Orna Mulcahy selects eight books to read this month …
If January is about holding back and denying yourself after the excess of Christmas, then I urge you to pre-order Joseph O’Connor’s latest book and count the days until comes out at the end of the month. MY FATHER’S HOUSE (Harvill Secker, €17) is a riveting historical thriller set in Nazi-occupied Rome and largely based on real life characters. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – an Irish priest known as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican – is on a mission to rescue Allied soldiers and Jewish refugees from the clutches of the Nazis at the height of the Second World War. On his cassock-tails is Gestapo leader Paul Hauptmann, a hideously smooth killer who purrs through Rome in an armour-plated Mercedes. From the safety of the neutral Vatican City, O’Flaherty sets up an Escape Line, helped by an unlikely band of associates – the group masquerading as a choir. The key characters are based on real people: Delia Murphy was a well-known singer and wife of the Irish ambassador to Rome at the time; Major Sam Derry was a POW escapee; Sir D’Arcy Osbourne was British ambassador to the Holy See and colourful John May was his righthand man. The book is told from all their viewpoints along with those of an Italian countess and a Danish woman journalist who writes stories on the hidden treasures of Rome. Meeting in a forgotten Vatican building full of damaged statues, the Choir arranges fundraising and manages a network of safe spaces for escapees, housing many of them in ancient passages beneath the Holy See. Tensions mount as the group plans its most ambitious rescue yet for Christmas Eve 1943. The sheer terror of night is brilliantly encapsulated by O’Connor, who had full access to a trove of documents, letters and journals owned by the O’Flaherty family.
It’s all in the title with REALLY GOOD, ACTUALLY (Fourth Estate Ltd, €17.40), Monica Heisey’s millennial tale of marriage gone wrong. Twenty-nine-year-old Maggie is getting divorced and hating every minute of it. She cries, rants, buys a ton of stuff online and lives on late night burger deliveries. She quickly learns to interrupt people when they talk to her about kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing cracked porcelain. Jon meanwhile has taken their cat with him and won’t answer her messages but at least she doesn’t sleep with his best friend Calvin when the opportunity arises. Heisey is very funny, as you’d expect from someone whose TV writing credits include Schitt’s Creek. She brilliantly skewers personal growth mantras as Maggie struggles through therapy with the one aim of getting Jon back.
Debut author Fran Littlewood brews a bitter stew of maternal guilt and hormonal mayhem in AMAZING GRACE ADAMS (Michael Joseph, €17.40). Forty-five-year-old Grace, fluent in several languages and a one-time game show host, is in a bit of mess but what kind of mess, you will be wondering, as she abandons her car in a traffic jam and sets out to buy a cake in the midst of a heatwave. Is it because her husband has left her? Or that her daughter is skipping school, or that she can’t control her menopausal fury at things? Cake in hand, she strides through London, hot, blistered and beset by memories that become more painful as Grace finally confronts her little family’s terrible loss. I was wiping away tears by the end of this story, but there is such insight and humour too. Throw in a harried GP, a mother-in-law from hell and the PTA nosey parker of the year, and Grace Adams emerges as something of a hero.
How would it feel to walk away from one’s life – family, job, friends and possessions? Constance Debré has done it in real life and her second memoir, LOVE ME TENDER (Tuskar Rock, €17.40), translated by Holly James, documents how it feels. She leaves her well-off husband, starts to date women, stops working as a lawyer and surrenders her son after years of wrangling through the family courts. Even though she eventually wins visiting rights, her son isn’t sure he wants to be with her. She swims to stay sane, bedhops between women but soon tires of their demands. The book ends with a note of hope but it’s a harsh existence all the same.
Praised by Colm Tóibín and Ann Patchett, GROUNDSKEEPING (Faber, €9.50) is an American campus romance that’s had critics compare debut writer Lee Cole to Sally Rooney. Owen Callahan is an aimless young man who has come home to rural Kentucky to get back on his feet. Living with his grandfather and uncle, both Trump supporters, he hopes to become a writer and, in the interim, works as a tree-cutter in the local university which allows him access to creative writing classes. When he meets Alma, a young poet originally from Bosnia, who’s on a prestigious fellowship, they fall into an uncertain relationship overshadowed by their very different backgrounds.
Aidan Cottrell-Boyce’s THE END OF NIGHTWORK (Granta Books, €15) is a curious, demanding book that lingers in the mind. Narrator Por has a hormonal disorder that keeps him unnaturally young for years, then makes his body leapfrog through decades overnight. He and his wife, a teacher, have a son, Jesse, and lead a seemingly normal life though Pol’s academic career has stalled. However, Pol’s obsessive interest in the writings of 17th-century Puritan prophet Bartholomew Playfere and his exposure, through tutoring a wheelchair-bound teenager, to a radical new movement, puts his family at risk and threatens the return of his terrifying condition.
American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis is about to publish THE SHARDS, his first novel in 13 years (Swift Press, £25). A mash-up of fact and fiction, it’s narrated by Bret, a middle-aged novelist who recalls events at his posh LA school in 1981. A new boy joins the class and is quickly absorbed into Bret’s friend group, but who is he exactly? They can’t work him out, but there are other things to worry about such as the serial killer they call The Trawler who’s on the loose and seemingly heading in their direction.
Finally, I’m looking forward to reading THE MARRIAGE ACT by John Marrs (Macmillan, £16.99), a near-future thriller in which a right wing government extends its powers in the home, using AI to monitor relationships and interfere in struggling marriages. It’s set in the same creepy world as The One, his 2016 thriller about a DNA matchmaking service gone wrong that has been made into a Netflix series.
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