Category Archives: Book Reviews

Celebrating Ireland

Yesterday, among other things, it was St Patrick’s Day. I’m proud of my nation’s day, even though, truth be told, my nation itself causes me more problems than pride most of the time. I spent yesterday huddled indoors hoping it would stop raining for long enough to get to our local parade (spoiler: it didn’t), and so it passed mostly unremarked; this was a pity, as I love St Patrick’s Day parades with all their mismatched, homemade, amateur whimsy. They’re a true celebration of what living in a rural town in Ireland looks and feels like, and though some of it doesn’t deserve to be romanticised, some of it is pure fun. If you celebrated it, I hope you enjoyed yourself.

In honour of the national day, I wanted to spend a bit of time bigging up my fellow Irish writers, just because. There are a lot of them, so I’m beginning this post by apologising (which is, of course, the most Irish thing of all); I’m bound to forget someone, and I mean no disrespect. I put it down to my being old and grey(ish) and not having enough space in my brain-pan for everything that needs to fit into it. So, if you don’t see yourself here and you feel, all told, that you should be, do let me know. Also, I’m going to focus on kidlit/YA types, mostly because I’m lazy and this is the age-group I know best – but also because the best writing happens there, and because if I opened my focus to literary fiction I’d literally be writing this blogpost for the rest of my life. We Irish, we know our words.

Irish Books

With apologies to Mr Walliams, who isn’t included in my Irish roundup! Photo: SJ O’Hart

Right. To begin at the beginning.

If you haven’t already made the acquaintance of the one-man wonder show that is Dave Rudden, I heartily recommend you do. His second novel, The Forever Court, is imminent, and as his first – Knights of the Borrowed Dark – was one of the best books I have ever read (and I have read many books, so this is A Good Thing), I fully expect the second book in this series to be stupendous. As well as that he’s one of the nicest people around, full of excellent writing advice and general nerdery/geekery on Twitter, and he sports a beard of wonder which deserves to be more widely admired.

I also kneel before the throne of Claire Hennessy, who has been around so long in Irish writing circles (despite still being a very young lady) that she practically functions as its fulcrum. She has a publishing record as long as your arm, having released her first book into the world while she was still in her teens, and her novel Like Other Girls is forthcoming from Hot Key Books in May. This is only the latest in a body of work which is noteworthy for its feminism, intelligence and social awareness, and Claire is one of the most interesting writers, speakers and  human beings I know. She’s also an awesome creative writing teacher with Big Smoke Writing Factory, as I can personally attest.

I am a Celine Kiernan completist, and I wait with bated breath whenever she mentions she has another book coming. Her Moorehawke Trilogy is world-class fantasy, and her novel Into the Grey is a stunning piece of work. My favourite of her works is Resonance, her most recent, which is an incredible piece of writing, storytelling, world-building and imagination, and I can’t recommend it more highly. She can’t write her next book fast enough for me.

Then there’s the one-woman powerhouse that is E.R. Murray, who manages – it seems – to constantly be writing four books at once, and all of them to an excellent standard. Her Nine Lives series about Ebony Smart, a young girl with the power to reincarnate, is published by Mercier Press. As if that wasn’t enough, her YA story about a young girl struggling to cope with the challenges of her family life with the help of her mother’s recipe book is called Caramel Hearts, published by Alma Press. E.R. is widely regarded as an in-demand speaker, creative writing teacher, and author, and she is a warm and welcoming presence on the Irish literary scene.

Kieran Fanning (who daylights as a teacher) is the author of The Black Lotus, published by Chicken House Books in the UK and Scholastic in the US, which is one of the best books for kids I’ve read in years. It encompasses adventure, martial arts, time travel, history, superpowers and an epic battle – and I loved it. He’s a supportive and helpful voice on social media, a source of huge encouragement for newbies like me, and an authority on making books and literature accessible and interesting to children. Anyone who writes for children in Ireland should be following his every word.

