Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Irish Writer, Colum McCann.

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“This is a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling which, like all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination.” Colum McCann

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It could also be called a work of creative journalism.

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Apeirogon: a generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.

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At the core of the book is the murder of two girls, ten years apart and their respective fathers, Remi Elhanan, Israeli and Bassam Aramin, Palestinian. These are not novelistic characters; they are the guts of non-fiction.

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There is no narrative arc. Instead the story emerges like the image of a jigsaw emerges as each piece finds its place. This is a story with 1001 pieces but not in the order you would expect. The pieces tell us about the times, birds, geography, music, backstory, names, politicians, and newsworthy events like the tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, who walked across the Hinnom Valley in 1987 and released a white dove of peace (actually it was a pale pigeon but Petit hoped no-one would notice). The ‘pieces’ or ‘chapters’ are pages long, one line long, or 4 words long.

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At ‘chapter’ 500 we hear Rami Elhanan’s voice. For many pages he tells us about his daughter, about her murder, about his grief, and what he did with it. McCann’s piecing together of the narrative is lengthy, emotional, journalistic, and sometimes moving, as journalism can be. It’s like the ‘chapters’ 1– 499 have all prepared you for this one, 500. Then the next chapter is 1001 and you don’t know why so you read on to find out. Ah! We have ‘chapter’ 500 again but this time we hear Bassam Aramin’s voice, his loss, his grief and then the chapter numbers descend; at the the centre of the book are the voices of these two men.

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Bassam Aramin and Remi Elhanan

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In 1997 a young girl, Smadar Elhanan, was the victim of a suicide bomber, her body battered with shrapnel. Abir Aramin, a young girl, was shot in the back of the head with a rubber bullet by her school gate. She had just bought candy. Smadar was born in Hadassah hospital. Where Abir died.

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The two fathers turned their grief, rage, and hatred into friendship, reconciliation, and hope. They travelled the world telling their stories, their daughters, their loss.

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At the 2016 Young Presidents’ Organisation EDGE (annual showcase of thought leadership and innovation) in Dubai, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan gave a moving and inspirational account of the close friendship they formed after each lost a precious daughter to violence in Israel.

Listen to them here.

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Listen to Colum McCann talk about this book.

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Bassam and Remi are members of a not-for-profit organisation called The Parents Circle Family Forum.

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The Parents Circle Family Forum works towards an end to violence and towards achieving an accepted political agreement.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call for elections has thrown his political future into peril, forcing him to negotiate competing demands to engage with a friendlier U.S. administration, mend the rift with his militant Hamas rivals and keep his unruly Fatah movement from breaking apart.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom to formally plead not guilty to corruption charges just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.

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The PCFF members are opposed to the occupation and believe that it is possible to end the conflict. They wish to influence the public and the political decision makers to choose reconciliation and the path of peace over violence and war.

The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) British playwright, novelist, and short-story writer; one of the most popular and highest paid writers of his day.

W. S. Maugham’s first literary success was his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth (1897); his greatest work is Of Human Bondage (1915); by then he had 10 novels published and 10 plays produced, and at one time had 4 plays running simultaneously on London’s West End; 40 films have been made of his writings – Of Human Bondage has been filmed three times, The Razor’s Edge twice, and The Painted Veil twice, the latter, a very faithful adaptation, in 2006 starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Diana Rigg.

He had an affair and a child with Syrie Wellcome, an interior decorator, whom he later married in 1917. Their daughter, Elizabeth, eventually married a Baron. However, he had other female and male lovers until he met, an American, Gerald Haxton in the Red Cross at the outbreak of WWI. They were mostly together until Haxton’s death in 1944. His later partner was Alan Searle until Maugham’s death in 1965.

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around. – WSM

-oOo-

The Merry-Go-Round (1904) is his fifth novel.

The axis of a merry-go-round is usually covered in mirrors; all the better for us going round and round to see ourselves going round and round. In Maugham’s The Merry-Go-Round the axis is Miss Ley and doing what every freshly polished mirror does.

