Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick DeWitt

It’s Tapas Thursday in Estepona again; we’ll head over to Bar Toque soon but first I’m going to have some tea and cake at Tolone, no diet here! I’m going to delve into The Sisters Brothers, because I’m taking a break from the other book I’m reading. I just feel like I need something with a clear narrative and the other wasn’t delivering.

I’m sitting outside because it’s packed inside. It’s not really that warm though so I hope my tea arrives soon!

I’m slipping, it’s now Tuesday and this has been the longest period between posts since I started this blog. Perhaps my enthusiasm is waning, but it’s also a case of life taking over I suppose. I’ve had some things on my mind and some things to study and it’s hard to focus on a book in the mean time, even anything light would have felt like too much. I’m on a flight back from Ireland again. 6.30am departure. I wasn’t going to wake up any earlier than I needed to, so when I was through security and had grabbed a coffee I barely even glanced at the bookshop. In any case my husband had been home only the week before and had bought ‘The Sisters Brothers’ in the airport bookshop so there was definitely no need to look.

This book was chosen by my bookclub a few years ago. I’m still on the email list, even though I’ve been gone a few years. Well, I did manage to make one discussion, ‘The Great Gatsby’, last year, so I suppose it is worth keeping up to date. At first I thought I’d try to keep up to date with the books they read, but I gave up after a while. It’s nice every now and again when I notice they are reading some book I’ve read, or if they choose a book sitting unread on my bookshelf it might give me the push I needed.

Rarely for me, I didn’t make it to any of my usual haunts. Despite it being my Mam’s birthday we ended up going on a clothes shopping spree for me. I never truly enjoy clothes shopping in Spain. I fell like such an oversized blob when I can’t fit into their large sizes. I did have a quick look at the shelves in Easons yesterday, though my mind was elsewhere. Some guy came over to me and just said ‘can I speak to you quickly, I just wanted to say that you look fantastic!’. Now, obviously the guy wasn’t Irish, but neither was he Arab, as most people seemed to guess. I’d say somewhere from that vast expanse of Mitteleuropa. It sounds like he was a weirdo, but it didn’t seem like that at all. I just said ‘Thank You’ and smiled and then thought about how to break it to him that I was married, but he just smiled, nodded and walked away. It did brighten up my mood. I wonder if he just does that often for some kicks? I don’t really care. It was nice.

So, The Sisters Brothers. I read it mostly on the plane on the way over (the bus to the airport had no reading light so I just had to try and snooze again). I could try to be clever and pretend I loved it, I mean it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it had to be good….just look at all those quotes on the back cover! But really, it left me cold. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting or readable, it’s just that I’ve closed it a short time ago and felt ‘meh, is that all?’

It’s like a road novel or movie. The brothers have a mission, they have a destination and along the way they meet an array of characters, some good, mostly not so. None of them seem to lead happy lives. San Francisco is in the thrall of the gold rush and everybody is hoping to make a fortune. In some way I was reminded of ‘The Wire’. These guys seem to have been born into a life of crime and murder is just a way of life. Some guy gets in their way, shoot him. But no matter how much money they rob or earn they never seem to actually get rich. Eli begins to question their way of life and yearns for a store to run. He finds himself attracted to the few women he encounters along the way that are not prostitutes and resolves to lose his excess weight so that they will fall in love with him.

However the only true love story in the book is between Eli and his poor horse Tub. He ends up with Tub when his previous horse is killed on a job. At first he is not happy but affection for the poor animal grows and when he finds a new horse and has the option to sell Tub  to be slaughtered for meat he chooses instead to sell the other horse.

He and Charlie have the discussion of having enough money to quit, that they could set themselves up with that store. They decide to make their current job their last….Oh, you think, so it’s one of those capers. There is a funny conversation between Eli and the intended victim where he explains that they will be turning away from their life of crime….after this last job.

Some other random musings….the dream with the three legged dog reminded me of ‘The Secret of Walter Mitty’ when I watched on Friday night (Cheryl’s Dog!). Such a beautiful film. I really want to make it to Iceland some time soon.

