No Cunning Plan: My Story by Tony Robinson

First Written for Shiny New Books

Tony Robinson autobiography No Cunning Plan: My Story

 

Like many people I first came to know Tony Robinson through his role as Baldrick on Blackadder, before following him as he helmed Time Team. This autobiography though shows that there is so much more to Robinson than that. Starting out as a child actor he has led an exceptional life, which he tells in an easy going, funny and fluid way in his long awaited autobiography No Cunning Plan.

The cover note gives this humorous insight into what is to come:

“… Along the way he was bullied by Steve Marriott, failed to impress Liza Minnelli and was pushed into a stinking London dock by John Wayne. He also entertained us with Maid Marion and Her Merry Men (which he wrote and starred in) and coped manfully when locked naked outside a theatre in Lincoln during the live tour of comedy series Who Dares Wins. He presented Time Team for twenty years, watching countless gardens ruthlessly dug up in the name of archaeology, and risked life and limb filming The Worst Jobs in History. Packed full of incident and insight, No Cunning Plan is a funny, self-      deprecating and always entertaining read.”

Having made his stage debut when still at school Robinson later adventured to drama school where he thought he would be one ahead of the rest of his classmates. However he soon found himself challenged, engaged and eventually married. His life as a bohemian in Bristol, living in an improvised commune, or collective, called Fred’s Place, makes one yearn for the vibrancy and sense of friendship and adventure that spawned such an idea. Living in Bristol and staying in London regularly is an antidote to the idea that to have a creative career one must live in the capital. He touches on the upsides and downsides of this arrangement but one thing that shines through is that where ever he goes he seems to develop close relationships that last through the decades. He deals touchingly and honestly with the loss of both his parents to dementia. The death of his father also coinciding with the collapse of his long term relationship with Mary, the mother of his two children Luke and Laura, in what proves to be a deeply sad episode in his life.

I have followed his TV career for many years but was still surprised at Robinson’s sheer volume of output, ranging from theatre, to books to TV. As a long term Labour supporter and unionist he has led an active political life that is touched upon throughout No Cunning Plan. There are several brilliant anecdotes. From irritating a young Liza Minnelli, to becoming enchanted with Helen Mirren when finding out she picked up a tattoo in a Marseille brothel, to being thrown in the Thames by John Wayne, sharing a trailer with Richard Attenborough and of course staring alongside Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder.

It is from the now infamous 80s comedy that the title comes from. During the filming for series three the actors would work on the scripts after they had been created. The punchline that Robinson has become known for originally wasn’t his

“At least four characters, including Percy and Blackadder, had mentioned their ‘cunning plans’ in the first two series. But in the second episode of series three Baldrick accidentally destroyed Dr Johnson’s newly written dictionary and wanted to replace it. ‘I have a plan,’ he said according to the script. I suggested I add the word ‘cunning’ to my line, to make it seem a more considered plan, one that was devious and unique, something I was deeply proud of no matter how ridiculous it might turn out to be. And when the others agrees this was a good idea, I remember thinking that it might be useful if I used the phrase in future episodes, because it could be deployed to put nonsensical strategies in Blackadder’s mind which he wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Thirty years later at least one person a day still comes up to me and says, ‘Ere, Tone, you got a cunning plan?’, and I smile and nod with amusement as I’m bound to do”

I devoured this read in just a few days and have gone on to recommend it to others. Reading this is likely to leave the reader feeling warm and comforted, but also keen to live a life as full an interesting as Robinson’s seems to have been. The text skips along and strikes a good balance between detail and narrative propulsion, avoiding the trap that so many fall into of focusing intently on one’s youth and bypassing the gossip that many readers are hoping for. Blackadder is not given as much focus as some may hope: his entry into the comedy and his feelings around his co – stars are expressed in just a few pages.

No Cunning Plan also illuminates his writing career; from staging, writing and directing plays as a teen ager, to leading various theatre groups to his successful writing career, most notably in his books for children and TV series (including the nostalgia trip Maid Marion and Her Merry Men). Robinson is easy to like and spend some time with this is easy to devour autobiography.

 

Tony Robinson No Cunning Plan: My Story. Sidgwick & Jackson London. June 2017. Paperback pp. 432. ISBN 978-1509815494.