Miss Ley accidentally witnesses a romantic assignation by a married friend:

“None was more indifferent to convention than herself, and the marriage tie especially excited her ridicule, but she despised entirely those who disregarded the by-laws of society, yet lacked courage to suffer the results of their boldness: to seek the good opinion of the world, and yet secretly to act counter to its idea of decorum, was a very contemptible hypocrisy.”

The themes of The Merry-Go-Round are those that obsessed Maugham throughout his writing career: social and marriage hypocrisy, the class divide, conscience vs sense, love vs reason, and the tyranny of money.

The wealthy spinster, Miss Ley, a bastion of realistic good sense, observes those around her as they confuse themselves with what they want to do and what they feel they must do; they hurt themselves and each other and rarely do good; they go up and down and round and round. Dominating her social landscape are three couples: Basil Kent, law clerk, righteous and duty-bound, and the beautiful but lowly barmaid, Jenny Bush; Grace Castillyon, bored wife, and Reggie Bassett, young, lazy, handsome, but frivolous; and Bella Langton, sympathetic, plain, but devoted, and Herbert Field, young, poetic, sensitive, but consumptive.

As you can see from the above quote, the language is dense with every word used to its maximum effect. As with Hardy, James, and Dickens I read the first few chapters, stop, go back and start again: I need to rehearse the understanding, get ‘into’ the language, before the full meaning of the text is revealed. But when you do the rewards are powerful; even the melodrama, by our contemporary standards, is rendered real and moving.

We live in a very different world to those who lived 120 years ago. The rules of our social behaviour are also different and far less rigid. Maugham’s language not only relates the story but creates the world within which his story can effectively be told.

You can download the ebook for free here. Project Gutenberg allows free ebook downloads from works out of copyright. Most of Maugham’s works are available for free on this site.

The paper version is available here.

And here is a BBC interview with Maugham at his villa on the French Riviera in 1965.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, British novelist and screenwriter

There is a constant with contemporary crime writing: you don’t get to know the victim until after they’re dead. There is a focus on the mystery, the who-did-it, the victim is not so important, except in relation to why. Consequently, popular crime fiction has, usually, left me cold. Of course, as sheer entertainment, it fills the bill, but I don’t really care who did it; that’s not the point, I’ve been told: it’s the working it out, of having it worked out for you, that provides the satisfaction.

What attracted me to pick up Magpie Murders (2016) from my sister’s bookshelf, in the beautiful Barossa Valley, while waiting for international travel to re-start so I could go home, was the promise that this was something different; not just a who-done-it.

This is a book about a book. A book editor, Susan Ryeland, is to read the latest manuscript of her author client, Alan Conway; a man she doesn’t like very much but she likes his work (because it’s successful and makes her company a lot of money that secures her job) and is looking forward to reading Conway’s latest, Atticus Pünt mystery #9, Magpie Murders. We meet Susan in the first-person prologue as she sits in her house in Crouch End London preparing herself to read and telling us that, she didn’t know it then, Magpie Murders was going to change her life.

But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live at Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard, Alan Conway.

Then we turn the page and get to Alan Conway’s typescript itself – the book that this book is about – satisfactorily in a different font, a typescript font, Courtier, always used for screen and tele plays. However, to cement the pretense we first read About the Author, Alan Conway, and his many achievements; then a list of his other Atticus Pünd titles; then a page of glowing quotes from writers, newspapers, and magazines ending with a capitalised announcement:

SOON TO BE A MAJOR BBC1 TELEVISION SERIES (and it probably will be)

We, now, like Susan, are about to read Alan Conway’s new book, Magpie Murders.

And yes, the first victim has already been dispatched.

23 July 1955. There was going to be a funeral. Two gravediggers, old Jeff Weaver and his son, Adam, had been out at first light and everything was ready. (Gravediggers! So classic, Shakespearean even. Detail has always been the novelists’ trick to make you believe their fiction, and a day and date is the most believable detail of all.)

Conway’s Magpie Murders is set in a small English village, Saxby-on-Avon, and, as expected, small village life is far from quiet, or straight-forward; all reminiscent of Horowitz’s other vastly popular invention, Midsomer Murders. Then there’s another murder, a decapitation no less, and then another death with Atticus Pünd fishing around for clues and revealing all the undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, lies, and treachery that seem to make up British village existence.

