A Christmas Story

As a kid I kept thinking the insurance man was my father. Not that I knew him mind (I only met him the once), but I heard him often enough. I can remember my mother’s voice pleading with him. Was it over money? We weren’t poor, although my father – my real father that is – was dead. He had been a diplomat, so he didn’t exactly leave us destitute. But I got it into my head that my mother hadn’t the money to pay the insurance man and he sought payment in other ways. I should say at this stage that my mother was an uncommonly beautiful woman. Everyone’s mother is beautiful I know in the eyes of her offspring, but Mam’s beauty was universally acknowledged. When in her prime, her bright blue eyes and svelte figure attracted many suitors which, apart from the insurance man, included medical students, members of the corps diplomatique and even an IRA man…
I can recall now the first time I heard the insurance man remonstrating with my mother. It was late one Christmas Eve. I was six or seven at the time, waiting in bed for Santa, pressing tightly on my eyes, trying desperately to sleep for fear he would not leave me anything if he caught me awake. The song fading on the wireless below I remember had a relevant poignancy:
‘I feel sorry for the laddie;
he hasn’t got a daddy;
he’s the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.’

Mr Counihan’s querulous tone rose through waves of drowsiness and my mother’s sobbing.
But when I asked her about it the next day – Christmas Day – all she said was,
‘What a dreamer you are, Derek.’

From Peeling Oranges by James Lawless in paperback and Kindle

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Peeling Oranges tells the story of how Derek Foley, while sifting through his late father’s diaries and his mother’s correspondence with an IRA man, discovers that Patrick Foley, a diplomat in Franco’s Spain, was not really his father. Derek’s mother, who is ailing, is unwilling to discuss the past, forcing her son on a quest that will plunge him into the early history of Irish diplomacy, taking him to Spain and later to Northern Ireland, until he discovers who his real father was—with tragic consequences. Peeling Oranges is a novel full of personal and political intrigue, fraught with ideology, as it intersects the histories of two emergent nations—Ireland and Spain. It is also a beautiful and lyrically written love story of childhood sweethearts—the apolitical Derek and the passionate nationalist, Sinéad Ní Shúilleabháin.
‘In the vast sea of fiction it is a true hidden gem.’ A thrilling ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Review by Malka in Contemporary Books


Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

The birds make fake bird songs
that I heard in the Christmas shops,
the fake moon is spotted before dark,
the navyblue sky is waiting
for its absence to be filled,
houses stand like sentries,
men in windows sharpen knives,
dogs bark at the fading light,
black specks of carbon birds
circle my head
because I am one
who will not look up,
the small boy counts down,
radio and TV hop with expectation,
the weather changes,
the bookmaker gives good odds on snow,
all is meant to change,
the barometer moves up and down
the human heart,
cloying melodies bring tears
to those who depart;
it is a time of arrival
where the moss grows green
and the harvest that was gathered
can now be shared between
the angels carrying candles
and the drunk who sways in the wind.

