Category Archives: Books

History of the Rain by Niall Williams – Book Review


Bedridden bookworm, Ruth Swain, spins a story focused on the paternal genealogy of her family aided by the insights from the inhabitants of her rural Irish village and some famous literary characters.

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I am not surprised that this book made the long list for the ManBooker 2014. Niall Williams has created a work which is both deeply insightful, emotionally rich, evoking universal themes through a parochial lens and above all it is so beautifully written that you could imagine that each sentence might have taken a week to sculpt.

While it is set in the present day the story has a classic edge and is told by the agoraphobic, ill-stricken and well-read narrator Ruth as she occupies her time in the attic of her family home trying to paint a literary picture of her father. To do this she explains, she must begin with her Great-Grand Father. We are treated to their rich history which she patches together by borrowing from voices of long dead authors.

Ruth’s narrative is full of lovely ironic humour which underlines the regret she feels her ancestors sensed about their own offspring.

Even though the story is set in post-economic-bust Ireland the style is classic in nature. It is a first person internal monologue from the self-confessed unreliable narration from Ruth. She admits very early on that she knows little about her ancestors but manages to bring them alive through the many references from literary authors, their characters and gossipy allusions from the ‘real’ people who live in her village of Faha. It is these devices which breathes life and grounds William’s novel and its main character.

Like a song the music of the sentences lures you in and like a river the winding story carries you to the end.

Her own character is an amalgam influence of the classic texts of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson to which she alludes often. She is externally bitter at her confinement but her softly jumbled internal voice proves that lives can be lived and created through literature. Ruth Swain’s character exemplifies the differences between the way people think and the way we act.

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This is a novel about seeking and revealing truths about the world, about families, about community, about isolation, the overcoming of obstacles, loss and about writing.

As well as all of the above “History of the Rain” is a novel that speaks directly to readers and writers about how stories are put together. The allusions to literary characters are treated in such a way that readers familiar with them will warm to their memories but Williams introduces them with a style that will not alienate those unfamiliar with the texts. This combined with the narrator’s comic use of the colloquialisms from her neighbours throughout the story makes the novel in some ways a subtle guide to writing.

He is proving the point that he makes in this sentence which arrives toward the end of the novel.

“Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read”.

This is a wonderful sum.

8/10

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Wonder by R. J. Palacio – Book Review


Augustus Pullman was born with a combination of genetic abnormalities which gave him a severely distorted face. He has been home-schooled and understandably pampered by his family for the first ten years of his life. But this year is going to be different.

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Everybody feels like an outsider at one stage in their lives and Palacio puts this feeling under the microscope through August (Auggie) Pullman’s story of his first year in a proper school. Told from several perspectives she covers many themes that touch on all our lives, isolation, bullying, jealousy, family stresses, friendships and the misunderstandings that all make up the human package.

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Choosing a main character whose face is so misshapen and giving him a self-effacing sense of humour and a clear sense of his own self-worth makes the reader feel guilty at memories of anytime in our lives when we have sneaked a peak or reacted unfavourable to anyone we have encountered who might be physically different to ourselves.

Palacio does not just give justice to Auggie’s daily battles but she also gives a voice to those around him and the ripple effect that spreads through his family and friends.

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I laughed, cried, cringed, felt the aforementioned guilt, was scared and rooted for Auggie while reading his story. In the end I have the author to thank for bringing me on this touching journey.

Palacio has placed herself firmly on a bookshelf beside The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime, Holes and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas with her debut 2011 novel Wonder. It doesn’t matter that this book was aimed at 8-12 year olds because anyone who remembers feeling lost as a child whether it was in school or within your own circle of friends will be able to relate.

It deserves all the awards it has already received got and more.

10/10

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore By Robin Sloan – Book Review


Clay, previously of Silicon Valley and current victim of the crumbling economy takes a job in an ancient San Francisco bookstore which plunges him into a mystery involving ancient codes, hidden organisations and Google.

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Author Robin Sloan could be a version of me from a parallel universe. He has worked in a place whose product I am addicted to (i.e. Twitter) and published a charming mystery in which I found myself thoroughly lost.

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Reading the author’s bio it becomes clear that he based his main character around himself and then spun a wonderfully enigmatic story using his passions (while I found myself unemployed and turned my passions to self-employment, dammit why haven’ I finished my book yet!)

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Sloan has created a one volumed fantasy for the modern age without having to resort to the magic of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. We find ourselves in a pacy quest as the main character Clay starts to uncover the secrets he finds in the depths of his new job. An out of the way and ancient bookshop run by the not-quite equally-ancient and bright eyed Mr. Pemunbra who, for a bookstore owner, doesn’t seem to be interested in actually selling books.

