Star of the Sea | An unforgettable book

Who would ever forget the names Scarlett O’Hara, Heathcliff, Tom Joad, Yossarian? For me, Pius Mulvey joins the list. I was reading through Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, published in 2002. It’s on my TBR again list. When I first read the book, I carried it around with me. I was totally absorbed. I read it during meals, standing at bus stops. If I was watching television I read it during the ads. I literally could not put it down.

I’m copying this information from Amazon, a little about the author, and a little from a review and a few lines about the book.

The Writer: Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. His books include eight previous novels: Cowboys and Indians (Whitbread Prize shortlist), DesperadoesThe SalesmanInishowenStar of the Sea (American Library Association Award, Irish Post Award for Fiction, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, Prix Madeleine Zepter for European novel of the year), Redemption Falls, Ghost Light (Dublin One City One Book Novel 2011) and The Thrill of it All. His fiction has been translated into forty languages.

The Story: In the bitter winter of 1847, from an Ireland torn by injustice and natural disaster, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York. On board are hundreds of fleeing refugees. Among them are a maidservant with a devastating secret, bankrupt Lord Merridith and his family, an aspiring novelist and a maker of revolutionary ballads, all braving the Atlantic in search of a new home. Each is connected more deeply than they can possibly know.

From a Review: “I have also never wanted to read a book more than once. Until I first picked up The Star Of The Sea. I have read it four times now over the years and I know I will read it again and again. I love this book. Beautifully written. Exciting characters / plot. I get something new from it every time I read it. This book will last me my lifetime. Thank you Joseph O’Connor!”

Here is the opening paragraph where we meet Pius Mulvey:

“All night long he would walk the ship, from brow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the dropping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.”

Joseph O’Connor is a prolific writer and has written many non-fiction books as well as novels. There is one called “Inside the Head of the Irish Male” which made me laugh out loud so often I was afraid to read it on the bus!

Aggravated Momentum by Didi Oviatt | A review

The first thing that impressed me about this book was the atmosphere. I found it chilling and creepy. The plot is engaging from the beginning; you are drawn in straight away, and the tension doesn’t drop half-way through as it does in a lot of thrillers. The intensity is carried throughout.

Markie, the main character, lives with her sister, Kam; they have a strange love/dislike relationship and they share feelings about their unfeeling mother – who’s a great character by the way. I enjoyed reading about her.

None of the characters is perfect; they all have their foibles and their secret thoughts; this is, of course, more realistic, and true to life for the reader. Generally, there’s the heroine and the hero, and you like them and want things to work out for them, but I didn’t feel like that about any of these people. However, I liked the huge FBI agent, Reese, very much indeed. I felt the sisters were safe when he was about.

There are many things about this book that I loved, like unusual little details about the killer. I also really liked the different POV chapters – I always love that in a book, and I could have done with larger chunks of it.

The dialogue is terrific; Here’s a little bit of it:

“Tiny beads of sweat grow in my hairline and on the tip of my nose. The walls of my office creep in closer, leaving me suffocated. I’m drowning in my own imagination.”

One of the most impressive things about the book is the shock element. There were moments when I actually gasped and put the book down to think about what had just happened!

I wonder if there will be another book about Markie and Kam; I would definitely read it with anticipation.

A happy review of We All Die in the End.

Here is a 5 star review by Bluebell Hill on Amazon. You would think I would be really proud and happy to read this, and I am happy, but also I feel – strange as it might sound – humble and honoured. Did I really write such a book? Review is posted on Amazon.co.uk.

“I really enjoyed these stories. They were well crafted and beautifully written with a sparse, pared back style I thought worked well. Each of them was intense, realised with vivid detail, meaning they tended to linger once I’d put the book down. The great range of characters was the most compelling aspect of the collection. Each of them has a powerful and unique voice, they are clearly distinct from each other. Some suffer great tragedies, finding their lives intolerable; others reveal themselves through quiet, domestic detail. Overall, a collection of characters who will roar their soul at you.”