 

 

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries

First Written for Shiny New Books

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries. Romance, Rolling the Dice, and the Road to Reinvention

 

Holly Madison is best known for her seven years at the Playboy Mansion and for her position as Hugh Hefner’s ‘Number One’ girlfriend. With The Vegas Diaries, the second instalment of her autobiography, she sets out to change perceptions of herself and her work to become the person she always wanted to be.

The Vegas Diaries is the follow up to the surprise number one bestseller Down the Rabbit Hole (reviewed here) from the former playboy model and girlfriend, in which she made it clear that she did not want to do a kiss and tell and had only entered this process in order to set the record straight. She kicked off her new life with a stint on Dancing with the Stars before going on to the lead role in burlesque show Peepshow. Here she took on the mantle of lead with aplomb, going on to revitalise the Bo Peep inspired show making it one of the most popular spots on the strip while starring as the lead for the longest ever time, truly making the show her own. Her own reality show soon followed. Madison candidly navigates Las Vegas’s social and dating scene. Her last memoir followed an Alice in Wonderland theme, and  for this one it is the Wizard of Oz; each chapter beginning with a quote and the roughly central theme of finding oneself in Oz before finding home.

The first way in which she sets out to do this is through burlesque. Having had a love affair with the art form for many years she finally has the chance to dive head first into the genre. Taking on the headline role at burlesque show Peepshow Madison was responsible for reinvigorating the brand and turning it into Vegas’s number one hot spot. Her interest in burlesque first began in her twenties when she went to a show with Hefner and the other Playboy girls. It offered a refreshingly individual and vital alternative to the blonde, pink lipped beauty expected of her at the time. ‘Sitting around our VIP table was one bottle-blond fembot after the next, clad in some version of the same outlandish bustier, and all slightly dead behind the eyes. In burlesque, a woman could be both sexy and unique’. Alongside this Madison tries to position herself as an empowered independent woman on a journey of self-discovery. Burlesque fits into this perfectly. ‘The independent women who used burlesque as an artistic outlet to celebrate their creativity and their femininity on their terms and in their own unique way. Deep down, that was who I wanted to be’.

The Vegas Diaries begin after she left the Playboy Mansion. When discussing her former life with her friends the germ of an idea to write her story started to grow. She had this to say on why she hadn’t talked before that: ‘I had to accept that I kept quiet about my life at the mansion because I was ashamed. I kept quiet because I wanted people to believe the fantasy version because for so long I wanted to believe the fantasy’.

Vegas may seem like an unusual place to begin a new life but after having survived seven years at the Playboy Mansion the glitz, glamour of Sin City must have been appealing. For some people a Playboy history is something to be proud of and exploit, for others it is something to overcome. Madison uses The Vegas Diaries to try and plant herself firmly in the latter category: ‘attempting to shed the Playboy stigma and asking people to reconsider how they viewed me was an uphill battle’. It is up to the reader how much they buy into this. As a part of her reinvention she has latched onto the idea of female self-empowerment. Whether this provides a feminist story of self saviour will be left for each individual reader to decide. However, the stark difference between her Vegas life, in which she lives and dies on her own abilities, compared to the Mansion, is interesting.

Although she makes it clear from the start that she does not wish to embarrass or publicise others Madison does detail her love affairs with the same humour and honesty that marked Down the Rabbit Hole. This does however limit the interest for those searching for scandalous Vegas gossip as she gives pseudonyms to her partners. She is insightful and does not let herself off, particularly in her retelling of her relationship with Mark. There is some slight overlap with Down the Rabbit Hole, but The Vegas Diaries are angled to show how she worked her way to independence and self-esteem. This does not have the same weight and interest as her previous volume but is an entertaining read nonetheless. The book closes just before she met her husband and gave birth to her daughter. This was either done to mark the point that she had achieved her aim, or the cynic could suggest that it is to leave the door open for a further volume.

The Vegas Diaries is lighter on gossip but provides more insight into her life, circle of friends and love life. A fair amount of this has been covered in her previous book and reality series, as well as in the tabloids, and there is some overlap with the last quarter of Down the Rabbit Hole. As a result of this, this one may be more for fans than the casual reader. It is definitely more for fans of Holly than Playboy.

 

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries. Romance, Rolling the Dice, and the Road to Reinvention (Dey Street Books,  2017). 978-006245714, 288 pp., paperback.

