Book Review: Malcolm Orange Disappears


Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson, is a gloriously quirky story about an eleven year old boy, his flighty family, and the residents of the Baptist Retirement Village where he finds the best friends he has ever had in his short but eventful life.

Prior to moving to the Portland village, Malcolm had travelled across nineteen American states, his family dealing with every ontoward predicament by absconding. Crushed into the backseat of his father’s ancient but reliable Volvo, along with a slowly diminishing collection of grandparents and assorted possessions, Malcolm develops neuroses linked to a plethora of potential hazards, from diarrohea to roundabouts to dreams. When he notices small perforations appearing all over his body he fears that he is in danger of entirely disappearing.

From his father, Malcolm has learned to lie imaginatively and proficiently. Malcolm’s view of life has been forged from beauty parlour magazines, inappropriate films and snippets of overheard adult conversation. He hates his father so when the man abandons his family, including his recently born and very forgettable second son, Malcolm is delighted. His mother is not and descends into a gloomy stupor leaving Malcolm to fend largely for himself.

The retirement village is a welcome, permanent home after so many years of living out of a car and cheap motels. Malcolm observes each of the elderly residents in turn, learning of their habits, foibles and ailments. These men and women have lived their varied lives, dealt with hardships and the expectations of others. They have become what they are due to choices made, sometimes regretted, and circumstances accepted alongside those beyond their control. They may now be feeble in body and mind but each retains a healthy dislike of the pernicious Director in charge of the facility in which they have been placed.

Malcolm’s arrival is followed by that of the Director’s teenage daughter, a wilful child whose resentments against her divorced parents cause her to create mayhem whenever she spies an opportunity. Malcolm is in thrall to her, unused as he is to interacting with anyone close to his own age. He confides his discovery of his perforations and the fears he harbours of his imminent disappearance, but is met with derision. It is his elderly friends who recognise his distress and take up his cause.

I have long been a fan of the author’s writing and this, her debut novel, is no exception. It is fluid, original and very funny. Her eye for detail as she recounts the quirks of each character is fabulous. She offers up the foolish and absurd with a sympathetic wit; her perceptions and understated wisdom are a joy to read.

It is not a straightforward tale. There is the disappearing boy, a talking cat, and a profusion of people so preoccupied with their personal concerns that they cannot see beyond their own desires. At face value there are elements of the surreal, but the message at its heart is universal.

An entertaining, life affirming, unorthodox story that I enjoyed immensely. This book deserves to be widely read.


Book Review: Vinny’s Wilderness

vinny's wilderness

Vinny’s Wilderness, by Janet Shepperson, explores the lasting impact of school exams, especially on those deemed failures at a young age. Set in Belfast, where the continuing prevalence of grammar schools requires that ten year olds are groomed to sit selection tests in order to gain entry to the ‘good’ schools, it introduces us to two very different families.

Vinny is a single mother, a divorced teacher raising her daughter in the least sectarian area of the city she can afford. Alex is a stay at home mum of three, the wife of a wealthy doctor living in a large property off the moneyed Malone Road. She employs Vinny to tutor her youngest child for the transfer test, still commonly called the eleven plus, as he is struggling to grasp the concepts required to gain the sought after A/B grade.

Vinny’s home is small and untidy, her garden wild and overgrown, a haven for children’s play and imagination. She has taken on the tutoring to raise money to take her daughter, Roisin, on a summer holiday. Roisin is on the cusp of adolescence, an intelligent child who will not have to sit the transfer test as she is to attend one of the few integrated schools which cater for all abilities as well as both sides of the sectarian divide.

Alex’s home is as perfectly toned and groomed as its mistress. Both have featured in the glossy Interiors magazines that grace a polished coffee table. The glazed sun room is devoid of a single fingerprint, smudge or blemish. Even the garden is manicured to within an inch of its life. Alex’s elder two children are heading towards the successful careers expected in such a family. Her younger son, Denzil, is the anomaly, a dreamy child who relishes creativity and the great outdoors. His father blames Alex for what he regards as his son’s failings, pointing out that she attained a mere C in her eleven plus.

