The Concise History of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan)
Any single-volume history of Ireland is automatically in danger of falling between stools. Call it 'concise' and it is likely to fall between a dozen stools. Not this one. It is a mark of his skill as a historian that Seán Duffy has managed to pull this off. More, this 'history', just re-released in paperback form, begins with the end of the last ice age and the arrival of the first settlers on this island, requiring the author to not just appreciate but communicate the key issues across 7500 years of prehistory, and beyond Duffy's core area of expertise (the medieval period) right up to the present day. While details inevitably are left out, the most striking feature is the quality of the research underlying Duffy's writing on all periods. Backed up with loads of illustrations, the reader is given an engaging express train ride through Ireland's past which forces a nod of approval even from this hoary old cynic. Not a book for the specialist, but perfect to stimulate the interests of a young historian or general reader. The perfect antidote to the 'going-forwardism' of modern Ireland. Buy one for the Celtic Kitten in your life this Christmas and make a difference.
Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore (The Collins Press)
Niall Mac Coitir, with illustrations by Grania Langrishe
The publication of any book on Ireland's trees is an important event. These nobles of our countryside, gardens and parks get all too little respect these days, especially the native species. Mac Coitir's volume therefore promises something special, not just dealing with our native trees, but addressing their role in Ireland's folklore and legends. This it does, but nonetheless it is a disappointment. Despite discussing the association of trees and the ogam alphabet and conceding that the latest and best scholarship sees the connection is mere fantasy - only about half the ogam characters are named after trees or shrubs - the author cannot resist including details relating to ogam when discussing each species. More, he asserts that the sequence of letters in the ogam alphabet do, in fact, relate to Irish trees, and that their sequence follows a seasonal cycle through the year. This is unsupportable and unacceptable. It is also a great pity as much of the other material in this well-illustrated book is accurate and useful. Over all, though, the evidence presented does not hold up, and thus what could have been a superb and highly useful book becomes one that cannot be recommended.
Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland (British Wildlife Publishing)
Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, with illustrations by Richard Lewington
Illustrated throughout in full colour and the highly detailed accuracy the subject requires, this volume is simply essential for almost every lepidopterist living on these islands. Books dealing specifically with Ireland's natural world are rare, and British publications tend to give no more than passing mention to Ireland at best. Not so in this case. Proper attention is given to localised populations and regional patterns across Ireland as well as Britain, Man and the Channel Islands. It has, it would seem, no faults other than that it deals only with macro-moths. This however is inevitable; inclusion of every micro-moth species would have resulted in a book three or more times the size, and as a result priced well out of reach of many enthusiasts. Moth recording is a relatively small but growing activity in Ireland and it is essential that a high quality, accurate and above all affordable reference is available. This is it. Even if you think you don't care about moths, just pick this book up and take a visual stroll through the illustrations. A real treat.
Viking Age Dublin (TownHouse)
This gorgeous little book joins about thirty others in TownHouse's Irish Treasures Series, and its place is well deserved. Excellent illustrations greet the eye at every page turn, and include several very fine colour photographs, numerous drawings and black and white photographs, plans and colour maps. The colour photographs are the highlight, though, giving beautifully detailed views of selected artefacts. The text, too, is written to the highest standards, being both sufficiently detailed to be of use to the specialist and - crucially - fully accessible to the general interest reader. This was tested on a thirteen year old, and she came up smiling with the verdict: "cool". Chapters and sections cover every aspect of life including dress and jewellery, food, houses, trade, slaves as well as an overview of the chronology of Viking Ireland and Viking Dublin in particular. At less than a hundred pages Viking Age Dublin necessarily provides an overview of a huge subject, but does so in a style that reads like a full-length textbook. Johnson should be applauded for her achievement. If your local library does not have a copy, ask them why not. Do remember to pick up your own copy as well, though!
Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age (Four Courts Press)
H.B. Clarke, M. Ní Mhaonaigh, R. Ó Floinn, eds.
At the other end of the scale of writings about Vikings and Ireland lies the above-titled volume. Though several years have passed since publication, this heavy book provides a major addition to the available texts on this subject. In hardcover and almost five times the length of Viking Age Dublin, this collection of sixteen essays ties Ireland firmly into the broader Viking world while providing useful discussions of selected specialist topics. Several essays deal with non-Irish or partially Irish topics - The Archaeology of the Early Viking Age in Norway (Bjorn Myhre), Ireland and the Irish in Icelandic Tradition (Jónas Kristjánsson) for example, ensuring that this is not just another volume on Irish Viking studies. Numerous illustrations, maps and photographs round out this collection.
The Medieval Castles of Ireland (The Collins Press)
Just recently released in paperback form, this excellent study of Ireland's later medieval forts, castles and fortified houses has proven itself a classic. Aside from being more affordable, this edition also contains some revisions of the original, ensuring its relevance for many years to come. Essential. Buy it.