Despite not buying any books, I’ve brought back a few more from my parents’ house. There are still plenty there I haven’t read (and between one thing and another I don’t seem to be making much headway into mine) but I thought as I’m going to take on board the readwomen2014 initiative that I would try to only select some female authors. So I have ‘The Dogs and the Wolves’ by Irene Nemirovsky and ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett. There were a few more, but once I got to packing I realised they wouldn’t make the cut. I think I do read a fair amount of female authors and I’m not just counting chicklit, but looking back at the list of this blog I suppose it’s not very representative. The thing is at certain points in time, in a lot of earlier eras I believe only a very small proportion  of books were actually written by women, so it can be hard to have a 50-50 split. I saw one guy has said that he will only read books by women in 2014. I think that’s a bit extreme. However, leaving aside the fact that I’m already in the middle of two books by men I will try to read a book by women every second book. I think that’s reasonable.

And on that note, between writing and typing I’ve already finished a book by a woman (no progress made on the other two). I’ll try and hurry to write that one up. It was a good one!


Stamboul Train

by Graham Greene

Murder on the Orient Express, hasn’t that already been done? Well it turns out that Stamboul Train was published 2 years earlier than its more famous companion. In fact it was sold in the US as ‘Orient Express’ and the Agatha Christie thriller had to be titled the less interesting ‘Murder on a train’.

The Orient Express still exists in some form as a luxury tourist train; although in the era of these books it was a practical method of getting from A to B. I like the idea of train travel and always get slightly excited by the idea of sleeper trains, something I’ve only experienced in Eastern Europe.

I need to check if there is a movie of this book. It is like it’s written for film, in particular when reading the conversations in the dining car after Vienna. It reminds me of Before Sunrise, both on the train itself, before Jesse and Celine meet and also in the café before they ‘phone’ their friends.

I haven’t made it to the Balkans or Turkey yet. When I went to Vienna my plan was to visit so many places, basically anywhere I could get to for a weekend. Bratislava, Budapest I managed. Krakow had to wait for another trip. Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana I haven’t been to yet.

There is something about a story taking place on a train journey. I think there’s also in general something romantic about long distance train journeys. So many stories that can take place there don’t take place on other modes of transport. Plane journeys are usually too short and despite statistics people are still more nervous about flying than they would be getting on a train. Also, there’s not really much opportunity to wander about and meet other passengers, so unless you’re lucky with the stranger beside you… Then you generally drive with people you know (ok, there is hitchhiking, that is a whole ‘nother genre). Buses are just…no…too cramped, can’t do long journeys on them, though I guess they’re not so bad in South America, but still not as conducive to meeting people.

On a train (not a commuter one, though I wonder if anything ever comes of those ‘brief encounters’ sections in the metro), you board,  make yourself at home for whatever distance you are travelling and make the most of it. The landscape whizzes by and you have a chance to muse, philosophise or sleep. The longest train journey I took was that Kalinkavichy to Simferopol trip I made back in 2004. I’ve travelled further by train, as far as Kazan, but while I’ve always wanted to do the Trans-Siberian, I much prefer the idea of taking it in stages, stopping off and discovering a new place. Then again, at this stage I am not sure when I would next have the time to do that. When I was in Minsk I had my Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia and had marked all the places I was going to stop along the way. Whatever about the whole train thing, I really do want to go to the Altai region. A facebook friend went there last year and her photos reminded me how much I want to go there. On my journey back from Kazan to Moscow I had run out of books to read, for once my fellow passengers didn’t want to know me and I kept rereading excerpts from the LP. But it was frustrating, because I was travelling west, away from all of those places. There was almost a moment, when I was in Kazan, when I thought, hey, this is easy, I could just keep hopping on trains and go further east. But then again, Kazan was also the place, pre payday when the ATM refused to spit out 100 roubles (about €2) due to insufficient funds.

