An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Read: 29 December, 2013

Barry Laverty has taken a position as a doctor’s assistant in the small Irish village of Ballybucklebo – a town so small that he can barely find it on the map. When he arrives only to find the doctor, his new boss, in the middle of throwing a patient into a bush, he realises that his new life may take some getting used to.

An Irish Country Doctor is a sweet little read, unchallenging but enjoyable and heart-warming. The characters, though often rather stereotypical for this sort of story, are by measure amusing and sympathetic. The setting invokes a nostalgia for the simple country life, albeit one that the novel reminds us is in the middle of changing. As the author points out in his opening note: “The rural Ulster that I have portrayed has vanished.”

I was rather disappointed with the characterization of the love interest, Patricia. She is studying to be an engineer – hard enough for a woman today, let alone in the ’60s. Yet when she expresses her frustration, Barry somehow manages to make it all about him and how uncomfortable her feelings are for him. And though many events and conversations in the story should have given Barry some perspective on what Patricia was talking about, he never seems to make the connection – he never even tries to understand where she is coming from. The whole book is, at least in part, about him learning to see things the way his patients see them so that he can provide them with care that they will understand and accept, yet he just frustratingly manages never to apply that new-found skill to the one person he ought to have every motivation in the world to try and understand.

It’s a small complaint, though, since Patricia occurs only infrequently and is rather inconsequential to the plot.

The writing is solid, very readable. The pepperings of Ulster dialect/slang is a nice touch. The book is a great light, fluffy read to escape from a bad or stressful day.

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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Read: 23 January, 2013

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Francis McCourt’s childhood, first as a young child to Irish parents in America, and then growing into adulthood in Limerick, Ireland. It’s a childhood of extreme poverty, and all of consequences of that.

It’s a brutal book, and it never lets up. Several reviewers have called the book a “laundry list of the terrible things that happen to the McCourt family,” and in many ways that’s pretty accurate. The happiest moments of the novel, when little Frankie forms a connection with two separate girls, end with those girls dying. Yeah, that’s the kind of book this is.

I quite liked the writing style. I know that there are many who found it irritating, but the short sentences gave it that breathlessness that children get when telling a story. For me, this served to reflect the narrator’s youth during the events of the book, and it heightened its impact.

In some ways, given how relentlessly depressing the book is, I kept expecting it to get worse. Every time Frankie was alone with a priest, I thought “oh no, this is where it happens…” But, thankfully, it never does.

One thing that impressed upon me as I was reading was Frankie’s vulnerability and passivity. Even as an adult, when he’s finally making decisions for himself and leaving Ireland, he has very little say in what happens to him. Though bound for New York, the boat captain simply decides to go to Albany instead and he is forced to come along. When they make a stop and a woman decides to have sex with him, he can do little other than lie down and accept her advances. He may enjoy it and be glad it happened, but it’s still something that happens to him.

It was a frustrating read, of course, as so many of the problems stem from the father’s alcoholism, the mother’s complacency, and the lack of knowledge of both. But all the characters – even the father who takes his dole money to the pub while his children starve at home – are treated with such compassion that it’s hard to feel anything other than pity for the whole family.

It’s a wonderful book full of interesting characters and funny moments and sadness… It would have been so easy for McCourt to write with anger, to lay blame with the various individual choices, institutions, and the sexism that cause nearly all of the suffering he describes. But instead, he merely relays his experiences and we are left to draw our own complicated conclusions.

I highly recommend reading Angela’s Ashes. Just remember to keep tissues handy.

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The Greener Shore by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 17 March, 2009

In this sequel to Druids, Ainvar escapes from a Roman-ruled Gaul to the shores of Hibernia. Once there, he must learn the ways of Eriu, a strange woman who speaks to him from the Otherworld. As he forges a place for himself and his large family among the Gaels, he manages to tread on the toes of some locals. Unfortunately, his druidic powers have deserted him since the battle of Alesia, leaving him vulnerable. Meanwhile, Cormiac Ru must find the long-lost Maia, whom he believes himself destined to marry despite the fact that she was stolen and sold into Roman slavery as an infant.

POSITIVE: Llywelyn’s writing style has not much changed in the years between Druids and Greener Shore. This new novel has most of the same strengths and flaws as its predecessors. While this can certainly be a negative (it would have been nice to see the author correct what had held Druids back from being a great novel), I found it a positive – if only because Greener Shore didn’t suffer from the all-too-common sequel-itis. This was not a novel released hurriedly in the hopes that it would ride its predecessor’s laurels.

As in Druids, the beginning was rather painful, but the story soon picked up. I managed to fly through two-hundred pages in just a few hours.

NEGATIVES: There didn’t seem to be much direction to the novel. Druids had the creation of the Gaulish federation and the defeat of Caesar, but Greener Shore lacked any kind of similar goal. Rather, the plot ambled along until it reached an epiphany, but this was done in a rather lack-luster way. Had the epiphany been very good, or had the journey been dotted with thought-provoking insight, this would have been fine. Unfortunately, Greener Shore lacked both. Those many sayings peppering the novel that were clearly meant to be “deep” were rather quite obvious and common to most books that seek depth. Those little surprising, funny, and interesting sayings that sometimes found their way into Druids were lacking here.

I also found exposition of what had happened in the previous novel to be rather heavy-handed. I wish Llywelyn had either sought to make Greener Shore a stand-alone part of a saga, or a straight sequel of Druids. Instead, she gave it a completely different feel (which is a completely waffly term, I know – but it’s the best I can come up with) while constantly bogging it down with “as you know, Martha” moments where characters narrate the events of the first novel to characters who had been present! I raised a similar complaint when I read Druids. Llywelyn spends far too much time on exposition and simply does not seem to trust her readers.

The Greener Shore is only a sequel of Druids in the sense that it involves many of the same characters and takes place after the events of the early book. Yes, that sounds like the definition of a sequel, but Greener Shore is an entirely different book with a completely different story to tell. Change the names and strike out the cumbersome “in the last episode” passages and it would function perfectly as an independent novel. Those wanting more Druids will be disappointed. Those wanting more Llywelyn will not.

P.S.: If anyone can tell me why Ainvar keeps refering to Ireland by its Roman name instead of the name the Gaels use, please explain it to me. I would have assumed that he would be eager to accept just about anything other than the Roman designation. All I can think is that it was supposed to have some sort of symbolic significance when, at the end, he talks about remembering Eriu, but it just doesn’t make sense to me.

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