Debut Roundup. May/June

Posted by Sue Leonard on Thursday 4th May 2017


Ithaca. Alan McMonagle. Picador.

The Galway writer, Alan McMonagle already has two short story collections to his name; both were longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, so he has proven his worth. This experience shows. From his debut’s first line it is clear that the author has a fresh, original voice.

Set post Celtic Tiger, the book opens at the start of summer. It’s a small midlands town, and Jason Lowry is trying to deal with his Ma; a woman with obvious charms, who props herself up with vodka, and gets her kicks from joyriding.

Life’s not all roses for her son, either. It’s tough being 11. Especially if you don’t know who your Da is, and your Ma keeps inventing illnesses for you, to keep her creditors at bay. He wanders the town, observing life amongst those who live on rich hill, as well as the down and outs.

Then he meets a girl at the swamp, and she seems even more lost than he is. She talks of escape; and of running to Ithaca, and Jason is delighted to join her on her flights of fancy. But when his Ma runs off, leaving the two to run riot, it becomes clear that Jason isn’t as independent as he would like to believe.

At times funny, at others heart-rending, this fast moving tale is full of verve. It reminded me of the early books of Roddy Doyle; there is that same raw energy, and instinctive understanding of humanity.


The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice. Ronan Ryan. Tinder Press.

Jimmy is born into a troubled home. His brother dies in an accident leaving his mother seriously depressed. His sister Elizabeth, meanwhile, blaming herself for the accident, retains traumas of her own.

Jimmy doesn’t exactly sail through life; he has a habit of getting into trouble, and has lost body parts through messing with ferocious dogs, and vicious criminals; but such things never seem to get him down. And besides, he has Tighe, his older brother, the successful businessman on side. Doesn’t he?

A complex character, Jimmy is all heart. He’s a true and loyal friend, thus showing his tender side. But he’s vulnerable and easily led, so he continues to attract trouble by the bucket load. Then he falls in love with Nicole. Can she save him and lead him, finally, to happiness?

This assured debut is narrated by Jimmy’s twin, who died at birth. It’s an interesting device, and allows the author to explore the two sides of Jimmy’s personality, the one observing the life and the one living in.

The author gives the living Jimmy a section of his own in the form of a journal that charts his affair with Nicole. This change of tone rather slows the narrative, and makes the book unnecessarily long. That’s a pity; but it didn’t stop my admiration for the writing. Highly experimental, the debut is well and thoughtfully written. We’ll be hearing more from Ronan Ryan.


The Doctor’s Wife is Dead. Andrew Tierney. Penguin Ireland. 

In 1849 Ellen Langley, a doctor’s wife, died in Nenagh, County Tipperary. Used to a life of grand dinner parties, she married the doctor relatively late in life. She was older than him, but he was prosperous, and no doubt she expected that life would continue much as it had before.

If so, it was a rude awakening. Openly unfaithful, the doctor treated her cruelly, and after confining her to the attic of his house and half starving her, he sent her to the cheapest lodging house he could find. She returned home before her death, but was buried in a pauper’s coffin.

Did she die of natural causes, or did her husband poison her? The locals, appalled by the story, suspected the latter. There was huge interest in his sensational trial.   

I don’t, generally, include history in this column, but The Doctor’s Wife is Dead reads more like a novel than a historical account of a murder trial. The author is a relative of Ellen Langley, and was interested to know why she had been written out of family history.

Little is known of Ellen, so we don’t hear her voice, but through examining the life of her husband, and reporting the words of those who did know her, we are given a pretty good interpretation of her troubled life.

That the author uses the trial to give us an insightful look into the lives of the middle and ruling classes during the time of the famine, is a welcome bonus. He writes in an accessible style, and has produced a quite riveting history.


The Inheritance. Ally Bunbury. Poolbeg.

Anna Rose’s high flying job in PR takes her to a world of glitz which is far removed from her big house Irish childhood. When she falls in love with George Wyndham, and he, the most eligible bachelor in London appears to love her back, her life seems complete.

But that’s before the small-time Hollywood actress, Sofia Tamper, and her conniving mother Blaise, blast their way into the aristocrat’s life, so threatening his inheritance. George is forced to make a difficult choice; that between love and his estate.

As the wife of historian, Turtle Bunbury, and as a former PR queen, Ally is familiar with the world she writes about. And it shows. Following in the footsteps of Jilly Cooper, Ally combines that country life of wellingtons, horses and black Labradors, with the eccentric excess to be found at madcap events and parties.

Some of the minor characters, there to advance the plot are somewhat one dimensional, but that’s allowed in this genre, and to the main she has peopled the book with characters we care about. At best the writing is empathetic and sensitive, and I particularly liked her portrayal of a fond but stale marriage as depicted by Anna’s parents.

Gilda – Anna’s PR boss is interesting too. Living on the edge, her personal life is in jeopardy; this gives a realistic edge to the humourous portrayal.  Zipping along, this is a perfect indulgence read, and is sure to win the author many fans.


The Cinderella Reflex. Joan Brady. Poolbeg. 

This debut is set in the world of media – at a radio station – an environment the author knows well. A journalist, she became a researcher, then a producer at RTE. She has set her tale in small town Ireland. The scatty Tess is a researcher working for Helene at a local radio station that may now go national.

It’s tough job. Helene is a hard taskmaster, and the presenter, Ollie Andrews, a man with lots of ego, but little talent, can be a nightmare to work with. When she is offered an agony aunt spot on air, she makes a poor fist of it and life starts to unravel. With real life no picnic, she dreams of being swept away by a Prince Charming, and when her ex resurfaces, she decides to give him another chance.

Meanwhile Helene has problems of her own. Her affair with a married man in jeopardy, the politics at the station start to get her down. Will the two women learn to give in to their emotions and accept that love can be found in unexpected places?

This is well written book with a lively set of characters and some good scene setting. Perfect for the fireside or the beach.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, May 2017

© Sue Leonard. 2017

Leave a Reply