Midway through my year in Minsk I realised the major problem. What was I going to do when I got to the other side of Vladivostock, or down to Beijing, how was I going to get back? I wouldn’t have been able to afford a flight and I was hardly going to turn around and do the whole thing again, but all in one go? I tried to join the dots; maybe I could take a train to some point where I could get a cheap flight to Australia and then work there until I could afford to fly back. I went through a phase last year of watching all the Banged up Abroad episodes I could find on YouTube. I was at a friend’s house one day and saw the episode about the two guys kidnapped while trying to cross from Panama to Colombia and I was hooked. (So many Colombia kidnap episodes, I’m glad I didn’t watch the Ciudad Perdida episode before we went! Oh and I must make an obligatory reference to the recent Peru 2 case being exactly like the episode of the two Americans). Some of the episodes show people who talk about not being able to afford a flight home and you shout at the screen ‘Seriously, call your folks, it’s gonna work out a lot cheaper for them in the long run!’ but I suppose there is an unwritten rule that calling your parents to fund your flight home is a sign of failure.

At the end of my time in Vienna I had to do it. I couldn’t pay my rent and there was no sign of getting any cash from the crappy telemarketing job I had. Anyway, my Australian partner in crime had recently made her way to Ireland and was planning on finally going home after two years travelling. But she emailed me to say that first she was going to stop off at her parents’ place in Split and did I want to come join her for a week or so. I had missed out on a trip there with my Erasmus buddies two years before (doing the sensible thing, working until the end of the summer, and then doing the insensible thing of going into hiding for a good part of my final year) and I was really tempted. It was with a heavy heart that I replied saying I didn’t have the money to go and if I got a proper job then I wouldn’t have the time. I mentioned this quite innocently to my parents on a call home. The next day they rang back offering to fund my trip to Croatia if I would just come home. I weighed up the pros and cons and emailed Gabriella to tell her I’d be happy to join her. Alas, she replied a week later from Istanbul, saying she’d changed her mind when she received my original email. I thought some more, then arranged to take an overnight train to Milan and fly home from there.               

I’ve gone on longer then I intended. But I suppose being bailed out by my parents that time did leave me with the sense that I didn’t want to do it again. As one of the eldest in my family I was supposed to be more responsible, the one bailing out my younger brothers and sisters.

I haven’t made it to the Balkans or Turkey yet.

Coral Musker does not have family to bail her out. She is escaping from a ghastly life of landlords, stagedoors, greasy agents and general London chorus girl murkiness. She has been offered a job in a dancing troupe in Istanbul. This seems like a bit of a strange idea now, but maybe it’s not much different to somebody nowadays going to sing at some Med resort, or on a cruise ship. She is making the trip in the lowest class. Apparently Graham Greene wrote this book purely to make money and since money was not something he had much of at the time of researching he was not able to afford the full trip. So some of the descriptions were taken from other travel literature. Maybe I could do that if I wanted to set a novel on the Trans-Siberian, but somehow I think I’d force myself to do the research. I could go platskartny (3rd class), no problem, you still get a bunk.

I’ve checked and there is in fact a movie, though IMDB does not have a single review, which leads me to believe it is not one worth seeing. Or maybe it’s anti-Semitic in a way that was normal at the time but wouldn’t be accepted post WW2? I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out. There is a large cast of characters, some making the full journey, some embarking and disembarking along the way. Coral is probably the character we see most of and the one I felt the most affinity with – the innocent abroad. She faints and is rescued by the Jewish Myatt. Could this be a predecessor of Before Sunrise?

Oh, if only it were that simple. It is unfortunate that Myatt had to be Jewish and it had to be mentioned over and over again, because, while he is not unsympathetic, all of his faults seem to be the stereotypical Jewish ones, mainly revolving around money. It seems like the character could have had all of these issues without having to be Jewish. Or if he had to be Jewish to show the abuse and all of the throwaway comments then he could have been a little less stereotypically obsessed with money. He is not a knight in shining armour, he does not seem to be a very feeling person, but not bad either. And yet, any mention of money, or any reference to how calculating he is, or the importance of business, or anything which fits the old stereotypical Jew, you just have alarm bells going in your head saying ‘I’m not comfortable reading this!’.

