RaveIrish Times (IRE)I have not stopped dreaming of Our Wives Under the Sea since I finished it ... Julie Armfield’s debut novel is sharp, atmospheric, dryly funny, sad, distinctive. If it doesn’t appear on numerous prize lists, I’ll eat my hat ... There are ecological undertones – one thinks of rising tides, though the climate crisis is not explicitly mentioned ... Indeed, though the writing is relentlessly exacting, Our Wives Under the Sea tends towards the unknowable, which might also be synonymous with death or the uncanny. There is an almost spiritual endlessness to its quest. Like all good novels, it goes deep and then deeper again.
MixedIrish Times (IRE)How you respond to Nightcrawling, the debut work by Leila Mottley, might depend on whether you believe in the novel as a vehicle for social commentary ... As a critique of the nature of policing, the way society treats women...and sex workers, and the impact of the ever-widening class divide in the US, Nightcrawling has merit ... The book expresses the humanity behind social injustice issues ... Those of us who have grown suspect of the idea of a novel as social commentary, however, may feel something lacking here. The characters we expect to be evil are evil, the characters we expect to carry the book’s moral flame do so. There isn’t enough sticky middle ground, or simple daily realism to make this more than a didactic exercise ... Furthermore, the language has the semblance of richness, but is in fact quite hollow ... All of this adds up to make Nightcrawling a perfectly adequate, if not mind-blowing novel. Perhaps that’s what debuts are for. There’s promise here, but no fireworks.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)It’s hard to imagine anyone but Smith pulling off such an unorthodox approach. Not everything feels plausible, yet everything makes a certain sense or symmetry. It’s both hyper-real and surreal. And if there is a hallucinatory quality to the work (Sandy, at one point, wonders if everything, including the government, is a hallucination caused by the virus), it may be because life feels that way, too ... Across the whole quartet, and in this new Companion Piece, Smith digs through language and finds real life.
Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
MixedIrish Independent (IRE)It’s a strange story—inscrutable in some ways—but riffing on themes of colonialism, power, ecology and death ... while the prose is compelling, some readers may find the book’s early sections slow. In its attempts to teach us the rules of its mythic world, it sometimes alienates the reader ... The opening leans too heavily on exposition with little explanation. Further compounding the feeling of stagnancy is the fact that our two protagonists don’t come together until halfway through the book. But when Darwin and Yejide’s stories do join, patient readers will be rewarded for their tenacity ... All these threads, and their mythical, magic realist context, make When We Were Birds a dynamic, amorphous story. It is at times challenging, but by turns thought-provoking, and leaves the reader with much to contemplate and admire.
MixedIrish Times (IRE)As an actor, Brian Cox can convince his audience of anything ... As a writer, Cox has somewhat less panache. His memoir is a perfectly readable, straightforward account of the 72-year-old’s life ... In the context of the celebrity memoir, it more or less ticks the boxes: there’s a bit of name dropping, some gossipy titbits and a window into a world unlike our own ... The book is at its most compelling when Cox reflects on the craft of acting. His interest in taking moment and circumventing it, being at home in slowness, understanding character, and creating parts in a film \'where the character itself might be quite bland, but the actor makes it impactful\' is infectious ... The book is also strong on class. The narrative has a rags-to-riches arc, but not one that bolsters the myth of capitalist meritocracy ... An offhand, irreverent tone seems to be what Cox is going for, and though he’s not quite as good at it on the page as he is onscreen, he still reads the room quite well ... In the end, what’s most compelling about this book is simply the legendary figure at its centre ... It\'s interesting enough.
