The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

keyesFirst book of the year! I am a devoted Marian Keyes fan, so I was a bit bummed when I heard from reliable sources that this newest book was “…not her best.” I decided to give it a go anyway. And while I did enjoy it, I do have a lot of criticisms about it. It definitely was not her best and not on par with any of the novels about the Walsh sisters or other recent titles.
The premise (with many spoilers): a woman contracts a rare neurological disease that has her paralyzed and only able to blink. She is in the hospital for months. When she eventually gets out she enjoys notoriety from a book published of the wise things she said (blinked out, one letter at a time) while paralyzed.  In the present day quite a bit of time has passed since then and everything seems to have fallen to pieces, but you’re not exactly sure how or why.
My criticisms: Her family and friends were the most loathsome people ever and she put up with it and I felt it was never appropriately addressed. Being trapped in her body was really interesting and the foundation for the whole story, but it seemed to get short shrift. I found it odd that in the present people weren’t referring to it. Also, to go back to the loathsome people. Her husband and son telling her that getting sick was her fault and she shouldn’t have done it because it inconvenienced them? I mean, honestly, they were horrible pieces of garbage. Ryan (husband) and her kids were so awful they were beyond caricature.  I also thought the structure of the book didn’t work with the two timelines (usually something I love, but here it was used very well.) The ending was also a rather hasty and tidy wrap up.

Overall, I enjoyed page to page witticisms (and that a character was named Mannix) but this lacked the emotional depth that her previous stories enjoyed.

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The House on Willow Street by Cathy Kelly

willowYou had me at “Irish seaside.”  Maeve Binchy-sque by the sea!  To be honest, this wasn’t as good as a Maeve Binchy, but I did enjoy it. In a small Irish village (by the sea) family drama is unfolding. Tess Powers and her sister Suki had grown up in a big fancy house that made them appear to be titled and wealthy, but really they were quite poor.  After their father’s death the house had to be sold. Tess still lives in the village where she is (now)separated with two kids.  Her sister had married up into an American political dynasty and was a well known feminist author. Unfortunately, after that, her life became a dreadful mess.  Now she is about to return to the village, Tess’s life is falling apart, and Cashel, the son of their housekeeper who is now an international millionaire and her past love, has just returned.  The story jumps around from their various points of view. The big family secrets and the misunderstanding between Tess and Cashel were not as dramatic as I thought they’d been built up to be.

I think it was a little long and ended kind of abruptly, but it was still enjoyable.

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

winterThis is the last book Binchy wrote before she died last summer, which makes it rather sad. At least it was just as strong as her other books, and just as wonderful. And yes, all her books are super similar so I guess you could say she found the kind of story she likes to tell and stuck with it through her life.

The premise here is that a woman, Chicky Starr, returns to her home village on the west coast of Ireland. To the doubt and surprise of all Chicky is going to turn a big old stone house (Stone House) into an inn where people will come for a week’s stay and enjoy good food, company, long walks on the shore, and feel restored by the beauty of the place. The first part of the book is the build up to getting the house ready and telling the individual stories of Chicky, her friend Nuala, and Nuala’s troubled son Rigger.  Then, once the house opens, you hear the story of each of the first guests.  You read about how each of them ends up with this week at Stone House, and their own troubles and woes, and then how the house seems to work its magic on them.   It’s all very straightforward with a laying down of the events as each story is told, yet it doesn’t just feel like an outline.  And there was something rather satisfying about having each story told one at a time.

I really liked this a lot, though I would have loved an epilogue (though it’s all laid out so that you know what will happen.)  As always, Binchy makes Ireland seem like the most old fashioned place in the world.  Near the beginning of the book the year had not been stated and I thought it was the early 1950s.  Imagine my shock when someone said “after all this is the nineteen nineties!”  What?! A lot of the friction and drama comes from family secrets, unwed mothers, living in sin, a woman living on her own, etc.  Also, one of the characters is a librarian and I have two friends in Ireland who are also librarians, and I’m fairly certain that library services are not as antiquated as she lays them out to be.

Note–yes indeed, this book shares the exact same title with a book by Marcia Willett, who has a similar cozy old-fashioned feeling and a shared readership. Why would they do that?

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

mammywalshI’m a big fan of Marian Keyes and was very excited when I found out this was coming out. And very happy to get my name on the holds list early! It was a real pleasure to read something of hers again that revisits the Walsh family. Since I wrote about her books for my St. Patrick’s Day post I’ve been itching to go back and read her earlier books and this definitely made me want to. There are 5 Walsh sisters and this is the final sister’s story-Helen.
Helen doesn’t really like people, she’s brusque, and she doesn’t fit in with folks. She’s a private investigator who’s fallen on hard times-business has dried up and she has lost her house, electricity, etc-and she’s forced to move back in with her parents.  This is all especially difficult because, as she tells us in bits and pieces, she’s had a bout of depression that landed her in a hospital once before, and it seems like it might be happening to her again. Out of the blue an ex-boyfriend comes to her with a very important, top-secret, case: she must find a missing member of a once powerfully famous boy band before the reunion concert scheduled in less than a week’s time.

I really enjoyed this so much. Keyes is always funny and has a great way of blending funny, sassy, strange characters with genuinely heartfelt, realistic, touching emotions. It was a treat to see Mammy Walsh again and little peeks at the other sisters.  And it was fun to have this one be a mystery and try to figure out where Wayne could have gotten to.  The only thing that wasn’t super was the part about her no-longer-friend, Bronagh.  She is alluded to occasionally, always in the past tense, so you know something big has happened to her.  From previous books I assumed it was going to be a huge, very emotional revelation, and it ended up being very anticlimactic and not a big deal to me. But really, that was just a small part of it.  I loved this and it was so much fun to have a Marian Keyes to read again.

