Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell

First Written for Shiny New Books


Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent. I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness… [Lucy Caldwell]

When picking up a collection of short stories, many will choose to do the same as I did and seek out their favourite writers. This is how I came to read Jan Carson’s Pillars first. Carson, a writer from Northern Ireland, has been fusing magical realism with day to day life to great success in her early works and is well known for her short stories. So, it was with anticipation that I started to read. Pillars focuses on 47 year old Louise. “On Monday she simply wakes to find the pillar floating at the end of her bed.” This is most unusual because she hasn’t ordered one. It will go on to stay with her day and night, changing colour and size as the situation demands. Carson uses this to take a piercing look a mental health, or more specifically the way in which we often try to ignore difficulties and do not know how to acknowledge them in others. It is a gentle and ultimately uplifting story that makes one question why we so often refuse to accept the obvious.

Being Various is the sixth volume in Faber’s long running series of new Irish short stories. It has been brought together under the editorship of accomplished short story writer Lucy Caldwell (although she does not offer up a story which is perhaps a shame). She commissioned new works from a variety of writers, ranging from the well-established to relative newcomers. The nature of what it means to be an Irish writer is tackled head on with the introduction stating that each writer is “Irish by birth, by parentage, or residence”. “Irish” referring to the island of Ireland. Further, each writer had their first work published after the Good Friday Agreement. This makes Being Various a particularly diverse and interesting volume but also helps to highlight some of the great talent that has been emerging from Northern Ireland in the past two decades.

Wings, by David Hayden, a story of a family ruled by the unpredictable violence of the father, is spare, darkly beautiful and devastating. It’s told from the perspective of a young boy, Martin, whose every footstep is tightly controlled and monitored. Every moment is full of fear; “there was no knowing. Everything was quiet” until the “thumping on the stairs”. Hayden avoids falling into the trap of making Wings sound too much like a misery memoir or list of abuses, with his delicate prose and way of zooming out at times of horror – as our protagonist does also – making the wrongness of the situation all the more apparent. As the story comes to a close Hayden subverts expectations with the last few paragraphs which are a strange mix of terrifying and beautiful. Wings echoes in the reader’s mind long after turning the page.

“I saw you. I saw you. I got you by the shirt. I stopped you walking into the road.” Eimear McBride best known for her award winning A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing, offers up The Adminicle Exists. This is a particularly interesting piece as it chronicles the journey of a woman taking her partner to hospital as he experiences a mental health crisis. Her role is fixed as his partner and protector, so much so that her real thoughts are trapped inside and no one notices her pain. The writing is broken across the page, in short sharp sentences and split in two halves, reflecting the way in which the protagonist’s life, and mind, has splintered. This somehow strengthens its impact and one finds oneself turning back to the start to begin again (as indeed does our protagonist as she knows this event will be repeated). An ‘adminicle’ is defined as ‘corroborative or explanatory proof’, and as the title tells us this proof exists. But the question becomes can others see it as she sometimes screams, sometimes whispers inside, “I wonder if you’ll kill me tonight?”.

Sally Rooney has shot to international acclaim with her first two novels, but before this she was making a name for herself as a short story writer, with Mr Salary (2016) being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award. Her offering here is called Colour and Light. Aidan is being picked up by his brother when he first meets Pauline. She is enigmatic, worldly and always slightly out of reach. In town for an arts festival she keeps running into Aidan and her brother; each time making him wonder more about who she is. Although little in the way of action happens as these two cross paths, Colour and Light shows how close we can be to someone – a brother or partner – and yet also not really know them at all. One also gets the impression of emotional sadness running through Pauline which is highlighted by Rooney’s pared back and emotionally acute writing style. Unsurprisingly as the story ended, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and inventing further backstory for them in my head.

