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Robert Cordner (Northern Ireland, UK)

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Folk'd (The Folk'd Trilogy)
Folk'd (The Folk'd Trilogy)
by Laurence Donaghy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Folk'd through and through, 5 Mar. 2014
This is an original and welcome fictional treatment of Belfast. After a slow start, the storyline becomes compelling, and having completed the first 'book' I am keen to know what happens in the next. Donaghy has taken the concept of the 'wee people', in particular their kidnap of Irish children, and viewed it through an earthy portrayal of contemporary Belfast. He does so without adhering to the typical literary cliches about a divided city. The language is suitably strewn with expletives, but after a while it is this which gets in the way of the writing. Donaghy's style is incredibly good, but in depicting too readily the coarsity of casual conversations, this gets lost in a welter of babble more suited to teenage boys expressing their aggression. Having said that, it is good to note that someone has given 'yer ma' jokes a place in literary posterity. But in revising one Irish stereotype Donaghy should avoid unwittingly promoting another.


The Charnel House
The Charnel House
by Eamonn McGrath
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meeting unavoidable fate, 8 Feb. 2014
This review is from: The Charnel House (Paperback)
The subject matter of a novel dealing with the lives of TB sufferers in a 1950s Irish sanatorium is not encouraging. However, McGrath's writing, his literary yet unpretentious style, make this a well kept secret in modern Irish fiction. It occasionally veers towards sentiment, but this is inevitable when dealing with a cast whose painful fate is certain. Otherwise, observations are subtle and delivered without melodrama. The declining health of the main characters, and desperate efforts to find workable treatments, are the main context. Yet this is also a story of independent Ireland, several years after 'the Emergency'. McGrath draws no parallel between the sanatorium and the country, nor does he moralise about the sometimes brutal medical treatment meted out to patients. But there are subtle observations about the abuse of power, the distancing of problems from mainstream society, and the resignation of many to unavoidable fate, that have wider application than the grim scenario at the heart of this novel.


Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Phineas Resurgent, 8 Feb. 2014
Trollope's direct sequel to Phineas Finn, The Irish Member (English Library) has the eponymous hero face a series of difficult challenges, the culmination of which is his being on trial for murder. It is therefore a far darker novel than the first, and far more enjoyable for it. Either book can be read as stand alone novels as the plot of the first is neatly concluded, and the second contains sufficient reminders and references to the first as to make it unnecessary to read. Political and personal jealousy lead to Finn's arrest. And rekindled rivalry among his female suitors similarly makes his widowhood an uneasy burden. As with the novel Phineas Finn, we learn more of the motivations and thoughts of these would be lovers than Finn himself. For that, we have his apparent stoicism and politeness towards each woman. Teasingly, there are occasional hints that Finn considers marriage as a means of helping his political career. A sub plot of Phineas Redux is the battle between fictionalised versions of Disraeli and Gladstone over disestablishment of the Church of England. Trollope has Disraeli propose this action to the annoyance of his own party, forcing the Liberals to oppose it (a gentle satire of the parties' similar positions over the Second Reform Act).


Things Fall Apart (Penguin Red Classics)
Things Fall Apart (Penguin Red Classics)
by Chinua Achebe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Falling Things, 25 Jan. 2014
A compelling but troubling story, Achebe's most famous novel offers a raw interpretation of the first contacts between tribal Africans and European colonialists. This theme dominates the book-jacket blurbs and literary interpretations, yet for much of the novel it is something yet to happen. In the meantime, the main character, Okonkwo, is our guide to West African tribal society and culture. In contrast to Elspeth Huxley, and perpetuated in films such `Avatar', Achebe does not paint a simplistic, idealised society whose imminent destruction we mourn with every turned page. Instead, Okwonkwo is a deeply troubled character regarded with understandable suspicion by his family and tribe. The latter's customs and martial preoccupations make their culture alien to western European sensibilities. Yet, when the imperialists arrive, furtively at first, and later as a missionary station, they do not offer an alternative which appeals to the reader. Indeed, in depicting their arrival and determination to change the host society, Achebe achieves a remarkable transformation on the part of the reader. With the tribe's culture under serious threat, their preciousness shines brightly. The same can also be said for Okonkwo, whose personal fortunes also suffer considerably, a result of his own misdemeanours, transforming him from an unpleasant arrogant bully into a pitiable old man. Achebe provides a necessary reminder that imperialism cannot be reduced to an account book with columns for `good' and `bad'.


Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligence Lit, 20 Aug. 2013
This review is from: Sweet Tooth (Paperback)
There are no shortage of novels about spies, their rivals and enemies, and all the paraphernalia of intelligence agencies. It is more rare, however, for spy fiction to receive a literary treatment. John Banville's The Untouchable set the bar high, and although Ian McEwan's latest novel does not quite attain the same success, it is nevertheless to be welcomed. Perhaps part of the reason for the difference in the two novels is that McEwan's main character is very young, and an attractive woman. It is probably easier to wring a satisfying story from a cynical old fashioned liberal, but McEwan does well to do so from a Oxbridge graduate who takes her patriotism for granted. There are no long-winded speeches about the political situation, rather, McEwan takes a more subtle approach by making us aware of her thoughts and attitudes in passing remarks. He draws on the pervasive sense of British decline, from without and within, that is said to have blighted the 1970s. This examination of an unthinking civil servant can compromise the reader, who might easily find themselves caught out by assumptions deeply embedded in cultural and political attitudes to the fallout from the 1960s. McEwan does not dwell on background crises, but allows them to appear in and out of focus, the Cold War, of course, but also Northern Ireland, and the generational conflict within the Service between old colonial hands and the younger cold warriors. Beyond this, Sweet Tooth is a rather conventional yet wonderfully written tale of love, jealousy, rivalry, moral compromise, and a woman struggling with a career in the early 1970s.