Complete Irish Wildlife (The Collins Press)
A very nice field guide focused on quality colour photographs for each species, covering fauna, flora and fungi. Unfortunately, though, the title is more than misleading. Far from being 'complete' this book deals with the commonest and most visually interesting species, sacrificing several thousand less attractive species to oblivion. Notable gaping holes appear among the invertebrates, lichens and fungi, but almost every section has some missing species. This is a great disappointment, especially as it is nowhere overtly stated that about three-quarters of native species have simply been left out. It is not hard to see many buying this book in the mistaken belief that they really were getting something 'complete'. A minor gripe is the absence of the author's name from the front cover, being replaced - presumably for marketing purposes - by that of Derek Mooney, who wrote the Introduction. Nobody wants to feel tricked, and Collins Press cannot but do their reputation harm by adopting such tactics. As it is, the book itself is a very nice piece of work, and useful to boot. Ideal for the purposes of the young naturalist or general interest browser, it also proves useful time and again in the hands of the specialist coming upon interesting specimens outside their field of interest. Irritations aside, this is certainly worth having.
Oh, Play That Thing (Random House)
Any novel from Roddy Doyle is reason to sit up and pay attention. The second in The Last Roundup trilogy, Oh, Play That Thing was eagerly awaited as the follow-up to A Star Called Henry. This last vies with The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Doyle's savagely honest short story The Lip as his finest work to date. Big boots to fill. Taken as a novel in its own right, Oh, Play That Thing (now available in paperback edition) is classic Roddy Doyle, albeit in a setting new to his writing. Henry Smart finds himself on the run from the IRA in New York, Chocago and, later, wandering throughout the USA. The setting is not so familiar to Doyle and it shows, unfortunately. Skilfully written, the product of a talent that has clearly matured there is nonetheless a certain indecision underlying the narrative. Perhaps it is only in contrast to the extraordinary achievement of A Star Called Henry that this latest novel seems to fall down, though, as it is very hard to pin down any examples. Such reservations aside, Doyle's exploration of truth and fiction continues apace. Henry Smart, whose birth at the start of A Star provoked a sort of spontaneous literacy in his grandmother and whose appearance as a baby, he tells us, caused every woman to adore him, seems to have sprung whole from the heart of Irish mythology. Trees flowering in winter or a comet in the sky are about all that's missing. His fictionality as a character in a novel aside, his existence even within that narrative seems strangely outside reality, or above it. At every turn he is faced with and lives through the cruellest of reality - violence, death, poverty, war, dispossession, sex - yet he telling of his story again and again rings slightly off key, from his education by James Connolly to his adventures during the War of Independence. In Oh, Play this theme continues, notably in Henry's role as white front man for Louis Armstrong. Henry's panache in making true what might not be reflects Doyle's own role as author. It is as if Doyle challenges us to refuse to suspend belief in the face of his own skill as a writer. Reservations about Doyle's ease in writing of the USA in the 1920s and '30s aside, it is the narrator(s), Smart (and Doyle), who win again. Not as decisively as in A Star, but it is a win nonetheless.
Lord Loss (Harper Collins)
Shan's name hit the headlines in the 'young adult' fiction with the early volumes of his twelve-part vampire series, The Saga of Darren Shan. Combining the gritty reality of a good Anthony Horowitz adventure with Shan's own love of the gothic, the series followed his namesake into the underworld of vampires, a worldwide war of the undead, and ultimately through holes in time itself into the strange universe of Des Tiny via death, pain, loss, and a coming of age, and ultimately to the hardest decision of all. Uncompromising and riveting throughout, the series made it into multiple translations. The big questions was: What now? What now is The Demonata, a new series that shifts to a new level of horror, starting with volume one: Lord Loss. Not vampires this time, but werewolves, and a pact with an ancient, cruel demon that has cursed a family for centuries. Grubbs Grady is an obnoxious, cruel rebel who has to grow up fast when the horrible truth about his family and his future is revealed to him after he sees his family torn apart by Lord Loss and his companion demons. Again, Shan is unafraid to bring his readers through the reality of the consequences. Grubbs spends months in a padded cell, sedated, restrained, tortured by nightmares and visions before slowly regaining enough composure to get out and into the care of his uncle. In typical Shan style, Grubbs does this (on his uncle's advice) by pretending to get well, by lying to his doctors and nurses, to the police. Distinctly more overtly violent than the Saga of Darren Shan, there is little that is gentle here. Instead we get tough questions about the purpose of living, blame, fate, loss, ethics, responsibility and honesty. Passage through the Saga series is recommended for acclimatisation purposes. Such comments aside, this is a book that deserves to be read by adults as well as teenagers. Shan stands shoulder to shoulder with Lemony Snicket and Philip Pullman at the leading edge of exciting, challenging "children's" fiction. J.K. Rowling is in the ha'penny place. The ha'penny, note, is no longer legal currency. Book two of The Demonata, titled The Demon Thief, is now available. Bring it on, I say!