This is all faithful to the genre in the great tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But if you flick through the pages-to-come you will see a change in font and a return to Susan’s first person narrative in Crouch End in 2016:

Annoying isn’t it? She says. I dared not read or flick further as I wanted to let Horowitz do his work on me, and read the book as he intended it to be read, but I was re-assured that, yes, this was probably going to be a very different crime novel. I was intrigued because what we discover is that Alan Conway’s Magpie Murders is … (no spoilers here).

(I was reminded of Ian McEwan who also likes to play around with the reader, as in his novel Sweet Tooth (2012) where the fact that you’re reading it tells you how it ends.)

Whatever it was that I was expecting from Horowitz, the different fonts, and information from the front and back covers, my sister’s comments, doesn’t happen. Something else happens. The book, Conway’s Magpie Murders, and the dilemma that faces Susan Ryland, when she, and you, get to page 219 of Conway’s Magpie Murders, takes Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, off in a completely different direction … or does it?

For crime buffs, this is a real and unexpected treat, although the unexpected bit turns out to be another who-done-it: two for the price of one!

Horowitz also has his tongue firmly in his cheek – and for this reason alone I j u s t might read another book of his. (Look at that smile on his face!) Susan arranges a meeting over a cup of tea with the local policeman. He gives her 15 minutes of his time but he spends almost 12 minutes of this time telling her about the reality of murder:

All the murderers I’ve met have been thick as shit. Not clever people. Not posh or upper class. Thick as shit. And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV. Half the time they leave their DNA all over the crime scene. Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it … if you want my advice, you’ll go back to London and forget it. Thanks for the tea.

If you read who-done-its, read this one, if you haven’t already.

Here, at the end of my blog I usually supply links to interesting videos of, or about, the writer and/or their book, to compliment what I have written. But not this time. Too much information would give away the surprises.

However, I will tell you where you can buy it. Here.

Released this year is another Susan Ryeland mystery: Moonflower Murders (Magpie Murders 2). He loves alliteration.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

When you are born into a Judeo-Christian society you are a product of that society whether you subscribe to the belief system or not, and that goes for all societies that have a belief system at their core.

Belief systems have accompanied human existence since the year dot; they predate governments and were in fact human’s first taste of governance. It belies our history to denounce religious belief as irrelevant and purely a product of our human ability to imagine a truth even if that truth doesn’t exist. It would be equally absurd to denounce our artistic nature simply because it is another product of our imagination that also allows us to make up stories.

However, there is a difference, a big difference, between a belief system and the administration of that belief system. It is the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the church that tells their followers what to wear, what they can eat and when to eat it, how to sing, what the god meant, and what they must do to get to a better place; to be blunt, it is the belief system that sustains its followers but the administration that damages them. And to be blunt again, this book is about how a good priest comes to terms with a bad one.

I’m avoiding using the word evil, which shouldn’t really exist as a noun, it is better used only as an adjective: people do evil things, and at the heart of every evil thing is a need. In some cases that need, and the person’s actions to satisfy that need, are distorted, sometimes outrageously so, but nevertheless a need that needs to be sated. In some cases that need isn’t understood even by the perpetrator of the resulting evil deeds which makes them all the more difficult, some say impossible, to judge, correct, or punish.

A History of Loneliness (2014) is the book before Boyne’s master-work, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) – the book that introduced me to this author – and these two books are the only ones set in his native Ireland.

Obran Yates is an Irish boy with a malleable nature. He enters a seminary in 1972 at the behest of his mother because she tells him he has a calling, and we follow his education with its friendships and frustrations, his family with its joys and tragedies, and his work as a teacher and parish priest with its disappointments and sacrifices. In parallel with this history of priestly life is the shadow of sexual abuse at the hands of priests; a shadow that grows and darkens despite that administration’s attempts to ignore it.

We all know about this blight on our Judeo-Christian society. Names like George Pell and Malka Leifer remind us of it almost nightly between Covid-19 news updates.