But then at the same time it is interesting to read as it is a book of its time. Nowadays we associate anti-Semitism and especially of that era (the book having been published in 1932) with Germany, but obviously it was much more widespread. I thought in the earlier part of the book that there was going to be more relevance to Myatt being a Jew, while travelling on a train crossing a Germany which is soon going to be run by Hitler, but while there are many comments from different people, there is no specific reference to the situation in Germany. I suppose that it is easy to say this in hindsight, but at the time people outside of Germany would not have had much of an idea of what was happening. I remember reading a ‘book of knowledge’ a few years ago, another book rescued from my grandparents’ house. It was published in the 1930s and under the section on Germany they mentioned Hitler, who had recently come to power. It is so strange nowadays to read about Hitler being referred to as a politician, rather than a dictator or a monster.   

There are quite a few other characters, some more important than others. Mabel Warren is an overbearing, alcoholic lesbian journalist who is bidding farewell to her ‘paid companion’ Janet Purdoe. She suspects correctly that Janet won’t be returning, so she is on the lookout for a replacement and Coral fits the mould. Is this what being a paid companion meant all these years and I’ve just missed it? Wasn’t the second Mrs DeWinter also a paid companion before she got married? Or was it not just a respectable position for young unmarried girls and maybe some women took advantage of it?

Then there’s Dr Czinner, the communist returning to Belgrade after 5 years in exile, hoping to lead a revolt. We read a lot of his thoughts, including how he lost his faith and is jealous of the younger generation for not having been brought up in any faith and not having to have any crisis. Which seems like something strange to read now, as I think a lot of people nowadays feel like they are having this crisis for the first time. He does feel the need to confess though, but the clergyman he encounters prefers to talk about cricket. Poor Coral, she gets tied up in his mess and while the story of her and Myatt is very fragile, it does seem like she might have been happy for, oh, at least a few weeks, if things had gone her way. She just seems to be one of those people who never has any luck.

Overall I found it an entertaining read, if not quite what I was expecting. The cover promises murder and there is murder, but it doesn’t happen on the train itself, sorry to disappoint, and it’s not really all that important to the plot in the end.

The Library of Unrequited Love

By Sophie Divray

(Or perhaps more ‘An Ode to Balbriggan Library’)

I confess that as I begin to write this I still haven’t read this thin novella. I slipped it into my handbag this morning as an excuse. I needed an excuse to write about libraries. This blog has been mostly about bookshops and book buying addictions, but of course libraries also have a special place in my heart. Unfortunately I am living far away from my local library right now.

I am writing this because of some news I saw posted on Facebook stating that the Balbriggan library would be moved from its current and longstanding location in the heart of the town. Sure, there will still be a library, but it won’t be the same. Sure, the beautiful Carnegie building will still remain, but it will be a shell without a soul.

As a Skerries-born-turned-Balbriggan-resident-in-exile I have a natural instinct to prefer most things in Skerries to those in Balbriggan, but the library was an exception. It is the shining light of the town. The plan is to relocate the dole office there. Are they trying to say something about the town and its aspirations?

I joined Skerries library when I was in second class, took out the standard three books and dutifully read the first two. But there was no spark. The third I ignored. And ignored. Finally my mother made me read one chapter a night. So I did that until it was no longer a chore and I wanted to continue. I read aloud to my younger sister. I read to myself. That was ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and lo and behold I had fallen in love with reading. I returned it to the library 3 months late and got a severe talking to by the librarian. I vaguely remember returning a book equally late another time and paying something like £1.11 as a fine. I much preferred paying the fine.

I can’t remember when or why we first started going to Balbriggan library (we weren’t exactly faithful to one library at a time. I remember going to Swords and the Ilac at various stages of my childhood). Maybe I was scared of the Skerries librarian; maybe the books I wanted were never there. (My later visits to Skerries library were all for German lessons with the fantastic and formidable Frau Harbison). I couldn’t tell you, but for whatever reason we went along and opened accounts in Balbriggan. All of us. You could take out 3 books each, so that meant we could take out 21 books at a time. My youngest sister was a few weeks old when she was signed up for a library account and then that limit was raised to 24. I read a fair amount now, but I devoured books when I was in school.

