Are you John Irving in disguise? The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I lost a weekend to John Boyne’s world of Cyril Avery – and I’m still not the better of it. I’m recovering from a book hangover of the best kind.

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The story is simple but complex. It is the life of Cyril Avery, from not long before his birth, to pretty soon before his death. It is the story of being gay in Ireland and the story of social change in Ireland, told from the 1940’s through to 2015. It is an emotional roller coaster.

If you have ever read The World According to Garp, or Prayer to Owen Meany, you will understand my reference in the title of the post. Boyne is channeling Irving in the best possible way. He stands the comparison well. It is up there with the best of his work.

Boyne starts angry. The opening lines will hook you and you won’t want to be let go. Cyril’s mother is denounced from the alter, physically kicked thrown out of the church and  basically run out of town. If in the opening chapter you find yourself defending the clergy or Cyril’s grandparents, then you probably need to stop reading there. If you think gay people are sick and perverted you should probably read on as you might learn something, but you’ll probably stop reading early on.

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After leaving her home town behind, Cyril’s mother heads off to Dublin on the bus where she begins her new life, with a grand plan in place that involves a hunchbacked old nun who will deliver Cyril to his adoptive parents.

What follows is the best part of 600 pages of tears and laughter. I know I swung from anger, to joy, to despair, and back again.  The dialogue is sharp and quirky. Cyril’s upbringing is unconventional, but mostly believable, if occasionally absurd. The near misses between Cyril and his birth mother will probably frustrate you.

I read the book over the last weekend, as the Tuam Baby story was dominating headlines in Ireland. So anger at religious organisations was already in my system. The sad thing for Ireland is that many of the attitudes expressed and described in the book, you feel, are not in anyway over-hyped.There are too many scandals for the reader to not believe any of the more outrageous event or conversations that happen in the book. The strict conservative shadow of the Catholic Church reached into every part of society in Ireland. The sharpest barbs in this book are drafted in the funniest dialogue. Mary Margaret Muffet is a great character and you can easily imagine taking part in the cringe-worthy conversation towards the end with his daughter in law’s parents.

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The object of Boyne’s contempt isn’t limited to the Catholic Church. Politicians and our general attitudes to women are the other principle targets. The occasional historical factual figure pops up, and some, like Charlie Haughey, get a bit of a shoeing.

Not all of the characters are drawn out or have depth to them. The modern segments aren’t maybe as good as the older ones. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s up there.

Overall I loved this book. First proper 5 star of the year. I was lucky in that I was able to just read for most of the weekend, so could get properly lost in Cyril. But in best book hangover traditions, I have no idea what to read next, although I do think I’ll be re-reading A Prayer to Owen Meany this year.

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The Pillowman, not as comfortable as he sounds

I went with family members to The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin to watch Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman last week. I was expecting a bit of a detective mystery kind of thing, and ended up in some sick, twisted, dark recess of a playwright’s mind. It was great place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there!!

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Reading the blurb before booking I knew there was a story writer being questioned by detectives about some murders done in the style of his stories. Hence my thought that this might be a little bit of a whodunnit, or something about social injustices (as it mentioned totalitarian state).  About 15 minutes in to the play, when there was much shouting ab0ut children being f*cked up, I was beginning to think how much darker it was than I expected, and by the interval I knew we were in real ‘wtf’ territory.

So, the storywriter writes stories that are macabre and kind of creepy. Reviews I’ve read since talk about Quentin Tarintino meeting The Grimm Brothers, so that gives you an idea what we are talking about. I’d maybe go Roald Dahl for adults (more adult than Tales of The Unexpected). More intellectual reviews will discuss the writer trying to tell us about the message of the role of a writer. “To tell a story”. That’s all a bit beyond me.

I’m not sure why its set in a totalitarian state, other than it allows the detectives to issue threats and acts of torture alongside the inevitability of execution.  I guess it removes and locations, and among the actors there is a strange mix of sometimes Irish sometimes American and sometimes something in between.

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The story continues revealing some of the stories that have been copied, and we learn about the writer’s brother who has been rendered brain damaged from his torturing parents.  We learn the story of The Pillowman, a story that will send shivers up your spine. I won’t spoil it except to say he has what’s described as the saddest job in the world, and they may be right.

The first half far exceeds that second in tension, darkness and general intensity. The second half for me descended a little into the absurd.  There’s a story of a Chinaman that had audience members giggling through fingers covering cringed faces. They were probably wondering, like I was, if what looked like casual racism was necessary in the telling of the story. Then I was wondering what the f*ck that bit was about completely.

Overall, its a great play though, or at least I  thought so.  There are funny parts. It is however very dark, and uncomfortable in large parts. Anyone that may have lost a child in the past might be best advised to stay away. The youtube video below may give a better idea about reactions to the play.

I’ve been to The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by the same writer. That’s a much lighter kettle of fish. Its dark in its own way, but not by the standards of The Pillowman.

If you’re looking for something that makes you think, and shift on your seat. Then this is a great night’s ‘entertainment’. If you’re easily discomfited, that maybe seek out The Beauty Queen of Leenane which is on in the Gaiety later in a few weeks.

Crosstalk – Connie Willis

Telepathy, meets smart technology meets love and romance. I love a bit of speculative fiction, but this mixed bag of a novel doesn’t quite get there.

 

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I’ve read Doomsday and Blackout by Connie Willis before Crosstalk. Both books that feature Time Travel, something the author might have considered using to go back and tighten up this novel before it got published.