Nigel Quinlan’s The Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox stands, in my humble onion, shoulder-to-shoulder with Pat O’Shea, a legend of Irish children’s literature. When I read Weatherbox I was reminded of nothing more than O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigana book which was a gigantic part of my childhood. In its zany humour, utterly Irish turns of phrase, and completely bonkers family, it’s a book which made me laugh while keeping me glued to the plot. I enjoyed it so much, and I can’t wait to see what Quinlan does next. Also, if you’re looking for bonkers zany humour on Twitter, Nigel‘s your man.

I can’t write a post like this without mentioning Louise O’Neill, who has – deservedly – enjoyed worldwide success with her novels Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, which tackle some of the most complex aspects of modern life as experienced, primarily, by young women. They are books which can be searingly painful to read, simply because they are so true, and so important. Her work has drawn comparison with that of Margaret Atwood, and the clarity O’Neill brings to her dissection of what it is to be female in a world which seems to hate women is utterly compelling.

There are so many more incredible Irish writers I could mention, including Sarah Webb, Sheena Wilkinson, Siobhan Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Eoin Colfer, Oisin McGann, Derek Landy, Sarah Crossan, P.J. Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Shane Hegarty (who has enjoyed recent film success with his trilogy of Darkmouth books), Alan Early (whose Arthur Quinn novels about resurrected Vikings and Norse Gods taking over Dublin city are fantastic), Oliver Jeffers, Máire Zepf, Tarsila Kruse (who I’m claiming as Irish!), and more who I’m sure I’m forgetting that I really would be here all day, so I’ll have to leave it at that. Ireland is producing some top-notch writing for children, teens and young readers, as well as its already enviable record in relation to literary fiction, and it’s a great time to be part of it.

So, Beannachtaí lá le Phádraig oraibh go leor, and take my word for it: the best way to celebrate St Patrick is to check out a book by an Irish writer. Maith thú, beir bua, is bain taitneamh as na leabhair!

 

Books Within Books

When I was at university, a hundred million years ago, there was a lot of talk about ‘intertextuality’ on my English courses – the idea that, essentially, every text which exists carries within it the influences of a great many other texts, whether deliberately or not, and that the reader also brings their own experiences of other texts to their reading of everything they encounter. It’s a fascinating idea and I whiled away many hours daydreaming – I mean, doing intense research – on the topic.

The Eye of the North, while most definitely being a book which sprang from my head, is no exception to this idea of intertextuality. The seeds which eventually brought it to fruition were sown over many years, and the basic outline of the tale began over fifteen years ago. It’s silly to think that the books I’ve read – of which there have been many – played no part in the shaping of the book I would eventually write; I have long been fascinated, too, by the polar regions and their history. There are a few books, however, which I could point to as having had a direct impact on my writing of The Eye of the North, and here they are.

1. The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP Children’s, 2005)

I love a great many books, and there are few I love more than this one. The spine of my copy is creased like an old boot, such are the rigours I have put it to over the years. I read it in my twenties, long after I had first come up with the basics of The Eye of the North, but the reading of this book has definitely helped to flesh out my own mental idea of what the polar regions might be like – despite the fact, of course, that The White Darkness is about Antarctica, and not the Arctic. It tells the story of Sym, a girl who is taken on a trip to the South Pole by her strange uncle, a man who has definite nefarious intentions, and her struggle to survive there when things go pear-shaped – but what I love about this book more than anything is Sym’s unwavering devotion to Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, who was one of the brave men on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is he who uttered the fateful words ‘I am just going outside; I may be some time’, as he sacrificed his own life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to save those of his comrades, and it is he who accompanies Sym, inside her mind, as she navigates her daily life. The book begins with her declaring her love for Captain Oates, despite the fact that he has been dead for over ninety years, and I am never left unmoved by the very real relationship between them, even though Sym knows, on some level, that the Captain Oates in her head is merely her own imagination and not the real man himself.

But then, how does he tell her things she wouldn’t have known any other way?