The writing is assured, confident, and skillful and Boyne pulls no punches. He has confessed to having a hot anger against the Catholic Church for decades but he has channelled that anger to tell a story about a good priest who like most religious leaders do the right thing and sustain the believers in their care, but Boyne also makes it clear that the old response – don’t let a few bad apples taint the whole barrel – is a very poor one. Why? because the administration of christianity is rigidly hierarchical and fiercely insular in its protection of itself, to the point of betraying then abandoning those in its care. Speaking out against their own is not what priests do. They should and hopefully will.

The belief system says “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” and the administration of that belief system has completely reversed and blighted the meaning.

This is a book that needs to be read. It is also a great argument for the power of fiction to tell us the truth.

Here is an interview with John Boyne about A History of Loneliness.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Winner of The Booker Prize, 2020.

Scottish – American writer Douglas Stuart

This is written traditionally: it’s not a stream of consciousness (Anna Burns’ The Milkman 2018 Booker prize; Marlon James’ The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015), it’s not multiform (George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo 2017 ?), and it’s not experimental (Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, 2019). Even the quotation marks are traditionally doubled.


What gives Shuggie Bain its uniqueness and makes it so place specific is largely due to the dialogue. Stuart writes 1980’s Glaswegian talk phonetically, and if you take the time to read it as intended, aloud, you get the unmistakable flavour of Glasgow: irreverent, rough, pragmatic, and laugh-out-loud funny. Of course it isn’t funny to the talkers; they’re just telling the truth. The dialogue rolls in your mouth like half-spent jelly beans. All the characters speak like this, except Shuggie. He speaks like a normal boy, which is ironic because he thinks of himself as so far from normal he could be from another planet.

It’s a story of decimated domesticity; a portrait of just how shit-awful human beings can treat the ones they’re supposed to love, and told in vivid, often startling language but always with hard-edged truth where parenting, for all its good, but loosely held, intentions, is no match for the stifling religion-laced society of poverty that only booze and drugs can soften, but of course never does.

It is a portrait of a family steered blindly by the mother, Agnes Bain, who really wants to be steered herself, and who flaunts with glamour, attracts men as easily as they abuse her, and looks down on her skinny unkempt down-at-heel neighbours who in turn, turn their noses up at her and wonder “who the bloody hell does she think she is?”

Her taxi-driving second husband, Shug, moves the family into a newish but too small tenement – but it has its own front door! – and then abandons them. Catherine the eldest who sees quick marriage as the only way out, to South Africa, and Leek, Alexander, the second from her first husband, who wants to better himself but can’t see how. Then there’s Shug’s own, Shuggie (Scottish diminutive for ‘Hugh’). He’s the softest and youngest Bain who is no right, a mammy’s boy with a rag doll called Daphne. 

It turned to the summer holidays, and the road was hoaching with McAvennie children and their cousins and their cousins’ cousins. They were making the most of the two weeks of good west-coast weather, bouncing footballs off kerbs or riding bikes and screaming as they sent great mouse-coloured clouds of slag dust into the air. Shuggie wilted away from them. He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.

Shuggie practices his walking, to walk like a real boy, to try not to cross his legs when he walks, to try and make room for his cock, as Leek says he must, without his arms swishing as they do; he gets excited about things because his mother, Agnes, wants him to and then when they don’t turn out he’s learnt to accept it. Disappointment isn’t so bad if it’s familiar.

She’s sorry for him. “Why?” he asks. She says “I’m sorry you have a prick for a father.”

Agnes Bain is one of the most tragic, colourful, and alive novelistic characters I have read in a long time. She’s an attractive monster and the epitome of self-destruction. She hurls her stilettos as weapons, breaks windows with rubbish bins, and sets fire to curtains to get her way. Shuggie is her guardian angel and his fierce love for her ties him to her threatening to bring him down with her. She almost saves herself by joining AA, again, but then Eugene, a ruddy bear of a man, who might, she thinks, save her, takes her out, pours her a drink;

“Look, ah’m no trying to get ye drunk. Ah’m trying to have ye try a drink.”

“But why?” Agnes was suddenly very tired.

“Because … Because it’s what normal people do.”

