Category Archives: Book reviews

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

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Amid the leaked news that Spain’s lockdown may be extended until June, I resolve to remain calm and comment-free (see previous posts where I totally go off on one), and turn my gaze to literature. I’m resurrecting a series I used to post on this blog, dreaming of books, where I recommend great books to read – during the lockdown or at any time.

Pat Barker has taken Homer’s tale of The Iliad and retold it through the eyes of one of its central characters – one who barely received a mention in the original. Briseis is a beautiful noblewoman of Lyrnessus, near Troy, captured as a “prize” by Achilles in a Greek raid on the town. Having seen this warrior slaughter her family, she is enslaved as his concubine before being passed on to the Greek commander Agamemnon as disputed booty in a quarrel between the two warriors. She does not merely witness but experiences first-hand the events that unfold in this tragic final year of the siege of Troy.

Photo of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker on a Barcelona balcony with a glass of El Priorat wine
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a great Covid-19 isolation read, here being read on a Barcelona balcony with a nice drop of El Priorat wine

I am an unconditional fan of Pat Barker. I first got to know her writing in “The Regeneration Trilogy” (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road), where her setting was the First World War. The subject of The Silence of the Girls is likewise war, but more specifically how the caprices of male egos cause innocent people – most often women – suffering and death.

I love the approach Barker takes to the concept of gods and mortals here, not attempting to engage in any kind of supernatural fantasy fest but accepting that through their belief her characters acknowledge and experience the gods in a real sense, and are affected by their whims. Being the female slave of the most powerful warrior in the Greek army affords Briseis the protection to wander where she likes in the camp. So she often swims in the bay, attempting to wash away the despair of her slavery. When she comes to his bed one night, “aware of how it must appear to him, the crust of salt on my cheekbones, the smell of sea-rot in my hair,” Achilles seems to become entranced. It is as if, through the sexual act, he is seeking his mother, Thetis (a Nereid or sea nymph, who deserted him as a child), attempting to reconcile her abandonment with his destiny. The imperative of his destiny and need for glory weigh constantly on him, affecting every action: “Ever since he came to Troy, he’s known – intermittently, at least – that he won’t be going home.”

In these days of the Covid-19 pandemic, plague likewise features heavily in this tale, so it is interesting to see how the male characters move through the various stages of hubris, denial, anger, panic and finally humiliation and appeasement, orbiting along their own strict paths of battle codes and honour. Yet it is chilling to see through the women’s eyes how decisions taken by the men directly affect them as they look on at events with an absolute lack of choices over where they live and sleep, what they eat and especially who touches and uses their bodies.

Barker never falls into the common trap of many historical writers of creating an overly prescient or knowledgeable narrator but rather presents a world of raw, bruised and believable humanity, comfortable in its own period even as it is conflicted by its own inequality.

Purchase the ebook here.

Banner for BCN Free ART 01: The Port and Barceloneta
Click here to purchase BCN Free ART 01: The Port and Barceloneta on Amazon.com

Nothing to Lose – Clare Lydon

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

Nothing to Lose by Clare Lydon

Nothing to Lose by Clare Lydon

While lesbian romance is not my usual fare, I am pleased I made an exception for this heart-warming novel. And this was the adjective that kept coming back to me as I read: heart-warming. It is a novel about all the best things in local communities; it celebrates the humanity, compassion and solidarity that are dredged up out of even the stoniest hearts when disaster strikes. Truly comfort food for the soul.

Scarlet (yes, after O’Hara), burnt once too often, has now closed her heart to love and chiselled herself a survival existence in a basement flat in a small town. But when the rain comes down and leaves her world underwater, finally the floodgates must be opened. She takes shelter with Joy, “local mayor and sunshine specialist”, who helps her see that life can indeed return after the deluge. As a gay man (for whom sex is the bit before you ask someone’s name), I found the age it took for these two to get together both excruciating and tantalising. However, when they finally do, not only are they consummating their relationship, but reaffirming their links to the family and friends around them. Their relationship becomes a celebration of community.

