“Normal People” by Sally Rooney (2018)

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“Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.”

Last year, I read Conversations with Friends which a friend had been gently nagging me to have a go at. I ended up enjoying it much more than I thought I would. This was not the end of the nagging however, as then attention was turned to Sally Rooney’s second novel. So here we are.

Connell and Marianne live in the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. Marianne lives in a large house with her mother and brother, and Connell’s mother cleans for them. Despite this difference, the two begin a friendship of sorts, although Connell is so concerned that people at school will judge him for talking to weird friendless Marianne that he keeps everything about it a secret and doesn’t speak to her in public. When the relationship becomes sexual, the two find themselves incredibly compatible, but Connell’s pride threatens to ruin everything.

Over the next five years, at university and out the other side, they continue to weave in and out of one another’s lives and beds, their relationship constantly changing, yet somehow still being the one constant in their lives. As they grow and change and learn more about themselves, it seems that no matter what they do, they are continually drawn back to one another, for better or for worse.

Perhaps inevitably because it’s by the same author, but I found myself having many of the same feelings about this one as I did Conversations with Friends, although I think I slightly prefer that one. Rooney’s writing continues to sing, with its curiously poetic quality. Although there were fewer lines in here that jumped out at me and struck me in that bit of the brain that thinks, “That’s exactly it”, there is still something utterly compelling about it all, and the characters feel real in ways I can’t really fathom. In terms of plot, not much happens, and yet we are drawn deeply and fully into this small world where we find ourselves sitting alongside these people. Part of me wanted to dislike them both, and yet I can’t. That’s not to say I particularly want to be friends with them, but I don’t dislike them.

I guess the biggest compliment I can pay the book is that I could have read another two hundred pages of it, at least. Perhaps after a while the idea would have grown stale, but when it finished I just wanted to know what happened next. That’s not to say that it ends badly, it doesn’t, and the ending emphasises the cyclical nature of life and in particular the relationship between Connell and Marianne.

It’s going to stick with me, and I can’t say that about everything I’ve read. I wonder if this is the beginning of a long and plentiful career, or whether Rooney will rest on her laurels with these two brilliant novels.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume (2015)

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“He is running, running, running.”

Once again, I turn my attention to a book about loneliness. I didn’t really intend to so early into the year, but here we are.

Ray is fifty-seven and can easily be defined as a loner. Treated as something of a pariah in his village – although how much of this is self-inflicted is up for debate – he knows that people think he’s weird and don’t like having anything to do with him. Since his father died, he’s been alone in his house and keeps his interactions with other people to a minimum. But then he meets One Eye, a vicious little dog looking for some company, but who is also used to being alone and ignored.

Now bound together, Ray and One Eye begin to explore the village and the beach together, growing accustomed to one another’s company. But when One Eye attacks a smaller dog on the beach, it seems that Ray might suddenly lose the one thing in his life that he actually cares about. That is, if he doesn’t do something drastic to stop it…

Baume has, to all intents and purposes, written a prose poem here. I’m exaggerating a little, but in truth this is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing. The heartstrings are tugged for both Ray and One Eye, who might not be the most appealing characters, somehow still are written with a certain warmth that ensures you’re invested in them. Every page is laced with metaphors and images that stagger over and over again with a beautiful simplicity.  The small world around Ray feels vivid and thoroughly realised. All five senses are in play, with Baume really seeming to enjoy describing the minutia of the landscape. She’s not afraid to spend a sentence focusing on a banana skin, or a withered plant.

The lack of dialogue is a little disconcerting at first, as I’m someone who’s big on characters and their interactions, but in this case there can’t be too many or it ruins the whole thing. What there is, works perfectly. It all adds to the sense of loneliness, and the general unease. In fact, uneasiness is definitely a key element here. You never get the impression that Ray is a bad man, but there are definitely things that he’s choosing not to tell you, and while some of them do eventually come out, there are still some answers that he takes with him beyond the final pages. He is human without question, and Baume manages to resists anthropomorphising One Eye, instead never letting us into his mind. We only have Ray’s interpretation of the dog’s actions to take a guess at how he feels. As such, he gets to remain a wild thing, unfathomable and undomesticated.

