Books

Mistaken by Neil Jordan

by John Boland

Towards the end of Neil Jordan’s new novel, the narrator reflects on “that strange obsession with past decades, the fifties, the forties, the twenties, that bedevilled Irish fiction. Didn’t they ever write about the present?” The same question could be asked of this book, in which the present proves no match for the lovingly recollected […]

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Nineteen hundred and nineteen marked the end of an eventful and turbulent decade for William Butler Yeats, both personally and artistically, and the volume of poems he published that year, The Wild Swans at Coole, was its poetic summing-up. His previous collection, Responsibilities, which was published in 1914, had revealed a poet whose range of […]

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William Trevor

by John Boland

William Trevor is Ireland’s greatest living writer of fiction and one of the world’s finest short story writers. He is also very prolific. The Collected Stories, which runs to almost 1,300 pages, was published in 1992 and since then there have been four more volumes, and he has also published nineteen novels. The latter are […]

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Halfway through this eccentric and irritating book, the author lists the sixteen albums that Van Morrison released between 1980 and 1996 and then, dismissing them all as unworthy of consideration, asks rhetorically: “How do you write off more than fifteen albums and more than fifteen years of the work of a great artist?” The short […]

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About halfway through this sequel to the 1984 bestseller The Witches of Eastwick, I found myself doing what no conscientious reader likes to countenance, let alone admit – I started skimming the pages, hoping to follow the narrative thread without having to endure yet more of the author’s adjective-laden prose in which no detail is […]

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John Updike writes so beautifully that it’s tempting for a reviewer simply to quote him. Here he is on William Trevor: “His breadth of empathy, his deeply humane ruefulness, and his love for the sound of demotic English in all its inflections of class and geography give his short stories the timbre of novels.” And […]

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Dolly Sinatra was a tough woman. A midwife and a back-street abortionist – nicknamed “Hatpin Dolly” and twice arrested for the latter activity – she was a formidable figure both as a mini-Mafia figure in her rough-and-tumble New Jersey neighbourhood and also in the confines of her home, where she inflicted hard love on her […]

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Brevity, as Shakespeare noted,  is the soul of wit, which is probably one of the reasons why some readers cherish the lyric poem over the epic and the short story over the novel. But how short can a short story be before it loses all substance and meaning? Very short, indeed, in the view of […]

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Alice Sebold loves to grab you with her opening lines. Her 1999 memoir, Lucky, begins: “In the tunnel where I was raped,  a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered.” Her first […]

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Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for. There had been serial killers in fiction before he came along, of course, but Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs set the template for what is now a staple, indeed a cliché, of contemporary crime writing, and there are few authors entering the field who […]

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American Caesars

by John Boland

Lives of the US Presidents from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush. By Nigel Hamilton. Bodley Head Caligula, the vilest of the Caesars, snarled at someone who criticised his actions. “Bear in mind,” he said, “that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.” Almost two thousand years later, in an unguarded aside, George […]

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In the introduction to her 1996 Collected Stories, Mavis Gallant had some sound advice for readers. “Stories are not chapters of novels,” she pointed out. “They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” […]

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Death of the Novel

by John Boland

The novel is dead. So says American critic Lee Siegel who, writing in a New York newspaper, has dismissed contemporary fiction as “culturally irrelevant.” And his pronouncement has been greeted as worthy of extensive coverage in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic – “Literary storm as top critic declares death of fiction” being […]

Harper Lee

by John Boland

Much has been made of the fact that Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, which was first published fifty years ago tomorrow, but she’s not the literary world’s only one-hit wonder. To name just a few of the more famous, there are Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, […]

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A PREPARATION FOR DEATH.

by John Boland

By Greg Baxter. Penguin Ireland, 14.99 sterling At the outset of this book, the narrator finds himself surrounded by the naked calves of women as he retrieves some dropped change in a Dame Street shop. “I wanted to lick them,” he says of these calves. “I often feel one drink away from whatever makes a […]

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Long before I ever set foot in Paris, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his life there in the 1920s had begun my love affair with the French capital. Published in 1964, three years after the author’s suicide, its loving evocation of a vanished time and a vibrant place and its gossip about the writers and artists […]

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William Ryan is an Irish writer, though you’d never guess it from his outstanding debut novel, a thriller that’s set in mid-1930s Moscow at the onset of Stalin’s Great Terror. Formerly a barrister in London, where he still lives, Ryan took a Masters in creative writing five years ago at St Andrew’s University under the […]

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Seventy years after Raymond Chandler’s man of honour Philip Marlowe first ventured down the mean streets of Los Angeles, the private eye remains a staple of crime fiction. He’s an absurdly unrealistic figure, of course, and Declan Hughes acknowledges the fact in his fifth Ed Loy thriller. “The entire PI genre is basically preposterous boys’-own […]

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In a recent newspaper column, author Patrick McCabe said he had spent much of the previous week reading George Orwell. “What baffles me,” he wrote, “is how prescient Orwell was”, and he instances “a great bit where he says everyone now is living the same kinds of lives.” This caused the Clones-born author to reflect […]

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Age, illness, loneliness and the troubling persistence of male sexual desire – these have been the preoccupations of Philip Roth throughout the past decade and they remain so in this 140-page novella by the now 76-year-old author. But while there’s been a defiant and eloquent grandeur to some of his recent fiction, which has raged […]

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