Generation by Paula McGrath

Congratulations to my sister, Paula McGrath, on the publication of her debut novel, Generation, published by JM Originals.

I’ve had the privilege of reading raw first drafts of most of these stories some time ago and watched them slowly evolve into the beautiful novel that was launched last week in the Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane, Dublin.

Generation is a short novel that contains a huge amount, taking place over eighty years, three continents and three generations.

At its heart is Áine, a recently divorced woman in her thirties who wants some kind of escape from her life in Ireland: from her ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend, her mundane job and unexciting love life. So she goes to stay for a few weeks on an organic farm near Chicago, with her six-year-old daughter Daisy. The trip doesn’t turn out as she imagined it would, and that summer will have unforeseeable consequences for everyone involved.

Ambitious and gripping, Generation moves effortlessly from the smallest of details to the largest of canvases, as the repercussions of the decisions taken by parents play out in the lives of their children for years to come.

Source: hodder.co.uk

This is a book that leaves you reflecting about many of the peripheral characters. I have a soft spot for Carlos, and for Yehudit. And the first chapter about the Irish miner going to Canada still gives me a lump in my throat no matter how many times I read it.

It was exciting to be in Dublin on publication day. We managed to drop into a few bookshops to see if we could spot it in the wild fending for itself. We found it first in Hodges Figgis: Here’s Paula looking slightly embarrassed at the paparazzi who followed her in.

Launched by Lia Mills, who had nothing but nice things to say, and Tom Morris from The Stinging Fly was there to say a few words on behalf of editor Mark Richards.

Lia Mills
 

And the reviews are coming in and saying all the nicest things. Christina Patterson from The Sunday Times says ‘The voices are beautifully woven together, and the prose has a weight and resonance way beyond the book’s slender length’ and compares the prose to Raymond Carver’s which is something to cut out and pin over the writing desk.

The structure of this novel is what makes it unique in my opinion. Jane Housham of The Guardian sums this up nicely:

‘It’s as if McGrath has spun her novel in a centrifuge, separating out the narrative elements and shearing off any remaining scraps of padding. What’s left is a sequence of verbal portraits, a clutch of individuals drawn to America over several decades, some of them Irish like the novelist herself, some from other diasporas. At first these characters seem disparate, unconnected, but gradually threads of attachment are strung between them, ultimately binding them into a coherent whole.’

Advertisements

Review: ‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

Here’s the blurb:

‘In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.’

Fast-paced, breathtaking

 

I was surprised and delighted by this book. Tash Aw’s writing style is elegant, yet fast-moving and modern. This is a novel that sparkles.
 

Themes

Themes of loneliness, ambition, success and tragedy are threaded through the inter-connecting stories. Most of the characters are struggling to climb to the top of the ladder and struggling to stay there. The author imagines the difficulty of being a woman in modern China as well as the despair of a successful pop star on the way out.

 

Setting

 

From tiny villages in Malaysia to luxury spas in Shanghai, from a dilapidated hotel in Malaysia to the slums in suburban Shanghai, from pineapple stalls near Singapore to lonely hotel rooms in Taiwan, the settings in this novel are exotic and unique. I’d love to visit modern China after reading this. Failing that I would like to read more from this author.
 

Format

I listened to this as an audiobook and felt it was hard to follow at times. As the pace is quite fast, I felt the need to flick back to check which character was which. I would highly recommend this in hard copy/e-book format.

 Biography

Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’, winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, and ‘Map of the Invisible World’. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London.

Review: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre DUMAS

Statue of D’Artagnan in Auch, Gers

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre DUMAS



Written in serialised form in 1844, and set around 1625 in the France of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and bishop Richelieu, Les Trois Mousquetaires is a story of adventure that still delights and entertains. Although historically inaccurate in places, it is rich in colour and atmosphere, full of witty dialogue and drama. It is the first in a trilogy about D’Artagnan (other books are Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne).