This book is a wonder. I heartily recommend it, as I do most things that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.

the-white-darkness

Cover of ‘The White Darkness’, OUP Children’s Books, 2005

2. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna (Viking Books, 2005)

This is a travelogue, of sorts, as well as an exploration of myth and legend surrounding the North of the world, most particularly the idea of ‘Thule’, long thought to be the most northerly outpost in existence. Mentioned in texts going back centuries, it nevertheless proved impossible to pin down exactly where Thule was; some thought it was the Orkneys or the Shetland Islands; others Iceland; others Greenland, or Estonia, or a variety of places dotted around the northern regions of our planet. Some thought it was entirely made up. Kavenna, in her book, takes us through the whole Arctic region, exploring not only the landscape around her but also her own mind and heart as she searches for the mystical lost land. It’s a love letter to the Arctic, which deepened my own passion for it, and it ticked all my boxes: maps, medievalish stuff, myths, legends, ice, and exploration. It’s been years since I revisited The Ice Museum, and it’s high time I went back.

3. The Cruellest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Years ago, I worked in a bookshop, and when things were quiet I used to while away my time by cleaning and sorting the stock. In our World History section, a slim volume with a navy spine kept catching my eye. One payday, I walked straight over to it and bought it, and I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story it told. It’s the story of Nome, an isolated town in Alaska, which was ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, when supplies of antitoxin serum had run dangerously low. Children were dying, and unless more antitoxin serum could be brought in, an epidemic would begin to rage. Nome, at that time, was more or less unreachable for months on end, and the only way to get the serum to the town was to use a chain of dogsled teams, who battled heroically through the worst conditions imaginable to rescue the children and people of Nome. I named a character in The Eye of the North after Balto, one of the dogs who was part of the lifesaving effort, and I have been passionately interested in dogsledding ever since reading this book. It made me cry on a packed train, though. I warn you, in case you want to read it yourself – prepare to have your emotions put through the wringer.

the-cruellest-miles

Cover of The Cruellest Miles (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, Bloomsbury, 2004)

4. The Arctic, ed. Elizabeth Kolbert, Volume I of The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, eds. Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, (Granta Books, 2007)

I will admit I haven’t read all of this, as it’s an anthology of writing designed to be dipped into, but its introduction is a great statement on climate change and the danger of global warming, particularly the damage it’s doing to the polar regions. The pieces in this anthology are varied both in style and emphasis, and it’s a great wide-ranging look at the idea of the Arctic as a place, as a challenge, and as an idea.

So, there you have it. Every book I’ve read has, no doubt, left its traces on my mind and imagination and I’m sure there are many more books than these which I could point to as being part of the culture that went into the creation of The Eye of the North. It’s interesting to trace the journeys that the books you love take you on, though, both internal and external; certainly, without my love of books – and the fact that I was encouraged to read from an early age – I wouldn’t have cultivated the mindset to write one of my own. It’s great to feel that my own small contribution might sit among these books one day, and might even spur someone else on in their love of the yawning ice-fields of the far north – so long as you beware what you might find living deep in the ancient glacier…

 

 

 

#Bookelves16 (Or, the Best Book Recommendations Around)

Christmas, you may have noticed, has been and gone. The turkey has been gobbled (sorry, sorry), the decorations put away for another year (well, in some houses…), and the wrapping paper has well and truly been recycled.

So, why am I blogging, you may ask, about #Bookelves16? Well, because books are for life, not just for Christmas. And it’s always a good time of year for great book recommendations, am I right?

Of course I am.

In case I’m talking utter nonsense to some of you – those who don’t follow me on Twitter, f’rinstance (and if this is you *makes stern face* rectify that situation as soon as possible, please) – I’d best explain what #Bookelves16 is all about. So, during the month of December, a bunch of great people who love children’s books, led by head elf Sarah Webb, took to social media to promote, recommend and prescribe children’s books to those who were looking for gifts, or just for something wondrous to read. All through the month people who know their onions when it comes to kidlit took the time to give personal recommendations to those who needed them, and/or just to talk about their own favourites. I’m proud to say that I was a Bookelf, and that it was huge fun.

