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Books Set in Ireland

I have been lucky enough to visit Northern Ireland, and the Republic, extensively in my life, and I have found such peace in the rolling green landscapes, and the sheer amount of history which the beautiful buildings all around me hold. I have always been drawn to fiction set there, and have also recently read – or listened to – a couple of non-fiction tomes by Irish authors. I know that there is a great deal of interest in Ireland on the blogosphere, so I thought it would be a nice idea to collect together my recommendations for fiction and non-fiction set within both Northern Ireland, and the Republic.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter might not be as harmless as she seems.

Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too.

The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect?

Dark, propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

‘Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her; and at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she realizes she must decide what is the truth, whether she can continue to live with a lie, and what the consequences might be were she to fully unravel the mysteries in both the life of Robert Locke and her own. In this gripping and wonderfully written debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that define us.’

3. Wildwoods: The Magic of Ireland’s Native Woodlands by Richard Nairn

‘Richard Nairn has spent a lifetime studying – and learning from – nature. When an opportunity arose for him to buy a small woodland filled with mature native trees beside a fast-flowing river, he set about understanding all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly.

Wildwoods is a fascinating account of his journey over a typical year. Along the way, he uncovers the ancient roles of trees in Irish life, he examines lost skills such as coppicing and he explores new uses of woodlands for forest schools, foraging and rewilding. Ultimately, Wildwoods inspires all of us to pay attention to what nature can teach us.’

4. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

‘In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.

In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.’

5. Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

‘It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma.

The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does.

Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…’

6. A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

‘In A World of Love, an uneasy group of relations are living under one roof at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. When twenty-year-old Jane finds in the attic a packet of love letters written years ago by Guy, her mother’s one-time fiance who died in World War I, the discovery has explosive repercussions. It is not clear to whom the letters are addressed, and their appearance begins to lay bare the strange and unspoken connections between the adults now living in the house. Soon, a girl on the brink of womanhood, a mother haunted by love lost, and a ruined matchmaker with her own claim on the dead wage a battle that makes the ghostly Guy as real a presence in Montefort as any of the living.’

7. Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they? Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich, silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.

Watching from the sidelines, their friend Sylvester regrets that Jane should be ‘loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by that frightful Jessica’, but decides it’s none of his business. When the Irish gentleman George Playfair meets Jane, however, he thinks otherwise and entices her to Ireland where the battle for her devotion begins.’

8. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

‘The stunning new novel from highly acclaimed author William Trevor is a brilliant, subtle, and moving story of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of violence leads the parents of nine-year-old Lucy to decide to leave for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay. Instead, she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of Lahardane’s inhabitants for the rest of their lives.’

Please let me know if any of these catch your interest, and also which books set in Ireland are your favourites to date.

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One From the Archive: ‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane ***

First published in April 2014.

‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane (Virago)

Molly Keane’s Devoted Ladies, first published in 1934, is the third of her books which I have read to date.  As I enjoyed both Treasure Hunt and Good Behaviour, I had rather high hopes for this one.  Firstly, it must be said that I adore the Art Deco cover designs which Keane’s books have been reprinted with, and this is certainly one of my favourites.  The great reviews written on the cover definitely enticed me too.

Keane is so skilled at crafting characters, and her protagonists even seem to come to life in the blurb:

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they?  Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich and silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.’

The blurb goes on to speak about their friend Sylvester, a writer, who ‘regrets that Jane should be “loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by Jessica”, but decides it’s none of his business’.  The book’s introduction has been written by Polly Devlin, who sets the scene of the author’s life and the effects which Devoted Ladies had within society upon its publication.  Devlin says that Keane’s writing is both ‘insouciant and stylish’, and that she presents ‘an impeccable picture of what is to us a vanished world, but still full of relevance and revelation’.

Devoted Ladies begins with a scene in which Sylvester throws a party in his ‘expensive’-smelling rooms.  Jane is only attending – and, indeed, has only formed a friendship with Sylvester – because ‘she hoped on and on and on in the face of constant disappointment that Sylvester would put her in a book or in a play’.  Jane is a fantasist to all intents and purposes, thinking of the most peculiar things which she can possibly do merely so that Sylvester takes notice of her and immortalises her with words.  Sylvester is friends with Jane merely because she has an awful lot of money, and ‘the moment might yet arrive when he would require to borrow money from Jane, or at any rate make use of her cars or her houses or any of the benefits which providence spends on very rich young women that very poor young men may thereby profit a little’.  This comic vein continues when Keane is describing Jessica: ‘Jessica was an intellectual snob.  She seldom condescended to be gay, although she would take endless pains to be rude’.

Throughout, Keane builds her characters realistically, and she always injects surprising little details about them into her prose.  The relationships which she portrays – and inevitably alters as the novels goes on – are quite complex, particularly with regard to that between Jane and Jessica.  Jane, for example, says, ‘I’m very dedicated to Jessica, I love having her around, but I’m scared to death she’ll kill me’.