THE TEMPTATION OF ELIZABETH TUDOR BY ELIZABETH NORTON

First Written for Shiny New Books October 2016

9781784081737

The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor concerns itself with the potential marriage between the teenage Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour. The book focuses primarily on Seymour, his story being less well documented. This is the story of his rise and fall and of the risks that the young Elizabeth faced as a princess without the protection of her parents. The stage is set with the death of the much loved and feared Henry VIII in 1547.

Thomas Seymour was brother to Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife and the one that finally bore him a son. As Jane became Queen and royal mother her family’s status significantly improved. In time his older brother Edward went on to become Lord Protector of England during Edward VI’s minority. As uncle to the King Thomas, envious of his brother’s success, allowed his vanity and entitlement to guide him he set out to raise his own status. His schemes, political plots and spying make for the most fascinating of political intrigues.

Seymour married Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr. Already widowed three times by her early thirties she was finally in a position to marry for love and it seems Seymour returned her feelings. Shortly after Henry’s death they, rather scandalously, married. However, before this Seymour had already courted the attentions of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and also possible the child Jane Grey, making his hope to marry into royalty and power clear from the start. He was a power hungry and charming courtier who saw his opportunity to climb to power in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s death. In late 1547 Elizabeth was only fourteen years old and living with her step mother the Dowager Queen, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour.

One particular story is often touched upon in documentaries; the famous scene of Seymour tearing up the young princesses dress with his sword as she is held by her stepmother Catherine. There was more to it than this one scene though. The domineering Seymour would enter Elizabeth’s chamber early in the morning, trying to catch her still in bed dressed only in her nightdress, where he would proceed to ‘tickle’ her, sometimes even with the assistance of Catherine. This flirtation seems to become increasingly overt and threatening, with the result that Elizabeth, at the risk of scandal, is sent away out of Seymour’s reach. Her line in the succession makes her both powerful and vulnerable to attack. As the daughter of convicted adulteress Anne Boleyn many expected Elizabeth to behave in the same way so she was particularly vulnerable to rumour and gossip.

After Catherine’s death Seymour acts in an increasingly reckless manner until he is arrested for treason, thus endangering the very existence of the princess. Norton delves into this chapter of her life in detail and picks out the happenings and feelings that go on to form Elizabeth’s character. Without the threats she faced as a result of Seymour’s interest in her Elizabeth’s path in life might have been very different. Norton argues that is from this episode that she learned that relationships could be dangerous and scandalous. Although Elizabeth is not known to have expressed a clear desire for or interest in Seymour, in the sixteenth century a princess’s virtue and reputation could be threatened by rumour alone.

One of the main arguments of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is that her early bruising experiences of her flirtation and thoughts of marriage with Seymour resulted in Elizabeth’s decision to remain unmarried; becoming the ‘Virgin Queen’. Although this is likely a contributing factor it seems unlikely to be the only cause. This is a rare portrait of the early romantic life of the princess, instead of the frequent focus on Robert Dudley and her international suitors when Queen. As this is more a biography of Thomas Seymour’s political life and death rather than of Elizabeth’s youth or early romantic relationships the title is perhaps a misnomer; catchy and intriguing but slightly misleading. The lines Norton chooses to end on do not fully fit with the narrative thrust of the rest of the book when she suggests that ‘he was her temptation’.

The sibling rivalry and consternation between the Seymour brothers is a particularly interesting counterpoint to the royal siblings who appear to have shown remarkably little jealousy or rivalry despite their much closer proximity to power. Some elements of the scandal seem remarkably relevant to today’s tabloid magazine articles; the question over virginity, pregnancy, secret pregnancies, interfamily love triangles and affairs.

Norton is an accomplished and prolific writer, having written multiple biographies of royal women. It is rare to find a history book that is so readable and enjoyable. Fortunately a family tree is included at the back, which is necessary for following the relationships between the two closely connected families. This is a well-studied period of history, but Norton has found a section that can go towards feeding the ever present Tudor mania. Her sources show a wide and thorough reading and research that went into forming this intellectual yet lively investigation.

The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is a vivid and entertaining read, on occasions full of suspense and intrigue. It shows how a young royal could become trapped, used as a pawn, between the competing factions looking for political dominance in the court. The extent to which Elizabeth, and her younger sibling Edward, had control of their own lives is debateable. This is certainly one of the most comprehensive and interesting accounts of Thomas Seymour. The backstabbing and political machinations make for a deeply involving account; one can easily see why this period of history still has the power to fascinate.