So how does Being Various fit together as a collection? Although impossible to sum up and evaluate each of the twenty four stories in a short review, it is pleasant to be able to dip in and out of a collection and find oneself confronted with skill and intrigue on each page. Although identity is a political hot topic, as touched upon in the introduction, remarkably few writers choose to directly investigate national identity here. Instead this is more done by the very inclusion of such a diverse group of writers. I hope the selection of stories mentioned above give a good idea of the power of each story and how enjoyable this collection is to read. If one wants to start at page one and read each story in order, the collection flows well and has been edited to fit together well. There is a good mix of light and darkness (thankfully, as Irish art has a well-deserved reputation for darkness, there are rays of light radiating through) and each story offers something new and exciting.

Lucy Caldwell (ed.), Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber, 2019). 978-0571342501, 354pp., paperback.

The Brazilian by Rosie Millard

First Written for Shiny New Books

The Brazilian by Rosie Millard Review

The Brazilian opens in a London beauty salon where the middle class and nearly middle aged (although she would be furious if you suggested so!) Jane is getting a Brazilian and discussing her upcoming holiday to Ibiza with the beauty technician. Jane is annoyed and perhaps slightly scandalised when she hears that the technician’s son is also going to Ibiza. Surely it was too exclusive and expensive for someone like him? This is an excellent introduction to inimitable Jane. In just a few lines one finds out what is important to her and how she likes to consider herself above others. Shortly after she has this thought: “fame and sex, thinks Jane. These things are important to her. She wants to have both of them. She has neither of them. And she’s in her forties. In a few years, she won’t be able to have either of them”. She is funny for the reader to be around, perhaps inadvertently so, but the humour that makes this novel skip along is demonstrated in the first few paragraphs.

Jane and her longsuffering – although not exactly innocent – husband Patrick, eight year old George and babysitter Belle are going on an ‘high class’ summer holiday full of family time and yoga to Ibiza. Although it becomes clear that no one really has any intention of ‘family time’. Belle for a start is planning on taking full advantage of the paid for holiday in the clubbing heartland. In order to be with her, boyfriend Jas is also on the island. He has tagged along with a cheap walking holiday so that he and Gemma can meet up when the sun goes down. This is unfortunate because Jane wants her to take charge of George while she sets out to get herself on a cheap daytime reality TV show called Ibiza (or Bust).

Ibiza (or Bust) features a group of not very famous ‘celebrities’ prepared to be followed by cameras for two weeks while taking part in a series of challenges for a few thousand pounds and exposure. Included in the group are two of Jane’s neighbours; Alan Mackin (a financial advisor of minor fame) and contemporary artist Philip. Philip’s unusual and flamboyant wife Gilda also makes a brief but valuable appearance. Will they be Jane’s way in to her reality show dreams? “It was just so unfair. Act like an arse and a show-off, like Philip Burrell does and that silly Alan Makin, who bought his way into the Square without so much as an invitation, just slapped his money down, and what happens? You get on television. Quietly get on with being sophisticated and stylish, like her, and what happens? You get ignored.”

Fellow contestant Gemma, a TV estate agent, is somewhat out of her depth on the show. Taking part in task one, a water challenge, she is scared and unsure, with the thought of the cameras always on her mind. “She walks to the edge of the pontoon. From this position, there is quite a drop to reach the water. Say, about three feet. Oh, just do it. You’ll be on telly, she thinks. Imagine her friends, her parents, her boss, seeing her unable to jump off a silly pontoon onto a silly lilo. It will be on YouTube forever. She’ll be a laughing stock if she doesn’t do it.” The behind the scenes of cheap reality TV is excellently done. It is funny from start to finish with show producer Simon providing a welcome injection of cynicism; his feet are firmly on the ground.

Each chapter is told from a different perspective which keeps the story fresh and helps to round out the narrative. The Brazilian is a fun filled satire that takes on fame, celebrity, middle class families and modern sensibilities. Anyone who likes reality TV and for those who like to complain about them or ridicule them will enjoy this aspect of the novel. Full of action and drama from the start it is difficult not to be caught up by the entertainment. Millard’s past as a journalist is reflected in her fiction writing. She picks up on the small things that tell us so much about a person and their interpersonal relationships. Jane and the Ibiza (or Bust) contestants are ripe for comedy. Characters such as George, Belle and Gemma help to soften things with their sweet hopes and kind personalities which also makes them easy to root for. Importantly each character is recognisable and although comic, not cliched.