I really loved the library itself. Of course I was never in the boring downstairs section. It was all about the upstairs and if you were lucky there would be space to sit with a book in the turret and pretend you were a princess. Ah no, I’m only saying that now. I’m sure by the time I started going there I was already too old for that. It seemed to be much more interesting to be an orphan a la Anne of Green Gables.

In 6th class when I got a proper grown up bike I was regularly cycling back and forth to Balbriggan, returning a few, taking a few more and renewing the ones we hadn’t got around to reading. Sometimes it would be a chore, but usually it would be a delight to start the shelf search again and discover new treasures. To me at that time Balbriggan was only 3 things – the library, Quinnsworth and my aunt’s house.

After a few years of absence I moved to Balbriggan when I was 25. In between I’d been studying and working and travelling and it was the time when everybody was buying and Balbriggan seemed as good a place as any. It felt strange at first to be living in this place so near to home and at the same time so unknown to me. The library was my rock, it had been expanded and done up, but was still in the beautiful and familiar redbrick building. I was studying for my accountancy exams, so became a regular at the desks and saw that I was not the only one cramming in the lead up. After a certain amount of time studying I would always  succumb to the charms of all of those shelves of books and learnt to my delight that I could now take out 10 at a time.

However, between studying, rehearsals, any kind of social life and of course a full time job, I just wasn’t able to get through all of those books as quickly as I could as a child. I always felt bad handing a book back unread, but sometimes I just had to admit defeat. I’d hand over my pile of books with a guilty look on my face: ‘Ummm, I, eh, think there might be something owing on these.’ To which the reply would inevitably be something along the lines of  ‘You do realise you can renew these by phone or even online?’ Move with the times!

Before moving to Spain I had to settle my accounts. I had renewed on multiple occasions a super short book called ‘Address Unknown’ A very apt title for a book which had gone awol. So, if anybody comes across this book supposedly the property of Balbriggan Library, well, it now belongs to me. It is a story told entirely in letters between a Jewish art dealer in America and his friend in Germany in the early 1930s. It is such a short book but so effective.

For those of you in Balbriggan, there is a meeting tonight in the Milestone at 8pm.

For those like myself, who are far away, but hoping to stop this move, please sign the petition here:

There is also a Facebook page here:

I suppose I’d better pay lip service to the, um, ‘subject’ of this post. I did finish it yesterday evening. It’s not much longer than Address Unknown actually. It is written in the form of a monologue, a type of rant of a librarian who arrives early at work to find a man who was locked in overnight. The man isn’t important. He is just the rantee. This lady seems to be the stereotypical old style librarian, the spinster with no life outside of the library. She tried to be a teacher and failed. She would love to work in the history section but has to make do with Geography and Town Planning. She is in love with one of the regulars, but he has only spoken to her once. She doesn’t go on holidays, because she can read about anywhere and everywhere in a book. I thought I was bad!

Well, I don’t think we are supposed to take it all too seriously. It’s an enjoyable read and I would be interested in hearing what any librarians themselves think of it.

If I think too much about all the books I haven’t read, then I could quite easily stop reading altogether….if I think of it too much. What is the point of reading such a small number of what is out there; you will never have read enough. ‘Let’s say you read two books a week for fifty years. In your lifetime, you’ll have read how many? Five thousand? That’s nothing!’

One sentence, to sum it up: ‘The Library is the place where the greatest solidarity between humans takes place.’  At this point in the book the man must have laughed, as our heroine has to tell him she is being serious. I believe it’s quite true. It’s something you can see in Balbriggan any day and such an important amenity should not be shunted out of its home on a whim. I hope the residents of Balbriggan stand together in solidarity to oppose this move.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloane

Since my husband’s books will be added to my ‘unreads’ it’s probably a good thing I didn’t receive too many books myself. From my father in law I received ‘Music for Torching’ by A.M. Homes and from my parents I got The Complete Works of Seamus Heaney.