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Elizabeth Norton, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor (Head of Zeus, 2016). 9781784081737. 368pp., paperback.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: CURIOUS ADVENTURES AND CAUTIONARY TALES OF A FORMER PLAYBOY BUNNY BY HOLLY MADISON

First Written for Shiny New Books 2016

I always thought it would be classy to not kiss and tell … but after a while you just get sick of having other people trying to tell your story for you.”

rabbit hole

This is how Madison addresses at the beginning of her autobiography what is probably the first thought everyone has when a celebrity announces they are going to sell their story. Why and why now? The memoir caused a sensation when first released in America and the discussion around it doesn’t seem likely to dim as she takes the reader behind the scenes of the once mysterious Playboy Mansion and the man who reigns over it: her former boyfriend, octogenarian pornographer Hugh Hefner.

Madison grew up in small town Oregon before trying her luck in LA. Waitressing and studying at college she found herself in difficult financial circumstances when an opportunity presented itself to live at the Playboy Mansion. This would involve becoming one of Hefner’s girlfriends. At first she was one of seven. By the time the top rated behind the scenes reality TV show Girls of the Playboy mansion went to air she was now the number one of three girlfriends, alongside Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson. The show was a hit, introducing Madison to a wide audience. When she finally left the mansion after seven years she found she was still only known for her association to Playboy, almost tainted by it. She went on to star in her own E! reality show Holly’s World which followed Madison as she began her new life. After leaving the Mansion she embarked on an ill-fated love affair with illusionist Criss Angel, before becoming a hit on Dancing With the Stars. Then her chance to find success independently came along as she headlined the popular Las Vegas burlesque show Peepshow, at Planet Hollywood to great acclaim. All of this is covered in depth in the memoir.

In Girls of the Playboy Mansion Madison was widely perceived to be in love with Hefner, with hopes of marriage and children. In the end however they broke up. Madison discusses this in her book, answering the question of whether she was really in love and what it was like in practice to be one of several girlfriends to the ageing lothario. On this point her account differs somewhat to the programme. Whether this is down to clever video editing or Madison is trying to reclaim and retell her story one cannot be sure.

This candid and detailed memoir goes much further than Girls of the Playboy Mansion ever did. Through living at the Mansion Madison quickly lost her sense of identity, connections to the outside world, self-worth and hope for her future which resulted in some very dark lows. At her darkest she considered ending it all. “Maybe it was the pot and the alcohol, but drowning myself seemed like the logical way to escape the ridiculous life I was leading.” The double edged sword that is fame and the life she chose is explored with clarity. In the end she takes charge of her life and digs her own way out of the rabbit hole, creating her own happy ending.

Those looking for gossip and behind the scene anecdotes to life and the Playboy Mansion and her relationships with the other girls will find that aplenty. Depictions of the happenings in his bedroom are detailed and enlightening. Her portrayal of Hefner differs significantly from the image of himself that he presents to the media; coming across as old fashioned, manipulative and jealous. She also delves into her relationship with the other girls of the Mansion. First the many other girlfriends she was in competition with and finally the two who became with Madison Hefner’s main girlfriends: Marquardt and Wilkinson. Rumoured tension between Madison and Wilkinson is addressed in an impersonal, short and matter of fact manner near the end of the book.

If the Playboy Mansion seemed bizarre before Madison’s account is only going to enhance this idea. She discusses the dated décor, the hierarchy that existed between the different girlfriends, the 9pm curfew and the undignified lining up to be given their allowance and hear any complaints against them. Those living at the Mansion had to follow a strict code of conduct. The stories of sex, drugs, abuse and rivalry are both shocking and surprising.

Cleverly Madison avoids the pitfall that many autobiographies fall into and only gives a short amount of space to her early life, aware that what the reader is looking for comes later. Madison treads the fine line between telling her story and descending into scandalous point scoring largely successfully. She is a capable writer (no ghost writer is credited) and the chapters skip along. It is very easy to find you have started the book and next thing you know you are a hundred pages in. Madison comes across very well, as an intelligent, hardworking and friendly individual. Although many will have difficulty with the life path she chose for herself Down the Rabbit Hole sounds more like a cautionary tale than a how to guide. She does not encourage others to follow in her footsteps but instead re-examines her life as she takes charge and rediscovers herself. Down the Rabbit Hole is a juicy and unpredictable memoir that has much to offer fans and the curious alike.