Spoiler: as it says on the tin, this is lesbian romance, so there are a couple of raunchy, blow-by-blow, no-holds-barred yet elegantly rendered, girl-on-girl action scenes which, had I been of the right sex and persuasion, I would have found incredibly hot. In the event, I was able to skip nimbly forward with my modesty intact, but if this what you came for, you will receive full satisfaction.

Above all, it is a tale of love between two strong and honest women, both very different yet who each have a lifetime of experience to offer the other and, together, two lifetimes to do it in. This book does what a romance is supposed to: it leaves you feeling fabulous!

Get it here.


Fresh Air and Empty Streets – Oliver Cable

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

Cover: Fresh Air and Empty Streets by Oliver Cable

Fresh Air and Empty Streets by Oliver Cable

Having once sat drinking under a full moon on Sacré-Cœur’s steps, I immediately identified with this gem of a first novel set in the Paris streets. It is a sensitive story about a young man, Felix, who comes to meet, challenge and discover the father, Alexander, he has never known. In doing so, he is forced to question some of his own most staunchly held beliefs.

If the first few chapters feel slightly tentative, it is almost as if the author is wrestling with what sort of book he has inside himself. Then father and son finally meet and, as they explore their budding relationship, the writing becomes more assured. At times the prose truly catches alight, flaming brightly in passages describing Paris’s live jazz scene and Alexander’s regular haunts. The writing works best when, rather than trying to comment on the city or its tourists, the author simply slows his heartbeat to listen to the dark river running through himself and annotates its sounds, more in the nature of a poet than a narrator. The prose is strongest when focussing on those first tentative steps in a relationship – between father and son, or between new lovers.

With so many novels being bashed out these days by writers aiming to publish a couple of kilos of pulp each and every business quarter, it is a relief to find a writer who cares about his craft, as Cable clearly does. I look forward to his next book.

Get it here.


After the Rising – Orna Ross

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

After the Rising by Orna Ross

After the Rising by Orna Ross

“If you have not seen the day of Revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing.” — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Scribner Classics, 1996. p. 106.

Though partially of Irish stock, I confess to scant knowledge of the Emerald Isle’s history apart from the dates of the 1916 Easter Rising and the gaining of Independence in 1922. So Orna Ross’s After the Rising was a compelling introduction, not least because the beguiling lilt of her prose situates one sure-footedly in a deceptively sleepy burg beyond the Irish Sea. Using various first-person narrative voices in the form of letters and diaries, the novel moves between the events of 1922, the 60s and 70s when the predominant narrator is at school and university, and 1995, when she returns to her village for her mother’s funeral and to confront the family’s history, rent by national politics and local rancour. Such a weaving back and forth between periods allows for an overview of the novel’s historical reach, reminding readers that today’s fervent youth will be but a dusty phrase in tomorrow’s history books.

If I was surprised to find little overt description of the divide between Catholics and Protestants, which I had always thought central to Ireland’s history, this is perhaps more of a comment on my ignorance about the conflict. Sectarian undertones are clearly present, but Ross prefers to filter the narrative through the gossip, grudges and friendships of the fictitious village of Mucknamore, where tribal identities and ingrained prejudices score more deeply into villagers’ lives than religion does. Generational hatreds feel bitterly yet bewildering personal as they are wont to become in small communities. In this, both Ross and Hemingway are on the nail.

Most importantly, this is herstory, the history of the land told through the voices of its women. As such it comes closer to the grain of what the struggle was all about. While all conflicts have their economic and political elements, I believe they tend fundamentally to be about cultural identity (though Marx might disagree): the ‘us’ and the ‘other’. The impression I got was that while the fight for a free Ireland was paramount, cultural identity politics were also of prime importance in deciding what flavour of an independent Eire was sought. The denouement happily expresses a loosening of some of these most fiercely held views, enabling the hope for a more tolerant future to creep in.