I also brought back a few books from the shelves at home, as if I didn’t have enough here. I’ve already finished ‘There’s an Egg in my Soup’ as per the earlier post. I also brought ‘A Week in December’ by Sebastian Faulks, ‘Stamboul Train’ by Graham Greene, ‘When God was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman, ‘The Tailor and Ansty’ by Eric Cross, ‘Strumpet City’ by James Plunkett and ‘A Clash of Kings’ by George R.R. Martin. Finally, my father in law was reading ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ while waiting for us in the busiest arrival hall I’d ever witnessed and he promised to lend it to me when finished…so that is in there too.             

And now I’ll continue with the great catch up. This is how I always failed with diary writing when I was a kid. I’d start out the year filling every page and more. I felt there was an obligation to write something on every page and it should be filled. I couldn’t skip forward to the current day; the most I might write was a word or two to remind me what I needed to elaborate on when I caught up to that day. So, if anybody ever needs to consult my 1991 diary in order to write my biography, take note that in the earlier part of the year you can probably trust what has been written, but the entries for September were probably only written up in October and might be partly made up. Well I don’t have photographic memory now and I definitely did not then.

I’m currently reading and enjoying one book, but I will try to avoid progressing too far with it until I’ve finished writing about Mr Penumbra and also that other book I read.

This one I bought for my sister’s boyfriend; not the one who had me for Christkindl last year and gave me Human Traces, which lead me to rediscover my love of reading and start this blog. Not that one; the other one whom my husband had for Christkindl this year.  So technically it was a present from my husband, even if he wasn’t aware of it (though I do recall him shaking his head and saying ‘that is  such a “you” book’. I think the boyfriend was happy with the present of theatre vouchers (or at least my sister was!) but it’s always nice to give something that doesn’t fit in an envelope. Especially if somebody else can make use of it first. Ahem.

The problem with having given a book as a present it that I can’t really refer to it, pull out quotes or check character names without googling everything and then basically spending hours reading different random facts and turning my post into a mishmash of other peoples’ posts about the same book.

I enjoyed this book and I think most people who enjoy books, especially actual books and bookshops, will enjoy it too. And let us not forget the smell of books, which, if the Googlers of this novel are to be believed, is practically the only thing that will keep physical books alive. This book is nowhere near as good as The Shadow of the Wind and yet it is inevitable that people will refer to that novel and in particular the cemetery of lost books. Any book that has a secret library as a location was written for someone like me.

I wonder if there are any such things as 24 hour bookshops? I would probably live in one if it did exist. I believe that Trinity now has 24 hour libraries and I see that some libraries in Ireland will be 24 hour shortly, hopefully by the time I return. I mean, I probably wouldn’t use it too much now, but I like the idea that I could. Back in Trinity they had one 24 hour computer lab and I spent so many nights there. The rumblings of the trains above stopped well before midnight and the place got eerily quiet.

I think I was already using google back then, when did it become widespread? I remember in 1st and 2nd Year altavista was my search engine of choice. Aaaaand a quick google has confirmed that by the time I was in 4th year I was most likely on the google train. Google has survived a lot longer than the others and at times seems to be unstoppable, but as one character (Penumbra himself I think?) asks, will it be around in 100 years? The googler he is asking says yes, without hesitation. Me, I’m not so sure.

In the earlier stages of the book it seemed as if there was far too much Google product placement. Clay visits the Google campus and meets all the super intelligent Googlers. The more you read, the more it seems like they are all Stepford Wives; that they are robots who cannot see anything except how it fits into the Google sphere. (Maybe they see everything through Google tinted glasses, get it? Get it?). Obviously it is all satirical, but I wonder if any of my Googler friends have read the book and what they make of it. Most of the googlers I have met in Dublin are among the most arty people I know. They are intelligent and enthusiastic about Google products, but their intelligence does not encompass only the area of IT. We are to assume that Kat is a little bit arty, considering the fact that she matched the requirements of Clay’s ad, but that is the last mention of it really and from then on she does not seem to have much personality.