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Holly Madison, Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny (Harper Collins, 2016). 978-0062372116. 334pp., paperback.

TREMARNOCK: THE LOVE, LIVES AND SECRETS OF A CORNISH VILLAGE BY EMMA BURSTALL

First written for Shiny New Books, June 2016

tremarnockTremarnock is a picture perfect Cornish fishing village, largely untouched by gentrification, poverty or seasonal tourism. It is here that we find our protagonists, for whom the beautiful, peaceful Tremarnock is a sanctuary. Its mutli – coloured houses cluster around the harbour where fishermen still make their living catching fresh fish each day. The village has a local pub and award winning restaurant that the villagers gather around for all social occasions. It is presented as the perfect idyll.

Our protagonist and guide to Tremarnock is Liz. Still only in her thirties, she has taken her daughter Rosie to live by the sea; far away from her useless cheating father. Here she does little except work and care for her only child. She has successfully built up a good network of friends and helpers although she is always keen to shoulder the burden of motherhood alone. Their involved, realistic mother – daughter relationship is the highlight of the novel and should be instantly recognisable to the reader. Often this relationship will make you want to go and hold your relatives, your mother, close.

At the heart of all families and villages there are secrets. These create plot twists and show certain characters in a new light. Sometimes people are not as clear as we think they are and the reader follows Liz as she navigates her way through the mysteries of this close knit community. The novel does not always remain completely light hearted and often surprises the reader with its depth and direction. One of the ways in which Liz seems to stand out is the way in which she is an open book for all to read.

This bucolic village depiction is somewhat idealised and certainly different from the experiences of myself and my contemporaries of living in a small Cornish community. It appears to have been written from the point of view of a visitor cherry picking the image and not the reality of rural living. This is perhaps best shown in the way Liz is strangely instantly accepted and absorbed into the local community. Her new friends and neighbours quickly become her family.

This sense of instant inclusion is however capitalised upon when Liz becomes friends with a Plymouth-based family who run a small, failing newsagents where she buys her cigarettes and lottery ticket each week. The lottery ticket, and all it symbolises of hope and potential opportunity and security acts as a recurrent symbol throughout the novel. Once again Liz and Rosie quickly become part of the family, but this soon leads into a web of intrigue that is not fully resolved until the novel’s closing pages. One thing about Tremarnock is that it has surprises scattered throughout. This begins with the intriguing prologue that hooks in the reader immediately; drawing them in as they wait to find out how the story will unravel.

Despite everything both Liz and Rosie have been through in their lives they always remain positive and never back down from the challenges facing them. In this way they are courageous, and the simple, pure, complete love Liz feels for Rosie echoes in every of her actions; from holding down multiple jobs to caring for her when sick to fundraising for a potential life-improving medical procedure. The challenges and joys of raising a child with cerebral palsy are excellently portrayed through the relationship between the pair and the challenges they face are explored in depth. It is important to note though that the ups and downs of their lives are expertly told through character and plot details, and at no point in time does the reader feel lectured to.

The main flaw in the novel is in the portrayal of Liz as being near perfect. The innocence and naiveté can be a little difficult, particularly when it comes to the way in which she refuses to stand up for herself or see the reality of her relationships with certain family members and friends. One element of the ending, although comforting, verges on the edge of being sickly sweet, as Liz forgives those who have wronged her but without any real assessment of the impact their actions have had on her and Rosie’s lives. At times it would be nice if Liz stood up for herself in the way she stands up for Rosie a little more. However this mild frustration one feels arguably adds to the realism of being presented with a fully fleshed out character.

Interestingly the press release states that Tremarnock is the first in the series. This is intriguing and the reader will be keen to find out whether the rest of the series continues to focus on Liz, Rosie and their new life or whether it will delve into the intrigues offered by other village members. A colourful cast of supporting characters feature throughout and their own narratives and characteristics are touched upon; leaving the potential for many different routes to be taken with the rest of the series.

Burstall is a freelance journalist, which shows in the wealth of detail and local flavour that peppers the novel. Her love for the county pulses through the pages almost as another beloved character. This relaxing summer read is like being wrapped in a warm blanket as you allow yourself to be transported through the lives, loves and secrets of this ideal Cornish fishing village.

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Emma Burstall, Tremarnock (Head of Zeus, 2016). 978-1781857892. 407pp., paperback.

With thanks to Head of Zeus publishing for a copy of this novel.