From Rus in Urbe by James Lawless in paperback and Kindle

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One day near Christmas Jo Jo went into the woods. The woods were at the back of her house. Her daddy was at work and her mammy was talking at the front gate to the neighbour Mrs Gillespy. She was busy talking about a deer that had run across the road and was hit by a car. The deer ran away. ‘A stupid deer,’ said Mrs Gillespy. ‘Maybe he was frightened,’ said Jo Jo’s mother. ‘Still,’ said Mrs Gillespy, ‘he could have caused a serious accident and maybe could have killed the man in the car. The man is very angry and he is hunting for the deer now. He has a gun.’
Jo Jo’s mother and Mrs Gillespy kept on talking as Jo Jo climbed up on the little wall and crossed over the barbed wire into the wood. She was careful not to tear her nice blue dress. She knew why her daddy put up the barbed wire. It was to keep all the wild animals out from their nice garden where they had plum trees and apple trees and lots of plants and flowers of many colours. She liked blue flowers the best, especially blue hydrangeas. Because her eyes were blue, blue was her favourite colour. But now all those flowers were gone to sleep, as her daddy said, for the winter. But they would wake up again in spring and summer like some of the animals too. Like the hare which they had seen darting through the woods and her daddy joked that he would make hare soup if he caught him.
Jo Jo knew she should not go into the woods. She knew her mammy and daddy would be cross with her. But she dreamed of going into the woods. She wanted to know what it was really like to live there away from the warm and comfortable house where she lived with her soft bed and sheets and plenty of food in the refrigerator. She wanted to know what it was really like to live among all those trees. She noticed some of the trees never lost their leaves. Others looked very bare with only their branches showing.
Her mammy told her that squirrels lived there and they collected nuts so they would not go hungry in the winter. Jo Jo pushed back the branches as she made her way deeper into the woods. She wondered about the hare and the squirrel and the deer. Especially the deer. She wondered was he lying down hurt after being hit by the car. It was getting a little bit dark. She looked back and could see the light from her house. Her mammy must have turned it on. Jo Jo knew she would be looking for her. But the light would guide Jo Jo back. She would find the way and would be home soon before it got too dark.
Halfway into the wood she heard a sound and saw the deer. His antlers looked very big and heavy and Jo Jo felt sorry for the poor deer who had to carry such awkward things on his head. The deer’s antlers brushed against the forest floor as he stooped down to munch some grass. Jo Jo drew nearer. She broke a twig under her foot. The deer looked up. Jo Jo did not feel afraid of the deer. He had soft brown eyes that looked sad and she noticed blood on the deer’s nose. Jo Jo stayed very still. The deer did not move.
‘You are the little girl,’ the deer said, ‘that lives in that house.’ The deer pointed with his antlers towards the light.
‘Yes,’ Jo Jo said and she understood now why the deer had antlers. They were like hands. ‘My name is Jo Jo,’ she said.
‘There is a man trying to shoot me,’ the deer said. ‘He is hunting me with his gun. But he is very heavy and I would hear him coming with his big boots. He is not light like a little girl. You see the blood which has gone hard now on my nose?’
‘Yes,’ said Jo Jo, ‘it is very red.’
‘That was when the car hit me,’ the deer said. ‘If the man shoots me, do you know what will happen?’
‘No,’ said Jo Jo.
‘The children will receive no Christmas presents.’
‘Why?’ said Jo Jo. She was very worried now. She had asked for a bicycle for Christmas.
‘Because I help Santa Claus,’ the deer said. ‘He calls for me every Christmas Eve. I lead his sleigh. My name is Rudolf.’

The man wore big boots and they made squeaky noises as he went through the woods. He was carrying his gun. He pointed it at every sound he heard: a creak in a branch, a bird flying out, some sound further up that he could not make out. He saw the trace of blood on the trunk of a tree. He knew he was getting nearer to the deer.

The deer suddenly looked frightened. He pressed his head sideways towards the forest floor. ‘I must go,’ he said to Jo Jo. ‘I hear the sound of the man. I hear his boots. Goodbye,’ the deer said.
Jo Jo watched the deer run through the gaps in the trees. He ran fast like he knew every step of the way, and soon he disappeared deep into the woods.

The man saw Jo Jo. He spoke to her in a cross voice. ‘What are you doing, child, out here in the woods on your own. Go home.’
‘I saw the deer,’ Jo Jo said.
‘Where?’ The man was excited.
‘He went that way.’ And Jo Jo pointed to the opposite way the deer had gone.

On Christmas Eve Jo Jo could not sleep. She left out a carrot for the deer and wondered would he come with Santa. She wondered would she get the bicycle. Or did the man with the gun find Rudolf and shoot him?
She lay awake as long as she could. She looked out her window at the frosty night and at the moon and all the stars in the sky. There was no sign of the sleigh or sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. She tried to keep her eyes open but they grew heavy and soon she was asleep.
When she awoke on Christmas morning there was a shining new bicycle at the end of her bed and the carrot she had left for Rudolf was gone.