After the Rising is part of Ross’s Irish Trilogy, of which the next book, Before the Fall, will soon be completed by In the Hour.

Read more here.


The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

Cover of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

A brilliant read. The two main characters, brothers and hired assassins, are grudgingly revealed through the narrator’s voice, and deWitt is ruthlessly Spartan in his prose. With the feel of a literary road movie, we are moved through a series of alien worlds at the pace of a dawdling nag. We never wholly come to know these rough environments, and they remain strange, as the protagonists are estranged from polite society. Yet through their mystery, somehow they beautifully and increasingly reveal the characters’ tenderness and humanity. This book promised much, and for me it truly delivered, never relying on the stereotypical tropes you might expect of the Western genre it moves within.

Available from: Amazon


Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Uncompromising obsession and its consequences

I first picked this book up in my local bookshop and read the opening paragraphs without purchasing it. They left me with a rankling desire to know how the book develops. Once I finally bought it, I devoured it in hours rather than days. It is truly one of the un-put-down-ables.

Like Christos Tsiolkas’s first book, Loaded, Barracuda is a compulsive, emotional read, told with enormous sensitivity and passion. It occupies the same shelf in my mental library as Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, Agustin Gomez-Arcos’ The Carnivorous Lamb and Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. Like these works, it is not so much a “gay” novel as an exploration of humanity – in this case, the probing of one young man’s uncompromising obsession and the consequences of this on his own life and the lives of those around him. It explores the dynamics of competition with unflinching honesty, and carefully documents the protagonist’s journey through hell and his ensuing catharsis in its most primal expression.

Definitely the best book I read in the year.

Available from Amazon


One Night at the Jacaranda – Carol Cooper

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper

One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper

In search of love, a delightful miscellany of contrasting London types sign up for a night of speed-dating at the Jacaranda pub. Following the trials and tribulations of an undercover journo desperate for a feature, a GP with custody issues, a single mother, a terminally ill cat-lover, an obsessive misogynist and an ex-con, among others, Carol Cooper has written a light, witty and enjoyable book about the perennial quest for one’s better half.

Available from Amazon.


Thoreau in Love – John Schuyler Bishop

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

JTBishop_TiL

Thoreau in Love by John Schuyler Bishop

Pages torn from Thoreau’s personal journal inspired this fictional account, postulating on the idea that the missing pages, covering his youthful sojourn in New York, would reveal a gay dalliance, were they extant today. Suffice to say I adored this book. It is wholeheartedly a romance in the rough, passionate, slightly bawdy and infinitely tender way of two young men in love. Above all it is an intelligent book, one which appears well researched and which seems to pay deep respect to Thoreau’s character.

Available from Amazon


House of Silence – Linda Gillard

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

LGillard_HoSA young woman for whom family signifies betrayal and abandonment, and who has learnt to maintain her emotional isolation, falls for a seductive young actor whose sprawling web of relatives she welcomes as icing on her romantic cake. Yet invited for Christmas at their chilly old mansion presided over by a flighty matriarch, cracks in the family’s happy façade cause her to question the enigmatic past of this apparently idyllic family. Steering skilfully between the genres of romance and mystery, Linda Gillard has written a captivating read that will keep you guessing till the end.

Available from Amazon.


Gift of the Raven – Catriona Troth

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Rather than a full book review, in these posts, I simply jot down a few lines on books I’ve enjoyed.

Gift of the Raven

Gift of the Raven by Catriona Troth

“The people of the Haida Gwaii tell the legend of the raven – the trickster who brings the gift of light into the world.”

An emotionally raw tale of an outcast, abused and orphaned boy, whose “hair is black like night, and [whose] skin is the colour of Auntie Jean’s strong tea” and his quest to find his father. “I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me but that’s okay because I belong here anyway”. This story about the budding relationship between a father and son touched a deep emotional chord for its sincerity and the delicacy of its prose. One of those books where the tears are never far from welling up, but a tremendously uplifting read.

Available from Amazon


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