CITIZENS BY KEVIN CURRAN

CitizensAs Ireland commemorates the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising this timely novel teases out what this event means to the youth of today.

Citizens is set in Dublin 2011. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland is held in the grip of recession and austerity, and for apathetic 26 year old Neil it often feels as though his country has failed and the time is coming to leave. On the cusp of emigrating to Canada with his ambitious girlfriend Kathy, Neil finds his plans are put on hold when his grandfather dies. Neil delays his flight to Canada in order to receive his grandfather’s legacy. He is now stuck behind in Dublin, aiding his grieving grandmother, in the dole queue, and spending most of his free time at the gym or partying.

The legacy is a surprise to Neil. His great grandfather left behind written memories of the Rising. During the Easter Rising of 1916 Irish volunteers took over government buildings in Dublin, in the hope that it would trigger a national uprising against the British colonialists. In this sense the rising was a military failure. However the strong reaction of the British administration – holding trials for the leaders in secret before executing them – led to mass outrage, setting the desire for and path to independence alight.

In the midst of this Neil’s great grandfather Harry is to be found. A Pathe newsreel cameraman armed with a cinemachine to capture the birth of the new republic for posterity. Harry fully understands the importance of recording the events, people, successes and disasters he often comes across. This is an inventive and brilliant way of drawing the reader into the events of 1916 and is particularly relatable due to the current obsession with photographing and recording everything around us. Neil’s story is intercut with sections of Harry’s memoirs, but will Neil realise the value of the legacy?

Neil and Kathy are not often the most likeable of characters; shallow and selfish, they care only about themselves. Kathy, who has gone ahead to Canada and is waiting for Neil to catch up, helps to propel the narrative forward, but she is often a greedy, manipulative character who is difficult to like. The main characters are all fully rounded and recognisable, but there has to be something else for the reader to hold on to, to care about. Curran provides this in Neil’s growing relationship with his great grandfather’s diaries. Partially based on real letters and diaries they feel authentic and Curran skilfully avoids the trap of idealising or mythologising the past.

Neil’s relationship with his grandmother is particularly well drawn and many a reader will be able to relate to the love and frustration that the two feel for each other. The two characters also represent the different value systems they were born into and the movement that has taken place over the decades from idealism and nationhood to monetary value. As Neil says to his Gran: ‘wealth is what defines you, not your passport of where you are from.’ However his Gran does not agree with this: ‘Not everything of value has monetary worth, dear.’

Neil embodies the disappointment and weariness that seems to typify Ireland’s youth. As Neil explains: ‘he doesn’t belong. There is an accent in Irish television he never hears: his. Or ones like it. There is a type of person he never sees on Irish television: him, or people like him. Desperate, disillusioned, angry, annoyed’. The cynicism and theme of emigration also touch a nerve in a country where thousands of young people are leaving every year.

The title Citizens chimes in with the general theme of the commemorations which have been emphasising that it was the individuals, ordinary people, who did extraordinary things. Further, Curran explores what it means to be a citizen, good or bad, in both 1916 and modern Ireland. He explores the frustration many millennials feel when the traditional routes of education and hard work ultimately lead nowhere, well, except back to the dole queue. Neil seems more able to deal with this shifting economic climate, whereas Kathy does not.

As Neil works his way through his great-grandfathers legacy he gains a deeper understanding of the rebellion and the ideals that led individuals to take the action that they did. This is a journey the reader goes on with Neil. Citizens brings to life this extraordinary time in history in a vivid and personal manner. Curran frames the Easter Rising in a modern narrative which is a fresh way of delving into the events that shaped modern Ireland. By using two relatable, ordinary characters Curran draws the reader in until they feel closer to the events as they were, and as they are remembered. The book’s cover reflects this. Its dark shades of black and blue, images of contemporary and twentieth century O’Connell Street at night with the GPO (General post Office) building standing tall. Still riddled with bullet holes from 1916 it is a symbol of Ireland that reaches through the decades.

This is the second novel from Curran and has been listed as one of theIndependent’s top 10 novels that reflect the spirit and legacy of the rebellion. Citizens has quickly become a top seller in Ireland and as the centenary progresses this success is likely to continue. Curran is a confidant writer, in tune with his city and the characters he has created. This is an enjoyable and important read.

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Kevin Curran, Citizens (Liberties Press, 2016).  978-1910742259. 314pp., paperback.