On a small point, there were several spelling mistakes which should have been picked up before publication. The novel was otherwise very well written and paced. It got me through several days of poor health, making me laugh throughout with its clever cultural commentary. Having enjoyed The Brazilian I have since ordered Millard’s earlier work The Square which involves many of the same characters, and I look forward to her next work.


Rosie Millard, The Brazilian, (Legend Press Ltd, London, 2017) ISBN 9781787199873. Paperback pp251

Holding by Graham Norton

First Written for Shiny New Books

The first thing one does after finishing Holding is breathe a sigh of relief. When a well-known personality branches into fiction there is always the fear that they will not be very good; that maybe they have been given a book deal because of their celebrity and social media following. This is most definitely not the case with Graham Norton’s debut novel Holding; a well written enjoyable novel that deserves to take pride of place on any bookshelf.

Holding is set in the small Irish village of Duneen, County Cork. The village’s only Garda (police) presence is that of Sergeant PJ Collins. Overweight and underemployed nothing interesting ever seems to happen in Duneen. That is until human remains are found on and old farm. As the investigation gets going, secrets that have long laid buried come to the surface. All is not as it seems. Resentment, anger and frustration have been bubbling beneath the surface and as each revelation comes to light the image of a picture-perfect community is punctured a little more. Collins is more used to dealing with paperwork and acting as a traffic controller at local fetes. When he is called into action can he step up to the plate and be the Gardai he always hoped he would be?

Alongside Collins is equally frustrated Brid Riordan. Drowning her disappointment in wine she is far from the naïve in love young woman of twenty-five years ago. The still beautiful and fragile Evelyn Ross is equally as trapped, keeping house for her two older sisters who have been growing old together. Brid and Evelyn had once been love rivals but now they couldn’t be more different. The focus of their affection was a young Tommy Burke. The tall silent type he courted Brid, hoping to take procession of her farm when they married. At the same time, he also allowed Brid to develop feelings for him. She was inexperienced in love and has lived a largely unfulfilled life. When Tommy mysteriously disappeared both women’s lives were changed irrevocably. Holding takes us to the centre of the love triangle that had such a profound impact on their lives.

The highlight of the novel is the way in which Norton has drawn his three main characters. There is a kindness is their depiction and it is easy to find oneself rooting for them; hoping that they will break out of their bonds and fully realise their hopes and potential. Collins is not the most obvious character to choose to lead a novel but Holding is the richer for him. He is a man who has settled into an easy life, avoiding all risk of romantic failure and hurt. Similarly, Brid is a fully rounded and not always likeable character who is far more than her drinking habit. In contrast Evelyn is someone who has lived almost in stasis. What for most people would have been an unsuccessful childish romance was compounded by the deaths of her parents. She has lived in a state of almost paralysis for the past twenty-five years. Her character arc was particularly well done and enjoyable to follow. There is a tinge of sadness to her life. Will this be lifted by the end of Holding?

The action is largely enclosed within Duneen, a place that rarely has internet access let alone dramatic and surprising murder mysteries. There are a few moments where the characters motivations and emotional turns seem a little unconvincing and Holding is not what one would expect from a traditional crime thriller. However, the character development is the backbone of the novel. Norton has a knack for drawing sympathetic characters. In this well paced novel each character finds themselves nearing middle age wondering what they have achieved so far and whether they are holding onto to the past rather than stepping into the unknown. Loneliness and uncertainty are always hovering at the edges. The novel is sweet and understated.

An otherwise positive Guardian review argues that “surprisingly … he steers clear of rendering Irish speech beyond a few “sures” and “lads””. This is something I was very grateful for. From living in Ireland, I have found that many writers tend to over exaggerate Irish vernacular and slang, giving the impression that they have never set foot into rural Ireland. Fortunately, Norton largely avoids stereotyping village life.

