Book Reviews

Book Reviews, Novels, Summer reading list

Little Beauty

By Alison Jameson

(Doubleday Ireland, £12.99)

It’s 1975, and Laura Quinn is desperate to leave the remote island off the west coast of Ireland where she grew up. Her parents are both dead, and her relationship with her lover, Martin, seems to be going nowhere. So she goes to an interview for a job as housekeeper for a prosperous couple living on the mainland, an encounter that will change her life forever. Finely crafted and featuring a brilliantly complicated heroine, Jameson’s heart-breaking third novel is a moving story about social mores and the power of parental love.

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A Delicate Truth

By John le Carré

(Penguin Viking, £18.99)

It’s 50 years since John le Carré made his name with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and he’s in vintage form in his 23rd novel. It’s a typically complex, humane and intelligent story of government cover-ups and military contractors, as a retired diplomat and a troubled civil servant search for the truth behind the botched capture of a jihadist arms dealer in Gibraltar.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

By Anton DiSclafani

(Tinder Press, £13.99)

It’s 1930, the Depression is starting to affect even the most privileged families, and 15-year-old Thea has left her Florida home for Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, in North Carolina. For plenty of horse-loving girls, spending a few months in the beautiful mountain camp would be heaven, but Thea, who desperately misses her pony and her beloved twin brother, Sam, feels like an exile. She’s been sent away from her parents in disgrace, for reasons that become clear by the end of this atmospheric debut novel.

The Humans

By Matt Haig

(Canongate, £10.99)

Dr Andrew Martin is a Cambridge academic who has just made a mathematical breakthrough that could change the course of history. Unfortunately for him, this means he has to die. An assassin from the planet Vonnadoria has taken over Martin’s body and must now kill anyone he may have told about his achievement. The Vonnadorian is initially repulsed by life on Earth, but as he comes to know Martin’s family, their dog and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, he starts wondering whether humans are quite so hideous after all. Haig’s fifth novel for adult readers is funny, touching and wise.

The Society of Timid Souls

By Polly Morland

(Profile Books, £14.99)

What does it mean to be brave? That’s what the documentary-maker Polly Morland tries to find out in this wonderful book, inspired by a group of musicians in 1940s Manhattan who came together in order to tackle their stage fright. This original Society of Timid Souls believed that one could learn to be brave. Were they right? And what is courage anyway? Morland investigates the origins of our greatest fears and meets people who have behaved with courage, from a tightrope walker to a man who confronted a suicide bomber. The results are thought-provoking, insightful and fascinating.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

By Ayana Mathis

(Hutchinson, £12.99)

Over the first six or so decades of the 20th century, six million black Americans left the brutally segregated south for the comparative freedom of the north in what became known as the Great Migration. Mathis’s powerful debut novel tells the story of one of those families. In 1923, 15-year old Hattie Shepherd leaves Georgia for Philadelphia, where she starts a large family. Her 11 children and one grandchild are the 12 tribes of the title, and as Mathis tells their sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful stories she also paints a memorable portrait of Hattie, the matriarch who holds the family together.

The Last Banquet

By Jonathan Grimwood

(Canongate, £11.99)

Grimwood’s brilliantly evocative new book reads like a cross between Patrick Süskind and Angela Carter. Set in the 18th century, it’s the story of Jean-Marie d’Aumont, an orphan with a powerful appetite who was born into an impoverished noble family. When we meet him, he’s eating dung beetles, but he’ll go on to concoct imaginative recipes for everything from dogs to tiger flesh. (Most things, he discovers, taste like chicken or beef.) But as Jean-Marie’s fortunes improve, so does social tension both at home and in America, and he comes to realise that “history will happen. It cannot be denied”.

Paper Aeroplanes

By Dawn O’Porter

(Hot Key Books, £7.99)

The journalist and television presenter Dawn O’Porter’s debut novel is the story of two 15-year-old girls in 1990s Guernsey. Shy Flo struggles with a bitchy “best friend” and a distant mother, while sexually adventurous Renee struggles to deal with the death of her mother. O’Porter perfectly captures the sometimes ludicrous complexities of adolescence, and everyone should relate to this heartbreakingly funny depiction of friendship and loss.