I enjoyed my visit to the Dublin Google, a much smaller version of the campus visited here. I liked the fancy themed cafes, the swings, the beanbags and games, the fact that they have regular concerts and talks… but at the end of the day it does seem like there is pressure to work long hours and working from home is a no-no. I read an article recently talking about how yahoo and Google, among others, have made working from home easier but as companies they themselves strongly discourage it. I kind of get their point though, there are times when I want to really concentrate on something and it might be easier if I was at home and could just blitz through it, but then there are times, considering I work in a team, where it makes much more sense to be in the same place.

There is a lot of notice given to the fact that Google is trying to index all books and it won’t be necessary to find paper copies any more.  I have a Google Nexus and I love it. My husband regrets getting it for me as it never seems to be far out of my hands. And yet, I haven’t read a book on it yet. I’m sure I will do that in the not too distant future, but I still don’t think it will take over for me. It’s not just about the smell, I also love flicking back and forward, that illicit look to the last page, only sometimes, being able to pass it on to a friend with a recommendation, among other things.

We do possess an ereader, a Sony ereader purchased in 2008, for all I know that model is dead and buried. It was before our great South America adventure. I bought it for my boyfriend, gave it to him just before Christmas, so he only had a few days to figure it all out. It came with about 100 classics preloaded and we went to Venezuela with that and one book each, thinking we could easily swap and pick some new ones up along the way. Boy, were we wrong! By the time we reached Rio de Janeiro 4 weeks later I was going crazy and was so happy to come across a second hand bookshop with piles of English books. We bought about ten to get us started and from then on our bags were a bit heavier and the ebook was consigned to the bottom of a rucksack. We still have it today. In a drawer.

I was probably trying to read the book too quickly in order to be able to wrap it and pass it on, but I can’t say that I got a great handle on the details of the code breaking or what they were hoping to achieve. I just went along for the ride and enjoyed it. While maybe I could have taken it a little bit more slowly I would say that it’s probably the best way to read it. If you think too much about how real certain aspects are, regarding google in particular, how it works or really how quickly a needle can be found in a haystack, then you’ll probably overthink it. I’ve seen someone mention that the characters aren’t well drawn. This is more or less true. You’re not going to come across anything much more profound than ‘books are good’.

I think years down the road, if somebody comes across this book, on a grandparent’s shelf perhaps, or stumbling across it online on whatever type or reader is in vogue, they will find it an interesting curiosity and probably laugh a little bit at what was considered ‘high tech’ way back when.

The Next Best Thing

By Jennifer Weiner

A few nights ago we went to Tarifa for New Year’s Eve. From our balcony in Casares we usually can see the mountain of Jebel Musa in Morocco hiding behind Gibraltar, but we never sense exactly how close Africa is until we drive to Tarifa. It was dark as drove and as we approached the ‘mirador del estrecho’ we could see the lights of Tangier sparkling across the water. So close, so close you could just reach out and…

You think about the people of Tangier looking across the water and seeing the sparkling lights of Tarifa and how close it seems. For us Tangier is the gateway to Africa, continent of mystery, adventure…an other world. For them, what do they look over and see? Wealth, opportunity, a better life, perhaps a chance worth chasing?

A few years ago we visited the beautiful Cabo de Gata in Almeria. We took a wrong turn along the way and ended up deep in the land of plastic sheeting and hothouses. Due to the climate the landscape is covered with plastic covered structures where vegetables are being grown to be shipped all across Europe. It seemed as we we’d come onto a corner of Africa because of both the people and the slum like conditions. I wondered how many of the people working there had come across on a boat from Tangier to the Costa de la Luz and whether in the end it was worth it. I don’t know what the answers are, but it’s not something that can be ignored.

Now it seems a little bit trite to return to my book buying habits, but when I was home at Christmas I picked up a book ‘Leaving Tangier’ by Tahar Ben Jelloun about a boy in Tangier who wants to leave. An older Spanish guy promises to take him to Barcelona if he will be his lover. I wanted to buy it, but that would go against my resolution. I carried it around Hodges Figgis until my pile had got too big, my arms were getting sore and I couldn’t think of anybody for whom I could pretend I was buying it was a present. So let’s just say it’s one for the list.