As the novel came to its close I thought I knew what would happen. Soon though I found myself sat bolt upright surprised at the turn of events. It would have been so easy to create a simple, twee happy ever after with little truth or life in it. However here we have something much more interesting. Holding is a charming debut from beginning to end.

Graham Norton. Holding. Hodder & Stoughton. London. 2017. 9781444792034.  Paperback. Pp312.

According to Yes by Dawn French Review


We meet Rosie Kitto, our Cornish heroine, on her arrival in New York. She turns up to a job interview in a fancy Manhattan apartment soaked from the rain, wearing a blue suit, hat askew and red brogues. From the off she is clearly full to bursting with life and optimism and she has set out to say yes to the world. Rosie is a bit like a ray of sunshine breaking into the household and throwing light on the cold corridors and wall of staged photographs.

Rosie has travelled to New York with the intention of saying yes. She is running away. The opening pages give a brief glimpse into her previous life. A relationship loved and perhaps lost, and a child never conceived despite being wanted so badly. Having endured the pain of trying and failing to get pregnant Rosie is breaking away. A primary school teacher in her thirties she soon finds herself being interviewed by the imperious and intimidating Glen Wilder – Bingham for a nanny position.

The setup is clear from the beginning. Rosie is all bright colours, vibrancy and life emanating from her. In clear contrast is Glen Wilder – Bingham. The family matriarch she is stiff and perfectly presented in everything she does. However the family are not as impressive as the name would suggest. Glen rules the roost. Then there is her husband Thomas, who refuses to fully retire in his 80s, terrified by the knowledge that death is coming and he seems unlikely to have sex again. Next is their alcoholic, spineless son Kemble who has been broken by his divorce and the relentlessness of his mother’s expectations; an older grandson Teddy who has largely managed to escape it all and the two sparky young twins Red and Three.

Rosie quickly becomes a vital part of the young boy’s lives and bit by bit becomes immersed into the comings and goings of the whole family. Presented with the convoluted lives of the wealthy, of those who have never had to think much further than their own needs, Rosie brings a much needed openness and curiosity to the household. As her relations develop with the male members of the Wilder – Bingham family it starts to seem as though Rosie is a time bomb with one more ‘yes’ setting off an explosion that will echo through this Manhattan Upper East Side family. A life of embracing ‘yes’ can have unexpected consequences. Rosie finds her life altered dramatically in her short American adventure.

The characters verge on the exaggerated and there are a few scenes that seem a little staged. Although Rosie is there to say yes to life some of the situations that she enters into seem unlikely and out of character. The first two thirds in particular were funny and kept the reader amused. There is a change of pace in the final third as the results of her saying yes come to term. Things become a little more serious although the absurd fringe remains. This is something that some reviewers have had a problem with it however when opening the novel for the first time if one sets aside your sense of disbelief it is easy to be carried away and find the hours fly by. French has a flare for writing and will hopefully continue. This is her third novel, and each of them offer something completely different. It would have been easy for her to take the simple route and offer up cheap recycled laughs however each novel shows research and a keen eye for capturing people. It is just a minor point but that a novel that has been through the editing process should not really have any spelling mistakes and grammatical inaccuracies. Hopefully this will be improved upon for French’s next effort. The Amazon and Good Reads reviews are a mixed bag and it probably falls somewhere in between.

According To Yes book came into my life when I needed something entertaining and humorous with heart and did the job excellently.


Dawn French, According to Yes (Michael Joseph, UK, 2015). ISBN 9780718159177. 365pp., Hardback.

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis Review



“Millie’s dog, Rambo, was her Very First Dead Thing”.