By Eoin Colfer

(Headline, £16.99)

The award-winning Colfer returns to adult fiction with another pleasingly hard-boiled novel about Daniel McEvoy, the down-on-his-luck hero of his earlier novel Plugged. In his first outing, McEvoy, a soldier turned bouncer in a grotty New Jersey pub, turned detective. Now he has moved up in the world, but he finds himself the target of some very dangerous men.

Tiny Beautiful Things

By Cheryl Strayed

(Atlantic Books, £8.99)

A collection of advice columns by an online agony aunt may not sound like appealing holiday reading. But Tiny Beautiful Things might be one of the most profound yet enjoyable books you read this summer. Strayed, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Wild, offers compassionate, no-nonsense advice to readers of the culture website in a series of often personal essays that are by turns tender, profane, funny and incredibly moving.

Red Sky in Morning

By Paul Lynch

(Quercus, £12.99)

The film writer Paul Lynch’s debut novel is the darkly compelling story of a young man named Coll Coyle, who accidentally kills his landlord’s callous son in a fit of desperation. Coyle is forced to leave his wife and child and flee to the US, pursued by the dogged John Faller. But he discovers that life in the New World can be just as brutal as life in the old. Inspired by a true story and written in lyrical yet accessible prose, this accomplished novel marks Lynch out as a writer to watch.

Going Back

By Rachael English

(Orion, £12.99)

In 1988 Elizabeth Kelly heads off to Boston, one of the many young Irish students looking for adventure on a J1 summer visa. Sharing a tiny flat with a gang of fellow students, she finds love with a local, Danny. More than 20 years later, Elizabeth’s daughter Janey also heads to Boston, and Elizabeth is forced to remember her past. Anyone who has wondered what life might have been like if they’d stayed together with a summer love will be charmed by the Morning Ireland presenter’s warm, heartfelt debut novel.


By Stuart Neville

(Harvill Secker, £12.99)

Best known for his excellent crime novels set in modern Belfast, Neville heads into the past for his latest thriller, which mixes shocking historical fact with well-crafted fiction to great effect. It’s 1963, and as Ireland prepares for the visit of John F Kennedy, Minister for Justice Charles J Haughey is trying to cover up the truth behind a series of murders. Three foreign men have been murdered in just a few days, and Haughey is determined to hide the fact that all three were former Nazis who were granted asylum by the Irish government after the the second World War, not least because of his friendship with Otto Skorzeny, a former SS officer who might be the killer’s next target. Intelligence officer Albert Ryan is asked to investigate, but he finds himself forced to choose between the demands of his country and his conscience.


By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

(Fourth Estate, £20)

Ifemelu is a Nigerian writer, blogger and academic who has decided to move back to her home country after 15 years in the US. She contacts her first love, Obinze, who has stayed in Nigeria and become a property developer with a not exactly perfect marriage. This hugely enjoyable new novel moves across several decades and three continents to tell Ifemelu and Obinze’s stories. Ngozi Adichie effortlessly tackles issues of race, class and belonging with compassion and wit, and you’ll be gripped from the first page of this brilliantly evocative book.

The Property

By Rutu Modan

(Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

In this stunning graphic novel by the Israeli artist and writer Rutu Modan, an elderly woman returns to her childhood home in Warsaw, accompanied by her granddaughter Mica, to reclaim the property lost by her family during the second World War. As Mica gets close to a Polish tour guide who may have ulterior motives, her grandmother Regina encounters a surprising reminder of her own past. Modan’s wonderfully Hergé-esque art is the perfect medium for this darkly comic, subtle and deeply moving story.

Intimacy With Strangers:

A Life of Brief Encounters

By Ciaran Carty

(Lilliput Press, €16.99)

Carty has always been one of Ireland’s most thoughtful interviewers, and in his new book he looks back over five decades of meetings with everyone from Beyoncé and Doris Lessing to William Trevor and Danny Boyle. Carty traces the links between his interviewees in a fascinating and personal account of dozens of very different brief encounters.

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

(Doubleday, £16.99)

Atkinson takes a break from her successful Jackson Brodie crime novels and returns to the sort of imaginative literary fiction with which she made her name. Life After Life is the story, or rather the stories, of Ursula Todd, who dies as a baby in 1910 only to immediately start her life all over again. Ursula is given not just a second chance but multiple ones, as everything from Spanish flu to the Blitz ends her life and sends her back to the beginning, allowing her to avoid or make the same mistakes over the course of many lifetimes. A dazzling, moving and engrossing novel.