… so she tries a drink, and falls back into her black hole again and becomes so not normal; his ardour wains and he disappears, leaving her desperation battling against her dignity when all she ever wants is another drink.

Whatever Agnes had done now, Shuggie couldn’t say, but they had filthy words for her. New names that sounded dank and foustie; woman’s words that put spittle on their lips and made sucking sounds like a boot in the coal slag. The imaginary moat Eugene had laid around the Bain house was gone now; he rolled it up as easily as a carpet when he left. Now the McAvennie weans hammered their feet against the locked door. They shouted all the familiar poncey names at him. They made slurping kissing noises, then they made sing-songs of kissing noises, and then started the dirty names again.

I’m aware that I might be putting you off because of the subject matter, but the writing supersedes this. It’s inventive, illustrative, surprising, and glorious. Highly recommended.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here is an interview with Douglas Stuart about Shuggie Bain from the Greenwich Library in March 2020 before the Booker mailstrom overtook him.

Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

It’s a rollicking ride of the story that we think we all know, and we do know the basic facts: the Bounty was captained by William Bligh to sail to Otaheite (Tahiti) in 1789; it’s mission was to collect seedlings of breadfruit to then transport to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slaves; his first mate, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny a few days after leaving Tahiti; William Bligh and a few loyal followers were set adrift in a small launch; they sailed, rowed, and finally made it to West Timor and the Dutch settlement of Kampung; the survivors, including Bligh, were repatriated to England. Later Bligh became Governor of the colony of New South Wales.

But Boyne’ story is told from the point of view of the cabin boy, John Jacob Turnstile, christened unkindly by the crew as ‘Turnip’. He’s fourteen years old, smart, opinionated, and roughly educated; the offer to sail saved him from his life of poverty and as a member of a group of boys in Portsmouth lorded over by the vile Mr Lewis who not only trained them in the art of pickpocketing but also made them available to entertain the particular proclivities of Portsmouth’s wealthier gentlemen.

It’s a fascinating and adventurous account of life on board a small sailing vessel in the sixteenth century and Boyne sticks to the story as history; but what is different is the characters of the main players: Mr Bligh, captain in name only, not in rank, (fact) is a strict commander but kind to Turnip and in return the boy is loyal to him; Christian, a well educated son of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, is a charismatic and handsome specimen who is the only man on board who owns a mirror, uses pomade in his hair, and is noted for his body odour because of his lack of it.

While on Otaheite, Bligh allows the men freedom to reside on the island and fraternize with the natives; many of the men, including Turnip, form relationships with the local women whose culture isn’t burdened with social and sexul mores as is the Englishmen’s.

When two sailors foolishly desert their posts and hide in a remote part of the island with their women, Bligh is outraged and regrets his original leniency and commands all the men to ‘live’ back on board the Bounty. This, in Boyne’s version, is the deed that sows the seed of the eventual rebellion. The deserters are finally caught and Bligh, lenient again, has them flogged, rather than hanged. This is only the second flogging on the entire voyage, something of a record and one that Bligh is extremely proud of, but now, again, regrets his leniency and tries to impose his authority once again.

While on their way west towards the Caribbean the men were so depressed and angry at their having to leave the climate, freedom, lifestyle, and their newfound relationships that their mutinous mumblings are stoked by Christian into mutinous deeds.

Turnip remains loyal to Bligh and joins the other 18 men on the tiny launch Christian confines them to, as they watch Christian’s men sail away tossing all the one thousand breadfruit plants into the sea as they go.

The 42 day journey in an open boat to Timor is harrowing; some men don’t survive and some men succumb to the ordeal even after reaching Timor, so malnourished and mentally exhausted were they that medical assistance couldn’t save them. Turnip survives and we learn of his return to Portsmouth and … sorry, no spoilers here.

It’s an entertaining, accomplished, and a satisfying read. Boyne’s choice of vocabulary and syntax is appropriate to time, character, and social position. The story has been filmed five times and written about more, each with Bligh as the villian; this story is different.

You can buy the Kindle version, along with other formats, here.

The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.

My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.

It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.

“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.

Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.

Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.

The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.

This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.

You can buy various editions of the book here.