A St. Patrick’s Day Reading List

My Irish soda bread is in the oven and my corned beef and cabbage is in the crock pot, so I thought I’d take a moment to recommend some of my favorite Irish authors/books.

First up, Maeve Binchy.  Although Ms. Binchy may be responsible for me having a rather outdated (it must be) view of what life in Ireland is like, I simply love her books. She has a long writing career and many of her books feature characters who’ve shown up in other stories. Romances, secrets, heartdrama, and heartwarming tales are her mainstays. She’s often a rather cozy writer. Some of my favorites are:  Nights of Rain and Stars–in which the characters are in a small Greek village and bound together by sharing a tragic day together.  Her depictions of the setting are wonderful, as is the way she tells the individuals’ stories and their collective story. Heart and Soul is a great one and features one of the characters you’ve met in Nights of Rain and Stars, which is nice. It’s about a woman trying to establish a heart clinic in Dublin and at odds with other hospital administrators.  Whitethorn Woods sets up a framework for a story that has each chapter telling a character’s story. Again, overall story and interconnected stories. I’ve read many, many of her novels and the ones that I’ve reviewed can be found here. Not all of her characters are sweet and happy-there is real bitterness, anger, and poor choices in many of them, but they are a necessary balance in the stories.  She’s a really love writer!

sushiMarian Keyes is also an old favorite for me.  I haven’t read anything in a while but there was a period where her novels came out more frequently and I was beyond excited for each of them.  Please don’t dismiss her as fluffy chick lit (especially as newer book covers might make them appear that way.) All of her writing is funny and sassy but the books I want to recommend are now marketed as the Walsh Family books: Watermelon, Angels, Anybody Out There?, and Rachel’s Holiday. The Mystery of Mercy Close is the newest, due out next month. They are not really a series, it’s just that in a family with 5 sisters each one gets a book. I was possibly on the third book before I recognized the siblings, so they are not dependent on each other-it’s just a nice tie in.  Anyway, Keyes writes about real difficulties and hard times with a wonderful touch of humor and love. Sushi for Beginners, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, and The Brightest Star in the Sky are not included in that group about the Walsh family, but they are equally wonderful and hilarious.  One of her books that most impressed me was Rachel’s Holiday. Rachel ends up rehab even though she doesn’t really believe she has an addiction problem.  The reader moves as slowly as Rachel herself in realizing that she really does need to be there. And The Brightest Star in the Sky is really touching and lovely. It’s been 10 years since I read Watermelon, and just writing this makes me want to go back and reread them all.

mollyFinally, the Molly Murphy mysteries by Rhys Bowen are wonderful works of historical fiction and good mysteries to boot. Start with the first one, Murphy’s Law, to understand the Irish immigrant experience.  Molly Murphy escapes a murder charge in Ireland and travels to America in steerage with two young children.  Their arrival on Ellis Island is somewhat harrowing and presumably a very accurate description of Irish immigration.  I’ve read three of the books so far and you can see their full reviews here.

 

So there you have it. Get your green on with some Irish reading, whether it be contemporary, historical, cozy, or mystery.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

I love Maeve Binchy and was delighted to have a new-to-me one to read this past summer. That’s right, I read it that long ago. Oh well. What was I saying about it when I talked about it with friends?

Reading her books has me convinced that present day Ireland is a backwater.

Hmm….I seem to remember talking about this book a lot, but that’s the only proof I have of it.  So, what I remember is that this one is about a young man who had a one night stand approximately 8 months ago and thought no more of it.  Well now the woman is preparing to have her baby as well as to die from cancer. That’s right. She is in the hospital and knows that she will not be coming out, but her baby will.  Will the help of a kindly priest she finds the young man, Noel, and says she wants him to care for the baby.  And thus begins a whole long story of caring for the baby, figuring out his life, finding romance, and a whole bunch of busybodies who seem to want to take the baby away.  I don’t know what Ireland’s laws are like, but it felt so weird and old fashioned to me. More so than her other books. I had trouble getting past the fact that he was the baby’s father, legally and biologically, and in his right mind, and solvent, and yet a social worker is constantly coming by to count how many diapers he has in supply and continuously threaten him that if it’s not up to her standards the baby will just be taken away?? But if you can get past that giant flaw, the human stories part of the book are wonderful. And that’s the lovely Binchy touch.

 

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

I pretty much adore everything Marian Keyes writes.  This is her latest, not out quite yet, and I have to say within 10 pages I was loving it.  The novel is very typical Keyes, which I say in a positive way. It hooks you with humor and maybe a little sexiness or a little romance and then she starts to reveal that the story is deeper and maybe even darker, than you first thought.  I’m not so sure her recent books have been like this, but I thought that here she reminded me of her earlier novels like Sushi for Beginners, Rachel’s Holiday,  and Anybody Out There, which I loved.

In this story a sort-of omniscient spirit visits a house in Dublin that has four apartments.  The narrator tells you all about the residents of each of them and begins to weave their stories together.  There’s the elderly lady who has a touch of the second sight; Kate, who’s just turned 40 and is in a relationship with a wealthy but not so great guy, Conall, two Polish guys who live with feisty Lydia who is a nasty bitch to everyone, and Matt and Maeve, a deeply in love couple.  Matt and Maeve become the central figures in the. At first they appear to be the picture of bliss, but soon little cracks are revealed that show that all is not well or what it seems.  The narrator easily goes back in time to fill in everyone’s stories.

Another winner–absolutely charming.