In the run up to Christmas I spent time in 6 different bookshops over 3 days and I only caved and bought one book for myself: ‘Memories of the Future’ by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I can’t really say why I bought this one above ‘Leaving Tangier’ or any of the others I picked up and forced myself to put down again. It was just a moment of weakness. All in all, I bought the following:

For my Dad: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, Memory Man by Jimmy Magee, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf by Sean Duffy, The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 by Darren McGettigan

For my Mam: Philomena by Martin Sixsmith, Brian D’Arcy’s Food for the Soul

For my Father in Law: Beatsploitation by Kevin Curran, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

For my Mother in Law: The Little Book of Christmas Memories

For my Sister in Law: The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

For my brother: The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden, Berlin Tales

For my sister’s boyfriend: Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

For my husband: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach, Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo, Norwegian by Night by Derek B.Miller and Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski. I also bought ‘The end of the World in Breslau’ before I realised it was part of a series and not the first book, so I suppose he’ll find he has that one as a present too, which he’ll realise either when he reads this or finishes the first one, whichever happens first.

I was a big fan of ‘In her Shoes’ and can’t really remember ‘Good in Bed’ but I think I enjoyed it. Jennifer Weiner seemed to write a slightly higher quality of chicklit than most others. So when I saw this one on sale I thought ‘oh that could be a nice present for my sister-in-law. I was getting books for the rest of the family so didn’t want to leave anybody out. And ok, I thought I could read it really quickly before. Now, ten days after Christmas I regret that I gave it. While I was reading it I thought ‘this isn’t really as good as I remember the other books being. Am I just being too critical?’ But I put it down to having read too much chicklit over the years and being deadened to it. So I went ahead, wrapped it and presented it as planned. The more the days pass, though, the more I regret my decision. I’m half hoping that it just ends up on a shelf and is ignored like many of the books I give as presents.

I wasn’t long into this when I realised that the author herself must have had a failed TV show and of course that is the case. At first I thought that she just took this idea of a failed sitcom writer and used that as a template, but everything about the show in the book seems to have been copied from ‘The State of Georgia’. The faded child star (actually I can’t remember if the actress in the book had been a failed child star, or just washed out in general but that was the impression I got) who is supposed to be curvy but loses weight between shooting the pilot and the rest of the series, the living with an older female relative, the replacement of the actress playing this relative between the pilot and full season etc. The book seems to have been written as an apology for how her series turned out and basically is saying that if she’d had her way it could have been so much better.

I’ve seen some excerpts on YouTube (all in the interest of research) and I have to say I can understand why it wasn’t renewed and I say that as somebody who has got addicted to some really crappy TV in the past. For example, watching those clips did remind me of my fondness for Roswell back in the day, considering these two shows share an actress. I actually first read the books, splitting my time between that triangle of bookshops that used to exist on Dawson Street when I should have been studying in the library across the road. Next I had to watch the TV Series, next I fell into the wormhole of and was hooked.

I’ve no problem with somebody using aspects of their real life in fiction. I’m sure if I ever get down to it I’ll do that too, but there doesn’t seem to be much else to the story, as if JW just wasn’t into it. She just wanted to write this to explain what went wrong. You know, I found some aspects of the creation of the show quite interesting, though I’ve no idea how true to life it all is. It does seem like she really wanted to write an expose of the industry but instead used it in this.

The story outside the story didn’t really move me at all. Maybe my senses have just been dulled since reading ‘In her Shoes’ but there might be a reason why, even though Jennifer Weiner has written over 10 books  she is still always described as the ‘author of “In Her Shoes” and “Good in Bed”.’ I remember going to see ‘In her Shoes’ with my sister. We’ve had our moments, though I can’t say either of us ever betrayed the other as badly as in that story, but there was still a connection, as if reading/watching it I just felt ‘yes, that is exactly what sisterhood is like.’

Here, the characters have been through a lot, but I never really connected with them. In those other books the heroines were never perfect and that helped us empathise with them, but Ruth just seemed too whiny. Yes, something bad happened to her, but it seemed to be the only thing to define her.

I’m trying to send vibes to my SIL back in Wicklow. Don’t read it!