Claire's holiday with friends, one a teenage ghost

This week there’s a novel set in Nazi-occupied Vienna and another historical novel about pirate Anne Bonny. There’s a memoir set in the 1980s about a teenager whose mother fosters children and there are two thrillers, one set in an exclusive Dublin private school, the other in an unfinished hotel on the infamous Spike Island.

The Two Loves of Sophie Strom, Sam Taylor, Faber, €16.99

In 1933, young Max, an Austrian Jew, is caught in a house fire. His parents die in the fire and he is subsequently adopted by an Aryan couple who change his identity and therefore the rest of his life. Also in 1933, young Max, an Austrian Jew, saves his parents from a house fire in which he suffers disfigurement, but he continues to live 1930s Vienna as a Jewish boy. It’s an inventive and original premise for a novel but not entirely new for anyone who remembers the 1998 novel Sliding Doors, later made into a successful film.

In these parallel stories of Max’s life the reader witnesses the rise of the Nazis, the annexation of Austria, Max’s life as a member of Hitler Youth and simultaneously his life as a young Jewish man, trying to survive. In both of his incarnations, he will fall for a beautiful, grey-eyed girl, Sophie Strom, and that love will shape future events in the plot (or plots). A beautifully written story about love, life and choices in a time of societal collapse and chaos that seems scarily like the times we live in.

Seaborne, Nuala O’Connor, New Island, €16.95

Other than the scant details of her capture and trial, not a lot is known about pirate Anne Bonny, and this dearth of hard historical facts gave the author carte blanche in creating a memorable, daring, bisexual woman well ahead of her time, who lived for the sea and who eventually descended into a life of crime on the ocean. But if it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckler of a novel you’re after, you’ll be disappointed. This is a character study more than anything else, narrated in rich prose and so immersed in the ocean you can almost taste the salt.

When Anne marries Gabriel Bonny, she realises she is expected to ‘keep house’ in the manner of other married women of her time and class. She quickly realises she will shrivel up and die in such a role. So, when an opportunity arises to take to the sea, she seizes it, and in the doing will become the great pirating legend that endures to this day. I didn’t find this novel to have quite the stature of O’Connor’s previous novel about James Joyce’s wife, Nora, which was a true masterpiece, but this story is beautifully rendered, imaginative and audacious.

Parcels in the Post, Fiona Neary, New Island, €17.95

Subtitled ‘Growing Up with Fifty Siblings’, this memoir tells the story of the author’s family moving back to Mayo from the UK and moving from an urban environment to a rural, farming one. Neary’s parents became foster parents in the 1980s and took care of many children, for short spells and for years, in addition to rearing their own three kids, tending the land and caring for elderly parents. At times humourous and at other times infuriating, it shines a light on the faulty foster care system in this country, one that needs a complete and committed overhaul, and depicts the impact of fostering on a family whose mother’s heart was immense, but whose own children never quite knew how many other kids would join them for dinner that night. A compelling read.

When We Were Silent, Fiona McPhillips, Bantam Press, €14.99

A literary page-turner, this is a story of the sexual abuse of schoolchildren in 1980s Ireland, and of a religious organisation that not only sweeps allegations under the carpet but threatens those who are intent on exposing the culprits. And while plenty of novels have been written about systemic sexual abuse of children in good ol’ Catholic Ireland, the best by far being Paul Murray’s hilarious and utterly crushing Skippy Dies, McPhillips tells a chilling tale.

Lou Manson attends the prestigious Highfield Manor private school for just her final year. She puts up with the taunts about her unpolished Dublin accent and her position as social outsider because she’s here on a mission; to expose a secret that the school with do anything to suppress. She meets Shauna Power in Highfield and her plans go awry, as exposing the school will entail the betrayal of her only schoolfriend. Thirty years on, Lou is now an established and respected academic and has long ago put the past behind her. But secrets have a way of surfacing and Lou is called as a witness in a new lawsuit against the school. She must choose between maintaining her respectable, comfortable life and helping to bring down a corrupt institution, and the choice is by no means cut and dried.

Displeasure Island, Alice Bell, Corvus, €16.99

A sequel to the author’s debut novel, Grave Expectations, in this standalone novel Claire, who’s not a great detective but is a talented medium, takes off on holiday with her three friends, one of whom is the teenage ghost of her dead best pal, Sophie. Their destination is a hotel that’s not quite finished on Spike Island off the coast of Cork. There’s a murder, of course, and it seems Claire is the suspect. There’s also a large cache of pirate ghosts on the island, wrangling about buried treasure that’s been there for 300 years, but none of them seem to know where.

Playful and funny, this is perfect for fans of Richard Osman, although the tone is different. The supernatural is treated the same as the everyday and ordinary, and not all ghosts here are a threat in Claire’s world. A comic romp for those who might prefer some light reading on their summer holidays.


There are still some tickets left and there’s lots to see, hear and do in Kells this weekend. It’s Hinterland time again. See for details. Or just come along anyway for the craic, it’s always a roaring success. The Cairde Sligo Arts Festival runs from July 6 to 13 and promises something for everyone. See for programme and details.