D’Artagnan is a brave but temperamental Gascon who makes his way to Paris on a yellow horse, encountering adventures on the way. He provokes duels with each of the three musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – when he first meets them in Paris. However they join forces to fight the bishop’s guards and forget their differences and become friends. D’Artagnan dreams of joining the Musketeers – the King’s guards –  and is finally admitted to the Musketeers at the Siege of La Rochelle. D’Artagnan also falls in love with Madame Bonacieux and embarks on a quest to save her, a quest which takes him to England and back, and which also saves Queen Anne of Austria’s reputation.




Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in serialised form in 1844

A Gascon

Dumas’ genius must lie in the characters he creates. Like Dickens, his characters attract and hold our interest and D’Artagnan remains one of the most well-known and well-loved characters of all time. Much is made of the fact that D’Artagnan is a Gascon.

He had the power of seeing in the night:


‘It is said that the eyes of Gascons, like those of cats, have the faculty of seeing in the night. D’Artagnon was able to see therefore…’

He was proud:

‘Proud as a Scotchman, muttered Buckingham. ‘And we,’ answered d’Artagnan, say ‘proud as a Gascon’. The Gascons are the Scotchmen of France.’

And crafty:

‘Imagine Don Quixote at eighteen; Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses, a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet… face long and brown, high cheek bones, indicating craftiness, the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected even without his cap…’

 And brave:

‘Our brave Gascon has just shown himself as brave and as faithful as ever.’

D’Artagnan was clever enough to be able to read people just by looking at the countenance of those he encountered:

‘It was not a landlord this time but a landlady who received him. D’Artagnan, being somewhat of a physiognomist, examined at a glance the fat and good-humoured face of the mistress of the place. This glance satisfied him that dissimulation was not necessary with her and that he had nothing to fear from such a happy-looking countenance.’

Women

Women in Dumas’ world could be weak, powerful,  cunning, charming, vindictive, and capable of sorcery.

‘There was an understanding between this lady and Porthos. If she was a lady of quality she would have fainted, but, as she was only a solicitor’s wife, she contented herself with saying in a concentrated rage…’


‘The enchantress had resumed that magic charm which she took up and laid aside at pleasure, that is to say beauty, softness, tears and above all the irresistible attraction of that mystical voluptuousness which is the most irresistible of all kinds of voluptuousness.’


‘Her ladyship wished to please the Abysse and this was a very easy task for a woman so truely superior. She endeavoured to be amiable and became charming so that her entertainer was seduced by her varied conversation as well as by the grades which appeared in all her person.’


I’m particularly amazed at this feisty lady:

‘Athos examined it (the ring) and became very pale. He then tried it on the ring finger… A shade of anger and revenge passed across the generally calm forehead of the gentleman.

She turned, no longer like a mere furious woman, but like a wounded panther.

‘Ah, wretch,’ said she, ‘you have betrayed me like a coward, and, moreover, you have learned my secret. You must die.’

And she ran to an inlaid cabinet on her toilet table, opened it with a feverish, trembling hand, drew from it a small dagger with a golden hilt and a sharp and slender blade and returned with one bound to the side of d’Artagnan, her vesture in pieces. Although the young man was, as we know, brave, he was frightened at that convulsed countenance, at those horrible dilated pupils, at those pale cheeks and bleeding lips. He arose and recoiled as from the approach of a serpent that had crawled towards him and, instinctively putting his perspiring hand to his sword, he drew it from the sheath. But…. her Ladyship still advanced to strike him.

Her Ladyship was rushing at him in horrible transports of rage and howling in a fearful manner…’

 

The English

Dumas manages to slip in a few amusing digs at English food:

‘The English, who above all things require to be well-fed in order to prove good-soldiers, eating only salted provisions and bad biscuits, had many invalids in their camp.’


And comments on the weather in England:

‘It was one of those few and fine summer days when Englishmen remember that there is a sun.’

