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Book reviews: recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest

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Recommended

The Brightest Star in the Sky is another good romp by Dublin-based writer Marian Keyes. Keyes first burst on the scene with Watermelon in 1995 and went on to write several bestsellers including This Charming Man (2008). In her latest book, Keyes uses the interesting literary device of a wandering ghost to give us an inside look at the residents of a block of flats on 66 Star Street. What’s up with the lovely couple Matt and Maeve whose hearts beat in harmonious rhythm but there’s a dark cloud lurking – could those vitamin pills turn out to be antidepressants? Will Katie marry work-obsessed Conall even though she knows he’s not a perfect fit? She’s 40, after all, and her friends are telling her not to be so choosy. Then there’s the fabulous Fionn, a handsome country boy in the city for a shot at a TV gardening show. He has fallen hard for Maeve, or has he?

It’s the basement characters who most hold my attention – two Polish immigrants, Andrei, a tough guy who secretly cries of homesickness, and Jan, who Andrei treats like a younger brother – and their nemesis, Lydia, the tiny but tough-talking taxi-driving Irish girl who shares the flat. Sparks fly between Lydia and Andrei – they claim to hate each other, but what’s really brewing underneath the surface?

Keyes, who was born in Limerick in 1963, is one of my favorite “take along on a plane ride” writers (and at 614 pages, this latest tome is better saved for a long trip!). The first book of hers that I read was Rachel’s Holiday (1998), a hilarious and moving story about addiction and recovery. Though none of her other books have hit a chord for me the way that one did, Keane knows how to spin a yarn and is always entertaining. Her characters are thoroughly believable, and the plot always has a surprising twist, or two. In fact, I wouldn’t be the first to say that Keyes is on course to inherit the mantle of the great Irish queen of romance, Maeve Binchy.

– Patricia Harty

($26.00 / 614 pages / Viking)

 

Fiction

Erin Hart is the author of award-winning mystery novels Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows. Her latest, False Mermaid, to be released in March 2010, is a haunting, eerie page-turner that combines a wealth of Irish mythology about mermaids, seals and selkies with archeology and the compelling forensic details of several linked murders, all set against the gorgeously rendered settings of both Minnesota and Donegal.

Ancient legends of places like Port na Rón (Seal Harbor) give depth to heroine Nora Gavin’s desperate journey to discover the reality about her sister Tríona’s murder in time to save her niece Elizabeth, for whom the five years since her mother’s death have changed her from a blissfully unaware child to a young woman painfully entering the world of adult truths. Nora is caught in a race against time. The few allies who believe her theories about Tríona’s murder include a sole police officer burdened with a troubled personal life and his own feelings for Nora. While facing dangers that become more complex and terrifying with each chapter, Nora struggles to come to terms with her own emotions in the wake of tragedy, eventually learning that “the universe had turned out to be a much stranger and more fluid place than she had ever imagined.”

– Kara Rota

($26.00 / 336 pages / Scribner)

Bill Loehfelm’s first novel Fresh Kills was hailed by the Associated Press as the “finest crime fiction debut since Dennis Lehane burst onto the scene.” High praise indeed for Loehfelm, who, like Lehane, explores the lives of “working class Irish Catholics” (as Loehfelm himself put it in an interview with USA Today).

Loehfelm has now published his second novel, Bloodroot, a thought-provoking psychological thriller that revolves around brothers Kevin and Danny Curran. The Staten Island siblings are updated versions of Cain and Abel: good and bad brothers who can’t untangle themselves from each other. Kevin is a college professor while Danny is a drug addict with a terrible childhood secret. Loehfelm masterfully portrays the complicated Curran family past, as he vividly brings to life a slice of New York rarely seen, unless tinged with disdain or sentimentality. In the end, however, Bloodroot is a triumph because of the characters and the collision courses – psychological, familial, criminal – Loehfelm sets up. The Brooklyn-born, Staten Island-reared Loehfelm now lives in New Orleans. But his literary heart remains in hidden corners of New York, which, in two books now, he has shown he owns the way Lehane owns Boston, and Ken Bruen owns Galway.