An utterly tragic tale that delves deep into a man on the fringes of society.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)

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“Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.”

A friend of mine raved about this book for months before I got hold of it. She kept sending me passages and telling me how great it was and, intrigued, I bought it and settled down. Another friend said that the title sounded like I was revising for social situations. But no, just a piece of fiction from a new Irish writer.

Frances is a university student in Dublin, who spends her evenings performing spoken word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances is considered by some to be a little aloof, but she’s just an observant person who doesn’t always feel like she has much to say. The pair meet photographer and journalist Melissa. She loves their performances and wants to write a piece about them, with photographs to match, so the pair visit her house. She’s sixteen years older than them, and married to the effortlessly handsome Nick, a jobbing actor, and so begins a four-way friendship.

Things get complicated, however, when Frances begins sleeping with Nick and can’t work out exactly how she feels about him. She decides not to tell Bobbi about it, and hopes that Melissa doesn’t find out. They communicate mostly via e-mail, and Frances isn’t begins to doubt whether she can keep it up. Unfortunately, she and Bobbi have just been invited to Melissa and Nick’s holiday home in France, so the relationship takes on a new turn on the continent. The relationships between the four main characters drive the plot along as everyone tries to work out what they want and how to get it.

First up, the writing is beautiful. It sings. That was the overwhelming takeaway I had from the book, even early on. It’s no surprise to say that none of the characters are especially pleasant, but Sally Rooney has something special going on. Her prose is finely balanced, startling and charged with emotion. In many ways, it’s quite poetic. Among these, I don’t think there’s actually that much plot happening. It’s mostly about a couple having an affair – a common plot point in fiction – but it’s explored with great pathos and I found that, somehow, I couldn’t entirely hate the characters. Bobbi and Melissa are more unlikable to me, and I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with either of them: Melissa is snooty and selfish, Bobbi is pretentious and thinks she’s more alternative than she is. Nick starts off simply being dull, but redeems himself with a collection of interesting traits later on. Frances is the most intriguing character, perhaps simply because she’s narrating. She is always watching people and is quick to judge, even if only inside her own head, but she’s evidently talented. She is, however, also irritating, lacking any direction or indeed any desire for direction in her life. She’s one of those people who blunders along assuming that everything will sort itself out without any input from her. It’s a trait I know well – it describes me too. In fact, like with Not Working that I read the other week, there are a few too many home truths here.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes, too. These range from emotionally uncomfortable incidents where Frances and Nick try to work out what the other wants, but both are equally incapable of expressing themselves properly, to the physically uncomfortable, with Frances’s occasional bouts of self-harm, and an ongoing medical problem that she can’t bring herself to admit to people.

It is a wonderful book and the writing cannot be faulted, but the emotion I’m left with at the end of it all is sadness. It’s a tragedy, with characters doing bad things to one another behind their backs, and none of them ever changing or learning from their mistakes. However, I still enjoyed it, and I feel somewhat hollow now it’s over. A blisteringly truthful book, with angst peppered over every page.

“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.

“Jude In London” by Julian Gough (2011)

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jude“I left the iceberg behind me and swam toward England.”

My knowledge of Irish literature is scant. When I visited the Writer’s Museum in Dublin last year, I found myself facing the facts that I haven’t read much that’s come out of the country, mostly because I immediately think of James Joyce and the bits of Ulysses I read at university, which sends that part of my brain scurrying away beneath a desk and hoping no one mentions Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll probably get around to some of the less terrifying ones in time. I bring this up because the hero of today’s novel, Jude, is an Irishman, and there’s some suggestion that this book is an updated version of Tristram Shandy, but I’ll have to take the word of other reviewers for that.

The book opens with Jude clinging to an iceberg in the Irish Sea, floating towards Great Britain where he hopes to find the woman he thinks he’s fallen in love with, Angela. It’s worth noting this early on that this book is actually a sequel, so I assume the first book gives detail as to how he’s got into this situation. However, the book does nicely open with a recap on what we’ve missed, including the details that after an accident, Jude has had reconstructive surgery so that he looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio, except he has a fully functioning penis as a nose. Oh yes, it’s that sort of book.