Contempt by Michael Cordell

American novelist and screenwriter
Michael Cordell

Text courtesy of TCK Publishing.

There was a time when eBooks were thought to be the death of paper books, just like television once  was thought to be the death of movies. However, on both occasions  new ways of telling stories just slotted in alongside old ways of telling stories and all that happened was consumers were given more choice. Not such a bad outcome.

Back in 2019 Colm Toibin said, “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

Yes, genre-fiction can be like watching TV, but writing ‘like watching TV’ is a skill in itself that some writers do well – and we’ve seen a surge of good dramatic TV writing over the last decade or more – and some writers do badly; Cordell does it well. He should know: he’s been teaching screenwriting for the past 15 years.

Thane Banning, a real estate lawyer, is on death row after being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. After five years he is released on a legal technicality, but soon finds himself defending a man, an innocent man, up on a murder charge, just like he was .. but the sweetness of the case, for Banning, is that the prosecutor is the same man, Bradford Stone, who put him behind bars. Win this and Banning gets to see Stone’s downfall.

It was a risk for Cordell to leave the backstory – the reason why Banning was on death row in the first place – so late in the set-up, almost a third of the way in. But there is a lot of the personal backstory to establish first, and its importance to the plot keeps the reader interested. Besides his old crime is intricately linked to the new on. No spoilers here.

Banning, a novice criminal lawyer, doesn’t start his new role well: everything, personal and professional, goes wrong and before the case really heats up Banning is heading for disaster. But his contempt for the legal system lets his determination and imagination fly. He decides to work by his own rules … hear the music thump and swell as Banning goes it alone.

This plotline is expected for such a genre piece, but Banning’s hurdles aren’t cliched ones, neither are his metaphors; standard fare for crime prose since Raymond Chandler was a pup.

We stay with Banning all the way, like an imp on his shoulder. However, unusually, even the imp gets left in the dark which gives the denouement, that little post climatic tie-up, a taste of exceptional unreality; but that’s a minor point.

This is a quick, easy, and entertaining read. What’s the ‘page-turner’ appellation for an ebook? A page-swiper? Yeah! Escapist fare.

You can find the link to the book here.

Here again is the link to TCK Publishing for more of the same.

And here is the author’s website.

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Australian writer, Steven Conte

Steven Conte hit the headlines in 2008 when his novel, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, which, by the way, was won last year by Gail Jones.

That debut novel was set in Berlin during World War II and this one, The Tolstoy Estate, is also set during that war; this time in the winter of 1941 when a German Medical Unit is deployed to the Russian front where it sets up a field hospital in a vast country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, just south of Moscow, that is, in fact, the country home, and burial place of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known to us by his German appellation, Leo Tolstoy. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Bauer, is a Tolstoy fan and one of the senior surgeons of the unit. The estate is lorded over by the head custodian, and Russian firebrand, Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya. She is a formidable character, a writer herself, and a masterful creation. With her sharp tongue, hardened Russian loyalties, and fierce dedication to the great novelist she becomes a major thorn in the side of the German officers; as if they haven’t enough to deal with: the constant stream of fighting men with debilitating, challenging, and horrific wounds, their isolation, lice, and, most of all, the brain-numbing and life-threatening cold (-43°C). It defeated Napoleon and it would defeat Hitler, as Katerina Dmitrievna is continually telling them.

Conte immerses the reader in the life of the hospital, the officers and staff, their foibles and idiosyncrasies as well as their work at the operating tables. His description of a thirty six hour non-stop operating shift, where life and death tussle with each other like naughty children at play and that seemingly will never end is one of the most vivid pieces of writing I have read in a very long time.

As relationships develop, split, and reassemble it is the one between Paul Bauer and Katerina Dmitrievna that gradually pulls our focus. They have a shared love of Tolstoy and talk often about him and his work, but of course not often enough, especially for Bauer. The stability of the unit is severely challenged by the interactions between the German medical team and the Russian staff, which further complicates Bauer’s growing affection for the prickly Katerina Dmitrievna.