Today’s blog, then, will be a quick recap of some of my favourite #Bookelves16 recommendations, and if you want to check out all the recommendations on offer, simply head to Twitter and stick ‘#bookelves16’ into the Search box, and Bob’s your mother’s brother. Simple!

My first recommendation was for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS: THE CROOKED SIXPENCE.

uncommoners

Cover image for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS, art by Karl J Mountford (Corgi Children’s Books, 2016)

I reviewed this book last year, and I don’t think I’ve read a book I’ve loved quite so much in… well, in forever. It’s wonderful, and one I will treasure and reread with great joy for years to come. Happily, a sequel, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, is imminent – I’ll be top of the queue to buy it.

I also recommended, to great interest, a sequence of books by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which reimagine the world of King Arthur through the eyes of a young boy who shares his name and possesses a ‘seeing stone’ which allows him to look into the world of the legendary king. Anyone who needs proof that children’s books can be powerful, meditative, intoxicatingly well-written and an amazing story on top of that need look no further.

crossley-holland

Spines for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (plus the fourth book, ‘Gatty’s Tale’), Orion Children’s books

My recommendations also included the work of Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Norton Juster (whose THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is one of my all-time favourites; I can’t wait to read it to my own child in a few years’ time), Madeleine l’Engle, Terry Pratchett, Allan Boroughs (IRONHEART is a particular favourite round these parts), Peter Bunzl, James E. Nicol, Christopher Edge, Lucy Strange’s THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, everything by the unstoppable, wonderful Abi Elphinstone and everything by the lyrically perfect Frances Hardinge, the monumental KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK by the magical Dave Rudden, along with books by Kieran Fanning, Nigel Quinlan, Eva Ibbotson, Horatio Clare, S.F. Said and Andrea Beaty (whose ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER are major hits in my house). The interested reader might also like to check out this article from a recent edition of The Irish Times, in which yours truly recommended some great reads along with a host of other kidlit-types – there are enough book ideas in that article alone to satisfy anyone’s cravings.

But because a bookelf never really hangs up her pointy hat, no matter whether it’s Christmas or any other time of year, I’d like to say this: I’m on hand, 24/7/365 (or as near to it as I can manage) to recommend, give guidance on, and enthuse wildly about – I’ll warn you now, there will be flappy hands – children’s books, from picture books to upper MG, and I may even set my tremulous toe into the waters of YA. I’m not much of an expert on books for teens, but I do have a fair knowledge, and if I don’t know the answer to your question I will know someone who does.

So, I’ll leave you with this: read often, read well, expose the children in your life to as many books as they can carry (don’t forget the library!) and never deny them reading material if it’s at all possible to provide it. If they enjoy reading, rejoice, for you never know the worlds which will open up before them and the thirst for learning they will develop. And, importantly, let your children read whatever they want to read.  Anything else will induce stress palpitations, frankly, and nobody needs those.

And on that note, I’ll leave you in peace. I’m sure you have reading to be getting on with…

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence’

It’s wonderful to read a book which leaves you feeling, with every page, that you’ve just drunk a large cup of warm tea (or coffee, or hot chocolate, or whatever is your comfort beverage of choice) – not to suggest that The Uncommoners is cutesy, or twee, or in any sense bland. It’s not. What I mean is, it’s such a great story, so well told, that it just leaves you feeling satisfied, completely happy with your lot, and glad to have made the acquaintance of so many great characters in such a perfect setting. I don’t think I’ve read a better Middle Grade fantasy book in a long time.

