A Rescue Dog, A Loner and a Delicious Debut Novel from Sara Baume

Cover Image Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara BaumeThe title, spill simmer falter wither  (all lower case, no punctuation) makes Sara Baume’s debut novel sound more like a collection of poetry than the rather addictive yarn of Ray, a 57-year old loner, a “boulder of a man”, and his former badger-baiting rescue dog, Oneye. But don’t let the title put you off because while this is certainly an inventive and literary novel, it is also an engaging and rather addictive read.

Neither Ray nor his bad-tempered one-eyed dog is particularly likeable and yet each evokes sympathy so that you find yourself rooting for them as they traverse the seasons, walking, driving and camping out on the beaches and rural roads of Ireland.

Then again it’s not the characters or the plot so much as the quality of writing that makes spill simmer falter wither a read to savour. Sara Baume’s language is inventive and imaginative and her words surprise and delight like a perfectly presented tasting menu.

An original and satisfying read, spill simmer falter wither is published by Tramp Press at €12 (pbk).

[Disclosure: an advance copy was made available by the publisher for the purpose of this review].


Page-turner debut by Paula Hawkins

Cover image The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsDon’t get me wrong. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is not perfect. I need to say that at the outset because I absolutely loved this book. Love, jealousy, lies all feature here and none of the characters is quite what they seem. Despite that, they’re believable and mostly sympathetic and if I have a gripe, it’s that one or two loose ends don’t get tied up but, for me at least, that’s a minor issue in an entertaining and enjoyable read that had my heart racing.
So what’s it about? Rachel’s an alcoholic. Drinking cost her her job but since she’s hiding that from her flatmate she continues to take the train every day as if she were going to work. While she sits sipping gin and tonic from a can she has plenty of time to think about  her ex-husband, Tom and his new wife Anna, whose house the train passes every day and she develops more than a passing interest in their neighbours, Megan and Scott. When Megan disappears, Rachel finds she know more than she realised and suspects begin to emerge, she is perhaps closer to each of them than is wise. But Rachel is an unreliable narrator — with gaps in her memory to boot since much of her life is experienced under the influence of alcohol. Her fellow narrators — Anna and Megan — appear more stable at first but the reader soon discovers they’re not entirely reliable either. And then there’s the men who, for one reason or another, are also not to be entirely trusted. All of this makes in a nail-biting page turner that is as strong on plot as it is on character.Trust me. If you liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’ll love The Girl on The Train.
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[Disclosure: An advance review copy of The Girl on the Train was provided by Random House UK via Netgalley.com for the purpose of this review].

What books are you buying this Christmas?

When family and friends are thinking about purchasing books as gifts I am often asked for recommendations and this year, more than most, there is plenty to choose from. Here are ten of my favourite fiction reads of 2014.


I started the year reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, a historical novel set in Iceland during the 1820s and based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in that country. This is one of those books that draws you in from the first page and utterly holds you all the way through to the end. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a beautifully bound edition with blue-edged pages that was in stock in my local bookshop last year. If you like suspense and historical fiction and good writing, Burial Rites is one that I definitely recommend.

From Iceland to Ireland for my second choice which is Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster. Tóibin writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people and has the gift of making the everyday profound. To me, he is at his best when he writes about his native County Wexford and this new novel finds him back in the village of Blackwater as he explores the impact of a father’s death on his young widow and family. I preferred Nora Webster to Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary. If you’ve read Toibin before, it’s probably more like The Blackwater Lightship.

From Blackwater to Boston for my third choice which is The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant who is perhaps best known for her novel, The Red Tent. The Boston Girl tells the story of a Jewish girl, born in 1900 to immigrant parents. It takes the form of a conversation between an 85-year old grandmother and her 22-year old granddaughter — an easy and enjoyable read that many grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters will relate to.

From grandmothers to grandchildren for my next choice. Usually young adult fiction wouldn’t cross my radar however I stumbled upon E Lockhart’s haunting mystery We Were Liars in Time magazine’s Best Books of 2014 and because I love books set off the coast of Massachusetts, I decided to give it a go. This is a coming of age story about family secrets and jealousies concealed behind an apparently perfect facade and was one of the reading highlights of my year.