 

Food

Proper sustenance is critical for the French, even in the midst of battle:

‘We are four against one… about to be engaged to a far greater amount of foes…. How many persons? Twenty men. How far off are they? About 500 paces. Good, we have still time to finish this fowl and to drink a glass of wine. To your health, d’Artagnan!’


The musketeers even ask the enemy to hold off the battle until after breakfast:

‘Gentlemen, we are some of my friends and myself engaged in breakfasting in this bastion. Now you know that nothing is more disagreeable than to be disturbed at breakfast, so we entreat of you… to wait until we have finished our repast or to come back in a little while unless… and coming to drink with us to the health of the King of France.’

Loose ends

The story in this book meanders and detours. Some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up, like where her Ladyship might be found. The name of the town they will later need to locate actually falls out of someone’s hat:

‘Hello sir. Here is a paper which fell out of your hat. Hello sir, hello.’

‘My friend,’ said d’Artagnan, ‘half a pistole for that paper.’

‘With the greatest pleasure, here it is.’

D’Artagnan unfolded the paper. Only one word…the name of a town… Armentieres…. is written in her hand… let us take great care of this paper…’

Her Ladyship decides to wait for the cardinal’s orders in a convent, which also happens to be the convent where Madame Bonacieux is being held:

‘I am proceeding to the Carmelite convent at Bethune where I shall await your orders.’

‘All for one and one for all’

The famous slogan is only referred to once in the book, although there are many duels and shows of bravery.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book is the fact that the real D’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan)  on whom Dumas based his character, came from Lupiac, a village in Gascony. So, whilst reading the book, I paid a visit to the Musée D’Artagnan in Lupiac and was transported to the 17th century. It was easy to imagine the proud D’Artagnan,  leaving the area as a boy and returning many years later leading the King’s guard. The entourage travelled through France and Gascony on the way to St Jean de Luz where Louis XIV wed Marie-Thèrese of Austria.

Review: ‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty is a psychological thriller and courtroom drama – a compelling and sometimes gruelling read.

Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, has an affair with a man she has just met. He exudes confidence, and controls how the relationship evolves. Unfortunately there are disastrous consequences for both of them.

Themes of judgement, guilt, truth and innocence run though this novel and the author raises many questions which leave the reader pondering well after the story has ended.

Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to review this book without revealing some of the key plot points so please read this later if you haven’t yet read the book.

The story is narrated by Yvonne as she records her feelings about her affair with Mark. She is flattered by his attention and enjoys the cloak-and-dagger element of their meetings. They have sex in the crypt chapel and other public places throughout the back streets of London. The evening they have sex in a doorway in Apple Tree Yard is the same evening she is violently raped by a colleague.
 


The Houses of Parliament. Source: theguardian.com

Yvonne’s decides she will not report the rape. She thinks the police would question how drunk she was at the party where it happened. They would accuse her of openly flirting with George. And they would find out that she had sex with Mark (who is not her husband) just hours before. Probably they would think she was asking for it. Her reasoning is measured. Her decision is shocking, yet understandable.

 
The story unfolds slowly then as George continues to taunt her and Mark decides to warn him off. When Yvonne drives Mark to George’s house and then away again hours later, she is aware of important details (the length of time he remains in the house, the change of clothes), yet she doesn’t ask him what happened. Soon afterwards they are both arrested. She finds herself on trial for murder. Even at this late stage, she wants to hide the whole truth from the legal team and the jury. She thinks she’ll be able to protect her career and her family.
 
Part of the draw of this book is the slow reveal. It was hard to know where anything was leading. There were quite a few red herrings – Mark’s blood type, her son’s diagnosis, her husband’s affair and the perfect detail about the day a student propositioned her. In the latter, especially, we are totally misled—the relevant person in that scene was George, not the student. 
 
Also we begin to feel that Yvonne is only giving us one side of the story, the side where Mark is innocent, George is evil and she is the innocent bystander. The book could have been called ‘Quite a few shades of grey’ because nothing is as it first seems.
 