The Storyteller

By Jodi Picoult

(Simon and Schuster, £18.99)

Even those who have never been tempted by Picoult’s issue-led weepies will be won over by this compelling novel. It’s the story of Sage, a reclusive young woman working in a bakery who befriends a lovable old German man at a bereavement-support group. Then Josef tells her his secret: in his youth he was a member of the SS. Now, to atone for his crimes, he wants a Jewish person to kill him – and he has chosen Sage. As the gripping story moves between the consequences of Josef’s request and the wartime experiences of Sage’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who may have encountered Josef in Auschwitz, Picoult asks complex questions about morality, forgiveness and redemption.

The Fields

By Kevin Maher

(Little Brown, £12.99)

It’s 1984 in Dublin, and Jim Finnegan is more concerned with dancing to Bronski Beat than with the political issues of the day. But then the teenager attracts the attention of both a predatory priest and a cool older girl. Perfectly capturing what it was like to grow up in 1980s Dublin, Irish journalist Kevin Maher’s wildly funny debut handles its often dark subject matter with aplomb.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

By David Sedaris

(Abacus, £12.99)

Sedaris is the master of the stringently comic yet strangely poignant essay. He’s on fine form in his new collection, in which he writes about his father’s unorthodox dinnertime wear (which doesn’t include trousers), his attempts to befriend members of minority groups and how his love of owl-themed ornaments almost led him to buy a human skeleton. As ever, Sedaris’s work is very funny, beautifully written and surprisingly moving.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

By Neil Gaiman

(Headline, £16.99)

Both a pitch-perfect fantasy and a moving examination of childhood memories and their effects on our adult selves, Gaiman’s superb The Ocean at the End of the Lane is his first novel for adults since 2005. It begins with the unnamed narrator returning, after his father’s funeral, to his childhood home, where memories start to return of an extraordinary experience that to1ok place when he was seven, after the family’s lodger killed himself in the family car. What follows features familial tension, ancient magic, a very old little girl and an ocean that can be carried in a bucket.


Instructions for a Heatwave

By Maggie O’Farrell

(Tinder Press, £13.99)

The story of an Irish family in 1970s London begins when Robert Riordan goes to buy a newspaper and doesn’t come back. The disappearance of this quiet, ordinary man brings together his fractured family; after Robert’s bewildered wife, Gretta, tells their grown-up children about his disappearance, the three younger Riordans return to the family home, where they find themselves wondering if any of them ever really knew their father at all. Elegantly written and populated by unforgettable characters, especially the youngest Riordan, Aoife, it’s a fantastic book.

Town and Country:

New Irish Short Stories

Edited by Kevin Barry

(Faber and Faber, £9.99)

Collected by the Impac award-winning author, Faber’s fourth book of Irish short stories features contributions from both established writers, such as Pat McCabe, Paul Murray and Keith Ridgway, and exciting newcomers, such as Lisa McInerney and Mary Costello, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the future of Irish fiction – and indeed anyone who just wants to read a collection of original, well-crafted short stories.

Kiss Me First

By Lottie Moggach

(Picador, £14.99)

This original and unsettling psychological thriller is already one of the most talked-about debut novels of the year. Leila is an introverted and isolated young woman who finds an online home at a libertarian philosophy website called Red Pill. Then Red Pill’s charismatic founder, Adrian Dervish, makes an extraordinary request: he asks Leila to take over the online life of a young woman called Tess, who has decided to take her own life and wants to “slip away from this world unnoticed . . . without causing pain to her family and friends”. Worryingly convincing, Kiss Me First is a brilliantly twisty thriller that will make you wonder how well you really know your online friends.

Black Narcissus

By Rumer Godden

(Virago Modern Classics, £9.99)

Made into an extraordinary film by the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Godden’s recently reissued 1939 novel is the beautifully unsettling tale of a group of English nuns who establish a convent school in a remote castle in the Himalayas. The nuns are full of good intentions, especially the Irish-born Sr Clodagh, but their isolation, repressed desires and ignorance of the world around them lead to tragedy. Virago Modern Classics has reissued several of Godden’s novels, most of which are set in India and all of which are worth reading.

Anna Carey’s debut novel, The Real Rebecca, won the Senior Children’s Book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her third book, Rebecca Rocks, will be published in August.

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