And then at chapter twelve, just over half way through the novel, Conte pulls a swifty. Suddenly we are twenty six years into the future, in 1967, and Katerina Dmitrievna is in Helsinki writing to Paul Bauer in Nuremberg. And so begins another narrative stream, an epistolary one, that, for the rest of the novel, runs in parallel with the harsh winter’s tale at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941.

Yes, we know that they both survive the war and we think we know what then may have happened, or even what might, but Conte is not such a formuleic writer for it was just five pages from the end that I let escape a loud and unwanted, ‘Oh no!’ as I raced to read what had happened. (No spoilers here)

Great stuff!

I loved this book and I hope we don’t have to wait 12 years for the next Conte work.

Here is an extended interview with Steven Conte about the writing of The Tolstoy Estate from Avid Reader Bookshop channel.

You can find out more about Steven Conte and his books here.

The Tolstoy Estate can be purchased in various formats here.

Carry Me Down by M. J Hyland

Maria Joan Hyland, born in Britain in 1968, educated in Australian, now teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester. UK.

Children often experience the world unfiltered. Their reactions to it can be mismatched, but they can also be honest and true: free from expectations, assumptions, and unconscious influences and gossip. Children tell lies from an early age, around three, but they usually don’t recognise lies in others until much later, usually due to an existential crisis: the destruction of childhood myths: the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and the Easter Bunny.

John Egan, the 11 year old narrator of M. J. Hyland’s Carry me Down (2006) has just discovered he has a unique talent: he can recognise lies. He has physical reactions to them: vomiting, burning ears and he keeps a diary called the Gol of Seil. He is tall for his age and has an uncommon attachment to the Guiness Book of Records – maybe he can get into it with his lie-detecting ability – and a not-so-uncommon attachment to his mother. He stares at her too much. He lives with his parents, Michael (Da) and Helen (Mammy), his paternal grandmother (Granny), and a cat called Crito. But something is amiss in this cottage in southern Ireland.

The writing, in the present tense, is sparse and the syntax simple. Statements are bold and John notices the slightest detail.

She slurps her tea and smiles at me. She sticks her tongue out to greet the cup before each sip and, after she sips her tea, she smiles at me. There is only her slurping, and so much silence between us that, when a lorry passes, I am grateful for the noise and the distraction.

It becomes clear that the world and the people in it that John describes is distorted. John is not a reliable narrator; but then what 11 year old is? The reader needs to read between his lines to interpret what is really going on. This is one of the unexpected joys of this book.

Although John is an excellent lie-detector he self-justifiably becomes very good at telling lies himself until the contortions he puts himself through to balance the lies he hears and the lies he tells threaten to unseat his mind.

There is an ever-increasing feeling of unease. John hears later about the confrontation between Da and Granny which causes her to kick her son and family out: John and his parents move to Dublin into a bleak tenement where graffiti splatters every available surface and children defecate in the lifts.

But John’s discovery of another lie and subsequent truth splits the family. What almost unhinges the boy is that it was the truth that did the damage, not the lie. And the damage proves almost fatal. No spoilers here.

Slap-dash parenting of a willful and sensitive child can have devastating effects. The three adults, however, come to their senses, of sorts, and there is a feeling of a disaster averted, a life pulled back from the edge. However the final image is one of male friendship in a toy-like place where two men seek comfort in the domestic: rest in a warm place with tea to drink and toast and cakes to eat.

And the fire inside will warm their hands and faces. The door is open.

The ending is enigmatic but creates a feeling of the unknown; John may get another chance to be the grown-up he deserves. As with all teenagers, the door is open … although not for long.

M. J. Hyland has only written three novels and a small collection of short stories. I’m on a search for her first, How The Light Gets In, (2004) and latest, This is How (2009). A fourth book, Even Pretty Eyes, rumoured to have been released in August this year is now due for release, according to Amazon, in 2022. Her health may have something to do with the delay.

Here is her essay, Hardly Animal, which she wrote in response to being diagnosed, in 2008, with multiple sclerosis.

A short story, Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes, was shortlisted for 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. You can read it here.

M. J. Hyland answers a question: can writing be taught?

You can purchase M. J. Hyland’s books here. I urge you to read any of this writer’s work.