As with all of Keane’s books, Devoted Ladies is very character driven.  The plot is relatively sparse, but she has such a way of writing that it doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  Whilst she is unwell, a parcel of books is sent to Jane, which provides the catalyst for her sudden need to visit Ireland to convalesce.  Keane’s writing from this point moves from describing the rather comic happenings of her characters, to much talk about horses, food and gardening, and not much else.  This sudden change in focus certainly changes the feel of the book, and the few supposedly humorous episodes which come after the setting has switched to Ireland fall rather flat, which is a real shame.  To conclude, it must be said that whilst I did very much enjoy the writing and characterisation for the most part, Devoted Ladies is my least favourite Keane novel to date.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane ***

‘Devoted Ladies’ by Molly Keane (Virago)

Molly Keane’s Devoted Ladies, first published in 1934, is the third of her books which I have read to date.  As I enjoyed both Treasure Hunt and Good Behaviour, I had rather high hopes for this one.  Firstly, it must be said that I adore the Art Deco cover designs which Keane’s books have been reprinted with, and this is certainly one of my favourites.  The great reviews written on the cover definitely enticed me too.

Keane is so skilled at crafting characters, and her protagonists even seem to come to life in the blurb:

‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they?  Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich and silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.’

The blurb goes on to speak about their friend Sylvester, a writer, who ‘regrets that Jane should be “loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by Jessica”, but decides it’s none of his business’.  The book’s introduction has been written by Polly Devlin, who sets the scene of the author’s life and the effects which Devoted Ladies had within society upon its publication.  Devlin says that Keane’s writing is both ‘insouciant and stylish’, and that she presents ‘an impeccable picture of what is to us a vanished world, but still full of relevance and revelation’.

Devoted Ladies begins with a scene in which Sylvester throws a party in his ‘expensive’-smelling rooms.  Jane is only attending – and, indeed, has only formed a friendship with Sylvester – because ‘she hoped on and on and on in the face of constant disappointment that Sylvester would put her in a book or in a play’.  Jane is a fantasist to all intents and purposes, thinking of the most peculiar things which she can possibly do merely so that Sylvester takes notice of her and immortalises her with words.  Sylvester is friends with Jane merely because she has an awful lot of money, and ‘the moment might yet arrive when he would require to borrow money from Jane, or at any rate make use of her cars or her houses or any of the benefits which providence spends on very rich young women that very poor young men may thereby profit a little’.  This comic vein continues when Keane is describing Jessica: ‘Jessica was an intellectual snob.  She seldom condescended to be gay, although she would take endless pains to be rude’.

Throughout, Keane builds her characters realistically, and she always injects surprising little details about them into her prose.  The relationships which she portrays – and inevitably alters as the novels goes on – are quite complex, particularly with regard to that between Jane and Jessica.  Jane, for example, says, ‘I’m very dedicated to Jessica, I love having her around, but I’m scared to death she’ll kill me’.

As with all of Keane’s books, Devoted Ladies is very character driven.  The plot is relatively sparse, but she has such a way of writing that it doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  Whilst she is unwell, a parcel of books is sent to Jane, which provides the catalyst for her sudden need to visit Ireland to convalesce.  Keane’s writing from this point moves from describing the rather comic happenings of her characters, to much talk about horses, food and gardening, and not much else.  This sudden change in focus certainly changes the feel of the book, and the few supposedly humorous episodes which come after the setting has switched to Ireland fall rather flat, which is a real shame.  To conclude, it must be said that whilst I did very much enjoy the writing and characterisation for the most part, Devoted Ladies is my least favourite Keane novel to date.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Flash Reviews (9th September 2013)

King Lear by William Shakespeare ****
This is one of the plays which I’ve been most looking forward to reading during my Year of Shakespeare.  I liked the bare bones of the plot, and felt that they worked well, particularly when Shakespeare’s beautiful writing came into force.  I very much enjoyed the different prose styles in King Lear, particularly with regard to their concurrent use by the same characters.  Rather a sad play, but an incredibly good one.

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe **
My Dad told me that I should read this book merely due to the amount of Smiths lyrics used within it.  (This was one of the only aspects of the novel which I enjoyed – along with the title, of course).  He had warned me before I began that it wasn’t very good.  (He was right).  The entirety of The Dwarves of Death is poorly written, and the narrator, William, is nothing short of an idiot.  The dialogue is dull, and the dwarves which feature in the title only star on a couple of pages.  There is very little about the actual murder, and the majority of the book goes into a kind of sad reverie, focusing almost solely upon middle-aged men rehearsing music with one another.  I would not be inclined to read another Coe book after this one, that’s for sure.

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane ***
Let me begin by saying that I adore Helen Dryden’s 1915 Vogue cover which has been used to adorn this book. 

'Treasure Hunt' by Molly Keane

‘Treasure Hunt’ by Molly Keane

Isn’t it absolutely lovely?  I was expecting great things from Treasure Hunt as I so enjoyed Keane’s Good Behaviour, but was a little apprehensive about it when I learnt that the novel had been translated from play form, something rarely done in the literary world.  In terms of its plotline, Treasure Hunt was rather weak.  I certainly expected more to happen as it went on.  I found the entire cast of characters difficult to sympathise and empathise with, and they weren’t believably built up as individuals.  Keane’s descriptions, particularly those of landscapes and the interiors of buildings, were lovely.  I think that their beauty contrasted well with the lacklustre, almost melancholy feel of the family dynamic.  My major qualm about this novel was the amount of dialogue (too much) and the information it actually gave to the reader (not much).  The three stars which I have awarded the book are for the descriptions alone.

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson ****
I think Lily is one of Wilson’s best protagonists.  She is strong, brave and courageous, and despite being only eleven years old, she always tries to do the best things for those around her.  The characters in Lily Alone are so well realised, and Lily’s younger sister, Bliss, was particularly lovely.  The only downside I found in this novel was the language which Wilson uses.  I can’t imagine many eleven year olds saying a lot of the things that Lily does, nor any three year olds saying, ‘You bet!’.