Helen FitzGerald – Viral

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Viral begins with an extraordinary opener, a description of Su Oliphant-Brotheridge performing a sexual act in a nightclub in Magaluf, something that’s totally out of character. A video has been posted online and the views are going up rapidly. This is very similar to an incident that happened in recent years and I was keen to find out where FitzGerald would go with this story.

Su had always been the sensible one on a night out and she’s not going to tell anyone where she is now. She says her sister Leah has always been the rebellious one and it should really be her on the screen. The video is extremely creepy, with a club PR guy also filming, people cheering and the incident is being watched by people Su knows.

Su was adopted and the book delves into her background and highlights some of the bullying she’s experienced at the hands of Leah, with her calling her ‘Chinky’ even thought she’s Korean. The book goes into the family politics, outlining the relationships with her adopted parents, Ruth and Bernard.

After watching the video for the first time Ruth establishes that her daughter has actually been gang-raped in public and sets about taking action. Viral shows the struggle a parent faces, with Ruth and Bernie talking about pushing things forward to help in some way but realising this will keep the story and their lives in the public domain. Their love for Su really shines through and their determination to find her is abundantly clear.

The book tells the story from a number or perspectives, building up a picture of how Su came to be in this situation. It shows the guilt that can be faced by some of people involved and some of the horrific things people can do to each other. It shows the ghastly way that people look at these videos as entertainment and a chance to judge the lives of others. It highlights that an incident like this is not isolated but a common occurrence.

Viral is an excellent thriller that flows at a mighty paces. The themes of revenge and identity are prominent throughout but it also is strong on the background of events and the notion that we shouldn’t be defined by single events in our lives.

Dimitri Verhulst – The Latecomer

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Désiré Cordier is 74 and has pretty much had it with life it seems. He reflects on his fondness for alcohol and the effect it has had on his marriage. This has become a real chore and he seems fed up with the nagging from his wife and the quality of life he has now. He plots a scheme to make people think he is losing his mind so he can bury himself away from the world by tucking himself into a home.

The book starts with him talking about having to regularly soil his nappies at night so he can keep up the act and not be found out. He’s been playing the role for months at this stage and it’s hard not to think of the people that are really going through this experience when reading The Latecomer. Here, in Winterlight Home for the Elderly, Désiré worries about his sleeping pills knocking him out so much he’ll be exposed but he awakes in his own excrement. He says that people here mean well but they all tend to shout or talk very loud when speaking to him.

The life with his wife certainly seems to have been an unhappy one. She comes across quite petty to say the least, with Désiré highlighting that she once abandoned him as he farted in bed. They were downsizing their house, which would save his back from all the repair work that needed to be done but it meant they would be living in a more confined space. Their sex life was rather ropey and they had taken to sleeping in separate rooms.

The book is excellent in showing how people deal with this situation. Désiré reckons from an early stage that people will blame his condition on all kinds of things, such as not eating enough fish or not reading newspapers. He’s ripped off by people he’s known for years and young people laugh at him in the street during a particularly extravagant set piece when he’s trying to convince the world of a particular personal state of mind. The cruelty of the world is on display here and we can have some empathy with the reasons why Désiré ultimately wants to withdraw from it.

The Latecomer is full of humour, with witty commentary on everyday things like alarms and more dramatically moments like his treatment of the religious objects his wife has surrounded him with. There’s joy when the memory choiris discussed and the book is full of wit and heart. This is contrasted beautifully with sadness about what some people are suffering through and the neglect they experience. The book is full of light and shade and things take a dark turn when we see the impact this charade has on his daughter. The Latecomer is a mighty little book that says a lot about society and our place in it.

Ragnar Jonasson – Snowblind

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Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series, a series of books that have already been optioned for television. This is Ragnar Jonasson’s debut and it sets out the stall for what should surely be a compelling series.

It starts with the vivid image of a blood in the snow in a very tense place, a place where people prefer to stay in and look out at the white outdoors rather than going out to play. Later, a child leaves a woman lying out in the snow, not wanting to disturb the snow angel. Our leader character Ari Thor sees the scene as almost artistic before snapping back to the reality of what is happening.

