Over the past month I’ve been participating in Reading Ireland month (an event hosted by 746 Books and The Fluff is Raging to promote Irish literature and culture). I’ve made a reasonable progress into my Irish to read list, but there are large number I’ve yet to read. Before the month is out therefore I decided to review my Irish To Read Shelf. The books cover a range of topics, genres and periods.
1. On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
Synopsis: Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.
At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry’s exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.
2. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Synopsis: In 1919 Emily Ehrlich watches as two young airmen, Alcock and Brown, emerge from the carnage of World War One to pilot the very first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. In 1845 Frederick Douglass, a black American slave, lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling at his feet. And in 1998 Senator George Mitchell criss-crosses the ocean in search of an elusive Irish peace. Stitching these stories intricately together, Colum McCann sets out to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.
3. The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce
Synopsis: Out of nowhere the herbalist appears one morning and sets up shop in the market square of a dull midlands town. In this place where everything is a shade of brown or grey, the black man wearing the pale suit and straw hat is the lightest thing there. The townspeople call him The Don and with his potions and lotions the exotic stranger seems to have a cure for all that ails them. Teenager Emily is enchanted. In the herbalist she sees a Clark Gable to her Jean Harlow, a Fred to her Ginger – a man to make her forget her lowly status in this place where respectability is everything. The herbalist gladly accepts her devotion. But Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, the ones who oblige the town’s men and the pious women who turn a blind eye – they all seem mesmerised by this visitor who can perform miracles. Rumours swirl and the herbalist thrives. Emily may be motherless, ignorant and full of foolish dreams, but she has a fierce sense of right and wrong. And by the end of that summer Emily has discovered the dark side of the herbalist. But how big a sacrifice is she prepared to make to force him to pay for his sins against the women of the town?
4. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Synopsis: In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds. The Spinning Heartspeaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant. Donal Ryan’s brilliantly realized debut announces a stunning new voice in literary fiction.
5. Walk the Blue Fields: Stories by Claire Keegan
Synopsis: A long-haired woman moves into the priest’s house and sets fire to his furniture. That Christmas, the electricity goes out. A forester mortgages his land and goes off to a seaside town looking for a wife. He finds a woman eating alone in the hotel. A farmer wakes half-naked and realises the money is almost gone. And in the title story, a priest waits on the altar for a bride and battles, all that wedding day, with his memories of a love affair. In her long-awaited second collection, Claire Keegan observes an Ireland wrestling with its past.
6. Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden
Synopsis: Fintan Buckley is a pleasant, rather conventional and unimaginative man, who works as a legal adviser in an import/export firm in Dublin. He lives in Howth and is married to Colette. They have two sons who are at university, and a small daughter. As he goes about his life, working and spending time with his family, Fintan begins to experience states of altered consciousness and auditory hallucinations, which seem to take him out of a linear experience of time. He becomes interested in how we remember or imagine the past, an interest trigged by becoming aware of early photography, particularly early colour photography. He also finds himself thinking more about his own past, including time spent holidaying in the north of Ireland as a child with his father’s family. Over the years he has become distanced from them, and in the course of the novel this link is re-established and helps to bring him understanding and peace, although in a most unexpected way.
7. Blood Loss by Alex Barclay
Synopsis: FBI agent Ren Bryce takes on her most heart-wrenching case yet when a father’s work places his young daughter in terrible danger… OUT OF SIGHTWhen a teenage girl is found beaten and raped in the grounds of a derelict asylum, FBI agent Ren Bryce is called in to assist. But she is soon diverted to a missing persons’ case when an eleven-year-old girl and her teenage babysitter vanish without a trace from their hotel room. OUT OF MINDFaced with conflicting evidence and inconsistent witnesses, Ren works obsessively to unravel the dark family secrets at the heart of the case, before it’s too late… OUT OF CONTROLDetermined to uncover the truth, Ren’s behaviour becomes increasingly reckless. Putting her own safety at risk, she enters a world where innocent lives are ruined for profit … and kidnap, rape and murder are all part of the deal.