With many, many thanks to the reviewer.

A Review of “Beyond the Horizon” by Eoin Lane

This is the story of an artist’s life, mind, body, and spirit: I found it fascinating, hypnotic, rhythmic, exquisite.

“The rain was in her eyes and she couldn’t see through the rain. She couldn’t see through the fog and the rain in her eyes.”

“A storm of sea voices. Coming through the crack in the wall. On the wind. Voices in the deep. Underwater. Deep. Down. Deep. Strands and fronds of seaweed strangling.”

The artist is Colin Larkin, whose father drowns when he is six years old. Colin nearly drowns too, and this episode is the well-spring of his life. For a long while he is withdrawn and doesn’t speak but eventually, he returns to school, and he begins to draw. For the rest of his life the sea fills his being and his canvases. He has a particular affinity for the works of Paul Henry and longs for islands, for solitude, for the sea and sky.

I enjoyed his early family life with his sister and his two brothers, and his wonderful mother. It wouldn’t be enough to say she was wise and loving – she embodied wisdom and love. For fear of spoilers, I will say no more about the story which explores different types of love and devotion. But I will say that Aisling is the loving heart of his life from the very day meets her:

“Her words swinging in like the first peals of a bell that would ring all around him for years . . . “

When Colin finds an island he loves, and begins to work, we get a wonderful insight into the mind of a painter. We are there with him looking at the immense sky and sea. We experience his complete absorption in putting down what he sees. The prose and the sensitivities of Colin make me feel like I’m half alive and missing out, and I am resolved to look at everything I see, to listen to what I hear, to absorb the reality around me.

There are some snatches of poetry (Yeats) here and there which make me both sad and glad to think of all the beauty in this world, all the words and pictures and music, and the earth itself, particularly Ireland.

Colin describes some of his paintings as ethereal; for me, the whole book is ethereal. To say I give it five stars seems irrelevant, and a bit daft.

A Review of “Life for Sale” by Yukio Mishima

I was interested to read “Life for Sale” as I am not familiar with Japanese writers – except for Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up, and lives, in Britain.

The protagonist, Hanio Yamada, fails to commit suicide and decides to put his life up for sale, hoping that someone else will do the job for him. There follows a series of adventures as different buyers turn up with a proposition but no situation works out as planned and he remains alive, becoming wealthy as each sale brings in a lot of money – and a few dead bodies.

The book is well paced and so quotable! (I had to choose among so many.) It is a surreal tale with impossible scenarios, including one with a vampire:

“There was a lustrous quality, for sure, but it was the lustre of a corpse. The faint boniness of her arms betrayed her extreme thinness. And yet her breasts were full and firm, while her stomach was soft and white like a vessel brimming with an abundance of rich milk.”

And I did laugh out loud a few times:

“A dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky. If you drop the bottle and it cracks, what’s inside pours out. It’s only natural.”

“Tall, and probably rather snooty, the steward had clearly just spent a lot of effort squeezing blackheads. “

Eventually Hanio has to re-think his life and his decisions.

“How fearless, utterly fearless he had felt when he first put his life up for sale! But now, a warm furry fear clung to his chest, digging its claws right in.”

I don’t think I’ll re-read this book but I did really enjoy it. It’s the sort of book where you jump in and see where it takes you. You immerse yourself in the strange world of Hanio and that way you get the best out of it. I will definitely try this author again.

A review of “Iron Lake” by William Kent Kreuger

So, I was looking forward to reading this book as it had been highly recommended, and I did like it, but not as much as I expected. To begin with the main character Cork O’Connor is interesting and likable. He is part American Indian and there are quite a lot of American Indian characters in the book, known collectively as “the people” which interested me very much as I know nothing of their culture.

The story is gripping from the off – incomprehensible murders, a wealthy politician, a crumbling marriage, a sweet love story – and secrets and silence everywhere. An occasional mention of a supernatural element adds to the whole but doesn’t intrude. There’s an easygoing quality as well, and many back stories, but they are so engaging – and easygoing doesn’t mean slow.

