I am delighted (and relieved) to announce that the paperback of my book Contemporary Book Reviews is at last available on amazon.co.uk at http://lnnk.in/e2dk for £7.63 Apologies to anyone who had difficulty in obtaining it.
It is also available on amazon.com at https://amzn.to/3Lwh8Zp for $10 and in local bookshops including Bantry and Maynooth. It is also available in Kindle and ebook.
Sorry for any inconvenience which was beyond my control and I hope you enjoy the reviews. Kind regards, James.
A couple of samples:
Bryan Washington’s debut collection of short stories Lot won the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize and was hailed by Barrack Obama as one of his favourite books. So the author’s first novel Memorial was awaited with great anticipation in 2021.
Washington calls his novel ‘a gay slacker dramedy.’ It recounts the love affair between two twenty something gay men from Houston Texas: Benson, a black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese-American cook. Mike’s estranged father Eiju moved to Osaka and opened a bar there. And Mike flies out to him when he hears he is dying from cancer. Ironically, this happens at the same time that Mike’s sharp-tongued mother Mitsuko decides to visit. So Mike leaves her with Benson to share a flat and develop an awkward relationship in the ensuing months. But strangely, a compatible and even caring rapport develops between them.
The story is told alternately by Benson and Mike, but the tone of voice appears similar at times between the two narrators as the narrative flips back and forth in a somewhat disjointed fashion from Osaka to Houston with frequent flashbacks to childhoods and early relationships.
One wonders initially if the reader will really care about these characters with their dysfunctional and promiscuous lives, and where white kids are presented as a sinister or remote species who sometime ‘invade the block’. But as the novel progresses they grow on one in their clipped, uncommunicative ways and non-sequiturs.
The book is written in a modern, pared-down style. There are minimal descriptions, no inverted commas for speech, random question marks and paragraphs sometimes as short as one line. The book is full of street patois and text messages and emojis and current abbreviations and acronyms, almost instructing the reader to take note that this stuff is on the button, real and raw.
Although descriptions are brief, some of them pack a punch with lots of implied information. For example, on the break-up of the relationship of Mike’s parents, his father didn’t leave the house for a while:
He mostly sat on the porch
He started saying please.
Having incompetent parents can lead to humour as it falls to Benson’s sister Lydia to teach him the ways of the world, growing up, as she tries unknowingly to instruct her unwilling brother on how to kiss a girl.
Washington is very accurate with location, rendering Mike’s stay in Osaka quite visual. His father’s bar for example ‘sat a few minutes from his busted walk-up in Tennoji, beside a bakery and a tattered bookstore and another walk-up and two parking lots and like sixteen love hotels’.
Cooking plays a major role in the set scenes where there is a huge concentration of dialogue and showing Mike as particularly fond of preparing exotic dishes such as ‘udon cooked in a hot pot, beside abura-age and kamaboko…’
The sex scenes, while frequent, are not graphic and are presented almost distantly and in summary. The sex between the two often took place after an argument and would consist of ‘biting and clawing and crying. Squeezing each other until we were breathless. Afterward we lay on the mattress’.
The character of Eiju is wonderfully drawn. He is a tough old bird, uncompromising and refusing to go maudlin despite his slow disintegration. But his son remembers his kindnesses and gentleness towards him as a child: touching his hair, carrying him on his shoulders on a trip to San Francisco.
The ending of the novel is left loose with Mitsuko returning to Japan and the possibility of Mike following her later. And, as for Benson, we have to surmise whether he will join them or not.
First published in the Irish Examiner, 3/4/2021
We Are Not In the World
Guilt-ridden for having abandoned his daughter when his marriage broke up, middle-aged Irishman Paddy embarks on a haulage truck journey through France. The purpose of the journey, ostensibly to deliver a load of condiment sachets bound for Wolverhampton, is really to try to restore his relationship with his twentysomething rootless daughter whom he brings illegally with him. The daughter had gone AWOL and Paddy persuaded her to come back to him. His daughter’s lack of ease with the world is graphically illustrated by a tattoo of barbed wire on her arm. But she is not without humour in the frequent banter with her father as she chides him for example on St Paul’s Letter ‘to the chrysanthemums’.
As the truck ploughs the AutoRoute with its tasteless take-away food, ‘their cup of time forever full forever lukewarm,’ the rhythm of the journey unfolds stories and deeply emotive fragments of family history joltingly captured in the stop and start manner of trucking.
The dialogue of the fractious relationship between father and daughter is interspersed with incomplete sentences stabbing at our imaginations. And there are lots of simulated square boxes of text messaging in the novel to synchronise with the clipped prose as his boss Carl texts instructions about tachographs and deadlines, or his brother texts about the whereabouts of his god daughter.
Sometimes the narrative jars as it jumps from second to third person and occasionally there can be confusion as to whether Paddy is referring to his mother or his daughter, as both are named Kitty.
His brother Arthur, the favoured son, was sent to boarding school, effectively leaving home at twelve. This enabled Paddy to spend a lot of time with his mother with whom he shared a very tactile relationship, hinting of the risqué. And as he drives his truck he longs for those lost intimacies of their ‘mutual littoral solitude’ when he used to go swimming with her. But his mother was not always of this world and could be ‘lost in Proust’, which has reverberations for Paddy as, on the road, he weaves in and out of his own past life. Paddy’s brother, a successful businessman, and executer of their mother’s will, was the ‘responsible centre’ to Paddy’s ‘sleazy periphery’. He addresses Paddy as Fredo like Al Pacino’s ill-fated brother in The Godfather. When he coldly puts their aptly named family home Tír na nÓg up for sale, it invokes moments of nostalgia from Paddy.
It is left to the reader to fill in the obvious gaps in the prose. They are there partly to avoid clichés perhaps: ‘Your father would be grateful for a moment of your precious.’ In an interview O’Callaghan said: ‘As writers, trying to write—heaven help us—real literature, as Frost says, “that they can’t get rid of too easily,” the job is not to be competent in what you know you can already do. The job is to actually find a whole new level of selfhood in which, in a way you never knew you were capable of.’ And true to that dictum, in this novel there is original and almost Joycean playfulness with words such as abstract nouns for example being used as activators ‘Every togetherness would arrive…’ and O’Callaghan, an outstanding poet of collections such as The History of Rain and winner of the Patrick Kavanagh award, shows his poetic skills here with Paddy on the fringes endowed with some wonderful insights: ‘Our elders are the buffers between us and our own mortality. Once they’re gone, we’re next. And yet in spite of that, perhaps because of, we’re hardwired to daydream their non-existence into being’.
First published in the Sunday Independent, 21/02/2021