One of the most talked about books early in the year was Donna Tartt’s long-awaited The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt is probably best known for The Secret History. This new novel, The Goldfinch, is old-fashioned story that is 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.

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Not surprisingly, quite a few novels this year tackled the first world war theme and although none of the ones that I read equalled Pat Barker’s fabulous Regeneration trilogy or even Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, one that did appeal to me was Helen Dunmore’s The Lie which explores the long term psychological impact of war. It’s not an action story by any means — instead it focuses on the interior life of its hero, Daniel Branwell.

For action, you can’t beat a good thriller and among those that caught my eye this year were The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins — an absolute page turner told from the perspective of three different women — each of them utterly believable as characters and deliciously unreliable as narrators. If you liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you will LOVE The Girl on the Train. I couldn’t put it down and it had my heart racing.

Another thriller that I enjoyed was Chain of Events by Fredrik T Olsson. In this one, journalist Christina Sandberg’s ex-husband disappears from hospital while being treated for a suicide attempt. A cryptologist with expertise in military code breaking, William Sandberg has special skills that a top secret international organisation urgently requires. But who is behind the organisation and why are they so intent on withholding the contextual information that might help William crack the code? And how is William Sandberg’s experience linked to the killing of a homeless man in a fake ambulance in Berlin?

I started this list in Iceland and my second last choice heads back into Northern waters and the Faroe Islands for a taut thriller by Craig Robertson. The Last Refuge opens with John Callum lying on a stone slab on Torshavn’s harbour, unable to remember how he got there. Callum, who is in Faroe Islands to escape from an incident in his past, is a former teacher from Glasgow haunted by terrifying, violent dreams about an incident involving one of his former pupils.

My last choice is a quirky one for readers who remember those scary movies on television in the 1970s that featured variations on the curse of the mummy’s tomb, Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt is a captivating tale of twins abandoned by their egyptologist parents, now aged in their nineties having spent a lifetime together trapped in their childhood home by circumstance and a terrible secret.

So, there are my ten suggestions based on what I’ve read myself in 2014. If you enjoyed this list and would like to connect with me for more book suggestions, you’ll find me on Twitter and on Goodreads. Happy reading!

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Tributes to Brian Lenihan — In Calm and Crisis

Cover Image Brian Lenihan In Calm and CrisisWhatever you thought of Brian Lenihan’s decisions and actions as Finance Minister, his character and dignity won him widespread respect and admiration and that is reflected in this collection of essays by former colleagues, family and friends who recall the personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Appointed Finance Minister at a time of unprecedented difficulty for the Irish economy, Lenihan faced extraordinary pressure compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding Ireland’s bank guarantee and subsequent bailout programme and although the recollections contained in Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis provide insights into those events  by some key players close to the Minister and the corridors of power at the time, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

The essays include brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister alongside pieces by names now familiar from the crisis such as Alan Ahearne and Patrick Honahan.

The recollections include the intensely personal (Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher) to the more circumstantial (Eamon Ryan). Perhaps the most interesting contribution is “The Poisoned Chalice” essay by the former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry who argues that Lenihan and Cowen, through the bank guarantee, saved the euro but failed to utilise the leverage that gave them — a failing he also attributes to the current Government.

“Incidentally, I should add that the current Government is also under-estimating the leverage that our membership of the EU still gives Ireland. I think Ireland should be taking a tougher stance to bring about a write-off on our bank debts. We should not forget that the European Council requires unanimity to effect change in major policy areas. I think that some night that our vote is required we should insist that the price of our vote is a deal on our banking debts.”

Other contributors include Brian Murphy, Cathy Herbert, John Mullen, Martin Mansergh, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Harmon Murtagh, John Trethowan and Jillian Van Turnhout. The introduction is by Noel Whelan.

Appendices include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death and the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010, where he said “the job of Government is to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of individual groups and the greater good.” Arguably, that’s precisely where government appears to get things generally wrong by having too much regard for the great and the good, too little for the greater good.

Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis is edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Whelan and published by the Irish Academic Press, 2014. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Irish Cancer Society.