From The Adventures of Jo Jo by James Lawless in paperback and Kindle





Con was not at home when his brother Thady called, so Thady went on a pub crawl, starting with Saints and Sinners in Woodside and on to the old haunts: Quinlans in Rochester and Rosie O’Gradys on Seventh Avenue. God, he’d forgotten how good the American bourbon was. Seeing the icicles hanging off the buildings, he’d also forgotten how cold New York became in the winter and he was so weary after the long trip and all those people teeming about, lovers enjoying themselves laughing and carousing in such a vulgar way. How many years had it been? Half a life time, half one’s life eaten away by that cancer that is no more. He had to get away from all those people bumping into him; he needed a little respite; if he could rest a while in Central Park, maybe on a seat where his mind could work over the events of his recent past, already beginning to blur now and yet he had managed to get to the airport. Got a cab to Con’s house; would try his house again; he was probably out on the town with some of his buddies from the fire department; that’s why he tried the old haunts but there was no sign, not even in Molly’s Shebeen or Paddy Maguire’s or even in The Bravest in Midtown East; nobody there he knew. Where were they all? But right now he would falter a while; he needed a little rest to mull over the events, the recent happenings and that Irish boy, what was his name? Danny something whom he texted just before boarding the plane. Thady always kept his passport up to date; was good like that (one thing he was determined to keep away from her especially after she incarcerated him in that hospital). But Laura let him down too, the first time ever about his birthday, but he knew his annoyance was more due to a pique of jealousy on his part when that Irish boy whisked her off on his birthday that day in the Insomnia café. But it was like he had a premonition keeping that passport (which he fondled now like something consoling, his escape valve, in the pocket of his jacket). Yes, you need your passport; she tried to take it from him; she thought he would fly back across the pond, but he kept it hidden from her inside the frame of the photo on the mantelpiece of himself and Con in their firefighter gear. Yes, the passport did represent a portent that some day he would come back to New York, a place he had never wanted to leave. Give me your tired, your huddled masses. He remembered that, yes, the promise. Oh, and he was so tired; that long wait—was it five nervous hours in Dublin airport?—for an available seat to JFK; his prancing around the waiting area until some passengers began to look at him suspiciously, and hiding in the toilet at the sight of a garda; having eventually to sit down and wish he had been a reader. How he envied those who could sit so calmly and just read, in the midst of all calamity, and the thought: had he left any incriminating evidence behind him? He suddenly remembered the window of the bedroom where he had left Laura upstairs. He hadn’t closed it. Christ, he had meant to close it. Oh, why did Laura have to arrive when she did, distracting him? The fear of being called back when eventually he did get going through the departure gate. The plane flying over the Atlantic as he looked down at the white horses frothing on the sea; a long time since he had flown; a long time since he was on his own travelling to Mexico and those other countries to learn the anti-terrorist methods; had forgotten more than he had learned; but he needed to be alert now to remember things to get through the airports.
New Year’s Eve: some far away auld lang syning like a hum not grating on the ear. And an entwined couple of love doves approaching full of it; the guy took a five dollar bill out of the pocket of his thick coat, an act of bravado, and showing off in the presence of the giggling girl, threw it towards Thady, and Thady watched it float down like one of the big snowflakes falling on him. Like I’m one of the hobos, he thought, one of the beggars of the street. But he hadn’t the energy to tackle the guy, to knock the smug look off his face. He was so goddamn tired. But funny, remembering the dates and not remembering how cold it could be over here; his clothes for what they were; he felt the texture, a lightweight tawny suit more suitable for summer wear than winter, and not remembering his overcoat, the long woollen navy coat left hanging in the wardrobe. Hadn’t time to think straight in all the haste to escape the nightmare of that goddamn house and Laura arriving as she did. And not remembering that Laura, his little Laura, would grow up and go away from him, who would not always be his little girl forever and ever. His little Laura—a smile creased the frosted stubble of his chin—how they confided in one another; cuddly bear she used to call him; a good bear, he was a good bear but Maureen didn’t think so that time she scalded him down there. Her finding out about… one of her holy-Joe friends with prowling eyes reporting him—what difference did it make now and what did she expect him to be? Remain a celibate in her sanctimonious house for the rest of his life. No way. And what was he doing after all? Just seeking a companion to fill a well of loneliness. What was wrong in that? Anyone who could touch him, caress him, give him a hug; that’s all he wanted really deep down, rather than kissing rosary beads or holy pictures or crucifixes.
Only for Laura going with him that time to the hospital, only for her… yeah and his tone hardened; he was sharp enough to do that, to get that number from Laura’s cell phone in case she could suffocate or starve. A temporary shudder gripped him, more for Laura than for the cold this time. No, he consoled himself, she would not suffocate; he had left the gag loose deliberately, but just tight enough so she couldn’t get away; she could breathe okay. And she wouldnʼt die of thirst either with the bottle of water he left her and the plastic L-shaped straw to sip through the corner of her mouth. Starvation would be the thing if she wasn’t found by one of the church goers, by one of Maureen’s cronies coming to call to her for the morning mass. Couldn’t rely on that though; they would just go away when they got no answer. No, couldn’t rely on that for his little girl. So he had no choice but to contact the Irish boy, and leave the message, making sure to block his own number, just one sentence saying where Laura was. Oh, and he swayed a little, it