The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence is the debut novel of Jennifer Bell, who happens to be a fellow Greenhouser. She and I share an agent, though we don’t know one another in real life (so my review isn’t in the slightest bit biased!) I heard about her book several years ago, through our agent, and I’ve been dying to read it ever since. It was well worth the wait.

uncommoners

The fabulous cover of Jennifer Bell’s ‘The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence’ (UK paperback edition, Random House 2016)

The book tells the story of Ivy Sparrow and her older brother Seb, who we meet on the dramatic night their beloved Granma Sylvie is rushed to hospital after a fall. Their parents are both at work and can’t get to the hospital for several hours, so Ivy and Seb need to look after Granma as best they can. While in the hospital, Ivy notices a strange man with very odd hands who seems to be looking for someone; he gives her the creeps, but eventually she and Seb have to go home. But when they get there, they find the place ransacked and – weirdest of all – a feather, suspended in midair, leaving an eerie message scratched into the wall of Granma’s kitchen.

Next thing they know, a coach and four complete with black plumes is arriving at their door and they’re being pursued by a strange man who appears to be some sort of police officer – though one armed with a toilet brush instead of a gun – and they’re being helped to escape through a suitcase by a strange boy named Valian. They end up in a place called Lundinor, which exists beneath the London they know, and is a teeming market for ‘uncommon’ objects – everyday things (like toilet brushes) which have secret powers to do odd and unexpected things. Here, a yoyo can defeat a selkie, and bells can speak.

It turns out that Granma Sylvie – who has lost the memory of her life before Twelfth Night, 1969, when she was involved in an accident as a young woman – is far more complex and intriguing than the children first thought. They are thrown headlong into a mystery tying their family to the fate of Lundinor, a generations’-old conspiracy, and the adventure of their lives as they try to get to grips with this strange new place and the scary new truths about their family.

Oh, and that’s not mentioning the fact that their parents are kidnapped somewhere along the way, threatened with certain death unless Ivy and Seb return the Great Uncommon Good, an object which they’re believed to have stolen – but of which they’ve never heard a word before their adventure begins. Can they uncover the truth, save their parents (and their dear Granma), and sort out the complexities of Lundinor, before midnight?

This book is fantastic. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly paced, full of excellent touches of folklore, particularly the lore of London (the bells of St Clements, for instance) and peopled with fantastic characters. Seb is so ‘real’ I felt I knew him personally; Ivy a wonderful, brave heroine. Granma is wonderful, as is her old-new friend Ethel. The baddies are superb (and genuinely frightening). But the best part is Lundinor. I adored everything about this ‘other’ world, which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s London Below. It was so well described and perfectly imagined that it felt like you were walking its streets as you read. It’s a book i didn’t want to end – and one for which I’m glad there are sequels in the pipeline!

I don’t tend to give ‘star’ ratings, but this one is an Uncommon Ten, and no mistake. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Brava, Jennifer Bell!

Book Review – ‘Knights of the Borrowed Dark’

TL;DR – just buy and read this book already, okay? And when you’re done, let me know so we can enthuse about it together.

KOTBD

Image: penguin.co.uk

Longer version: hoo wee.

Right. So, you know when you’re editing your own work, and you’re getting on fairly well (or, at least, you’re getting on with it) and you come up against a book you’ve been wanting to read for ages? And you crumble in the face of temptation, and you read the long-awaited book?

Well. Normally, that would be okay. But when the book is Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark, you may just have a problem. Because this book is good. Really, really good. So good that it makes everything else around it seem like dross, much like a thousand-watt bulb will drown out a candle flame. As a result, reading your own work in tandem with it is likely to bring on existential dread.

At least, it did for me.

KOTBD is the story of orphan Denizen Hardwick, who lives in Crosscaper Orphanage on Ireland’s west coast. He and his best mate Simon have lived in the orphanage all their lives, and things are pretty grim – but not, on the whole, as grim as they could be. No, there’s plenty of space for things to get way worse – and that happens around the time Denizen turns thirteen. Firstly, two very weird (and extremely spooky) visitors come calling to Crosscaper looking for him (though they go away empty-handed, at least at first), and secondly he discovers he has an aunt he never knew about, who sends her employee to go and pick him up so they can have a heart-to-heart. Naturally, learning about long-lost family, to an orphan, is a bit of a bittersweet thing; great to have an aunt, but why on earth has she never come forward until now?