In a society where each person’s perceived intelligence may be judged by the school they attended from age eleven, exams take on a stratospheric importance to aspirational parents. Alex may have attended the school for those expected to be failures in life but she subsequently reinvented herself as a supportive, trophy wife, essential to the smooth management of her accomplished husband’s immaculate home. Vinny, who passed her eleven plus and thereby attended a coveted grammar school, became a teacher but was apparently less successful when it came to her personal life.

Vinny has, however, been happier since her divorce. She is now able to relax in a home that welcomes her children’s friends, never worrying about muddy footprints, creative mess, or the timing, style and contents of an evening meal. In contrast Alex appears brittle and on edge as she scurries too and fro trying to fit her home and children into her husband’s precise mould.

As Alex and Vinny grow closer they learn of each other’s pasts and start to influence their futures. Vinny’s comfortable chaos is threatened, Alex’s ordered life develops cracks.

As a native of Belfast I relished the memories so poignantly evoked. The author has captured the vernacular as well as the attitudes of a place where a portion of the population fights to remain a part of a kingdom whose laws it rejects, while others prioritise wider family over home. I enjoyed the small part played by the German lady whose pithy comments on the education system, and on grown men who spend too much time with their mothers, offered humorous truths to be pondered.

This is a tale of friendship, motherhood, and the importance of substance in a life judged by wrappings. It invites the reader to reflect on the weight given to homogenisation in education, leading to the segregation of those who do not fit and subsequent outcomes that affect all. It is a reminder that intelligence, academic and emotional, is more than providing prescribed answers in a child’s test.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.

Book Review: Children’s Children

Children's Children Front for Web

Children’s Children, by Jan Carson, is a collection of fifteen short stories exploring the concept of legacy and the influence of one generation upon the next. Many are set in and around particular streets in Belfast. They capture the cut and concerns of the people of this city to perfection.

The author writes with a distinct and original voice. Her prose is rich and satisfying offering up the humour and poignancy of the folk she creates with heart-rending perceptiveness. She inhabits their troubles allowing the reader to get to know their true selves better than they would ever be comfortable with. Their cultural reticence and need to be seen in a certain way is as darkly comic as it is tragic, yet they are presented in a way that cannot help but create sympathy for the situations they must survive.

Each of the stories offer insight into typical family dilemmas: ageing, bereavement, guilt, resentment, the misunderstandings that exist between the sexes and the generations. Some of the tales are told in a straightforward style whilst others stray into allegory and surrealism. Always the prose is beautifully structured, the words invade the senses. These are snapshots of ordinary lives being lived in all their glorious, wretched humanity.

It was pure pleasure to read these tales. The author has an eye and a zest for what is behind the facades people present to others, and can capture these observations with turns of phrase that delight. I could quote again and again but out of context the acuity may be lost. Buy this book and enjoy for yourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press. 


Q&A with Liberties Press

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Today I welcome Seán from Liberties Press, Ireland’s leading independent publisher, to my blog. Founded in 2003, they publish non-fiction, fiction and poetry. I am delighted that they have agreed to take part in this series.

Liberties appeared on my radar when they published Jan Carson’s debut novel ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’. I hope to review Jan’s next book, a short story collection titled ‘Children’s Children’, in the coming weeks. You may check out my thoughts on another of Liberties’ titles, ‘Citizens’ by Kevin Curran, by clicking here.

Without further ado let us find out more about a publisher who believes that,

“important as it is for a publisher to produce an attractive book, to the highest editorial, print and design standards, it is equally necessary to make sure that that book reaches as many potential readers as possible, in whatever format they like to read, and wherever they are in the world.”

1. Why did you decide to set up Liberties Press?

To publish the best writing, both fiction and non-fiction, from Ireland.

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

We started with political biographies (Garret FitzGerald and President Michael D. Higgins) and practical guides, then moved into debut and emerging fiction (Declan Burke, Caitriona Lally, Frankie Gaffney and Kevin Curran).

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors?

We receive hundreds of submissions every year – all of which are assessed and responded to – and work with all the leading literary agents in Dublin and London.

