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Category Archive for 'Ireland and Northern Ireland'

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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In this “Tartan Noir” mystery set in 1973, thirty-year-old Harry McCoy, a member of the Glasgow polis, is about to have a week to end all weeks. From July 13, 1973 to July 21, 1973, he will be busy twenty-four hours a day with a series of heinous crimes that will take him from investigations in his native Glasgow to Belfast and back. Several missing persons and some grisly murders, which seem to be the most efficient way to solve difficult problems among the various crime lords of Glasgow, will keep him and his fellow officers so busy they rarely have time to drink, socialize, or experiment with substances. Only a few hours (and ten pages) after the novel begins with the disappearance of thirteen-year-old Alice Kelly, McCoy discovers the body of musician Bobby March, “the best guitarist of his generation,” a man who was not only asked to join the Rolling Stones, but said “no, thank you” to the offer. The noir gets even darker as the novel develops, with more grisly murders and a trip to Belfast by McCoy in search of more information regarding funding for the crimes in Glasgow. The references to Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones give context to Bobby March’s talent, and provide a bit of a break in this very dark narrative.

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With two main characters who have little to suggest that their stories will become the charming, funny, insightful, and un-put-down-able chronicles that eventually evolve, Irish author Rónán Hession demonstrates his own creativity and his own ideas regarding communication and its importance or lack of it in our lives. He ignores the generations-old traditions of boisterous Irish writing and non-stop action in favor of a quiet, kindly, and highly original analysis of his characters and their unpretentious and self-contained lives. Leonard and Hungry Paul, both in their early thirties, are serious introverts with few friends, but events occur which inspire each of them to become just a bit more social. For Leonard, it is a young woman; for Hungry Paul, it is the realization that a new job comes with the possibility that he may have his own apartment, not live at home. I cannot remember when I have read a book which so thoroughly and honestly touched my heart. The writing is intelligent, memorable, real, and very funny, and I am already impatient for Rónán Hession’s next novel.

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Friendship has always played an important role in author Roddy Doyle’s work, and this novel, his thirteenth for adults, is his most intimate in its portrayal of two long-time friends who get together to talk, every now and then, and share their lives. Friends since childhood, Davy and Joe have moved in different directions, with Davy now living in England and coming to Ireland periodically to visit his father in Dublin, and Joe still living in Dublin, where he has worked since high school and raised a family. As the novel opens, the two, now approaching sixty, are meeting in a Dublin pub, and a long night of conversation between them forms the structure of this novel-in-dialogue as they share memories of the past, with most of the memories coming from Joe. Of primary importance to him, is an experience that took place exactly a year ago when Joe saw, for the first time in thirty-seven years, a woman he and Davy had both been in love with when they were twenty-one. With Joe doing most of the “talking,” this novel-in-dialogue tells the story of their marriages and the role this beautiful woman played in Joe’s early dreams and now, surprisingly, in his later life. The many shades of love and the obligations and pleasures associated with it are seen though the vibrant conversations here, as once again, Roddy Doyle brings aspects of Dublin and its people fully to life and shares them with an empathetic world.

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