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A look at books - Irish history, fiction and biography to get your teeth in to

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Vengeance 
By Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black is the pen name of award winning Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner John Banville, which means that the prose stylings of this impressively literary whodunit (and the focus on fully realized characters) are much finer than the genre usually affords.

Black/Banville assembles a cast of upscale but sulphurous Dubliners, including one of Ireland’s most successful – and, it turns out, suicidal -- businessmen, then he exposes the corrupt and corrupting world they live in where money and sex trump all other considerations. 

Detective Inspector Hackett and his pinstriped consultant pathologist sidekick Quirke find themselves pulled ever deeper into the mysterious case and into dangerous the orbit of Dublin’s elite. 

What Black/Banville does with particular facility is to create a climate of suspicion and dread that turns this surprisingly sordid tale into a page-turner of the highest order.

Picador, $16.

Murder, Mutiny and Mayhem: The Blackest Hearted Villains From Irish History
By Joe O’Shea

Who could resist a book with a title like this? 

Ireland’s produced some of the world’s greatest writers, so it stands to reason we’ve offered the world our fair share of epic blackguards too.

Luke Ryan, for example, lived a marvelously immoral life as a pirate, sailing under every flag and no flag, eventually redeeming himself a little by fighting for Benjamin Franklin in the American War of Independence.

But there are much darker chapters in this diverting book. Did you know that James “Sligo” Jameson, the heir to the whiskey empire, found only madness and cannibalism in the heart of Africa? 

A 19th century explorer, Jameson had started a principled man with the best of intentions, but the isolation, brutality and sickness of life in the Congo quickly turned him into something much darker. 

A gem in the rough is the wonderfully named Beauchamp Bagenal, whose good looks, short fuse and deadly skill with a pistol made him one of the most feared duelists in Europe. Born and raised in Co. Carlow, Bagenal eventually blazed his way his across Europe terrifying and delighting his observers in equal measure. 

This book lays his life, and those of other notable Irish rakes, out in a timely reminder that our gentle nation doesn’t always lay out a hundred thousand welcomes. 

Dufour, $21.95.


Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice
By Mary Robinson

It's impossible to overstate Mary Robinson’s political impact on the life of the nation. Ireland’s first woman president, a tireless advocate for the marginalized and the forgotten (and a principled lifelong trailblazer), sometimes single-handedly she ushered the nation toward modernity. 

Human rights, women’s rights, and gay rights -- she pursued them all, even when it was neither popular nor profitable.  Her passion for social justice and her awareness that equality had to include everyone or it wasn’t worthy of the name pitted her against some of Ireland’s most conservative politicians. 

As her new book makes clear, those who were taken in by her mild manner soon found themselves astonished by her tenacity and courage. Even the notorious Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey was galled to find himself easily bested by her over her constitutional mandate. 

Robinson was a constitutional lawyer, and there wasn’t a politician in Ireland, male or female, who was her match. 

Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice reminds us of the accomplishments of this extraordinary figurehead, but it also allows us to hear a little about the personal cost of such a spirited public life.

Walker, $26.

Almost Home: Helping Kids Move From Homelessness to Hope
By Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley

It isn’t just strangers who can be bullies, sadly. Sometimes your own parents or siblings can be more of a threat to your future happiness than anyone you’ll encounter on the streets.

Family violence, sexual abuse, teen parenthood, prostitution, gay kids rejected for their sexual orientation -- the list of home wrecking possibilities is seemingly limitless, and once it starts it often veers into tragedy or flight. 

Those are among the main reasons why every year 1.6 million American teenagers become homeless. Their problems only start there. Trading in one identity for another can be a powerfully disorientating experience, sending many into a tale spin from which they never recover. Five minutes ago you were a teenager, minutes later you’re just a nameless street-walking statistic waiting to happen. 

Almost Home tells the story of one brave organization that dares to stand in the way of the inevitable. Covenant House is the largest charity serving homeless, trafficked and runaway youth in America. 

And in their new book, Irish American president Kevin Ryan and journalist Tina Kelley tell the story of their involvement with the organization, including some of the most illustrative and striking stories of the many teens they have met – and saved – from lonely fates. 

Wiley, $16.95.

Reviews by Irish Voice Arts Editor Cahir O'Doherty

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