4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

They say that a book hasn’t been published until someone’s read it: producing a wonderful book is only half the battle. It’s a great thrill to see people buying – and reading – a book you’ve worked hard on. As with everything else, the more effort you put into marketing, the greater the rewards. We’ve also tried to be innovative in terms of who we sell to: we’ve worked with many of Ireland’s leading companies and state agencies.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

We’re no longer the new kids on the block, and are delighted to see a new crop of publishers coming through. (This didn’t happen during the recession, when several publishers closed their doors for good.) Despite what some people think, bookshops, book publishers and book printers have a bright future. I hope the quality of the design, promotion and editing of our books speaks for itself, but we don’t rest on our laurels. We’ve run popup bookshops, and have a direct link with customers through Liberties Upstairs.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

We try to do both. Our fiction is cutting-edge, I hope, but in non-fiction, the tried-and-tested subjects have plenty of life left in them, whether it’s the 1916 Rising or the Euro 2016 football championships.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

E-books have rarely made up more than 5 percent of our sales. I believe they will go the way of audio books: a niche market. People like to unwind with a book – and keep it afterwards – and that means hard copy. The people pushing e-books were the ones selling the devices. E-book-only publishers haven’t fared as well as they had anticipated.

8. Do you consider Liberties Press niche or mainstream?

Mainstream but maverick: we want to sell books to everyone, but hope you’ll be challenged by what you read.

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

Publishing is a collaborative process – which is something authors would do well to remember. If you want the best from everyone, be professional and pleasant. No prima donnas! As for my personal style, you’d have to ask my colleagues!

10. Plans for the future?

We’re proud to describe ourselves as Ireland’s leading independent publisher, and are seeing significant growth in the UK and US markets. The first ten years of a business are about survival; over the next ten, we’re focusing on growth. The growth of Liberties Press in the coming years will be driven by returning emigrants, bringing their skills – and interests – back to Ireland.

Thank you Seán for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Liberties Press

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: Liberties Press (@LibertiesPress)

Children's Children Front for Web    Citizens For Web

If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers

Book Review: Citizens

Citizens For Web

Citizens, by Kevin Curran, captures the voice of the young, disaffected in Ireland, some of whom choose to emigrate in the hope of a better life, and juxtaposes their story with one from a century before, when their forbears rose up to fight those who were running their country for personal gain. It is unsettling in its clarity. In the contemporary timeline the elderly look to the young to stay and defend what they consider was hard won by their parents, unable to recognise that their own motives are selfish; they wish to keep their family around them for company and control. The historical chapters illustrate that a revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.

Neil is twenty-six years old, unemployed, and living from weekend to weekend that he may get wasted on drink and drugs, and party with his friends. His girlfriend has recently emigrated to Canada. What was meant to be a new start for both of them has been delayed due to the death of Neil’s grandfather and the promise of an inheritance. Neil now joins his aunts and uncles in looking after his elderly grandmother while he tries to unearth what it is that he has been bequeathed.

Neil lived with his grandparents after his mother died so is close to the old lady. When he is with her she asks him to read letters from her father who, when he was Neil’s age, was a part of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. This man, Harry Casey, captured images of the historic event on his Pathé hand cranked 35mm motion picture camera. His involvement with the insurrection is detailed in the letters Neil reads but it is believed that the film itself was lost in a fire. As the story unfolds Neil finds clues that suggest this may not have been the case. He wonders how much such rare archive footage could be worth. 

We are offered the story of Neil and the story of Harry side by side. Neil believes that Ireland has let his generation down, that his country is a lost cause to which he owes nothing. He is desperate to cash in on the letters, to find the film if it still exists and sell it to the highest bidder. Harry, it would appear, had been willing to die for the betterment of his country. Neil’s grandmother believes that her children and grandchildren should feel duty bound to remain in deference to the sacrifices made by him and his peers.

The tightly woven narrative is written in a voice that is distinctly Irish. Neil’s frustration with his life, his love for his grandmother, his impatience with her ideals, emanate from each page. The greed of her children and her knowledge of this add poignancy. The aunts and uncles see an investment, not a home; valuable assets rather than treasured momentos. Their mother cannot comprehend that they do not share her experiences which are what make these possessions so valuable to her.

The supporting cast are deftly presented to provide alternative voices. Enda appears as the antithesis of Neil with his love of history and culture. Neil looks to his girlfriend, Kathy, to save him from the drudgery of his life but struggles with the price she demands. The simmering discontents within the family are razor sharp. The hubris of the politicians is all too recognisable in both eras.

A skilfully crafted montage that vividly brings to life two periods of Irish history. Whilst it does not attempt to offer answers, it will urge the reader to ponder the issues explored.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.