The sands are constantly shifting and it’s clear that no character is totally good or totally evil. Yvonne’s husband starts off steady and predictable, then we find out he’s an adulterer. Mark is mysterious and exciting but turns out to be a sad nobody who betrays her. George, the affable colleague, is the one who turns into a violent rapist. Yvonne herself is ‘competent’ and mature but acts like a needy teenager in matters of love.

There are plenty of unexpected twists in this story right to the very end when Yvonne reflects on the conversation she had in bed with Mark when he was half-asleep.

It is also a fascinating insight into how society views an attractive woman in her 50s, and the injustices of the justice system. The fact that the rape was so violent would have worked in Yvonne’s favour had it been a rape trial, but it actually worked against her in the murder trial. George, the rapist, is called the ‘victim’ even when describing the rape (because he was the victim of murder.)

Yvonne’s own view of her affair shows her own double-standards about sex. In the alley it was sexy and exciting, but when she viewed it through others’ eyes she saw it as sordid. The female barrister’s twisting of her words about being ‘free and easy’ (when discussing what kind of coffee she wanted) were disturbing, especially coming from a woman.

In summary I thoroughly recommend this book. I loved the way the story moves forwards and backwards in time. I was enthralled by the workings of the Old Bailey and enjoyed experiencing the trial through Yvonne’s eyes. The only negative for me, which I found annoying and distracting, was the way the narrator addressed Mark as X and ‘You’ and ‘my love’ throughout.

I just wish I could get the image of the mother and baby chimpanzees out of my mind.

 



I enjoy a book that ricochets around my head long after I’ve finished. These are some of the questions I’m still considering.

  • How much did her husband know before the trial, having read the computer files? Why didn’t he say something?
  • Will she meet up with Mark again when he gets out of prison? And why (cop on, woman!)
  • Why does she continue to call him ‘my love’ after his betrayal?
  • What was the relevance of Mark’s wife’s outburst in court (we heard about it a couple of times)?
  • What was the relevance of her son’s illness?
  • Was Yvonne actually unhinged? (We know about her mother’s suicide and her son’s illness. She knew Mark returned to the car in different clothes but didn’t ask him (or tell us) what happened in George’s house.)
  • Did she ask Mark to kill George?
  • Did she only tell us half the story?

Looking forward to reading some of Louise Doughty’s other novels.

 

Review: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a French classic in children’s literature. One of the first books I read in French I always enjoy revisiting.

 The narrator’s plane goes down in the Sahara. He is alone and has only enough water for eight days. He wakes after the first night to the sight of a small boy with a surprising request: ‘Dessine-moi un mouton.’ (Draw me a sheep.)

He first draws a picture he drew when he was a child: an elephant that had been eaten by a boa constrictor. He drew this when he was six years old but the adults couldn’t understand it and discouraged him from drawing and using his imagination. The little prince understands what he has drawn but insists on a sheep, which he wants to bring back to his home.

 For eight days, the boy tells his remarkable story: where he is from (the narrator figures out later on that he must have been referring to the asteroid B612), his life there tending to his volcanoes and his rose, and why he left his tiny planet to visit the Earth. He tells stories about his adventures: He met a king, a conceited man, a merchant and a wise fox who taught him about trust and friendship and made him realise that his Rose who he left on his home planet is unique.

A charming story, complemented by the author’s whimsical drawings, we can’t help being drawn into the world of the little prince.

Futuroscope

Futuroscope, near Poitiers in France, has a Petit Prince attraction that is both touching and fun. We visited this last year to the delight of both adults and kids. It’s a 3D attraction with vibrating platforms and some sweet special effects.

 

‘Discover the all-new adventures of The Little Prince in this special “Futuroscope edition” of the tale, complete with stunning sensory effects in an immersive theatre. Fly with him from planet to planet in search of the Rose.’

 

About the Author

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French pilot and writer.  His other books include Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), Courrier sud (Southbound Mail), and Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras). Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared during a World War II air battle over Corsica. His plane was finally located off the coast of Marseilles in 2004. He appeared on the 50-franc banknote until the introduction of the euro.