With thanks to Liberties Press for a copy of this novel.

DUBLIN SEVEN BY FRANKIE GAFFNEY

dublin 7On a small crossroads near the bottom of Manor Street, one of the main through ways in Dublin 7, there is a rundown, abandoned pub called The Belfry. It was once painted blue with red hoarding, black lettering. It is now peeling and faded. In the two years that I have lived near here not once has this scene changed. Until just before Christmas a mural appeared. An almost ghoulish figure, a white face shrouded in a black hoodie with the following inscription: ‘Dublin Seven in bookshops now. “… twenty six years old the newsreader said the fella was shot dead. Then that vile euphemism ‘known to Gardai’. Deserved it in other words”.’

This is Dublin’s first introduction to Frankie Gaffney’s debut novel, a coming of age tale that focuses on the life and exploits of inner city teenager Shane. Directionless, he spends the summer after sitting his Leaving Cert partying with friends, drinking and taking ecstasy. Soon he meets a local gangland figure who introduces him to the world of drug dealing. The movement from enjoying weekend drink and drug sessions to selling is surprisingly easy for Shane.

—C’mere. D’ye know where I’d get a bit of tha stuff? Shane asked Griffo. —It’s deadly so it is.
—Yeah no bother kid, it’s always there if ye want it, anytime.

It was that easy. It is the tail end of the Celtic Tiger boom years and Dublin is awash with cocaine and eager and ambitious individuals willing to capitalise on this. Armed with the money from his college grant Shane joins the ranks of Dublin’s underworld. From this point on his life becomes increasingly complicated. He leaves home when he starts to make enough money and sets up shop until he is making thousands each month. At the same time he enters into a relationship with the beautiful but mystifying Elizabeth and his family still continue to impose on his life.

At first Shane is youthful and still a little naïve, but it doesn’t take long before he succumbs to paranoia and suspicion. Danger is inherent in his line of business. From his clients, others in the drug trade who may not appreciate this new up and comer, to the Guards. They figure quite heavily on the periphery of the novel, always on the edges, always in the back of Shane’s mind. This brings us back to the phrase on the mural, ‘that vile euphemism, known to Gardai’. This simple phrase is loaded with negative connotations. When you hear it on news reports and in the papers it is a way of avoiding stating that the person in question was a criminal. If they were known to the Gardai does this make them less important?

With this novel Gaffney aims to present a fresh perspective on the idea that all police are good and all gangsters are bad; dehumanised by the press who give them nicknames and sell papers in the back of their exploits. Dublin Seven offers a rare glimpse into the life of inner city youth, so often played out in black and white in newspapers and news reports. The setting is gritty and frequently violent. The novel is peppered with swear words, threats, and the violence that becomes a part of Shanes daily life until the novel reaches its thrilling climax.

The novel is informed by Gaffney’s personal experiences of growing up in the area and the criminal underworld that touched upon much of his early life. This first-hand experience comes in useful. The novel’s description and understanding of the drug trade; how one gets involved, measures out quantities and so on is clear and precise, having a simplicity and truth based rarely found in popular culture. He also shows how it can be remarkably easy for the situation to escalate. The setting, the background and the uncompromising image presented of inner city Dublin is perhaps the novel’s highlight. It’s divided into seven chapters which chart the seven main stages of Shane’s evolution —  his coming of age from a failing college student to an increasingly successful and paranoid drug dealer — which roughly parallel Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Gaffney has gone into detail about this idea in an article for the Irish Times.

The plot is well constructed and the central characters recognisable. The novel is told entirely from Shane’s perspective and he is the most rounded, full fleshed out character. Others, such as his sister and parents are less developed. In the end he seems to become estranged from his parents who live a life too different to his. His girlfriend Elizabeth, who seems almost excited by his underhand dealings, is in and out of his life. Although he professes to love her Shane doesn’t fully figure her out and in turn neither does the reader. Further the sex scenes are slightly uncomfortable to read and verge on gratuitous at times.

One of the stand out points of this strong and promising debut is the language. The characters speak in the distinct Dublin dialect, their accents shine through, broad, sharp and uncompromising. Here Gaffney follows in Roddy Doyle’s footsteps but takes it one step further. This is hopefully something Gaffney will continue in his future novels.

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Frankie Gaffney, Dublin Seven (Liberties Press,  2015). 9781910742112, 313pp., paperback.

With thanks to Liberties Press for a copy of this novel.