broke his heart to have to tie her up, but she understood; she nodded; she did nod; she understood his plight, his difficulty with that creature. Laura knew there was a man sick in Jericho. She would be all right, and to his brother Con how would he explain things? Con would not be as understanding if he learned of the extreme action he had to take with Laura, but his brother owed him his life; he would not turn him away. In a little while he would get a cab to his brother’s house again; avoid that subway and those cave cops; not that they would be alerted yet surely. Oh, he was so tired; there was a little bench near that bare tree with the snow resting nicely on its branches and Christmas gone and he never even felt it coming or going and a panic seized him, the first Christmas that he did not buy a doll for Laura. She said she was growing up now—no, not growing up, grown up—that she didn’t want the dolls no more; but she would understand why he did not buy one for her this Christmas, what with this and that, circumstances did not allow. And he thought, as his mind travelled through tunnels of time, of that first girl he knew, his first love, that teenage girl from Baychester with the Cajun origins. She was generous with herself and giving to him and he was forced to abandon her and worse perhaps to disown the child that issued from their union. It was a union of love, looking back on it now. She was so selfless like Laura until Laura started turning; the first time to do the act and a son, the product, somewhere god knows. If only he had stuck with them instead of being taken in by the prim and proper Maureen with all that god-fearing righteousness, a Blood shot Jesus. He should have stuck with his first love: Amie yes, with her dark beautiful eyes and her colour looked down upon. Oh god when you think of it, the son, their son given up so easily, so obediently. What was his name? And he cried out, I’ll die without knowing the name of my son. How many days now is it since..? I have lost track with those kiss-ass drinks in the gin mills like home away from home. I will make my way to Woodside soon; call on Con again. Maybe it was just as well the first time I called that he was out. It would have been a bit rash, crashing in on him so sudden like; he would have said things maybe without prior thought, without thinking things through. He sighed, watched the hot breath expire. That cold is really biting now, but something is sticking me to the bench. Is it guilt? It couldn’t be guilt; it’s the fatigue, the fatigue but I will not ring Con. How can you explain things like what happened on the phone? I want to surprise him, to tell him in my own time exactly how things were; want to get my story right before I see him again. And Laura, will she survive? Of course she will survive because I texted that Irish boy. I hope I took the number down right; I just said that he will find Laura in Sandymount, gave the number and the street; he will find her; she will be none the worse for wear but she will think kindly of me. She will understand what I had to do. Laura will know these things, and she will tell the world. And that son who was born long long ago, how did he fare without a father? Hopefully not as badly as I did without a son, and Maureen’s ultimatum to come to Ireland, preventing me from seeing though the guise, preventing me from seeing the torment that lay ahead as I abandoned all those old buddies in the fire department. The names. What were their names? Half obliterated. Half a life, a whole life now. None of them around the old haunts. How many of them are dead? Christ, I feel so tired; it’s so quiet here, not a bit like New York at all, no women of the night walking by to add a little warmth on such a cold night. There is a man sick in Jericho. Laura will be all right. In a little while I’ll get a cab again, in a little…while. My brother surely will be home by then.
Some snow slid down from the branch and percolated inside his collar but he was too tired to shake himself, allowing the cold evaporation take place down his spine like a half-remembered thrill, long ago with Amie; it was in this park on a bench like this that she gave herself to him so freely so… lovingly. Oh Thaddeus, you are my one true love, she said and she opened herself to him, oh so free and generous unlike that sterile cunt; and he thought back to Maureen fireproofing her cobwebs like she was something special, so god almighty holier than thou; she never knew what a cunt was for. Oh he exclaimed in a note of agonised regret for a wasted life before he took the turn, before he turned his back on what surely was his destiny.
And the son that was born—he had just heard it was a son at that moment that he was put away, all arranged by Maureen and some Catholic adoption agency. For Amie—how well he never forgets her, his first and only love—was too poor and too young to take charge of their son alone. Alone. And he had agreed; he swore on his marriage vow to Maureen that he would never ever make contact with them again, that wicked woman leading him astray. And he was so timid, oh so timid, so anxious at the time, fearing of the shame he would bring to his parents who were so religious like most Irish-Americans of the time, and he succumbed to her, to her better ways, and his family thought so highly of Maureen, a wholesome Irish girl with good morals. And it was better for the child too. The child would be looked after, better than he or that young girl could ever have hoped to look after him; and it was all arranged with a good Catholic family and he was whisked away to God knows where, in what state? where he would get a proper upbringing—that word proper, one of Maureen’s favourite words but never ever… the cold—his eyelids were getting so heavy. Usen’t to drink so much then. Bloodshot Jesus. The names for drinks have their own story to tell. Whiskey Sour. The son, Thady junior perhaps. Calane junior, where are you now? You must be a middleaged man by now for Christ sake. Did you ever wonder about me? What might have been? And the hope of other children quashed by Maureen. She wanted someone to manipulate, to fit into her ways; that’s what she wanted from a marriage. And the son then in the scheme of things was replaced by Laura whose destiny it was to travel across the pond to her uncle Thady to be his succour and his hope, and Laura sometimes blurred with Amie as she grew and developed: their hair with the dark curl, the brown eyes, the teenage girl, the young woman as time went by and all things unattainable.