 

 
 
 
 

Short Story: ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

Since the 14th century, on the feast of the Epiphany, the French eat a cake called une galette des rois. This is a frangipane cake (in Paris and the north) or a brioche (in the south). Inside is a fève – originally a bean, but now a small porcelain figurine cooked in the cake (reminiscent of the ring in a Halloween brack).

The youngest member of the family crawls under the table and, as the cake is cut, announces which family member gets which piece. The one who discovers the fève is declared king or queen and gets to wear the crown (and in turn choose their partner king or queen.)

Published a hundred years ago, in 1914, the final story in the Dubliners collection, and set during the Christmas holidays (probably to celebrate the Epiphany), James Joyce’s The Dead was the perfect book to curl up with on the couch last night.




Although I had read it before and seen the film, and passed the house on Usher’s Island many times, I still read it like the first time.

 I was enthralled during the conversation between Gabriel and Miss Ivors as they danced the quadrille. I was captivated as D’Arcy sang The Lass of Aughrim’ and Gretta listened, mesmerised. I shivered as the guests congregated downstairs when the evening was over and the men ran out to fetch cabs and returned with a smattering of snow on their shoulders. I was hoping that Gabriel would manage to express what he felt for his wife, but knew that he would not. Instead he would discover something about himself, about his wife, about his life. Joyce used epiphany as a literary device: It is fitting that Gabriel had his own epiphany on this feast day.

Even though Joyce didn’t live in Paris until after Dubliners was published, I think he must have enjoyed the French galette des rois. After all, look at his description of the feast in Dublin that night:

 ‘A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets…’ 

Find the James Joyce House on facebook.

Short Story: ‘Calm with Horses’ by Colin Barrett

‘Calm with Horses’* is a lengthy short story in the ‘Young Skins’ collection by Colin Barrett.

The stories are set in contemporary rural Ireland, many decades ahead of The Quiet Man or The Field, and somewhat reminiscent of Kevin Barry’s and Donal Ryan’s themes. I enjoyed this collection first for that reason–Dublin often figures in literature, but rural Ireland without the leprechauns, not so much.

Calm with Horses opens as Dympna decides to teach Fannigan a lesson and encourages his right-hand-man Arm to rough him up. The descriptions, even when describing violence, are elegant: ‘His punches travelled with just the right weight and restraint, and they had a bounce to them when they landed, the way raindrops splash.’

Arm is revealed as a gentle soul, despite the fact that he and Dympna are small-town drug dealers and likely to inflict violence at any time. He has an ex-girlfriend that he seems to care about still, and a five-year-old son, Jack, who he visits regularly and takes to the park. Dympna doesn’t come across as gentle but he is protective of his sisters, hence the revenge on Fannigan who ‘didnnnn efffin ged, ged haa nnnnnnickers off!’

We are drawn into these character’s lives as their dope suppliers get antsy and Arm decides to solve the Fannigan issue once and for all, which brings them up against Dympna’s uncle Paudi, a nasty piece of work. We don’t trust Paudi from the moment we see the Alsatian that has been stung by a wasp. ‘Stung him, it did, inside his throat or deeper down. His tongue is all fucked up and he’s been wheezing and stuck lying there since yesterday.’ Arm may have killed a man but we’re on his side against the uncle who’s going to let his dog die rather than call a vet.

While the main story trundles towards disaster, another story weaves through the narrative – that of Jack and the horses and the rider. We’re obliged to give this eponymous thread some thought. Arm might have been a different person in other circumstances. He is perhaps on a mad gallop through his own life, lacking control, hoping the horse will decide to stop of its own accord.

Colin Barrett’s collection was published by The Stinging Fly and has since been picked up by Jonathan Cape UK and Grove Atlantic US for UK and US editions. This Irish author is clearly very talented and I’m looking forward to his debut novel.

* You know you’ve lived too long in France when you see the title and read ‘clam with horses’ and think ‘mmh interesting menu choice.’