It all becomes clear when Denizen is on his way to his aunt’s house in Dublin in the company of Grey, her second-in-command. They’re ambushed on the road by something Denizen can’t find words to describe – a creature made of darkness and debris, so powerful it tears a hole in the fabric of reality in order to try to wipe him out. But Grey fights it off, and after a sugary tea (for the shock), they’re on their way again.

But Grey refuses to answer Denizen’s questions. In fact, Denizen has a bunch of questions, and nobody seems interested in answering them.

In Dublin, Denizen realises his aunt lives in an embassy-style building, though the flag isn’t one he’s familiar with. He meets the members of her household, and he marvels at the weirdness of the place – but all that pales into insignificance when he meets his aunt herself. Easily the most impressive female character I think I’ve ever read, I loved Vivian Hardwick from the second I ‘met’ her, despite her initial coldness towards her nephew. Resplendent and powerful and afraid of nothing, this is a woman I would cheer for (from a safe distance). She is a powerful and accomplished member of an ancient order of warriors who set themselves against the Tenebrae, or the creatures of darkness – and, as Denizen soon learns, the same power of Light is in his veins.

But, every time the power is used, there is a Cost to pay, and Denizen must decide whether he is willing to pay the Cost, take up his mantle as a Knight, and fight alongside his aunt – or whether to learn enough to control his power and stop it hurting him or anyone else, and leave the whole thing behind.

I think you can probably guess what way he decides to go…

This story, in some ways, is full of things I’d seen before (orphans, hidden relatives, secret powers, turning thirteen), but in another way it’s entirely fresh. In Rudden’s hands, all these elements become brand-new, and the book is utterly compelling. Partly this is down to the writing style, which is absolutely wonderful, filled with expertly judged sentences, spot-on imagery, excellent set-pieces and pitch-perfect dialogue, and partly it’s down to the way the elements are spun, and the small touches which Rudden adds to make things new and interesting, as well as the fascinating characters. Each of them is interesting enough to have a book written about them in their own right, and that’s some achievement. I loved the idea of the Cost, and I loved the downright bone-rattlingly scary baddies (The Man in the Waistcoat, the Woman in White, and the Opening Boy), and I loved Grey (oh, how I loved Grey) and – of course – I adored Denizen himself, brave and determined and snarky and devoted to Simon and awkward and inadequate and utterly perfect. The settings, descriptions, pacing, plot, language and characters in this book are just… look. There aren’t enough superlatives, okay? Suffice to say, I found a home for this one on my Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett shelf (no higher honour can be paid to a book in my ownership besides to be placed alongside my Alan Garners and Ursula Le Guins), and I am itching with impatience for the next installment in the trilogy.

Dave Rudden is one of those annoyingly brilliant people, a debut novelist whose work reads like a twenty-year veteran – and he appears to be rather a nice man, to boot. I recommend you follow him on Twitter (@d_ruddenwrites and/or @KOTBDofficial), and I heartily recommend you equip yourself with a copy of Knights of the Borrowed Dark. It is the best book I’ve read in a long time, and it simultaneously gave me the shivers you only get when reading a really excellent piece of literature and the terrors you get when forced to question your own career choices. Don’t read this book if you have any other calls on your time; block off enough hours to finish it in one sitting, and just dive in.

And make sure you leave the lights on.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘One’

Sarah Crossan’s One is a novel I fully expected not to like. I hope, if the author sees this opening sentence, that she isn’t offended; it will come as some comfort, no doubt, that I soon learned the error of my ways. I’m not convinced by novels written in verse, you see. I appreciate the effort it takes and the precision of language and even the pretty layout on the pages, but still. Something in me wonders if it’s necessary.