RaveThe Independent (IRE)In some ways, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Acts of Desperation. Beautiful, troubled boy meets insecure, clever girl in Dublin anti-romance. To describe it in a nutshell gives it away. It is at once everything that’s in vogue right now and everything that’s open to ridicule ... It would be easy to underestimate this novel; to see this narcissistic voice as a flaw, instead of what it is: a device. It would also be easy to perceive its subject matter as indulgent and pathetic, rather than what it turns out to be: daring ... The book is a close and relentless portrait of addiction, and of the addict’s complicity in her own undoing ... The confidence of the voice is balanced by vulnerability. This is the trick to Nolan’s writing in general. It triumphs because it takes a risk: wades into embarrassing, mushy terrain and doesn’t let up ... There is an almost imperceptible bend in the way the story is told. As we read, we find ourselves hurtling towards an ending that is surprising, satisfying, subversive. But even without this ending, the book is deeply affecting ... It moved me.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)Inside Story is an arrogant and long-winded mess with a bad dose of the male gaze that even its supposed self-awareness can’t fix ... Amis apologises in advance for all the name dropping – everyone from Anthony Burgess to Anna Wintour makes an appearance – but the literary gossip is actually the fun part. (An aside about Larkin possibly being Amis’s father is particularly juicy.) ... What he ought to apologise for is subjecting us to long passages of dialogue, the point of which is always to make Martin Amis look clever ... the only times Inside Story make any impact is when it is straightforward and sentimental. Bellow’s descent into dementia in his 80s is movingly depicted ... Martin Amis is certainly a stylish writer. I just wish he’d stop trying to be so clever about it. But then, I suppose, he wouldn’t be Martin Amis.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)A curious trick of this book is its refusal to engage with the fiscal or cultural currencies mentioned above. The outside world is only barely sketched: a Tesco here, an Italian restaurant there; we aren’t told where on the planet we are. Nor are we afforded the conflict this kind of illustration can give ... can be read with an anti-capitalist bent. All around, the corporate machine revs its gears, but within the story are characters who prefer not to participate ... The book triumphs in this unassuming rebellion, and ultimately the appeal to live in the now, appreciate the little things, treat life not as a duty to some external expectation, but as something to be enjoyed, is a relevant one. But what annoys me (and I admit, getting annoyed at this book feels like getting annoyed at my dad for not knowing what \'woke\' means – this book is decidedly not woke, not cool) is that the women never get to participate in the triumph. They are bridezillas, worriers, small talkers, pawns of the frantic external world, who must finally be told off for being so, so that the central characters can carry the thesis of the text...It’s not easy to remain happy and a feminist at the same time, it seems ... Perhaps the characters Leonard and Hungry Paul most resemble are Sheldon and Leonard of The Big Bang Theory – a TV series in which women aren’t properly characterised until around series three when it is decided that geek girls might add some flavour to the soup. I long for geek girls. And with a two-book deal under his belt, perhaps Hession will provide them. Next time. For now, all I can do is what the book asks: take it for what it is. One of life’s simple pleasures.
RaveThe Irish TimesI loved this collection. Spending time with it was like hanging out with a charming serial killer. The characters are mostly abysmal yet there’s a draw to them. Their plight is often drenched in narcissism or entitlement, but Cline so gets into their heads that we almost sympathise ... It feels like we’re looking at the melancholy of modernity. Characters are individualistic, lonely victims of expectation ... A fatalism presides. How could anyone move through this world and come out clean? We’re given no answers, no gestures towards hope. And yet the book feels illuminating. It has respect for its reader. It trusts us to take its ambiguity and live with it. Amid all the falsity, it keeps it real.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)The book is cleverly crafted, insightful and moving ... Trethewey observes astutely the ways in which racial prejudices are passed down and repeated ... There is a cool aloofness to the way Trethewey depicts Joel ... This family’s wound will not heal. But the author’s deference to the signs she perceives (or indeed creates) brings a sort of redemption. Story, symbolism, metaphor are, you could say, a sort of faith—a willed belief in something you have fabricated in order to find meaning.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)To write this book, Slimani had to be, by some measures, brave. Not the kind of brave that jumps in front of a bullet, but something more subtle and galvanising. Provocative might be the word ... Irish eyes will easily recognise sentences like: \'Do what you like, but do it in private\' or \'Everyone knows it – but no one will acknowledge or confront it\', as well as stories of women facing criminal charges for having abortions, stories of babies found abandoned ... It did not feel far from home. What the book demonstrates so clearly are the ways in which women’s bodies are the battleground for colonial and cultural tensions. If Morocco’s objective is to differentiate itself from the West as Ireland once wished to differentiate itself from Britain, by imposing a brutal sort of morality, it is the women who suffer ... In many ways Slimani represents both sides: Europe, Morocco. But she also acknowledges her distance ... It’s risky to jump in and pretend to understand – \'both\' can easily become \'neither\' when it comes to identity – but risk is Slimani’s middle name. She is teaching us to be intersectional feminists, which is a fancy way of saying your empathy should reach past your own self-interest to the interest of those who are different to you. And if you’re really free, then exercising that freedom is no risk at all.