Oh, but he started as the cold seized him like a rough handler. He had to think beyond himself and so quickly, oh so quickly for Laura’s sake—that Irish boy for whom he had the initial aversion, understandably, threatening to take his Laura away, but for her sake he must be selfless; he must release her to let her live her life now that she has grown and accept, accept; he knew that, knew just as he had released himself now from like bondage, the slaves with Moses, and he was back now in the promised land realising how over the years all Maureen’s biblical jargon washed over him and he believed in that stuff at first, that Maureen’s way was the way of righteousness and salvation. And he believed that he was the sinner, the one to be saved, believing it despite the fact that she never was satisfied with him, that it was the way. The way and the truth and the light. The way to go. But he was released now from that bond sitting on this seat far away from all of that and the seat was getting colder; he could feel it penetrating his clothes but he hadn’t the energy to rouse himself.
Was it a dream? Had he really done what he thought he did? The arguing he remembered and her final word calling him the antichrist and he knew he wasn’t the antichrist and he told her not to call him that but she kept on taunting him and he knew she was forcing him into a position, invoking god almighty to strike him down and he knew the antichrists were the terrorists of the skies who crashed planes into cities murdering thousands of people. To compare him to those and he a firefighter, the bravest of the brave, who had saved so many lives, including that of his own brother. And she scoffed at that. To compare him to terrorists was an admission, a refusal to recognise any virtue in her husband; that was the final straw. He was not a bad man; he was being made a bad man by a righteous woman and he thought: are the righteous only righteous by claiming superiority over others? By showing up other peopleʼs foibles? But this freedom he had now was maybe too late for him but not for Laura. That Irish boy will come and set her free. But what will she say then? How far can family loyalty go? Will she say her uncle was forced to kill Maureen? The way things were between them, reaching up to the boiling point, the place of no return. She would know, all during the years going back to the Rose of Tralee contest and even her father calling Maureen a termagant. Laura would know. She already knew, the way she avoided her, coming to visit him on her sodality nights. Laura would understand how he did what he did and she would say she had no idea under the wide earth where her uncle Thady was.
Oh, but now it was growing late; it was time, but no, he would tarry a little longer, just a little while longer to get his strength back before seeking out Con once more, to face what lay ahead; a little rest first; he was growing used to the cold settling into his bones like it was part of him now: physical discomfort and pain, and he took another swig from the Jim Beam, still concealed in its duty-free bag. The bourbon was intended for Con, his brotherʼs favourite drink, but he could always get another. There were plenty of liquor stores around here and time a plenty—the rest of his life. That old back pain coming at him now. Con always said he was amazed all those years in the fire department that he never complained, that he could withstand all the different circumstances of fire rescue, that he could go on, he could withstand pain and danger and, with Maureen at him in the early years, realising his marital mistake, he would actually court pain, yes, anything to keep her out of his head. After the Rose of Tralee contest when she started in her high piety to make personal remarks about Laura, Con would agree she had it coming, and now with the drowsiness coming over him he just wanted to sleep. If the cops came and handcuffed him now he wouldn’t be able to resist. He was so tired; he would rouse himself in a little while, just a little bit longer and then he would be ready to face whatever he had to face.
But would he tell his brother, would he even admit that he had killed his wife or that he was not on a social visit but on the run, to tell him that he was being confronted by the Irish boy whom Laura was confiding in, to tell Thady from the horse’s mouth that nothing untoward had happened between uncle and niece. He would beat his breast and weep; there was a man sick in Jericho. Con would understand all the years keeping silent and she was now gone missing; he felt guilty; he caused her to go missing; he would tell Con. He took it to heart all the years ever since she was a kid; she was such a cute little kid so… docile, and her hair in ringlets soft like… a doll’s before she started straightening it for those bangs. Silly bangs that she said were all the fashion, running parallel to her eyebrows concealing her fine Calane brow. He would talk to Con before the outcry would be raised about Maureen. All those security checks on the trip over; they took a lot out of him. But why bother getting anxious if you’re going to go? If someone like those goddamn terrorists go to the trouble of planning your annihilation, why stand in their way? Whooooosh! He thought of the scary words to Laura who was not so easy to scare anymore. Damn it, she didn’t even blink last time. Only for her, only for her arriving that’s what he had intended, had everything ready: cans of gasoline, the firefighter lighting the fires this time, reversing his role. And the candles lighting on the termagant’s shrine could so easily have caught fire to the curtains. And he shivered—fire and ice, that’s what it’s all about, one or the other. And it’s the other extreme now. And Con always saw something worthwhile in living with that wife of his Patti whom Thady could never figure out, who was forever wishing for something else and snooty to boot.
He shivered again as fresh feathers of snow began to fall. Christ, he would knock back one more shot. His head and face were cold marble now numbed by the effect of the alcohol. And the meal on that plane had made him bilious. And the cab driver coming from the airport had no interest in stories about 9/11. He was only interested in conducting him from A to B; it was like people had moved on. And the curt voice of that last barman ringing in his ear saying maybe he had enough, treating him like the leftover spillage of a year gone by.