Sloan as carved a nice mystery that book lovers, history enthusiasts and futurists alike will enjoy. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fiction. While lovers of fantasies and sci-fi will stumble across many recognisable references they are not so intrinsic to the plot as to exclude those familiar with the genres.

10/10

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – Book Review


Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika in 1866 via a long-winded route from Scotland to seek his fortune in the gold fields of New Zealand.  On his first night he casually stumbles upon a secret meeting of 12 men who have assembled in order to uncover the mystery that links, a politician, an opium riddled whore, a stash of Gold, and the murder of a hermit.

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It took me four attempts to get to page 20 of Catton’s impressive doorstop of a 2013 Man Booker prize winning second novel (830+ pages). I wasn’t re reading but I was not convinced that her late 19th century descriptive style was grabbing my attention. In that first 20 pages Catton describes Walter Moody’s effect and impression upon entering a room. Just before I gave in I turned to page 20 and realised I was hooked. I had fully entered the world of Hokitika and surrounded by the various colourful characters who busied themselves about its streets, hotels, taverns, businesses, goldfields, opium dens and newspaper, all peppered with the authors dry wit.

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In the first section of the book Catton presents us and Walter Moody with a mystery and the twelve men who are trying to uncover its secrets. But she delivers the different pieces of the puzzle on a spinning tray full of clever literary devices. Information is pieced together by the inner and outer voices of the characters so that the reader is the only one who sees the full picture, or at least the fullest picture.

By the time we find ourselves making our way down the now familiar streets of the gold-mining town of Hokitika in the second section our boots are muddied, sweat and opium fumes tug at our nostrils, dead men are hinting that there are tales to be told and we could easily converse with any of the characters about more than a handful of topics;  we almost uncover different aspects of intriguingly jumbled narrative with each line of every exchange and conversation.

Novelist Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal

Catton is a master a sculpting the delivery of her story and painting an engrossing background as if it was an afterthought. Up to around 760 I did not feel like I was reading a book of over one and a half reams but the final stretch or at least those last 70 pages began to sag and my interest flagged.

I did not take into account the astrological significance before or during my reading and despite how lovely the adventure of language and character I was on  the structure did not work in my favour. While I still enjoyed being in the company of these characters I missed the prominent earlier ones who had figured so much in the first half. But the first two thirds are still better than many entire books I have read.

There are two questions that remain unanswered in my mind but I will  not ruin the plot for those of you who are yet to dive into the wonderful world Catton has created.

If you have read it we have already begun to discuss plot points in the comments below. (Spoilers ahoy)

Nevertheless I would recommend The Luminaries and look forward to reading more from Catton.

7/10

Other posts which may be of interest.

2013 Man Booker Longlisted Irish Authors

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki Book Review

One Campus One Book


The idea of turning a vast landscape of people into a massive book club will be familiar to some of you. Dublin City Council have been running it for a few years now and aptly chose ”Strumpet City” by Joseph Plunkett for 2013 April ‘bookclub’ for the city.

The initiative is an idea that travelled over the Atlantic from The U.S. where libraries and Universities have also been running the One Campus One Book for quite some time.

You might have expected Trinity College Dublin or perhaps University College Dublin to have seized on the idea.

But no, it was the ever-forward thinking University of Limerick (UL) who beat the rest of the Irish third level institutions by choosing the 2013/2014 academic year to promote one book to the entire campus.

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They decided on the stunning debut novel “The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan. Ryan is a graduate of UL and a native of the county.

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The initiative came from UL’s Regional Writing Centre which aids the students and staff of the University with the overall aim of enhancing their writing skills.

What I find particularly special about One campus One Book is that I will be able to visit the University throughout this year and already have something in common with anyone I happen to meet. Whether it be a student, lecturer, or anyone who works on campus. They may not have read it yet but most of them will have heard of Donal Ryan.

The most recent last event took place on the 17th December when the author Donal Ryan spoke to an intimate group of about twenty people. The all were given a chance to ask him questions about his book. There was a great divide between questions about the story and questions about writing.

In March of 2014 UL will be conducting a public interview with Donal where a larger audience will have a chance to ask him questions about his own writing and writing in general.

The theme of “The Spinning Heart”, the effect that the recession on not just the country but on an individual level, is relevant to everybody living in Ireland today especially as his characters are representative the landscape of our country’s population from student, to single Mum, from labourer to professional, from the withdrawn to the local gossip and more.

