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Category Archive for 'Ireland and Northern Ireland'

In ten short stories, Irish author Roddy Doyle sums up the new, difficult lives of several men dealing alone with various issues, including the difficulty of dealing with health-required lockdowns in the wake of Covid 19. In Ireland, these lockdowns seem to have been accepted as a matter of course, something affecting everyone and obeyed by everyone, though creating a strong sense of melancholy and loss to everyday life. Roddy Doyle’s book title, “Life Without Children,” also reflects the emptiness many of his characters feel with their children now grown up and missing from their parents’ everyday lives, to the point where at least one character, in the short story “Life Without Children,” wonders if it is even possible to change his now-dull life for the better. The “action” of these stories is quiet and personal for all the main characters, each of whom spends much of his time analyzing his situation, his relationships, and himself. This is a collection which will keep older readers thoroughly involved and intrigued by the author’s solutions to his characters’ darker moments “without children,” while younger readers will be intrigued by Doyle’s insights and his depictions of a different reality.

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Setting his third novel in the south of Ireland in the years between 1920 and 1982, author Billy O’Callaghan writes a semi-autobiographical account of a large, extended Irish family always struggling to stay alive, meet their responsibilities, and love their children. O’Callaghan, a master of description, both physical and emotional, creates scenes of great sadness, stressing the goodness of the people and the horrors of outside events – from the Potato Famine through a world war and a society and church in which women have little control over their lives. The strength of these women lies in their love of family, especially their children, and their willingness to do whatever is necessary to save them under horrific conditions. Their hard lives are their “normal,” one which becomes real as a result of O’Callaghan’s insightful descriptions of the conditions under which these women live and the creativity with which they approach their difficult roles as mothers and caregivers.

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John Banville, writing here under his own name, has returned to writing mystery stories featuring the often unlovable Dublin police pathologist, Quirke, and he clearly enjoys the freedom of his mystery writing. This novel opens in London, where an Irishman who “liked killing people” is hired to kill a mother who plans to leave her son out of her will. Grabbing her bag “to make it look like garden snatch job done by some panicky kid,” he does the job and escapes. The second setting is in Donostia, Spain, where Quirke, a recently married pathologist for the Dublin police, and his wife Evelyn, a psychiatrist, are on holiday. In Spain, Quirke twice sees an Irish woman from a distance and believes he has seen her before, dismissing, temporarily, the idea that a physician friend of his daughter Phoebe in Dublin, missing and presumed dead, might actually be the person he has seen. Creating many darkly ironic scenes and descriptions, Banville creates his characters, using them to present plot elements which many other “literary” authors would be unable to include in a mystery without being accused of “sensationalism.” APRIL IIN SPAIN is a coherent, tense, and wide-ranging mystery, written with drama and flair, with no subject considered off-limits.

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Watching the arrival of Violet, a young, three-year-old elephant from Ceylon, purchased for the Bellevue Zoo in Belfast in 1940, Hettie Quin looks forward to getting to know this new star of the zoo. She “had never seen so many people at the docks: it was as if British royalty or a famous screen actress were among the steamer’s passengers arriving that morning.” A twenty-year-old with no interest in pursuing any of the traditional roles for women in 1940, Hettie has set her sights on becoming a zookeeper, and she quickly focuses in on Violet with her attentions. The elephant, who is relatively untrained and tense after her long voyage, will need some special help settling in. Not long after the elephant’s arrival, Belfast is bombed, and Hettie Quin takes it upon herself to save Violet by hiding her somewhere in Belfast where she cannot be found. In 2009, the zoo discovers the name of a real woman who took care of a real young elephant at the Zoo during nights of bombings in WW2. Links are also provided to the story of the real elephant and her savior.

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In a novel which defies genre, written in a style which feels like a cross between Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker, Irish author Paraic O’Donnell creates a complex mystery set in London in the late nineteenth century. Fun to read, often humorous, just as often mysterious or violent, and filled with vibrant description of all kinds, The House on Vesper Sands stands out for its uniqueness among all recently released novels for the year. Providing gothic thrills at the same time that it also creates an intense picture of Victorian spiritualism, ghostly manifestations, and changing church practices, it is structured as a formal religious Requiem from 1893, at the same time that it features ironies and elements of humor which will provide some hearty laughs. And always, always, the author remembers that his primary goal with this novel is to entertain.

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