questionable some actions and decisions are, by the end of the book, not only did those choices make sense, but they also led to better, healthier choices.

While it is easy to pinpoint Martin as the villain in this story, I think that would be too easy. While I have certainly had my own ups and downs in self-confidence, I can’t imagine making it to the age of forty or fifty without ever being able to just be who I am. Sure, every single act of Martin’s was despicable, but by the end of the book, it was impossible not to wonder if the biggest victim of Martin’s actions wasn’t Martin himself.

While Home Stretch is very much a story about a man coming to terms with who he is and his past before he can find his way to himself, it is also the story about Ireland and generations of people who were forced to flee everything they knew because the community they lived in wasn’t capable of seeing beyond the values they were spoon-fed from the moment they were born and, for far too long, saw as more important than even the people they were supposed to love unconditionally.

Over the decades described in this book, Ireland has come a long way and it would be nice to think that situations like the one young Connor found himself in are now a thing from the past. I fear that the reality isn’t quite as rosy. We’ve come a long way, but I feel we’ve got an equally long way still to go.

My final thought is that it proved impossible to read this book without wondering how much of Connor’s experiences were taken straight from the author’s life. Not the accident, but the feeling that the place where you were born, where your family continues to live, can no longer be your home feels pulled straight from the heart. Which makes me very happy that, eventually, both Connor and Graham Norton found their way back home, even if it was after a long stretch.