Szczepan Twardoch, Trans. by Sean Gasper Bye
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)... arresting ... The book’s ingenuity stems from the way it uses point of view. We float like a butterfly around our central story ... There’s a cool indifference to the tone, yet a hot, rapid pace propels the narrative. You’d be tripping over your feet trying to keep up with these criminals ... But arguably what’s most impressive about The King of Warsaw is the architecture of the words on the page ... Twardoch is a deft writer. On this insecure foundation he lays a whole world. The reader goes along, despite all warning. Then Twardoch, somehow, collapses everything, leaving us to come to in a different story altogether, as though we’ve been struck a blow. To be too specific about this would be likely to ruin the effect, but see for yourself. It’s an impressive sleight of hand ... There are metaphors to be scratched at, layers to be uncovered. Even as it stares into the abyss, it seems to me that this text is getting at something beyond bleak nothingness ... Either way – whatever way you want to read it – read it. The King of Warsaw is a fine and accomplished work that ought to be read widely and thoughtfully.
Esther Safran Foer
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)The nooks and crannies that don’t fit a historical narrative are important. The book is steeped in history but, crucially, not concerned with history. It is concerned with family, with memory. This, as they say, is personal ... a moving book. Much of the narrative is sad. Death, silence, emptiness haunt the work. There are things that may never be known. But the telling is unique and interesting. The book succeeds in putting names (or more precisely, stories) to things that exist only as artefacts, and inversely putting physicality to things that exist only as story ... The delineation between history and memory is a significant one, and gives an interesting angle to the narrative.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)You know that effect they use in the film Titanic, where the images on screen morph from current wreckage to past splendour? Undersea rot turns into polished staircases and sumptuous ballrooms. I see a similar distortion as I read the opening pages of Hannah Rothschild’s second novel ... The madcap nature of the story; the clichés, and clever way they are rendered, make this a thoroughly enjoyable read – or, to use the correct terminology, a jolly good show. Yet the larger issues this satire plays on are equally fascinating ... That central tension between what the reader knows and what the characters know is a powerful tool for making fun of wealth and wealthy institutions ... Yet it is never clear, even by the end, what exactly we are being asked to look at: the institutions which fall, or the ones that rise again. For, among all the revolution, modernization, and recalibration of wealth and power, there are always some who, fortunes intact, manage to sneak away in a lifeboat.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)... even though the book is funny, clever, fast-paced, and sharp, what makes it work is this bleak truth: our hero is not a hero. He has no story of his own, and the book will not bend to the usual cheesy tricks of redemption.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)My God, does this book shake the statistics out of you. It starts with a gunshot and does not let up. It places you right in the heart of the terror and holds your eyes open. Released at the end of January, this might be the first book some people read this year. It might also be the best ... Cummins doubted her credentials to write this book. Many will be glad she forged ahead. The clear research and heart that went into these pages leave the reader in little doubt about its storyteller ... Each scene of the book is so detailed and immediate, every threat so unbearable, that the fiction barely feels like fiction at all ... The plot is tightly woven: the narrative tumbling along and the backstory creeping up behind like a terrifying stalker. But it is the strong and memorable characters that are the book’s forte. I loved Lydia, her kindness, her resilience, her mothering nature. I loved Luca’s smarts (he’s a geography ace with “perfect direction the way some prodigies have perfect pitch”) and his bravery. I was moved by the morality of Sebastian, Lydia’s husband, a journalist who dies practising freedom of the press. These are good people. They subvert what some think they know about migrants, and speak to our humanity.
