Books To Pass The Time By

As the options for leisure have been extremely reduced since Dublin and then the country went into Level 3 covid restrictions, I thought it might be useful to share some of my book recommendations from the past 8 months.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – First up is this tale of fictional band Utopia Avenue as they make their way through the swinging sixties. The book is structured so that each chapter is named after one of the group’s songs from their two albums. In fact the albums are both split into “side 1” and “side 2” in a manner which provides comfort to those of us who can remember such things! So we learn about lead singer Dean Moss’s humble origins and troubled upbringing which he uses as inspirations for his lyric-writing. Dean and Elf Holloway, the folk vocalist with a weakness for toxic males provide the heart of the band with the enigmatic lead guitarist Jasper de Zout providing the soul while battling his own inner-demons (sometimes quite literally). Griff is the drummer from Yorkshire and let’s leave that at that. The rise and fall of the band is told with refreshing zeal including chance encounters with Bowie, Lennon, Joplin and Jerry Garcia along the way. When I first came across David Mitchell I assumed it was the same David Mitchell from one of my favourite off-beat TV programmes Peep Show but no, this David Mitchell is a totally different chap who many will know from his most famous novel and subsequent film adaptation Cloud Atlas. In Utopia Avenue he successfully brings us through high and lows, love and loss, recriminations and forgiveness while keeping the music at the core.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (John Banville) – Now I’m not sure why John Banville decided to start writing crime fiction or why he felt the need to choose a nom de plume (probably something to do with damaging the very earnest Banville brand) but I am very glad he did. Christine Falls is the first in the Quirke series of crime novels. I was about to write detective novels but then Quirke isn’t a detective but a pathologist with a curiousity and nose for the truth. A widower with a harrowing childhood and a propensity to drink heavily, Quirke inhabits the dour Dublin of the 1950s, filled with rain and the oppressive power of the church. Indeed it is the descriptions of my hometown Dublin, particularly the areas around the Grand Canal near Baggot Street and Mount Street that drew me into this book. There are sinister undertones everywhere, particularly in the characters who cross Quirke’s lumbering path. Even helpful Inspector Hackett is overshadowed by the powers above who hinder his search for the real truth. Christine Falls is not for the faint hearted as it deals with the death in childbirth of the title character and follows the worrying path of her motherless child. Not usually a fan of crime novels, I would heartily recommend this novel although do not make the mistake that I made of reading the fifth in the series first as it will give away a major plot twist (damn you Eason’s bargain basket). PS no I haven’t seen the tv series with Gabriel Byrne.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – I read this one back-to-back with another huge international bestseller, American Dirt and my emotions towards each of them couldn’t be more different. I loved the detailed and almost hypnotic descriptions of the natural world in Crawdad’s coming of age tale set in the North Carolina marshlands during the 50s and 60s (American Dirt, not so much). The author seamlessly interweaves two timelines detailing the difficult and often fraught upbringing of the heroine (Kya) and then her subsequent trial for murder. Racial and social tensions are present throughout the story with the one constant source of comfort in Kya’s difficult life being Jumpin’, a put-upon black man who sells gasoline for boats. Together they battle the prejudices and whims of the local white townspeople. The pacing is excellent and you are constantly kept on edge as to how Kya’s story will end.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Last but definitely not least is the finale of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became the key advisor to Henry VIII during the reformation (and associated beheadings). By the time this book starts we have already said goodbye to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour about to become queen. Now we see Thomas at the peak of his powers with a seemingly endless stream of titles and properties. Mantel’s detailed and intricate writing makes it feel like we are almost under the skin of the main character while he schemes and plots to keep the favour of Henry while his enemies become more numerous and vindictive. It is said that Mantel spent an extra two years writing this significant work because she couldn’t bring herself to end Thomas Cromwell (spoiler alert – Cromwell was himself beheaded in 1540) and as an avid reader of the trilogy I almost wished there was more to come. Although at over 800 pages there was plenty in this one to keep me going!

I hope you find my book recommendations useful and any feedback is much appreciated. As an aside I’d like to thank the staff at Drumcondra library for keeping a steady flow of books coming my way even in these difficult times.