From American Doll in paperback and Kindle

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Great new review of The Avenue ‘a book for a lifetime’

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A book for a lifetime. Couldn’t have asked for more!

“Up here” she pointed to her head, “We all are beautiful”.

James Lawless – I’m mesmerized.

Francis Copeland, a middle-aged man working as a librarian in The Avenue. It is a story about how things take turns in his life, how he befriends some kids in the neighborhood and how his whole life was nothing but a lie.

The Avenue is a beautiful fabrication of raw emotions, brutal truth, twisted relationships and the little things in between called love.

Gardening is like praying. You can’t do it without kneeling.

James Lawless has narrated the story like a poetry.

First page of it and it was decided then and there, that I’m reading something exceptionally wonderful.

I fell in love all over again with literature!

His words flowed in my mind as a river flows, untamed, wild and without any barriers.

Every time I held this book in my hand, I couldn’t prevent myself from smiling.
This is the kind of book which will have different effects of different people.

For me, it was all magical. I am still flabbergasted with the aura one can feel from a novel.

The author’s writing style’s beauty knew no bounds. Perfectly woven scenes in a refined and talented language!

The vanilla-like smell that I felt in each page of The Avenue is winning my heart over and over.

There is nothing better to do than to bury yourself in The Avenue, get lost in its heart-owning fragrance and be enchanted under the author’s spell.

His presentation has been so captivating that at no point you will want to let go off The Avenue.

I can bet that if you ever praised To Kill A Mockingbird or The Sense of An Ending – you are going to applaud it even more!

Verdict : I. Want. You. To. Read. This. Book. Badly.
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Review by Archit Ojha, Goodreads reviewer 24/11/16



Free copy of my new novel American Doll in return for posted review.