10. Ulysses by James Joyce
Synopsis: Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses’ stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—full of puns, parodies, and allusions, as well as its rich characterisations and broad humour, made the book a highly regarded novel in the Modernist pantheon. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses first on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
11. Seek the Fair Land by Walter Macken
Synopsis: It is 1649. As the English soldiers trample the Irish homesteads, leaving behind them a trail of barbarity and destruction, a few brave men set out to seek a ‘fair land’ over the brow of the hill. Among them is Dominick MacMahon, whose wife has been killed in the bloody massacre of Drogheda, and whose son and daughter, and a wounded priest, Father Sebastian, accompany him. But as he journeys in search of peace and freedom he is relentlessly pursued by Coote, the Cromwellian ruler of Connaught . . .
12. The Guts by Roddy Doyle
Synopsis: Jimmy Rabbitte is back. The man who invented the Commitments back in the eighties is now forty-seven, with a loving wife, four kids … and bowel cancer. He isn’t dying, he thinks, but he might be. Jimmy still loves his music, and he still loves to hustle. On his path through Dublin he meets two of the Commitments – Outspan, whose own illness is probably terminal, and Imelda Quirk, still as gorgeous as ever. This warm, funny novel is about friendship and family, about facing death and opting for life.
13. Ancient Light by John Banville
Synopsis: In a small town in 1950s Ireland a fifteen-year-old boy has illicit meetings with a thirty-five-year-old woman – in the back of her car on sunny mornings, and in a rundown cottage in the country on rain-soaked afternoons. Unsure why she has chosen him, he becomes obsessed and tormented by this first love. Half a century later, actor Alexander Cleave – grieving for the recent loss of his daughter – recalls these trysts, trying to make sense of the boy he was and of the needs and frailties of the human heart.
14. History of the Rain by Niall Williams
Synopsis: Bedbound in her attic room beneath the falling rain, in the margin between this world and the next, Plain Ruth Swain is in search of her father. To find him, enfolded in the mystery of ancestors, Ruthie must first trace the jutting jaw lines, narrow faces and gleamy skin of the Swains from the restless Reverend Swain, her great-grandfather, to grandfather Abraham, to her father, Virgil – via pole-vaulting, leaping salmon, poetry and the three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books piled high beneath the two skylights in her room, beneath the rain. The stories – of her golden twin brother Aeney, their closeness even as he slips away; of their dogged pursuit of the Swains’ Impossible Standard and forever falling just short; of the wild, rain-sodden history of fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland – pour forth in Ruthie’s still, small, strong, hopeful voice. A celebration of books, love and the healing power of the imagination, this is an exquisite, funny, moving novel in which every sentence sings.
15. The Thing About December by Donal Ryan
Synopsis: While the Celtic Tiger rages, and greed becomes the norm, Johnsey Cunliffe desperately tries to hold on to the familiar, even as he loses those who all his life have protected him from a harsh world. Village bullies and scheming land-grabbers stand in his way, no matter where he turns. Set over the course of one year of Johnsey’s life, The Thing About December breathes with his grief, bewilderment, humour and agonizing self-doubt. This is a heart-twisting tale of a lonely man struggling to make sense of a world moving faster than he is.
16. Foster by Claire Keegan
Synopsis: A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.
17. Academy Street by Mary Costello
Synopsis: Tess Lohan appears to be a quiet child. But within lies a heart of fire. A fire that will propel her from her native Ireland into the hurly-burly of 1960s New York. In this city she will face the twists of a life graced with great beauty, but forever floating close to hazard. Joyous and heart-breaking, Academy Streetjourneys through six decades and one incredible story.
18. Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett
Synopsis: This magnificent collection takes us to Glanbeigh, a small town in rural Ireland – a town in which the youth have the run of the place. Boy racers speed down the back lanes; couples haunt the midnight woods; young skins huddle in the cold once The Peacock has closed its doors. Here the young live hard and wear the scars. It matters whose sister you were seen with. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it matters a very great deal. Colin Barrett’s debut does not take us to Glanbeigh alone; there are other towns, and older characters. But each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire – and each crackles with the uniform energy and force that distinguish this terrific collection.