Ari Thor is a man who has been unable to finish things, including a Theology and Philosophy course, and he has enrolled in police college and bulked up. He hadn’t been doing Theology because of any major faith, but rather hoped it’d instil something in him. He likes the buzz of police work, poring over books is not really for him.

His girlfriend Kristin flies through her exams and there’s some tension as he can’t understand why she can’t be happy about the new job he’s got. He’s been passed over for previous jobs and he’s not going to be deterred from this one. After he arrives he’s unsure if he’s made the right decision moving to a tight knit community. He’s told people don’t lock their doors, that nothing ever happens here and he wonders what he’s got himself into.

The landscape plays a big part in Snowblind, it adds to his feeling of claustrophobia and really ramps up the sense of dread that I felt while reading it. There’s a sense of an outsider trying to get to grips with the everyday interactions of the people and trying to make sense of what is happening. All of this while feeling shut off from the rest of the world as the climate can be so overwhelming.

Ari has been affected by loneliness all his life and the situation he finds himself in in this small village certainly increases this. He lost his parents when he was young and many of the characters in the book appear haunted by the loss of close family members.

One of the main events in the book is the death of Iceland’s foremost author. It’s believed to have been an accident by some but Ari is keen to get to the bottom of it, delving deep into the politics of the Dramatic Society and beyond to establish the background. While he’s doing this he also has friendly dealings with a woman called Ulga, something that leads him to question his relationship with Kristin. He’s very much immersed in a whole other world now.

Snowblind is a delight to read. I was involved in the world of Ari from the start and Jonasson craftily puts together a bleak feeling of claustrophobia that draws us into this inner world. I’m very much looking forward to reading Nightblind, the second book in the Dark Iceland series, very soon indeed.

Tracey Thorn – Naked at the Albert Hall

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Tracey Thorn has done some incredible work over her career, from Everything But the Girl to her work with Massive Attack and her excellent soundtrack for Carol Morley’s The Falling. Her last book, Bedsit Disco Queen, was a real gem and here she concentrates purely on the art of singing.

Tracey suffers from stage fright and hasn’t performed live since 2000. This move gives a great insight into what it’s like to be a singer and looks at what makes a singer special. She says people expect the singer to be like the people they know from the long songs that they know and love. The singer is very much the focal point for most people, with other band members not getting anywhere near the same level of attention.

She likes people that aren’t ‘perfect’ singers, such as Bjork. Punk singers and Bob Dylan don’t have strong voices but we have to pay attention to what they’re saying. We can’t just swoon along and miss some of their lyrics. Folk singing is minimal in style, it’s all about delivering the song whereas soul singers are constantly adding things. She says that people will adopt mannerisms but really it should all be about projecting confidence and individuality in the voice.

She’s a proponent of Auto Tune, showing that it you used for minor things that you wouldn’t notice in order to cover up a slight blemish. It’s not just all about the sugary pop tracks that sound beyond human. She’s a fan of talent shows like The Voice and The X Factor, entertainment shows that look at people trying to make it as singers.

The book looks at how audience can maybe have a different experience at a concert to the artist, perhaps attaching memories of the song. Cliche can be more appreciated by the audience than genuine moments of magic. What constitutes a great performance will vary from person to person.

She questions why Scott Walker and Thom Yorke have moved away from using their beautiful voices, using very different vocal styles. She talks about how songs allow us to sing what cannot be said and how Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett sing like they speak.

Tracey says that when we were young we joined in with singing, had a go regardless of good we were. Singing for the fun of it is now coming back coming back with karaoke, local choirs and the vast amount of people auditioning for programmes like The X factor. She reflects on whether she can call herself a singer if she doesn’t really do it anymore. But of course she does sing, when people aren’t around. The communal singing doesn’t necessarily have a higher value that singing for the love of it.

This is a brilliant book that looks at all areas of singing. She uses quotes from literature to colour her book and she’s always extremely readable, even when talking about the ins and outs of a microphone. Singers and music fans will get a lot of this sharp and informative book.

Kim Gordon – Girl in a Band

Now this is one I was very excited about reading. The music of Sonic Youth has been blasting in my ears for many years and I was very keen on reading Kim’s stories about the band, her relationship with Thurston Moore and many other stories from what has been a fairly exceptional career.