Anyway, Jude washes up on the shores of England (or Wales) and then begins his journey to London to find Angela. But things aren’t as simple as just tracking down the love of his life. Along the way he saves the universe, stars in a porn film, chases a monkey, gets mistaken for an artist, kills the Poet Laureate, and comes close to finding out who abandoned him in an Orphanage eighteen years ago. He also finds himself in conversations about Irish literature, comparing them to famous superheroes, and a lengthy but brilliant explanation of the credit crunch using goats.

The plot itself is thin, but that’s not why anyone’s here. We’re here for the sheer strangeness of the novel. It’s well written, and you find yourself pressing on because you can’t imagine where on earth it’s going to go next. I don’t think Gough himself knows. While Jude’s situations are, frankly, unbelievable, you can’t really stop yourself from reading them. It’s sharply satirical – there’s probably a lot about Irish culture that I don’t get – and delights in messing around with surreal jokes, curious construction, and general piss-taking. I particularly enjoyed seeing him arrive early at the Tate Modern and decide to tidy up, which includes making a messy, unmade bed, and cleaning out an enormous fish tank with a dead shark in it, with a long piss in a handy urinal afterwards.

If you like a book you can understand, give this one a miss. If you like something rambling, funny and strange, then there are few books that fit the bill better. Odd, but satisfying.

“One Hundred Names” by Cecelia Ahern (2012)

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100 names“She was nicknamed The Graveyard.”

I’ve never much been a fan of the term “chick lit”. It seems disparaging, as if its trying to do down a whole genre of fiction. I’m also not going to defend it as a brilliant genre, but it definitely has its examples of good writing; Lisa Jewell and Alexandra Potter both do it very well. Cecelia Ahern became well-known when her debut novel, P.S. I Love You, stormed the charts and went on to become a successful film, but it always sounded too mushy for me. However, the blurb of this book intrigued me so I went for it and, frankly, I came out disappointed.

In this book, we meet Kitty Logan, a journalist whose professional and personal lives are falling apart around her. She has become embroiled in a scandal after accusing a school caretaker of sexually abusing two students live on national television. This was a scandal because she was wrong. Now with the court case over, she is trying to piece together her reputation once more. Constance Dubois, her friend and magazine editor, is dying of cancer, and she and Kitty talk about the stories she never got to run. Constance says there is one left, and she’ll pass it onto Kitty. If Kitty brings the envelope in Constance’s filing cabinet to the hospital, she’ll explain everything.

Kitty finds it but before she can make it back, Constance dies. Now the magazine wants to run a tribute and Kitty is determined to write this story for Constance. But inside the envelope there is no story – there is just a list of one hundred names. Kitty now has just over a week to track down everyone on the list, find out what Constance wanted to talk to them about, and save her reputation. Her journey introduces her to a strange assortment of characters, including a convicted prisoner who can hear prayers, a butterfly expert with a fear of people, and two very enthusiastic men with a pedalo.

Many of these sorts of books run to a formula and this one is no exception. Sure, some of the secondary characters are quite interesting but one of the most interesting of all is Constance who dies pretty soon into the novel. Kitty makes for a singularly unpleasant and unsympathetic protagonist. I get that we’re supposed to see her redemptive arc and how she’s struggling to bring herself to apologise to the man whose life she ruined, but frankly I didn’t care. Fictional or not, what she had done was beyond the pail, and I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her and consider her a decent person. For much of the novel, she’s also incredibly selfish, only apparently concerned about how her mistake has come to affect her own life, rather than the life of the man whose reputation she has dragged through the mud. Even when she reveals all about her hardships to an old college friend who is now a journalist too and promptly splashes her “exclusive story” across the tabloids is it hard to feel any real pity for her.

While I get that introducing the one hundred characters on Constance’s list would be a massive undertaking and require a book many times this size, I found the actual number to be a complete cop-out. Of those hundred, we meet six. Oh sure, they’re interesting – more interesting than Kitty – but it still seems like there was a lot more potential here that just doesn’t come into play.

At the end, everything ties up far too neatly, with happy endings for pretty much everyone, but there are a couple of plot points that just never seem to properly get resolved. This book could’ve been so much better, but it failed to live up to the hype and the execution of an otherwise pretty good concept is somewhat shoddy. Shame, really.