Wednesday, 17 August 2022

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

In a small bungalow on the outskirts of a village in Co. Tipperary live three generations of Aylward women - Eileen, her mother-in-law Mary, and daughter Saoirse. It isn't a peaceful household, yet, despite the arguments and fallings-out, it's a place filled with love; a home that's far more than bricks and mortar, but a haven, a place of belonging and nurture. 

It'll come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I'm an ardent admirer of Donal Ryan's writing. I've been hooked since I first read The Thing About December, and he's one of the few authors whose books I can pick up knowing I'll be enthralled and moved. This new story is no exception.  Two pages in there's a body blow of a shock and such is Ryan's writing that the reader already feels for this character, has shared their hopes and dreams, and mourns their loss - and like the women left behind by this tragic death, we readers too have to pull ourselves up and start over again.

This unexpected start sets the tone for the book. Revolving around these three generations of women, The Queen of Dirt Island is a story of resilience despite what life throws at you, about love and family ties, told with compassion and understanding. Their lives aren't easy - by any standards they seem to attract more than their fair share of tragedy, disappointment, loss, and straight forward bad luck - but together they pull through, and we're left with an impression that the future is bright.

It's set in the same general location as most of Ryan's work (an unnamed village somewhere near to Nenagh, Tipperary), and characters from other novels put in an appearance - most noticeably from Strange Flowers, to which it feels like a companion piece, but I'm fairly sure there are others too. I love this way of setting a particular story against a backdrop where other tales are unfolding; the postman, policeman, schoolgirl, the passers-by on the street, as in real life they all have lives of their own (and if we haven't been told about them yet, maybe we will be soon).

I also particularly enjoyed what seemed like a sly criticism of  male authors or teachers of writing courses - the way Saoirse's story is taken by someone claiming to know better than her, and twisted into something more dramatic, full of violence and extreme emotions, but essentially untrue. I'd love to know if Donal Ryan had someone in mind when he wrote this. 

A book that takes its characters through devastation and anger but is ultimately filled with the redemptive power of love.

Friday, 12 August 2022

The Wilderness Cure by Mo Wilde

At the end of November 2020, Mo Wilde decided to embark on a year of eating wild. She's led foraging courses for many years, and frequently encountered the query 'but could you actually live on only foraged food?' - here was a chance to prove it. So on Black Friday when the rest of the world seemed overwhelmed by buying frenzy, she resolved to stop - or at least to stop buying food. In The Wilderness Cure  Wilde takes us on an incredible year of only living on what she gather - nuts, shoots, leaves, mushrooms (so many mushrooms!) and occasional gifts of a culled deer or surplus salmon; all foods which would have been familiar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

I grew up in the country, so foraging is always something I've done a little of. As a child I went out to gather blackberries and elderberries in autumn, as an adult I've collected elderflowers in spring, sloes, crab apples, and the occasional chestnut in autumn - but the important difference is that to me they're additions to what I grow or buy. I knew that it was feasible to harvest more from wild sources - mushrooms being the obvious thing but I never had any one to teach me their secrets when young, and fresh spring leaves of hawthorn or beech which I'd rather looked on as extraordinary things for when harvests had failed. This book came as a revelation of the many, many things which can be gathered from the wild; the roots and shoots, seeds and flowers, which can be used as part of our daily food.

This book is more than a foraging diary. It digresses naturally into the author's philosophy, her belief in the Gaia world-system and how this challenge re-affirmed her connection with the Earth, into the disconnection between humans and the natural world, into the bodily changes brought on by this unusual diet, and even into archaeological research which provides historical context for 'foraging' (or 'collecting dinner' as I assume our pre-historic ancestors considered it). 

It's a fascinating read, even if you've only the slightest interest in foraging but in a world based round consumption and consumerism, doing anything for yourself is an act of rebellion - and nothing more so than deciding to live on only the food you can gather for free. 


Friday, 5 August 2022

The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne

Under a trapdoor in the cellar beneath an old German house, a manuscript has been discovered. It tells the tale of  Haelewise, a girl  skilled as a midwife and able to sense the barrier between life and death, but distrusted by her neighbours who label her a 'witch' because of her black eyes and strange fainting spells. When her mother dies, and the boy she loves is forced into a loveless marriage, Haelewise decides it's best to leave the town she grew up in and seek refuge in the forest. There she finds an unexpected haven in the ancient Tower of Gothel, home to a wise woman, who keeps the old traditions of herbal lore alive.

The blurb to this book promised a new take on the old fairy tale about Rapunzel, which I thought would be an interesting read (I'm always up for a reinterpretation of old tales), but it fell a little short of my expectations. 

Haelewise's manuscript felt too long-winded and rambling; the story of a life with all its ins and outs, rather than just the core story-arc. It may be of course that you like a novel to develop in this way, but I felt it was too matter-of-fact, too realistic, and with not enough magical or fantasy elements. Maybe too much 'tell', not enough 'show', but as fantasy it left me wanting something more.

I think in many ways it would have stood better as straight-forward historical fiction, a story of women versed in pagan ways fighting to survive against 'modern' Christianity.

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin


Sadie and Sam first meet as youngsters in a hospital gaming room. She is visiting her sister; he is recovering from a devastating car accident. They bond over their love of video games, but a misunderstanding leads to them falling out with a resolve to never see each other again. 