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)That’s what makes Bowen’s writing so cunning: it’s all there, yet it’s never, until the last moment, obvious ... the reader who comes to these 79 stories for the first time might feel a bit overwhelmed. The things that make Bowen’s work brilliant – her ability to shift between the interior and the exterior; her swift changes in point-of-view; her oscillations between storytelling and social commentary – are also what make it challenging. In a sense, to read Bowen you must already know her: you must have warmed up the right muscles and be prepared to read backwards as well as forwards. And sideways too ... this collection attempts to assert Bowen’s place in the canon ... Of course the \'aboutness\' of any is difficult pin down. There is so much contained in each. Even on a granular, sentence-level, worlds unfold ... There is a reason why, down the years, Bowen’s work has been described as realist by some, experimental by others. It is both ... The reader who buys this collection must be prepared for such uncertainty. To get the most out of Bowen’s stories, you must become a student of them. They ask to be read again and again. Their architecture works best when lived in.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... not, then, a book of revelations or classical argumentation. Solnit’s essays document how deeply and widely things are what they are, and her circling back is a sustained act of protest ... The strength of the collection in an interweaving of optimism and discontent ... The spirit of Solnit’s book lies in sharing, in slinking away from the centre to take your place among the many.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRELAND)I think the trick to reading Gladwell is to notice the tongue in his cheek. His theories are fire pokers to our fixed set of assumptions
Jonathan Safran Foer
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)... what Foer does best is push metaphors until they move ... The experience of reading this book allows us to see more fully what is before our eyes. It tries, simultaneously, to bring us out of the present moment and back into it ... I was certainly moved by this book.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)\"I confused myself by disliking this book on first read and then, when going back a second time to dig for something to say, being absolutely blown away ... Once you get with the thythm of Inland, it really packs a punch. There are lots of details, but none of them is redundant. In fact, they contain a depth that seems bottomless. Obreht\'s debut won the Orange Prize for its mythic depiction of the Blakan Wars. It\'s been eight years coming but this literary western will likely invite similar adulation.\
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)This story will feel familiar to anyone who has cared for elderly relatives ... a full, wide-spanning narrative, and one which includes stark family truths, but for the reader there is always the sense of being stuck in the \'now\', that slow space where an ice cube might be melting in a glass, a cigarette carefully lit, or a clock faintly ticking ... If this sounds like a sad book, it is. It is slow and melancholy. The writing is at times overwrought, saturated with detail. But it is also poetic and at times whimsical.
PositiveThe Irish Times\"The plot is slightly hokey, but the momentum is fast. Like many Shakespeare plays, this work begs to be read allegorically. It’s fun to theme-ize, categorize, etymologize. Motifs of wealth, madness, animal instinct and more permeate. Haddon writes clipped tense sentences, leads us to bizarre and beguiling places ... Were Haddon a female writer, The Porpoise might have been marketed as a feminist retelling of Pericles. As it is, the tale is all the more complex and chilling for his broaching of this subject. He ventures into dangerous lands.\
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)Almost every line in Bryan Washington’s debut short story collection feels like a sucker punch ... This book’s style is ambitious but never forced ... Even for those like me unfamiliar with the city, Washington makes the place sing with his sharp, rap-style lyricism ... This isn’t the apple pie Texas of southern belles and Stetsons. We meet sex workers, drug dealers, blacks, blancos and Latinos, and the snappy, telling sentences capture a whole social order in a mere few words ... Do good things come to people who \'look to the shore\', who are upwardly mobile, as per the American dream? This book seems sceptical of the idea. But it is also full of nuance ... What Washington does best is to find a strange beauty in it all, without offering judgment or redemption.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)... one of the most curious books of 2019 ... At first glimpse, Crawdads might seem like a gentle book. Readers are likely to warm to the exacting, filmic descriptions ... But if this is a gentle book, it is only as gentle as an animal, as gentle as the weather, as gentle as the tide: which is to say that beneath everything, there is a wild and dangerous energy ... Part of [the book\'s] draw is how readily it engages with contemporary themes – not just motherhood, but femaleness, loneliness, personhood, society. What does it mean to be raised and taught, to comply with rules and/or be victimised by rules, to live among others, and/or be excluded by others? You could call Crawdads a raging feminist manifesto, a seething commentary on small town tribalism/racism, a cry for ecological action ... I was also enchanted by extra-textual elements ... Some of the plot twists felt false and cheap. There were parts of the murder case that seemed forced – the police detectives often came across as overly obtuse, in a trade-off for suspense ... Still, the main character will stay with me. I liked her animal-like movements, her hermit state. I liked her unique position in the world: something barely subject to human contact, yet which could not fully denounce her humanness: a humanness that would inevitably lead to yearning, love and – most prominently for Kya – pain. And I liked how in the face of such pain, there was every chance she might become, like any human animal, a deadly and ferocious beast.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)... powerful ... These are stories of yearning and captivity, of neglect and repression – stories that search for redemption, all the while threatening regression. As a portrayal of native people, it is the most nuanced and illuminating I have seen ... The seemingly disparate tales are in fact quite cohesive. Just as we become rapt in one, we catch the gleam of another, and are thus led towards the book’s revealing ending. (I long to tell you what happens in this rapturous final scene at the powwow, but suffice to say you should go see the sorry spectacle for yourself) ... What’s ingenious about this book – a book about the Indian experience – is that it seems wary of capturing the Indian experience at all ... the book sits in its own uncertainty: grabs at the truth and misses. Which is perhaps just what it means to do: gesture towards the notion that people cannot be captured. And that’s as powerful a manifesto as any.