If interested, contact me through my website:american_doll_front (1) www.jameslawless.net


Halloween: A timely extract from my novel The Avenue

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Freddy is playing with his own ball again. He is playing football with a group of boys on the green near the pylon. Freddy is quite skilful with a ball; he tackles well, he has fast feet despite the flapping boot; the other boys find it difficult to win the ball from him. ‘Pass it, pass it,’ and ‘over here,’ some of them shout through the dusk, but Freddy is singleminded, determined as he progresses up the green on a solo run, outfoxes the defence and scores a goal. A cry goes up from his team, and John Paul shouts, ‘A fuckin’ massive kick.’
Hard to see now as darkness falls, but the kids, with eyes like cats, play on undeterred by the world’s transformations.
I sit on the garden wall under the light of a street lamp as the game fizzles out, darkness the ultimate victor.
‘Hiya, Franky,’ says Freddy, coming to sit on the wall beside me. His voice is subdued, lacking its usual chirpiness. John Paul and Tomo join us. A gust blows up.
‘It’s raining leaves, Franky,’ says John Paul.
Freddy has a big bruise over his left eye.
‘Where did you get the shiner?’ I say.
‘Ah, it’s nothin’.’
Freddy says no more, making it clear that he doesn’t want to explain anything.
‘Fancy a mint?’ I say. I’ve been devouring mints ever since I gave up smoking a few years ago.
‘Are they the ones with the hole?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘they’re bad value.’
‘Thanks, Franky.’
‘Thanks, Franky.’
More kids approach and I’m soon cleaned out of sweets.
‘It’s a nice evenin’, Franky.’
I’m getting used to adult-speak, with kids that is. John Paul is right. The evening is nice, nice and dry, no wind (except for that odd gust), no frost, mild enough to sit outside on a garden wall.
John Paul nudges Tomo. ‘Go on tell him.’
Tomo hesitates.
‘Go on.’
‘We saw the English one.’
‘We saw her changin’.’
‘Through the window.’
‘We got a good decko from Freddy’s garden.’
‘We saw her diddies.’
For a moment I think they are testing me, that they know I’ve seen her too, and yet the tone is boastful, non-accusatory.
‘Your dog,’ I say, trying to change the subject, ‘I don’t hear him bark anymore.’
There is an immediate lull. The kids look at Freddy. Freddy lowers his head.
‘You don’t know the story?’
‘Tell him, Freddy.’
‘Yeah,’ shouts a chorus.
Freddy takes a butt of a cigarette and a match out of his trouser pocket He checks behind that no one is at his window, then strikes the match off the wall and, like an experienced smoker, cups his hand around the flame until he is puffing smoke.
‘Do you not think you’re a bit…?’
‘It calms me down.’
Calms him down. Sounds like a grown-up neurotic.
Freddy wets the tip of his finger and applies it to the side of the butt which is not burning evenly.
I suck on my mint.
‘Why are you always eating mints, Franky?’ asks John Paul.
‘It keeps me off those things,’ I say, pointing to Freddy’s stabber.
‘I feck them from me oul fella, from his breast pocket,’ Freddy says. ‘He never misses them. He comes in so pissed he doesn’t notice anythin’.’
‘Tell him what else you found,’ says John Paul.
Freddy hesitates.
‘Go on.’
‘You wont squeal?’
‘No,’ I say.
I don’t know why they’re taking me into their confidence. Maybe they don’t see me in the typical authoritarian light of an adult world. Maybe they can trace a lost childhood somewhere in my face.
‘He found a used johnny with the stabbers. Didn’t you, Freddy?’
‘Where is your da now?’ I say.
‘He’s fucked off on us.’
‘Will he be back?’
‘Who knows? Who cares?’
‘You were going to tell me about your dog.’
‘Maybe another time.’
‘Tell him,’ says John Paul.
‘Go on,’ says Tomo.
‘That dog was almost a purebred, what do they call it?’
‘He had pedigree,’ I say.
‘Yeah,’ says Freddy, ‘a cocker spaniel, but when I said that me oul fella said, “Cocker spaniel me arse; he’s half a cocker and half a conger eel”. He was a bit lame but he could still play with me.’
‘And me too,’ says John Paul
‘He played with all of us,’ says Tomo.
‘Me ma says he was lame because he was probably thrun out of a car after Christmas.’
He looks around, inhales deeply. ‘Anyways we’re goin’ down to the field by the canal. Melancholy’s sniffin’ about.’