The book starts with Sonic Youth’s last ever appearance at a festival where they’re one of the smallest names on the bill. It’s a desperate time, with her and Thurston not on speaking terms. Some of the best parts of the book come when she’s talking about their relationship. We find out how they met, with Thurston younger than her, very unlike her other boyfriends; confident and not as immersed in the art world as other people she’s come to know. He was more attracted to domesticity than she was and the level of his faith made her think the marriage could work She says he’s not as easygoing as people thought and we see the downward spiral of their relationship, with Thurston becoming increasingly distracted in later life when they move home and Kim discovering a number of texts between Thurston and another woman. She finds him to be a serial liar and asks him to move out after further terrible discoveries on the phone.

The book outlines her feelings about New York and LA and the start of the band, with Gordon saying she felt self-conscious in her early days on stage, feeling she had no technical ability to speak of but wanting to lose herself in the music. I had hoped for greater depth and insight in these pieces but it really felt like we were flying through things and she doesn’t really lock into things in the way I had hoped. There’s a shocking amount of name-dropping going on for such a short book, with Gordon letting us know Keanu Reeves showed up at a video shoot and story about her, Thurston and Michael Stipe visiting William Burroughs and him asking about Kurt Cobain. This all makes the book feel trivial and I have to say it really grated on it me over the course of the book.

This book could’ve been so good but the end result came across to me as a fairly slapdash effort that actually gives us only a very slim understanding of a person that could surely have offered so much more in Girl In a Band.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

Some of my favourite books have been written by Ian McEwan, especially Saturday and On Chesil Beach. The Children Act is another fairly short one, but it’s a book that packs a fair amount of power.

Fiona believes she’s bringing some sort of reason to desperate situations. She’s a top High Court judge dealing with some particularly stressful cases. The focus of The Children Act is on the case of Adam, a young man refusing medical treatment on religious grounds. It’s down to the court to decide whether they should step in to ensure he gets the treatment against his will.

While all this is happening Fiona’s marriage appears to be in pieces, her husband claims to love her but is putting forward the idea of having an affair. She’s made to feel like she’s brought this on herself as she’s too immersed in her work. It makes for fairly cold reading, as relations become increasingly frosty and her husband lays the blame at her door.

Fiona wants to get to know Adam a bit better, to find out his mentality before reaching any decisions. He’s almost 18 but has been brought up with this religious mentality and she needs to be sure he’s the driver of his decision. She’s offering him an alternative, a mindset removed from the religion and Adam is certainly appreciative of someone taking this level of interest in him.

This is not a perfect book by any means as the two stories don’t flow just as well as I would’ve liked, but the moral dilemma of the situation and the eventual outcome makes it a worthwhile read and certainly another very good addition to McEwan’s excellent cannon of work.

Mary Costello – Academy Street

I often wonder what it’s like to move to another country, to leave your life behind and start afresh somewhere new. It’s been the experience of many Irish people over the years and it has become increasingly prevalent in recent times. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is the latest novel to give an insight into this experience and certainly marks the arrival of a very important new voice.

She creates a great vision of the experience of growing up in Ireland and the landmark events in her life. Costello captures the beauty of the sunlight on the coffin of Tess’s mother, the feeling of the ground being taken away, the world turning on its head when her mother is taken away from her. There’s a powerful image of the loneliness of her father when he’s coming toward the house, his life will no longer be the same and his behaviour will change utterly. The house is filled with silence and there’s no longer room for the sound of the radio. It’ll be many years before Tess can fully realise what he’s endured, the great sorrow that has overcome him.

Tess moves over to New York and finds a whole new world waiting for her. She has to get used to the rhythm of her new home, effectively having to learn a new language and experience an entirely different way of life. She suffers the loneliness that comes surely from her past experiences and there’s a sense that happiness brings danger. The world becomes new with the close bond between a mother and a child, but connection is not always easily found. Costello carefully examines the connection to place, to Academy Street and to where Tess came from originally and the problems faced by a woman that has a child before marriage.

The only thing I could possibly fault with this book is I felt it could’ve been a bit longer. It’s a whirlwind of a life and it really flies by. Costello has given us a character that moves with a quiet grace in her attempt to create a new life for herself in a world completely different from the one she came from. It’s beautiful stuff, and something that you’ll probably want to enjoy in a single sitting.

Academy Street will be pubished by Canongate on October 30.