University of Limerick “One Campus One Book” press release

A Tale For The Time Being By Ruth Ozeki – Book Review


An Author is distracted from writing her own novel and becomes obsessed by the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl that she finds washed up on a beach near her home in Canada.

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I had planned to read all of the shortlisted titles for the Man Booker 2013 awards but you will have to make do with two out of five. I have already reviewed The Testament of Mary.

I finished this book about two weeks ago and have had much difficulty in approaching the review; not because I did not enjoy it, on the contrary because there are so many layers that belie the 422 actual pages of the book.

What is it about? If I could sum it up in one word it is about ‘belonging’ and how that fits with our place in family, society and the world. But it is also about elevated teenage angst, Buddism, relationships between children, parents, grandparents and within marriages, a Jungle Crow, Japanese culture, notions of honour and suicide, a sixty year old watch, philosophy, horrendous on and offline bullying, displacement, a cat, alienation, ecology, and bad internet connections.

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Ozeki structures the novel in alternate chapters so that we get to know the two main characters Nao, the young frustrated Japanese diarist and Ruth the increasing unsatisfied novelist as she reads the diary which is written as if Nao is speaking directly to her as a confident. It may seem packed with themes from my description above but Ozeki manages to weave them together into such a seamless narrative that you might not even realise that you have digested particular messages themes until, like me and sometime later, you are standing in a queue for a bank and one arrives without warning.

This is an excellent example of what writer’s block can produce.

Everyone should read it.

Here is an interview with the author about her novel.

10/10

Books That Changed My Life – Part Three: Adulthood to Now


Aged 26

The Children of Men by P.D. James

In Earth’s dystopian and infertile near future a University Don must choose between family, political ties and a group of terrorists while the continuation humanity hangs in the balance.

The Children of Men

Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on Earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years two months and twelve days.”

One of the best opening lines of a novel I have ever read. It is set in the future, the youngest man on the planet is, sorry, WAS 27, what happened to all the children?  I was  hooked.  The book is not merely a race to survive but deals with the physical, political and psychological effects of a world where the human race has become barren. Family relationships, political worth, scientific and religious effect of global infertility are explored. I had never come across a sci-fi novel that was infused with such deeply thought human emotion. I read this on a holiday to Tunisia with my then girlfriend, on the last day we disagreed over something in the morning and spent the day on the beach. I became lost deep into the last third of the novel and hours sped by. “Ben”, she said, ”I am still angry with you”, I looked up from the book, searched her face, looking for clues to help me remember what we were arguing about. “Don’t you realise that I haven’t said a word to you for hours? ”. “No”, helplessly, I added, “This book is amazing”. That was the beginning of the end.

Aged 32

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The adventures of Lyra Belacqua from a parallel universe and Will Parry from our own world as they strive to stop ‘The Authority’ form Lyra’s world destroying all parallel universes in their quest to understand the physics behind the mysteries of The Dust.

His Dark Materials

How I wished I had read this trilogy as a teenager but I have enough youth left in my heart to lose myself in Pullman’s imagination. The reason I picked them up was because of the film of the first book “The Golden Compass”, though I found it somewhat confusing there were a few concepts that drew me to the trilogy, in particular the idea that the people from Lyra’s universe had daemon’s. These are an animal familiar, a mixture between a conscience and a soul, who accompanied them throughout their lives who could never stray too far. As a child the daemons are constantly changing shape, from animal to animal but once you reach maturity they choose one animal form. This concept drew me in and opened me to the fullness of the adventures between multiple universes, incredible characters, angels, witches, warring bears etc. For the first time since Tolkien I realised that the fantasy genre could be reshaped and reformed with brilliance.

Aged 36

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

A mother writes a number of letters to her estranged husband to trace the growth of their son who has, as a teenager, carried out an atrocity.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Kevin’s mother relates the tale of how she met her husband and how they started raising their son highlighting the difficulties every parent must feel at one stage or another but as her story unfolds we see that this family have a disturbing and unique problem which is not revealed straight away. Shriver crawls under the skin of a mother who is afraid she has not bonded with her son; a mother who goes through periods of questioning the bond between herself and her husband. The tone of the book begins ominously and continues with the same threatening tone throughout. Yet she gives us so many clues along the way that you just have to find out what happens.  Never before has a book stayed with me for so long. Shriver’s writing didn’t just dig her way into my head, it build an small flat, interior decorated, invited its friends over and threw wild parties. It has been years since I read it and still to this day and as I write these words I shudder when I think of Kevin.

What are yours?

Books That Changed My Life Part One

Books That Changed My Life Part Two