19. The Bloodied Field by Michael Foley
Synopsis: On the morning of 21 November 1920, Jane Boyle walked to Sunday Mass in the church where she would be married five days later. That afternoon she went with her fiancé to watch Tipperary and Dublin play a Gaelic football match at Croke Park. Across the city fourteen men lay dead in their beds after a synchronised IRA attack designed to cripple British intelligence services in Ireland. Trucks of police and military rumbled through the city streets as hundreds of people clamoured at the metal gates of Dublin Castle seeking refuge. Some of them were headed for Croke Park. Award-winning journalist and author Michael Foley recounts the extraordinary story of Bloody Sunday in Croke Park and the 90 seconds of shooting that changed Ireland forever. In a deeply intimate portrait he tells for the first time the stories of those killed, the police and military personnel who were in Croke Park that day, and the families left shattered in its aftermath, all against the backdrop of a fierce conflict that stretched from the streets of Dublin and the hedgerows of Tipperary to the halls of Westminster.
20. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
Synopsis: A milestone in the history of popular theology, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ is an iconic classic on spiritual warfare and the power of the devil. This profound and striking narrative takes the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil high in the Infernal Civil Service, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior colleague engaged in his first mission on earth trying to secure the damnation of a young man who has just become a Christian. Although the young man initially looks to be a willing victim, he changes his ways and is ‘lost’ to the young devil.Dedicated to Lewis’s friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ is a timeless classic on spiritual conflict and the invisible realities which are part of our religious experience.
21. The Dirty Dust (Cre na Cille) by Mairtin O’Cadhain
Synopsis: In The Dirty Dust all characters lie dead in their graves. This, however, does not impair their banter or their appetite for news of aboveground happenings from the recently arrived. Told entirely in dialogue, Ó Cadhain’s daring novel listens in on the gossip, rumors, backbiting, complaining, and obsessing of the local community. In the afterlife, it seems, the same old life goes on beneath the sod. Only nothing can be done about it—apart from talk.
22. A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell
Synopsis: After the death of her mother and the loss of her family’s fortune, it falls to young Glen Westley to do what she can for herself and her ailing father. Determined to make her own way in the world, she moves from the West of Ireland to London and works tirelessly to succeed as a novelist, despite the limitations her sex and nationality represent. Having struggled so long for fame, it is at last thrust upon her – but fame always comes at a price.
23. Eureka Street by Robert McLain Wilson
Synopsis: In a city blasted by years of force and fury, but momentarily stilled by a cease-fire, two unlikely friends search for that most human of needs: love. But of course, a night of lust will do. Jake Jackson and Chuckie Lurgan–one Catholic, one Protestant–navigate their sectarian city and their nonsectarian friendship with wit and style. Chuckie, an unemployed dreamer, stumbles into bliss with a beautiful American who lives in Belfast. Jake, a repo man with the soul of a poet, can only manage a hilarious war of insults with a spitfire Republican whose Irish name, properly pronounced, sounds like someone choking.
24. The Absolutist by John Boyne
Synopsis: It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War. But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will–from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain.
25. Number 5 by Glenn Patterson
Synopsis: Number 5 is a 3-bedroom terrace house in a suburban Belfast street. Successive occupants fill the house with their troubles and joys, simply trying to cope with all that life hurls their way whilst outside the front door the city shivers and sweats with the passing seasons. Yet the presence of those who have come before is an ever-present memory.
26. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon
Synopsis: Under a crimson dawn sky, Artyom Telvatnikov stands in a field of cows, his fingertips glistening with warm blood that streams from their ears. It is April 1986, and ten miles away, above the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, clusters of sparks fill the air, inflaming the final years of the Soviet Union, inciting its citizens to actions of brutality, mystery and terrible beauty. Grigory, a surgeon working in the wake of the disaster, in a place where all natural order has been distorted, is forced to question everything he has known. In Moscow, his estranged wife, Maria, a former dissident, struggles to free herself from the constraints imposed upon her by the state. Her nephew Yevgeni is a nine-year-old piano prodigy whose sense of rhythm is rapidly eroding.
27. The Closet of Savage Memories by Nuala Ni Chonchuir
Synopsis: Lillis takes a summer job working at a lodge in a small lochside village in the Scottish Highlands. Leaving home is a way to escape her sorrow and despair following the death of her boyfriend and a testy relationship with her mother, Verity. In Scotland she encounters love and excitement but when a series of unexpected events turn her new found life on its head, she is forced to make a life-changing decision, one that will stay with her for her whole life.
28. You by Nuala Ni Chonchuir
Synopsis: Set against the semi-urban backdrop of the River Liffey in 1980, this novel about a 10-year-old girl who lives with her separated mother and two brothers unfolds through the narrator’s observations and interactions, and her naive interpretations of adult conversations and behaviour.