Well. One is such a beautiful story – and so deeply emotionally engaging – that the format in which it’s told hardly matters. By saying this I don’t mean to undermine Sarah Crossan’s artistry and achievement; the book is a piece of finely crafted writing. What I mean is, it soon won over even this hardened anti-poetry cynic. Eventually I forgot I was even reading. The story played out in my mind as though someone else was narrating it, or I was watching it on a screen. I think this effect was probably due to the skill with which the words were laid out on the page. In some ways it’s sparse, and in others so rich and rewarding that it ensures One is a book which lingers.

One

Image: independent.co.uk

One tells the story of twins Tippi and Grace, named for Hitchcock’s favourite actresses. They are pretty, intelligent, interesting and loving girls who do well at school and who have dreams of happiness, crushes on boys, and desires for their lives. They are also conjoined, their bodies united below the waist. They have two hearts and two sets of lungs, but only one pair of legs. Their life is a constant tension between how they see themselves – as a pair of individuals – and how some others see them, as a unit. As the book opens their family is facing financial ruin, and the girls’ medical treatment, which is expensive, is eating away at their resources. So, for the first time, the girls have to go to public school – and they also have to make a choice which will mean some money coming in, but which will also take away the last vestige of their privacy.

In a book like this, of course the plot is going to be somewhat predictable. We have a pair of conjoined twins; naturally, the idea of separation is going to arise. It’s not necessarily something the girls want (though of course it’s something they’ve thought about), but it gradually becomes evident that it is something they need to consider, and fast. The story then takes us in an unexpected and heartwrenching direction – but I’m not going to be drawn on that.

The book’s power is in the way it depicts the relationships between its characters. Everyone in Grace and Tippi’s family has something going on, including their sister (who suffers from an eating disorder, and who I would have loved to read more about, and their father who struggles with alcoholism), and I really enjoyed that Crossan doesn’t make Grace and Tippi the ‘odd ones out’, the token disabled people in an otherwise perfect family. I loved the way she describes the girls’ nascent longing for love and romantic connection, their complete integration with one another, their deep and unfathomable love for one another, the depth of the decisions they must face and how there is, in truth, no right answer to any of their complex challenges. I’m still not quite sure what the poetry brought to the story, but I just know that I loved it, and that the book will live with me for a long time. I happened to read it as I sat in hospital just beginning the process of labour (my child was born the following day) and this gave it a deep resonance for me, too. I could connect powerfully with the ideas of fetal development and birth, touched on at the book’s start, and the feelings of the girls’ mother both as she learned the truth of her daughters’ condition and what it would mean for them, long-term, and also the reality of the situation they find themselves in during the course of the story. The truths in this book (including the difficulty of dealing with medical complications, the effects it has on other members of the family, the reality of alcoholism, unemployment and family dysfunction) are fantastically well realised, and the whole is saved from bleakness and despair by the wonderful characterisation and the strength of the sisters’ connection.

In short, this is a book which doesn’t take long to read, due to its form, but which will live long in your mind and memory. It’s affecting, emotional, beautiful, and above all true, in the sense that all good literature is true. It encapsulates life in all its complexity and unpredictability, in all its joys and sorrows, and it is beautiful.  A definite recommendation.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Book of Learning’

The debut novel of E.R. Murray, The Book of Learning, published earlier this month by Mercier Press, is a complex and fast-moving tale. Set between West Cork and Dublin, it makes great use of the urban/rural divide, showing its heroine Ebony Smart at home in nature and at sea in the big city, unsure of herself and having to learn a new way of life when she is transplanted from one place to the other after the death of her beloved grandpa. Unluckily for Ebony, this sad event takes place on her twelfth birthday, and even more unluckily, she barely has time to catch her breath before her whole life is uprooted.

