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.