Action-packed thriller that may appeal to movie buffs

Mistress by James PattersonMistress is the first book James Patterson that I’ve read. I chose it because it featured on the bestselling fiction lists and I was looking forward to being engrossed in a good thriller.

Mistress got off to a good start and it’s certainly action packed — surprising me in virtually every chapter — for the first fifty pages or so.

Ben, the main character is a well-heeled journalist with a troubled history that dates from his mother’s murder when he was a young boy. He finds himself embroiled in a frightening and dangerous world as he seeks to find out what happened to his former girlfriend, Diana Hotchkiss.

Ben’s interior monologue is full of references to US presidents and action movies that may entertain readers who share his interests. For me at least, they became somewhat tedious as the novel progressed and I’d have liked to have seen a bit more depth in the characters.

Ben’s investigation is complicated and action-packed and quite visual at times, which might lend itself to exciting screening, but I couldn’t help feeling that here was an idea for a really good story that somehow got a little lost in the telling.

Impact of the Great War on a rural Irish community recounted by Brian and Mary Kenny

News from the Front by Brian and Mark Kenny2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 and no doubt will see various new books — local, national and international — reflecting on the Great War. Although many young Irish men enlisted in regiments such as the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Field Artillery, the Irish Guard, the Connaught Rangers to name but a few,  it is only in recent times that their service is being recognised in Ireland. And yet, as Brian and Mary Kenny demonstrate in their account of the impact of the war on the Gorey area in North Wexford, many Irish families suffered the loss of their young men who were killed in action.

In News from the Front: Gorey and the Great War Brian and Mary Kenny draw on local newspapers, letters home from the soldiers and various other sources to produce a short, illustrated and highly readable account of how ordinary families were affected. Through a series of poignant glimpses into the lives of young men — mostly aged 19-40  who were ‘called to the colours’ in 1914 — they show the extent that local townlands were seeing their young men join up and head to the trenches. For a contemporary reader, it is shocking that so many of the young men who served and lost their lives and whose stories are included in this book were still in their teens. Among them is the story of a boy by the name of John Henry Gratten Esmonde who, aged 15, in January 1915 in a letter to his father, the MP Thomas H Esmonde set out a detailed and very well written description of an encounter between the Invincible, and a German ship, the Scharnhorst, off the Falkland Islands on December 8th 1915 which resulted in the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Like so many of the young men who signed up and served this Esmonde boy was killed in action before he had reached his eighteenth birthday. The book includes a casualty list giving the name, regiment, date of death and home townland of the individuals listed. It also provides a regimental index. For anyone with an interest in the history of County Wexford — particularly the Gorey area — this is a book to add to your collection. At the time of writing News from the Front : Gorey and the Great War is available from some local Gorey retailers.


Thoughtful and elegant debut novel makes Johanna Lane one to watch

Dulough, the Black Lake property, from which this novel takes its name, is a fictional rundown estate on the exposed northwest coast of Ireland that has been in the Campbell family for generations and is currently owned by John Campbell who lives in the house with his Dublin-born wife Marianne and their two children, Kate and Philip.

Black Lake by Johanna LaneJohn’s family acquired Dulough when it was bought by his grandfather, Philip the first who developed the house with a certain austerity borne of his Presbyterian upbringing. Philip’s austere castle contrasts with the simple, evocative hut built by his great grandson and namesake on a remote island off the estate where the family’s graves are located.

If John and his family are the central characters in this novel, the castle and Philip’s hut are silent characters binding generations and relationships and perhaps outlasting all.

On Dulough’s third floor is a locked ballroom, supposedly left unfinished by the first Philip, but actually almost complete, its end wall beautifully decorated with a trompe l’oeil painting by the artist Geoffrey Rowe. The painting uses realistic imagery to create an illusion of the entire estate where everything looks as if it could move at any moment. When Kate touches the lake in this painting, her hand comes away blue as if the water were real and yet it is not the painting but rather the trompe l’oeil perspectives of the main characters that intrigue the reader in this short novel.

