Debut Roundup. July/August 2018

Posted by Sue Leonard on Tuesday 31st July 2018

Problems Jade Sharma. Tramp Press. 

Maya has problems. Living in New York, she’s been married for seven months to Peter. He’s good to her, but she wants nothing more then for him to leave her. Embroiled in an affair with a much older man, because he doesn’t care about her, and anyway, she’s always cheated, she spends her days masturbating, instead of finishing her thesis.

Her mother – who has always been toxic – has terminal MS, and when she spends Christmas with Peter’s family, she swears she can’t stand their closeness, yet ends up admitting to herself that she’s jealous of it, too. And when her wish comes true, and Peter does leave her, her life unravels.

Maya’s underlying problem is her addiction. Uncomfortably ‘clean’ over Christmas, she gives in to drug taking when Peter departs, funding her habit in unsavoury ways. But the relationship never stood a chance.

‘Whenever a man told me he loved me, I imagined how one day the same man would tell me that I was a crazy bitch, because I am a crazy bitch.’

At the start of the debut, I worried the author was writing for the shock factor alone, but her prose is so funny, heart felt and honest, that within pages I’d become hooked. And the pace never flags. The book is full of one liners which whilst hilarious, are also insightful, and sometimes poignant.

It’s clever too. Whatever one starts out thinking about Maya, by the close of the novel, I defy anyone not to wish her well. Because whilst she’s lying to the world, letting down her employers, her friends, and those she loves, she’s also dishonest with herself. And her raw pain seeps through the humour. The innovative Tramp Press have always sought out original and excellent writing, and with Problems they’ve hit gold.


To Be a Machine. Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.  Mark O’Connell. 

Mark O’Connell is scared of death. Mortality, and the inadequacies of the human body have been on his mind since the birth of his son five years ago. And it was this fear that set him off on an exploration of Transhumanism – a movement whose aim is to use technology to change the human condition, and to improve us, bodies and minds, so that we become more machine and less animal.

Investigating, he visited transhumanists in Silicon Valley. He went to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a crypto preservation facility who keep corpses suspended in some liminal stasis until science advances to a stage where it can bring them back to life.

He meets Tim, a man whose goal is to ‘peacefully and passionately explore the universe for all eternity.’ A former addict, Tim was attracted to transhumanism through a desire to be free of human urges. He has an implant in his arm, as the first stage of becoming more machine, less human.

Mark meets those progressing Artificial Intelligence, and comes to the terrifying conclusion that, with few scientists engaged in studying the safety of the enterprise, if they succeed in their aims, they could kill us all.

Mark’s background lies in Academia and journalism. His PhD examined the novels of John Banville. He’s neither a transhumanist nor a scientist, yet this debut earned him the prestigious Wellcome Prize worth thirty-four thousand euro, awarded for a work that illuminates the ways health and medicine touch our lives.

It’s a glorious read, even for those of us less scientifically inclined. The author uses metaphor to explain the more complex issues, making it easy for everyman to understand the bizarre movement.

He explores the ways in which science replaces religion in this wish to cheat death, and he cites Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium in which the poet expresses his desire for liberation from human form. Full of style and humour, the book has welcome novelistic flourishes. Observations and descriptions ensure that it springs to life. This is a gem.


Black Water by Cormac O’Keefe. Black and White Publishing.

This gritty thriller starts with a young boy, Jig, delivering a threatening letter to an elderly woman whose missing son has a drug debt. Working for a gangland leader, Ghost, he’s exhilarated, knowing it’s a job well done.

Ghost – and his main cohort Cracko –  rule the streets around a stretch of Dublin’s Grand Canal that’s not familiar to tourists; an area full of drug touts, burnt out cars, but a bit of natural beauty as well, with swans in the backdrop.

Jig hasn’t had a promising start. There’s no love from his alcoholic mother, and violent father; his brother Maggot, another of Ghost’s recruits, is no role model. He’s become a loose cannon – perpetrating appalling acts of violence – even setting a horse alight in an act of revenge.

Shay wants to save Jig. A man with a secret in his past, he coaches the teenage football team and sees an English trial as a way out of trouble for the talented Jig. But is Ghost’s influence already too great?

When a tragedy ensues, the action hots up. Garda Crowe, already on Ghost’s case, has more reason to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion. But will Jig be sacrificed in the fight for justice?

Generally, I find the grittier crime novels hard to stomach – preferring more gently paced police procedural books, but this debut blew me away. The characters were violent – yes – some of them would stop at nothing, and the visceral cruelty took my breath away, yet it never seemed gratuitous – simply what one might expect from characters who’ve led utterly deprived loveless lives.

As the security correspondent for the Irish Examiner, O’Keefe knows the world he writes about well – and this debut sings with authenticity. It’s a visual, sometimes tender read, and there are moments of humour to counteract the violence. I, literally, could not put it down – and look forwards to a sequel.


To Keep a Bird Singing. Kevin Doyle. The Blackstaff Press 

We move to inner Cork city for the debut novel from Kevin Doyle – a writer who has already seen success with short stories and a children’s picture book. To Keep a Bird Singing is a thriller, but concentrates on secrets from the past. We have corrupt gardaí, who, during the troubles dealt with IRA informers, dodgy property developers, politicians and clergy.

It’s 2010, and ex punk Noelie Sullivan is on the dole, a victim of the recession. Browsing in a charity shop, he finds a stack of records that he recognises. It’s his own collection, stolen from him during the eighties. Flicking through them, he finds a statement relating to Jim Dalton, a missing man from the past, and he decides to investigate.

There are immediate repercussions. He’s arrested and meets Garda Lynch, who detained him back in the eighties because he learned of Noelie’s planned protest against the visit of President Regan. Noelie has neither forgotten, nor forgiven Lynch for the beating he received back then.

The action hots up when Noelie’s house is trashed, and his teenage nephew goes missing. What follows is a thrilling tussle between the authoritarian bad guys, and Noelie, with the assistance of Hannah, an overworked small-time journalist. But why are the Special Branch so interested in his every move?

Cork City springs to life in this debut; the characters feel authentic, and the plot zings along. There were times I wondered at Noelie’s involvement – his investigations start before he’s discovered the document –  and he could have kept quiet when he did discover it – but that’s a quibble. This is an original, well written yarn.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, July/August 2018 edition.

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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