Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
April / May 2008


In 2005, The Sunday Business Post cited up-and-coming author John Boyne as one of 40 Irish people under 40 who were likely to be “the movers and shakers who will define the country’s culture, politics, style and  economics in 2005 and beyond.” Boyne is not only doing great in Ireland  but in America as well, where four of his books have First came The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which chronicled a child’s  efforts to grasp the holocaust which was unfolding almost literally in  his backyard. Then came Crippen: A Novel of Murder, another dark historical novel about a (somewhat) forgotten murder case which unfolded in  1910 and involved a mild-mannered doctor named Hawley Crippen.
Then came the Thief of Time, in which Boyne echoed Pete Hamill’s  Forever and gave us a story of a man blessed (or cursed) with eternal life. Now, in Next of Kin, Boyne explores the infamous British love affair  between Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson.  That famous story, however, serves  as more of a backdrop to other conflicts in Next of Kin. Boyne’s protagonist is the wealthy and prominent Owen Montignac, who  is hoping his late uncle will leave him enough money to continue living  well, not to mention pay off some gambling debts. If Owen doesn’t come up with a substantial amount of money, he has been told he will be killed. In desperation, it is Owen himself who may be forced to turn to murder.

In Next of Kin, Boyne continues to prove he is an excellent historical novelist, recreating 1930s London vividly, and painting a biting  portrait of the upper classes.

($24.95 / 368 pages / Thomas Dunne)

Ciaran Carson has just released a new translation of Ireland’s greatest epic tale, The Tain.  With the recent film version of Beowulf  hitting screens (and starring Angelina Jolie among others) now may be the time for readers to tackle this ancient classic Dating back to the eighth century, Tain Bo Cuailnge (as it is fully  known) is a heroic tale and, in the hands of Carson, a readily accessible  one.  Without minimizing the breadth and poetry of this story, Carson  also emphasizes the compelling nature of the plot.

($24.95 / 256 pages / Viking)

If they gave out awards for titles alone, Joseph Caldwell’s new novel The Pig Did It would surely win one. The book follows unhappy New York teacher, Aaron McCloud, as he heads to Kerry to wallow with relatives. Aaron’s Aunt Kitty is, to say the  least, a colorful personality. Things go awry when a lost pig not only begins hanging around Aunt Kitty’s, but also discovers a human  skeleton. Suddenly Aaron, Aunt Kitty and the pig are thrust into what may be a murder mystery. Caldwell’s comedy is sharp and though his publishers  should have resisted calling this a “shaggy pig story.”  The Pig  Did It is a great read.
($22.95 / 195 pages / Delphinium)


Though best known as the ultimate British sleuth, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was Irish, and born in Scotland, in 1859, as we learn in  Andrew Lycett’s new book The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life  and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
A biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas, Lycett now turns his attention to the man many consider to be the creator of mystery fiction. With access to thousands of previously unavailable documents, Lycett  explores the origins of Doyle’s interest in both science and  spirituality.

In 1866, Doyle published a story called A Study in Scarlet, the  first to feature a detective whose name was a combination of two of  Doyle’s classmates: Patrick Sherlock and Oliver Wendell Holmes Lycett writes: “Both sides of (Doyle’s) family came from Ireland.
So far as the record extends, Arthur’s grandfather John Doyle was a tailor’s son who started professional life as an equestrian artist in  Georgian Dublin. He won commissions from aristocratic patrons, including Lord Talbot, Lord Lieutenant during a politically turbulent period from 1817 to 1821, and the Second Marquess of Sligo. One thing is indisputable — the Doyles were devout Roman Catholics.”
This is certainly the definitive biography of a great Irish writer not often lumped with the 19th Century’s many other towering Irish literary figures.

($30 / 559 pages / Free Press)

Non Fiction
Two Irish-Americans have recently released books meant to feed the public’s apparently boundless fascination with the Mafia. For many years, Bob Delaney had a fine job as a professional basketball referee with the NBA.  Previously, he had worked as a New Jersey state  trooper. And as he now reveals in Covert, Delaney infiltrated the mob at the highest level. In a book certain to remind many of Donnie Brasco, we learn about the dangers of coming to close to organized crime killers. In fact, Delaney came across Joe Pistone, the real-life Donnie Brasco while both worked undercover.