With the estate in financial trouble John has decided to enter a pact with the Irish government, opening the house to the public and moving himself and his family to a cottage on the estate. His decision and the subsequent loss of the house affect the family deeply — particularly Marianne and Philip — and when a tragic accident occurs its impact merges with the loss of to place additional strain on family relationships.

Black Lake begins slowly but as the story unfolds through the voices of John, Marianne and Philip the reader is increasingly drawn in. Philip is perhaps the most fully realised character and depicted to give a bittersweet insight into childhood.

Lane writes beautifully and tells a moving story and multi-layered story. This is her debut novel — perhaps not perfect, but thoughtful and elegant — and marks her as a name to watch for in future.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Little Brown & Co, a division of the Hachette Book Group. A free ARC was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.


Fiction that caught my eye in February 2014

February’s list contains several Irish authors whose novels I’ve been planning to read for some time, among them Benjamin Black (the alias of John Banville) whose Quirke series seems worth a look. The title I’ve selected is Holy Orders, a murder mystery set in Dublin.

Joining Banville is Sebastian Barry, another well-known Irish author, several of whose novels are reviewed elsewhere on this site. New in 2014, The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry is his latest work to make it on to my To Be Read (TBR) list.

EverySingleMinuteA new name, to me at least, is Hugo Hamilton whose Every Single Minute — the story of a writer with terminal cancer –  is getting some favourable comment.

Emma Donoghue’s novel Room is reviewed elsewhere on this site. She has a new novel — Frog Music — out this year.

Colm Toibin also has a new title due out in 2014. Nora Webster is set in Ireland in the 1960s.

And, on the non-fiction front Irish Primary Education in the Early Nineteenth Century — Garret Fitzgerald’s last book — appeals and may provide some useful insights and information for my genealogical research interests.


Life after Life — Kate Atkinson’s Award-Winning Novel

Cover image of Kate Atkinson novel Life after LifeKate Atkinson scooped the Costa Award for her bestselling novel Life after Life — the story of Ursula Todd, a girl who gets to live her life many times over. The idea for the novel is an interesting one. Ursula’s various incarnations take place during the first part of the twentieth century and the earlier sections of the book are strong with Atkinson holding the reader’s attention as she develops Ursula and a cast of supporting characters. The time period included the Second World War and despite Ursula’s involvement with Hitler and Eva Braun it is in the war sections that, for me at least, the novel became a little bogged down with the result that I was glad to get to the end of its 544 pages.

Where the Dickens?

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens was celebrated in 2012 but the great man continues to make headlines in mainstream and social media. This week, it was a story about his public readings that attracted my attention when I spotted a link on Twitter to a blog post “Five Fascinating Facts about Charles Dickens” .

Among the facts covered in the blog is some information on how Dickens prepared for his public readings. Apparently, he would breakfast on two tablespoons of rum with fresh cream for breakfast and then half an hour before the start of the reading would imbibe a type of eggnog made by whipping an egg into a tumbler of sherry.

By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image: By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His readings were covered by the media of his day and reports were carried far and wide. I was surprised to find a report of his last public reading in The Gorey Correspondent, a 19th century local newspaper from County Wexford in Ireland, which, in the edition of Saturday 19 March 1870, noted:

“The announcement that Mr Charles Dickens would give his last reading on Tuesday brought an immense audience to St James Hall. “The Christmas Carol” and the “Trial from Pickwick” were the pieces selected, and they were read with Mr Dickens’ accustomed pathos and humour”

Mr Dickens is reported to have concluded his last public appearance by saying: “from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful and affectionate farewell”.

I wonder what he would make of it if he knew how his stories continue to hold their own so many years after their first publication.


Great job, Ms Tartt

Cover image of The Goldfinch by Donna TarttWhat I like about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is that it is an old-fashioned story — strong on plot with a good cast of believable characters and occasionally brilliant writing. Put that together with some interesting themes about life and art not to mention a ‘moral of the story’ and it all adds up to a pretty satisfying read of Dickensian dimensions I particularly liked the lyrical closing pages which, a little like the last notes of a grand symphony, seemed a perfect ending to a rather delicious and indulgent work of art. Great job, Ms Tartt. The long gestation was worth the wait.