In Praise of Libraries

One of the things I have been able to do over the past year is reacquaint myself with the Dublin library system. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly I have regained my passion for reading. My job used to involve a lot of heavy reading, whether it was a due diligence report on the intricacies of the German sausage market or a multi-currency cross border loan agreement, after a day of that, the last thing I wanted to do (or was physical capable of doing) was read a book in the evening. Secondly, there is a library right across the road from the boys’ school in Drumcondra which means I have superb ease of access.

Now my previous encounters with libraries date back to my own childhood, when the most pressing thing on my mind was whether there would be any new Asterix books in the fairly small kids’ section of Raheny library. Come to think of it, why did I have to trek all the way to Raheny from my home in Clontarf to visit my nearest library? Surely Clontarf should have had a library, god knows we have enough “litterati” to justify one. And the home of Brahm Stoker deserves a library (yes I know there is one in Marino), has anybody been in contact with Joe Duffy about this?! Anyway I digress, back to my main topic of libraries. Raheny library was fine at the time but I always recall that the books seemed old and beaten down by time and circumstances, well it was Dublin in the 80s after-all.

Fast forward to the present day and I have been blown away by how good the service is. First of all I think that the Drumcondra library building itself is quite beautiful in the art deco style of the 1930s (see above). So much so that I have tried to get it featured on the Accidentally Wes Anderson web-site which features buildings that look like they are from a Wes Anderson movie set (Grand Budapest Hotel, Royal Tenenbaums, etc) but so far to no avail. Secondly not only does the selection of books on show include all the usual classics e.g. Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities but it also has a very sizeable selection of modern fiction, young adult fiction and the kids’ section is really excellent and all sections are constantly renewed. There is also a truly excellent app where you can renew your books with the touch of a button and most importantly, reserve books which take your fancy. The system is pretty foolproof, although I did manage to reserve the audio-book of Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay instead of the actual book, so I managed to bring home a whopping 10 audio CDs.  This caused a number of problems, not least where to find a working CD player in our house and also how to find the c. 10 hours required to listen to the bloody thing. Suffice to say that I couldn’t tell you a lot about the plot, a bit like the time I tried to read Ulysses, in both cases all I can say is that I definitely finished them! On the app you can also track where you are in the queue on a real time basis which adds a small level of excitement to the process.

The library also has the advantage of being almost exactly half way between the boys’ school and the nearby playground, which means it frequently acts as both a convenient shelter from the unpredictable Irish weather and a toilet stop for unpredictable young bladders. The library has embraced this wholeheartedly and has recently replenished their stash of crayons for the young at heart. My gang instinctively turns right on entering to grab a blank picture of flowers, or stars, or unicorns, or whatever came out of the photocopier that morning and start to colour like little Rembrandts or Picassos (actually probably a lot more like Picassos). Ella (2) particularly enjoys this aspect of the library, that and playing hide and seek which she has become particularly adept at. She pretty much always knows to find me at the Food section leafing though Joe Wickes’ selection of quick and lean recipe books in a forlorn manner. I did actually borrow one when I was going through my experimenting with food phase but the boys were having none of his healthy, green, chunky ideas!

So if you haven’t been down to your local library in the last 30 years or so, I recommend you give it a try. To finish things off I thought I’d give you my top three books from the past 12 months.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Theo who as a boy loses his mother in an explosion at an art museum, but gains a priceless painting. The painting acts as an anchor for Theo as his life spirals through New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. A beautifully written exploration of loss and hope. Not sure I can bring myself to watch the film version though, it cannot improve things.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Another novel which won the Pulitzer Prize. This one charts the lives of a blind french girl and a mathematically gifted German boy as they journey towards one shared crucial moment in St Malo, Brittany after the Allies have landed at the end of World War II. One of the few books that has moved me to tears in both its forensic detail of the barbarism of war and the simple beauty of perseverance. Netflix have the rights and are going to turn it into a mini-series which at least has greater scope for exploration than a 2 hour movie.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. This is probably my favourite book of all time, a title which was held for a long time by The Lord of the Rings (I still love you Frodo). A stream of consciousness tale (it is a single sentence) told from the point of view of middle-aged Mayo man and civil engineer Marcus on 2 November 2008. This book made me feel like I had been dropped in a vat of real “Irishness” and connected with me on many levels as a father, son and brother. It took a while to get into it but well worth the effort.

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