I enjoyed it. Some parts more than others. Some things annoyed me. Some stupidly small things that shouldn’t have annoyed me. The protagonist’s name is Briddey. This jarred with me, as she is meant to be from very Irish roots and the extra D just irked me everytime I saw it. I wanted to pronounce her name Bridey (sounds like bride) but the extra D makes it seem like Bridge sounding…does that make sense? Anyway, its a very small thing, but (obviously) it got under my skin.

The story centres around Briddey Flannigan, who works for a communications company that rivals Apple. She is going to get a neural enhancement which means she and her boyfriend will be able to feel their  emotions towards each other, confirming their connectedness. There features a supporting cast of work colleagues and her slightly bonkers Irish family. Her sister Mary Clare is a very annoying and unbelievable character. The procedure has some unintended consequences, and a wee bit of sci-fi, romantic farce ensues.

I know I’ve been mostly negative so far, but I actually did enjoy the book, just not as much as I hoped I would.  The story could be shorter. There are some silly bits in it, and a couple of characters I could have done without…maybe Mary Clare was needed as a plot device for her daughter.

Blurb mentions Norah Ephron, and  the romance is of typical Ephron Rom-Com style. A perfectly suitable (on the surface) relationship, the introduction of a colleague she initially dislikes but slowly falls in love with.

The explanations of how the unintended consequences work I enjoyed. The few scrapes and avoiding detection were also parts that added pleasure and it all comes together in a satisfying way. There is a message there about how too much communication can be a bad thing.

Doomsday was my introduction to Connie Willis. It brilliant. Blackout was great, although for some reason I haven’t gotten round to All Clear. I got Crosstalk as a Christmas gift, and give it a hit and miss 3 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

Been so long, so here’s a catch up

Oh dear, I haven’t written anything in ages. I had a brief hiatus (for a few weeks) when I didn’t read anything, but mostly I prioritised work and other such distractions. So this post is by way of a catch up.

Books read since last I posted;

Actually, I suppose as a snapshot it shows a little of how eclectic my reading can be.

untitledOnly Ever Yours, is a dark young adult book. Yet another dystopian world, this one with shades of Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Uglies’ world, where young women compete to find their place in a male dominated society. It’s a sad, frightening existence, made more so because it takes amplifies and builds on many of the issues faced by young women today. It really is a speculative indictment of what some young women expect of themselves, of youth culture, of celebrity culture. As a youth worker I see many facets of the characters lives mirrored (obviously in a much less extreme way) in teens I work with. For that reason I finished the book feeling depressed. It is a book to be admired rather than enjoyed.

silkworm

The Silkworm is an enjoyable crime novel written by JK Rowling under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym. It’s the second novel featuring likeable character Cormoran Strike. The writing and plot is clever, and fans of crime fiction this should be a treat. Crime fiction is probably a genre I don’t read a huge amount of, but this more than kept my attention and I fairly flew through it.

darkmouth

Darkmouth is the latest children’s fiction sensation from Ireland, following the success of the Artemis Fowl and Skulduggery Pleasant series’. Darkmouth is a small town in Ireland where the last Legend Hunter and his son Finn, live. There’s plenty of humour and drama here to keep the most discerning of young teen or tween engrossed. I’m sure many parents will enjoy reading this book and any subsequent episodes to follow along with their children. The scary monsters are sometimes a little scary and sometimes really not, so if looking for an excuse to read it, checking its suitability for your child is as good a reason as any.

look whos back

I was looking forward to reading Look Who’s Back for ages after seeing the larger paperback version in my local bookshop. Alas the anticipation didn’t quite match the reality. It was ok. I liked it. But it wasn’t great. 2 and half to three out of five I’d say. I was looking forward to something really funny, and a scathing attack on modern politics. There were some humourous parts, and it did have a dig at 2015 Germany, but like I’ve said, it never quite hit the heights I was hoping for. There’s probably some sort of lesson about not judging a book by its cover, but who among us hasn’t fallen for that one? It’s also probably a bit unfair to judge it on what I was hoping for rather than what it was.

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Ancillary Sword on the other hand met my expectations. I loved Ancillary Justice. It was one of my favourite books of last year, so I was really pleased to find the standard hadn’t dropped. If you don’t like science-fiction, you should probably leave it alone. But sci-fi fans will lap it up. Intelligent space Opera.
all the lights
The last book in this round-up is All The Lights We Cannot See, and I think I’ll give that a little post all of its own. Spoiler alert though. I loved it. Best book I’ve read in 2015, beautifully written and captivating story.

The Martian – Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir is basically McGyver stuck on Mars, and it’s great fun.

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I’m probably repeating every review of The Martian by saying this book is Robinson Crusoe, meets McGyver, meets Apollo 13, but it’s very difficult to get away from those comparisons.

The premise – Astronaut Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars due to a freak accident that leaves his crew mates having to abort their mission, assuming him already dead. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived that accident, presumably to die quite soon after he wakes up.  As he says in the opening line, “I’m fucked”.

He’s a botanist and an engineer and what follows is 300+ pages of gung-ho geeky battle against the odds.  Told through his daily log we can’t help rooting for Watney with his mix of gallows humour and ingenuity.

I laughed a lot during this book and let out more than a few mental hooraaahhs as he overcomes each obstacle between him and survival for another day.

I don’t know how accurate the science is. I don’t care. It all sounded feasible. Clearly a lot of research has been done for the different scenarios painted. It’s all very nerdy as he explains (for example) how to grow potatoes on Mars. I was initially a bit wary that there would be so much detail that it would bore me, but far from it. It just added to the realism and helped along the suspense.

It’s apparently being released as a movie starring Matt Damon later this year. I reckon I’ll be going along, if only to moan to my friends about how, “it didn’t happen that way in the book. The book was much better. You should read the book”. Yep, I’m that guy.

Read The Martian – you won’t regret it.