Years later, Sam spots Sadie across a busy train station, and their connection is instant. From then on, they're inseparable (well, apart from all the times they fall out again). Together they begin to write games - not violent shooting games, but ones which give the player the escape from the real world that they'd both needed when younger. Their first game is a runaway success. But after that Sadie and Sam need to face the real world, which is never as fulfilling as a good game in which one may fail innumerable times but it's always possible to start over.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a story of love, friendship, possibilities, misunderstandings, and, of course, creating games. I found it enthralling. Their relationship echoes a game. The periods when they don't talk to each other been the equivalent of a game-character's death. Their getting back together, the 'return to last saved level' and recommencement of the game. In games, though, it's possible to press restart an infinite number of times; life isn't so convenient. 

It's an intimate and nuanced depiction of a long-term friendship - one where the friends are as close and inseparable as lovers. The characters are fully developed, flesh and blood people, faults and all. Their arguments and misunderstandings explored from both sides. 

I'm not a committed gamer, though I'm fond of Lara Croft and some of the Lego games, and it took this book to show me that games are really in essence another form of story-telling - a small child is lost at sea and must find its way home, an older child is in hospital undergoing treatment but at the same time slips into a fantasy world where there are different obstacles to overcome - and stories are ways of making sense of life.

Thursday, 14 July 2022

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

 In a valley in the far west of Cornwall lies an old house, once grand and imposing, now neglected for many years. Here, in 1954 Magda, her daughter Mila, and granddaughter Janey arrive, running away from their troubled London lives.

The valley too has a mysterious past. Locals tell legends of war, and rivers running with blood, and of the mysterious disappearance of the pre-war owners, but also of a spirit, often seen in the form of a white hare, which protects those considered its own.

This, the first novel I've read by Jane Johnson, is an atmospheric tale of two women looking for new beginnings in an old house, woven through with just a hint of magic. The valley is immediately recognised (by the reader at least) as somewhere 'other'; a place where old traditions hold sway, from herbal lore to a sort of Earth Mother worship. Magda, an out and out 'townie', doesn't appear to feel anything strange, but Mila, raised in the country by her grandmother, senses foreboding in the air, especially when 5 year old Janey begins to behave strangely as if influenced by her surroundings. The three also respond in different ways to Jack, the stranger found in their barn - Magda treats as she might any other man, as someone to be of use to her; Mila approaches him with caution, while Janey immediately and enthusiastically 'adopts' him as a father figure.

I really liked the characters here, the change in the relationship between mother and daughter, and the gradual peeling back of layers to reveal their past lives. Here they can at last find a way to communicate with each other, maybe not quite as mother and daughter, but at least woman to woman.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

For the Throne by Hannah Whitten


"Red and the Wolf have finally contained the threat of the Five Kings, but at a steep cost. Red's beloved sister - Neve, the First Daughter - is lost in the Shadowlands. But Neve has an ally, even if it's one she'd rather never speak to again - the rogue king Solmir. Together they must journey across a dangerous landscape to find the mysterious Heart Tree - and finally claim the gods' dark, twisted powers for themselves."

For the Throne continues (and concludes) the story of twin sisters, Red and Neve, both in different ways locked into inescapable destinies. Red is now happily settled in the Wilderwood with her Wolf, but Neve is trapped  in the upside down, shadowy monochrome world of the Shadowlands. Neve must journey through this horrific landscape to find the enigmatic Heart Tree, which might somehow, with luck, and a huge dose of sisterly love, show her the way to return to the world above. On the way there are monsters and gods to contend with, and no one to help Neve - unless she can be persuaded to place her trust in her enemy Solmir.

Most of the story takes places in the creepy world of the Shadowlands, following Neve and Solmir - and what a scary, disturbing world it is! Fortunately there are brief respites, and flashes of colour, as Red works from her side of the barrier to reach Neve. 

There is perhaps a lot of trudging along through the Shadowlands' wastes, but at the same time this gives Neve time to reflect on some of her earlier decisions, and on Solmir's character and intentions - for the first,  acknowledging that they may not have been as right as she believed, for the latter - well - that he may not be as out and out evil as she'd assumed. In both regards, Neve has a lot of personal growing to do.

All in all a gripping mix of magic, horror, and sisterly love.

I haven't read what might be considered the first half of this duology - For the Wolf which follows Red's story - but enough references are made to the events in it to fill in the background while still leaving the reader wanting to know more. 

Friday, 24 June 2022

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett


Review by TheMole

Brutha is working in the monastery gardens when a turtle lands nearby - as they do. This turtle was supposed to be a mighty eagle but you can't have everything.

Brutha is a novice in the monastery, dedicated to the god Om, and is not likely to progress because while he seems to lack many skills he also has unrecognised skills. One such skill is to hear the voice of this particular turtle who claims to be the god Om. Brutha is a gentle soul and would not hurt a harmless creature and so he becomes guardian of the turtle god.

Brutha is chosen to go with a delegation to try to persuade them to worship Om but he suspects treachery, murder and war may ensue. And harmless Brutha with his pet turtle are trapped in the middle.

The 13th book in the series this felt like a deviation from the "normal" Discworld books but still delights in the same humorous vein. None of the regular characters appear although you very quickly don't miss them.

Once again you can see parallels to real life and views on those events expressed - but not at the expense of humour and a most enjoyable story.

Highly recommended but if you're new to the Discworld and want to know what it's all about then consider not starting with this one.

Publisher: Transworld

Genre: Fantasy, comedy