When Millie Bird turns seven she finds things start to die. Struggling to make sense of this she records each dead thing in her notebook. “Soon she noticed everything was dying around her. Bugs and oranges and Christmas trees and houses and mail-boxes and train rides and markers and candles and old people and young people and people in between”. Her next new dead thing takes up multiple pages; it is her dad. This moment changes her life and that of her mother who struggling with her grief takes Millie to a department store one morning. Telling her to wait in the women’s underwear section Millie makes camp and waits for her Mum to return. Eventually it becomes apparent that she has been abandoned. Millie, with her bright curly hair and matching red gumboots, is not one to sit back quietly and she draws up a plan to find her mum for herself. In doing she runs into a world full of strange people and even stranger rules but she is not alone. For her great adventure she is accompanied by a couple of surprising companions.


Octogenarian Karl has lived a long and relatively calm, content life with his great love Evie. They lived quietly, dreaming up adventures. “But they never did any of those things, because they said a lot but didn’t do a lot, and they were both okay with that”. After her death he is alone and feels similarly abandoned and frustrated. When he finds himself displaced and in a home he decides to change this. Now is the time to be brave and to undertake all of the challenges that he and Evie thought of but did not see into action. This is how he also ends up camping out in the department store, where each day he sits in the same seat with his coffee, and at night tucks himself away in the changing room. A chance encounter with Millie sets him on a new path in which he starts doing rather than just remembering.


Rounding off the trio is the unusual and stubborn Agatha Pantha. When her husband dies she finds her home invaded by well-meaning neighbours who have taken over and are imposing their own process of mourning on her. One day, when looking at her husband’s slippers, which sit where he left them under the bed she cracks. Forcing everyone out of her home she throws their food into the driveway and shuts herself away. She does not leave the house for the next seven years. When Karl first saw Agatha’s house and heard her story he said “it was like looking at the inside of his guts in the form of a house. Dark and dying, it had waved its white flag long ago”. Her only social interaction is shouting at people as they pass by her window and writing complaint letters, until one day Millie Bird turns up on her doorstep with nowhere to go and no one to look after her. Will Agatha walk out of her front door and into a new life?


Although Millie is the novel’s star each chapter is headed by one of three characters: Millie Bird, Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha. They novel is broken into short chunks that are easily devoured and keeps up the pace. If anything Lost and Found grows in speed and immediacy throughout and the use of the third person keeps things fresh and interesting.


Lost and Found taps into that wonderful staple of children’s literature of turning an abandonment into an adventure. One of the benefits of a child protagonist is that they approach the world differently. Millie thinks nothing of going up to a stranger to share his food and talk about death. When Karl picks up a companion, a plastic shop mannequin called Manny, it becomes a natural part of the group. However those looking in from the outside see it differently. Adults seem to instantly assume he must be a sex doll. It is as if all innocence has been lost and only through Millie, and their shared grief, can Karl and Agatha recapture some of the honesty that has been missing from their lives.


The unlikely trio undertake a western Australian road trip with the implausible aim of finding Millie’s mum before she leaves Australia. At every stop Millie leaves the message: “I’m here Mum”. This quirky, unusual read sees our heroes come face to face with authority, with adults always trying to limit and control them as they battle against the tide to start living the things they now only remember or dream about. Grief is also made up of regret. As your internal landscape changes it becomes clear that the things that you did and had together are now relegated to your memory and the pain of all of the things that could have been are unlived regrets. The adults they encounter on their adventure all seem to share the same trait: a refusal to face up to death. This trap is something that both Karl and Agatha have fallen into, until faced with their own grief they rebel against all that society expects of them.


When I tried to tell someone what this book was about they said it sounded sad but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Davis writing ability and the one of a kind characters she has conjured make this an uplifting and beautiful novel. The way in which Millie faces the absurd is funny and touching in equal measure.


Lost and Found is a marvellous, idiosyncratic novel that addresses how we learn to our lives fully when you cannot get away from the ever present reality of death. As Agatha cries “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?”. This exceptional novel is Davis’ first feature length piece of fiction and leaves one waiting with anticipation for her next. It is a story of grief that brings together three extraordinary characters in the journey of a lifetime.


Brooke Davis, Lost and Found, (Hutchinson, London, 2015). ISBN 9780091959128. 289pp., Paperback