Image: ermurray.com

Image: ermurray.com

Learning that she has an aunt she’d never heard of before, and told by a sniffy ‘Judge’ that she must go to live with her instead of being allowed to stay on her grandfather’s farm where she has lived all her life up to that point, Ebony finds herself in an entirely new world. Living on the top floor of an old Georgian house in the heart of Dublin city, one in which all the windows are nailed shut and every creaking door and whispering floor has a different secret to tell, she is at a loss what to do next. Her ‘uncle’ Cornelius – his relation to Aunt Ruby somewhat dubious – seems more animal than human, and her aunt is full of strange tales, trying to get Ebony to believe she is part of a group of people who can reincarnate, but that something dark and unexplained has begun to threaten their way of life. She meets a strange, shadowy man named Icarus Bean who warns her that she is not safe, along with a boy named Zach Stone who seems to have unexplained powers (and who becomes her only human friend – but can he be trusted?) but she relies completely for company on her brave, intelligent rat, Winston, whose constant presence is her only comfort.

In her aunt and uncle’s study, Ebony comes across a small book bound in metal covers. Calling itself The Book of Learning, a panel on its back cover reads ‘Property of Ebony Smart’. This, naturally, comes as some surprise; Ebony has never seen it before. She smuggles it out, determined to get to the bottom of its secrets. It soon transpires that the book shows different things to different people; where it explains something of Ebony’s past history to her (though, naturally, leaving much unexplained!) it seems to show something completely different to Zach, something painful and frightening. Through using the book, and through uncovering some of the secrets of 23 Mercury Lane, her new home, Ebony learns she must get to the bottom of a murder which has been committed. The only problem is, she’s not sure which murder. She fears it may be that of her grandfather, who – despite medical opinions which say he died of natural causes – she feels was killed, and by someone she knows. Then, chances are the book is talking about another murder altogether, one rather closer to home – the murder of Ebony herself, carried out in one of her past lives. But how to solve a crime committed over two hundred years before?

As it becomes clear that the Order of Nine Lives is not a figment of Aunt Ruby’s imagination, and that Ebony not only belongs to it but has lived before, many times over, the mysteries surrounding it grow ever more complex. Eventually Ebony is led back ‘home’ to Cork, where a strange black rose planted and cultivated by her grandfather turns out to be more than a simple flower, but the key to her destiny – but can she put the puzzle together in time to save herself, her family, and Winston, who has been kidnapped by person or persons unknown?

My favourite aspect of this book was the settings it used. It’s clear that the author loves both Dublin city and the countryside of Cork, and this affection comes through in her evocative descriptions of Ebony’s house, St Stephen’s Green (where Zach lives), the Botanic Gardens (where the headquarters of the Order of Nine Lives is located) and the National Library (where Ebony goes to research her past selves), as well as the natural beauty of her grandfather’s farm. The perilous voyage Ebony takes near the book’s conclusion is grippingly described, and the details of countryside life add a wonderful air of realism to the Cork-based scenes. However, I admit to a certain level of confusion in relation to the mythology of the families who have the power to reincarnate – it took me several reads of the relevant parts of the book to fully get to grips with the system of reincarnation (which takes place in a ‘sky world’ named the Reflectory, access to which is supposed to be tightly restricted) and I wasn’t entirely sure of the connections between the Nine Lives families and the balance of power in the universe. I also felt, at times, that Ebony has a dangerous tendency to ignore her ‘inner voice’ (which seems to pop up just when she needs it but which, nonetheless, is normally jettisoned in favour of her doing what she feels like) which is not always advisable! Having said that, she is a brave, undaunted character, determined to get to the truth surrounding her grandfather and herself, loyal and devoted to her friends (particularly Winston, who I loved), and I had to admire the way she copes with the sea-change in her life.

There’s enough intrigue (and motorbikes, and boats, and accidents, and gruesome deaths) here to keep boys entertained, and enough hard-nosed, determined, hot-headed and brave displays of girly brilliance here to keep girls hooked, and enough complexity to challenge even the most accomplished of readers. The Book of Learning is the first part of a trilogy, and it’ll be interesting to see What Ebony Does Next  – and who will survive to join her!