In 1975, Delaney was practically still a rookie when he signed onto a project which would ultimately lock up key members of the Bruno and Genovese families, and pave the way for additional arrests by the federal  government in the 1980s. This is the fascinating story of how an Irish kid from New Jersey waded into the mob, survived, and then went on to have a second career in
pro basketball.
($19.95 / 288 pages / Union Square Press)

Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Jimmy Breslin is at it again, telling some of his favorite mob stories in The Good Rat.  The center of the book is Burton Kaplan, the titular rodent and star witness in the recent trial of the New York Police Department’s so-called  “mafia cops.” Using Burton Kaplan as a way into New York’s mob, Breslin takes us on a broader tour of the underworld.

We meet famous mobsters like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and “Gaspipe”  Casso. (Guess what his favorite weapon was?) But there’s also Thomas “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese, and Jimmy “The Clam” Eppolito, and many of  the guys who hung out at Pep McGuire’s, an infamous Queens bar. Breslin even takes us inside the world of John Gotti on the night he Celebrated his infamous acquittal at the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry  Street in Little Italy. (He basically bribed his way to innocence.) All of this is told with Breslin’s inimitable grit and humor, proving that after all these decades, Breslin is still a must read.

($24.95 / 288 pages / Ecco )
One of the most gruesome episodes in the history of the American West was the trek of the Donner Party in the 1840s. Irish immigrant Patrick Breen was among those headed to California when the group came upon snow so deep we were unable to find the road, as he wrote in his  diary. “We now have killed most of our cattle, having to stay here until  next spring.”

Almost 50 of the 100 or so Donner travelers died, and those who lived  likely resorted to cannibalism. Now, a full scale history, entitled Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, has been written by Ethan Rarick. Using new archaeological evidence, and other groundbreaking research methods, not to mention the heartbreaking letters which survived, Rarick acts almost as an historical detective, overturning many previously believed notions regarding the Donner Party. In the end, Rarick writes, this “is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity.”

($28 / 304 pages / Oxford University Press )
A two volume study of stones may sound like a dreadfully boring read, but, thankfully, readers of Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran got so much more from that fascinating study of those islands and their distinct culture.  Now, Robinson takes a close look at another rich region with Connemara.  This is regional history at its finest, and Robinson’s writing remains lively, poetic and finely detailed.  Having lived in Connemara for nearly two decades, Robinson has added another rich layer to the history of this ancient region.
($17 / 448 pages / Penguin )

For a more comical Irish tour, try Pint-Sized Ireland: In Search of the Perfect Guinness, in which columnist Evan McHugh treks across the island sampling the local nectar, in search of perfection.  Now, that’s good work if you can get it!

($13.95 / 288 pages / St. Martin’s)

Two of the most famous characters in recent Irish literary history have returned in a new book, which are actually two new books. First, there is Frank McCourt, the longtime New York City high school teacher who exploded onto the literary scene with his Limerick coming of age memoir Angela’s Ashes in 1997. Then there is Angela, Frank’s Mom. Frank has written a new book called Angela and the Baby Jesus.  It is based on his mother’s youth, specifically an incident which occurred when Angela was six and she stole a baby Jesus from a local church nativity scene.  This is another magical tale blending grim surroundings with redemptive humor, and aimed at readers of all ages.  Literally. That’s because Angela and the Baby Jesus has been published in two separate editions.  One, for children, includes illustrations from Raul Colon
($17.99 / 32 pages / Simon & Schuster).

The adult version of the
tale includes (arguably) darker more complex illustrations by Loren Long. (

($14.95 / 40 pages / Scribner)
The story revolves around young Angela, worried that baby Jesus,sleeping in the cold, dark church as Christmas approaches, will get sick.  He is not even wearing a blanket, little Angela notes.  As in his first, most famous book, McCourt gives a distinctive voice to a child with astonishing skill.  Angela comes alive as a thoughtful, determined person, even if no one around her sees her that way. As readers wait for another longer book from McCourt, Angela and the Baby Jesus should hold them over for a bit.

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