A Hologram for the King
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Death of Sales Men, 20 April 2013
Eggers novel reads like a contemporary take on Arthur Miller's famous play, Death of a Salesman. It not only manages to expose the hollowness of a relatively unsuccessful commercial life, but places it in the context of globalisation. The decline of America is juxtaposed with the rise of China. But it is its setting, Saudi Arabia, which suggests that the spread of capitalism consequent on US decline is very thin indeed. Like the new desert city planned by the Saudi king, it confuses aspiration for reality in the business speak which masquerades as the new lingua franca. The novel's message is both highly local and global, individual and societal. As we are all increasingly herded into `competition' with one another, on the basis it will encourage dynamism and success, the results are often the very opposite: mediocrity, lack of sufficient resources, and worst of all, self-deception. This is definitely a novel of its time.


The Testament of Mary
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Iconoclasm, 20 April 2013
This review is from: The Testament of Mary (Hardcover)
This very short novella is a provocative evocation of the possible life of Mary. Written by an avowedly lapsed Catholic, it is a deliberate inversion of the `queen of heaven' which adorns many churches and grottos throughout his native Ireland and elsewhere. St Mary the Icon and Mary in this novella are both fearful, anxious and even scared, but whereas the former ascends directly to heaven to reign as its queen, the latter is regarded suspiciously by the men who seek to spread the message about her son and seeks to escape their control. The idea is not entirely original (Germans have been writing about Jesus the man/Jesus in history since the 1800s), but Tobin's fine writing makes this a highly believable and worthwhile treatment. It certainly breaks the icon of St Mary, but in doing so it reveals a Mary who is both deeply human, and who is worthy of respect not adoration.


Fool's Sanctuary
Fool's Sanctuary
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Noblesse oblige, 27 Dec. 2012
This review is from: Fool's Sanctuary (Paperback)
Johnston's novels tend to feature benign paternalistic gentry figures reckoning with the social and political transformations brought about by Irish Nationalism. A common theme is how these characters negotiate their seemingly anachronistic identity with the new political dispensation. Mr Martin fulfils this role in 'Fool's Sanctuary'. A scholarly environmentalist who rejects his ancestors' preference for military service, Martin wages a campaign instead for the reforestation of Ireland (an atonement or reversal of colonisation?). Also dabbling in Cooperative politics, Martin somewhat resembles the Unionist turned Home Ruler, Sir Horace Plunkett, and like Plunkett his empathy for Irish nationhood is too late to preserve his influence. Martin's son, Andrew, rejects his father's crusade, and restores the family tradition with military service. But Andrew is even more helplessly out of touch with local life as a consequence. Andrew's sister, Miranda, the narrator and central protagonist, plays a rather conventional role of being vulnerable emotionally, yet strong in her conviction about welcoming Irish independence, the result of her love for Cathal, a local lad turned IRA volunteer. Johnston's characterisation is gentle, haunting and passionate, and it is this, set against an all too family political backdrop, which makes her novels a worthwhile read.


Amsterdam
Amsterdam
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bittersweet, 26 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Amsterdam (Paperback)
A superb novel tracing the interrelated fates of three men grieving the death of their common lover, Molly. Status and pride shape their existences, leading to successive misunderstandings and misjudgements, and a brilliant if comically absurd conclusion. The subtleties of timing, and of language, are prominent, not only to the auteur characters (especially the newspaper editor and composer), but also in McEwan's narrative. Set in the dying days of the last Conservative government (late 1990s), it nevertheless has a timeless quality as an old fashioned morality tale about the pitfalls of pride.


Bred of Heaven: One man's quest to reclaim his Welsh roots
Bred of Heaven: One man's quest to reclaim his Welsh roots
by Jasper Rees
Edition: Paperback

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Prints of Wales, 19 Nov. 2012
An accessible book for holidaymakers in Wales who wish to know more about its people. This sympathetic account examines some of the important institutions and cultural elements of Welsh Wales, such as the Eisteddfod, male voice choirs, language, religion, mining, and so on. Travel writing has always been dogged by the criticism that it reveals more about the writer than the subject people and place. In highlighting the difference between one culture and another, the many similarities are glossed over, or even lamented as evidence of the malign forces of capitalism/exploitation/conquest. The best travel writing acknowledges this, and attempts a more rounded picture. Moreover, as a sub-discipline of literature it does not care much if the reader intends to book a holiday to the place(s) concerned. The very opposite is the case with `humorous' travel writing. Like `alternative comedy', old jokes and attitudes survive, albeit repackaged for a more ostensibly progressive audience. One the one hand, Bred of Heaven is a hackneyed narrative about a sophisticated metropolitan rejecting his upbringing to embrace what he (positively) identifies as specific elements of `Welshness', as against a vague (negative) notion of Englishness. On the other, because the book self-identifies as `humorous', all this is done with a warm smile. Does the latter cancel out the former, is it a license to produce essentialist notions of national identity? For the present the answer is yes, for if the book was not `humorous', it would be lambasted as patronising, uneven, and self-indulgent. As for the humour, it is funny in places, but for the most part it is a cosy narrative intended to warm the heart.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 21, 2013 7:53 PM BST


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