– Tom Deignan

($25.95 / 336 pages / Putnam)

 

Memoir

Julie Powell made her mark on the culinary and literary worlds by cooking her way through Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and blogging about it, an ambitious feat that inspired the 2009 movie Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Her recent memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage and Obsession, published in December, has garnered controversial reviews for its arguably sordid content and allegedly self-indulgent voice: the title’s metaphor describes the book’s focus on Julie’s dysfunctional extramarital affair, struggling marriage and sojourn to find self-worth through taking up the art of butchery. Taking place in the aftermath of her sudden success, it is part travelogue (late in the book, Powell embarks on a “Grand Meat Tour” of Argentina, the Ukraine and Tanzania), part confessional, and part cookbook (in the style of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn).

The visceral descriptions of how animals are transformed into cuts of meat are transfixing but not for the faint of heart, and the same can be said for the details of Powell’s personal life. However, there are passages that shine through with elegance and clarity, as gratifying as the crown roast that Powell wrestles into existence for her family’s Christmas dinner. A self-described “oversharer,” Powell pulls no punches in this sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes revolting, sometimes empowering, and unfailingly honest memoir.

– Kara Rota

($24.99 / 320 pages / Little, Brown & Company)

Cissie’s Abattoir is a memoir of growing up in Waterford in the sixties and seventies, a place author Éibhear Walshe describes as covered in tepid, grey rainwater. His saving grace from boredom and bullying is Cissie, Walshe’s sparkplug of a grandmother, who runs a family-owned abattoir and is a hotel landlady. Well-known for her chain smoking, sarcastic remarks, and glamorous outfits, Cissie’s lovable quirkiness and confidence enchant her grandson, who spends his afternoons watching her combat the mundane with flair. Their relationship is pivotal for Walshe, who vividly describes his struggle with growing up gay among relentlessly cruel peers. While Cissie is not overly affectionate, Walshe finds solace in her free-spirited indifference, and she in turn helps him by giving him a job in the abattoir when his loneliness becomes too much to handle. Despite his desire to escape his hometown, Walshe recounts both his family history and the history of Waterford’s landmarks and people in a way that is engrossing, funny, and deeply personal. From St. Otteran’s mental hospital to the sweets shops in town, Cissie shines through every page as a reminder to live adamantly as who you are, with knowledge of the pain in getting there.

– Aliah O’Neill

($23.95 / 149 pages/ The Collins Press/Dufour Editions)

 

Coffee Table Books

E. Charles Nelson’s An Irishman’s Cuttings: Tales of Irish Gardens and Gardeners, Plants and Plant Hunters is a collection of essays full of entertaining stories of gardeners and the plants close to their hearts. The term “an Irishman’s cutting” traditionally refers to a plant sample with roots that have formed well before being separated from its host plant, making it more likely to thrive as a new plant. Nelson considers each tale included in this book a cutting of a different sort, indicating the deep Irish roots of the gardeners and their stories. Each selection is drawn from The Irish Garden magazine, for which Nelson has written since 1992. Covering topics from historical botanic enthusiasts of the 1800s to an Irish girl who wrote murder mysteries with horticultural twists taking place in Irish gardens. Nelson’s book is filled with gorgeous photographs and delicate illustrations that make An Irishman’s Cuttings an ideal gift for any plant lover.

– Kara Rota

($54.95 / 224 pages / The Collins Press/Dufour Editions)

Dublin Zoo: An Illustrated History by Catherine de Courcy follows the fascinating history of the beloved Dublin Zoo from its beginnings in 1830 as a private society for anatomists and physicists, supported by wealthy subscribers, to its current status garnering more than 900,000 visitors a year with a professional zoo team contributing to international animal conservation programs. Split into chapters covering every few decades of the zoo’s history, including “Expansion and War,” “Growth and Decline” and “Radical Change,” de Courcy’s hefty book is filled with incredible full-page photographs of the animals that make the Dublin Zoo a top-notch destination for families centuries after its advent.

– Kara Rota

($34.95 / 368 pages / The Collins Press/Dufour Editions)

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