‘How did he get the name?’ I say.
‘Me oul fella christened him. “Fuckin’ melancholy,” that’s what he said when he saw him. You know the way their eyes are, on cocker spaniels I mean, like they’re always cryin’?’ Anyways,’ he continues, ‘we’re down by the canal, Melancholy and me hidin’ behind a bush lookin’ at the ciderdrinkers standin’ around a fire when it happens.’
‘What happens?’ I say
‘Wait for it,’ says John Paul.
‘Give us another mint, Franky.’
‘He’s none left.’
‘A hand,’ says Tomo.
‘Let Freddy tell it,’ says John Paul.
‘I feel this hand tight on me mouth and I’m wheeled around to face a punk with purple hair. The punk blows smoke into me face. And he lifts up me hand.’
‘His left hand,’ says John Paul
‘He lifts up me left hand and presses his cigarette into it.’
‘The lit cigarette.’
‘Like it was an ashtray,’ says Tomo.
“‘Squeal scumbag,” he says, ‘but I don’t make a sound.’
‘Show him,’ says John Paul. ‘Show him the mark on your hand.’
Freddy shows me the burn in the centre of his left palm.
‘“Somethin’ stronger,” says the punk when I make no sound, and he takes out a blade real shiny.’
‘Ooooh,’ say the audience.
‘Melancholy jumps up on him and tears a piece out of his hand. The punk runs off down to the canal, cursin’ and screamin’. “ I’ll get you, Freddy Browne,” he shouts. “I’ll get you and your fuckin’ dog. Wait and see.’”
‘That was Spikey,’ says Tomo. ‘Spikey always produces the blade.’
‘Tomo knows about the ciderdrinkers,’ says Freddy. ‘His brother’s one of them.’
‘Not any more,’ says Tomo.
‘No, not anymore,’ says Freddy
‘No fuckin’ way.’
‘They’re going to get him,’ says John Paul.
‘No, they’re not,’ says Tomo.
‘Yes, they are. They’re goin’ to get him for rattin’.’
Freddy glances behind him.
‘You’re ma’s not lookin’.’
‘His ma thinks he’s a delinquent.’
‘Why does she think that?’
‘Because he goes off sometimes,’ says Tomo.
‘Is that true?’ I say.
‘He sells things as well.’
‘Sell things?’
‘Yeah, from shops.’
‘He sells batteries at half price if you ever want them,’ says John Paul.
‘For Walkmans,’ says Tomo.
‘Not just them. Other stuff as well,’ says Freddy.
‘Get on with the story,’ says Tomo. ‘I’ll be called in soon.’
‘We hear bangers explodin’. Melancholy doesn’t like the bangers; they frighten him, see, and he sort of makes a little cry every time one explodes. So I takes him home.’
‘Your ma gave us some stuff, ‘says John Paul.
‘Yeah, and then we all scarper down to the canal to watch the bonfires. We’re lookin’ at these for a while when Melancholy sidles up to me out of the blue. I point towards the house. I’m cross with him for getting out and he knows it; he puts his head down, whines a bit and limps away.’
‘They were gettin’ high on jungle juice,’ says John Paul.
‘They’re bleedin’ fireworks were rapeh,’ says Tomo, ‘so we leg it down to get a better look.’
‘We smell the rubber of the car tyres burnin’.’
‘Then we notice it.’
‘Notice what?’ I say.
‘They take a dog out of a sack,’ says Tomo. ‘His mouth all taped up.’
I look at Freddy. He has gone silent. He is breathing heavily. Tears are welling.
‘Flames are jumpin’, hands are wavin’ like in a dance.’
‘Tell him what you feel, Freddy.’
‘I feel the heat of the fire burnin’ into me and I can taste the vomit risin’.’
‘The dog’s legs are tied,’ says John Paul.
Freddy takes an inhaler out of his pocket. Sucks frantically. ‘Kick out, Melancholy,’ he cries. ‘Kick out. Jesus will come.’

from The Avenue ‘a work of passion and truth’ Declan Kiberd.


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Special offer until 12th December American Doll and For Love of Anna only 99 pence/cent

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Short Story in The Honest Ulsterman

Delighted to see my short story Night Watch published in the prestigious literary journal The Honest Ulsterman which is now online. Prose – Honest Ulsterman http://humag.co/prose/night-watch#.V_uM5XH5u00.twitter …


Signing copies of new novel

I will be signing copies of my new novel American Doll, which is shortlisted for the Carousel Aware Prize, in Maynooth Bookshop at 3 pm next Monday (10/10/16) in the company of my namesake James Lawless TD. If you are free and in the area you are welcome to call in for a chat. www.jameslawless.net
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