However. nearing the end of the book I found that some situations were very contrived to allow the hero to unravel the mystery. Also, the denouement is very drawn out and quite boring. It was disappointing after so good a story.

There isn’t any quotable dialogue here but the pace and shape of the story is good. This is the first in a series of books featuring Cork O’Connor and I will definitely read another one in the future. If formally reviewing this book, I would give it three and a half stars.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

A Review of Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“Discuss the regulars.”

So begins “Ablutions”, the first novel by Patrick de Witt. Reviewers have said that it is not as good as the two subsequent books – but it is.

It is written in the second person which isn’t always appealing but in this case it suits perfectly. The blurb on the back cover describes the book as “Hilariously gloomy”; neither word is correct. Certainly there is plenty of black humour in the book but it is not hilarious, and gloomy is too slight a word to describe the terrible sadness which runs throughout.

The prose is wonderful:

   ” . . . before settling into a life of wealth and flashbulbs.

   ” . . . the desire to celebrate the rhythm of your own beating heart.”

The premise is this: a barman, in a bar off Hollywood, is making notes for a novel so there is no narrative as such – each episode takes place in the present – but now and then the reader becomes aware of time passing with the detieration of the barman’s health. He studies the failed actors and writers who people the bar every day and the characters are wonderful, (if people so bereft of hope and joy could be described as wonderful), the ageing child actor, the crack addict, the unhappy doorman, among them. A temporary bar manager is the only one to escape into glamourous Hollywood, a flash of light in the dim room.

The amount of alcohol and drugs consumed is staggering – causing terrible hangovers and punishing the poor, malnourished bodies. And sex: there’s plenty of sex in the backroom, and there’s a scene where a sort of orgy takes place, not like a penthouse orgy with champagne and nibbles and beautiful bodies; no, it’s a sad, woeful, cold occasion, not even lively enough to be called sordid.

Throughout the book there are snatches of empathy and snatches of vicious, casual violence, but loneliness pervades all. The barman, afraid to give in to tears in case he could never stop, hurts himself to deflect the feeling:

   “Once this starts you believe you will not be able to stop, or will soon reach a point from which you will not return without damaging your mind . . . you draw back your hand and punch the brick wall as hard as you can.”

There is very little direct dialogue but this is not noticeable as the barman is always addressing himself so it reads like conversation. The pace and shape of the book is perfect in the way that “Of Mice and Men” is perfect, no part too long, none too short, the last line as important as the first.

A short review of “A Keeper” by Graham Norton.

I didn’t originally intend to write a review of this book but having finished it I am compelled to make a few comments. To begin with, I enjoyed it very much. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I couldn’t leave it out of my hand. I just had to find out what happened next.

It is told from two separate points of view in different times; a mother (Patricia) and a daughter (Elizabeth) which I really liked. The prose is grand – no repetition or padding that I could see. But the plot is the thing. It is so creative, so ingenious, so shocking. The two main characters were very similar, I thought, but that ‘s my only criticism; the others were more distinctive – the farmer, Edward/Teddy and his mother, Mrs Foley. Oh, she was a quare one – I wish I had written her myself!

” . . . when the old lady slapped the dead bird on the rough bench in front of her and with one swipe took its head off with a large knife. The violence of it made Patricia gasp. Mrs Foley turned and held the headless corpse upside down. The red juice steamed as it trickled noisily into a waiting bucket.

“As if to reassure her Mrs Foley raised her free hand and absent-mindedly licked the blood that was dripping from it. Something shifted in Patricia’s stomach.”

“‘That’s Sunday lunch sorted.'”

I enjoyed that character so much. And indeed the whole book. I raced through it to find out the whole story and the secrets of long ago. Definitely recommend it to anyone. And I’m looking forward to reading some more of Graham Norton’s books.

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!