BOOK REVIEWS

What’s hot – and what’s not – on today’s Celtic literary landscape!

A Short History of Irish Traditional Music
By Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin
O’Brien Press / 208 pp / €8.99

Those with a passion, or even a passing interest, in Celtic music will want to pick up this pocket-sized portal into the popular genre’s past. Drawing upon a solid selection of sources – including musicologists, folklorists, historians, and homespun heritage – Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin does well to connect a diversity of notes into a simple, sonic symphony. Along the way, the author details the origins of various instruments and their impact upon the creative palate of both the Emerald Isle and the world – from early settlers gathered round the hearth fires to the global sensation that is Riverdance. More than a mere lesson in Irish musical history, however, the work succeeds in showcasing the country’s political and sociological influence on its melodies, and vice-versa.

Italian Lives, Cape Breton Memories
By Sam Migliore and A. Evo Dipierro
CBU Press / 475 pp / $27.95

First published in 1999 to strong regional acclaim, Italian Lives, Cape Breton Memories has been updated and re-released for a new generation of readers. Much has been documented about Nova Scotia’s strong Celtic roots, particularly the history of Scottish and Irish settlements across the province over the past 250 years. Lesser known is the impact that Italian immigrants have had upon Atlantic Canada, particularly in Cape Breton where they were, and remain, a vital and vibrant voice on the region’s cultural landscape. Spanning 150 years, seasoned with personal tales – equally tragic and triumphant – and spiced with poignant family photographs, the coffee table tome is both a powerful portrait of a people and province in transition, and an important chronicle of Canada’s immigrant experience.

House of Names
By Colm Tóibín
Simon & Shuster / 288 pp / $26

Country Wexford writer Colm Tóibín’s latest effort, House of Names, signals a departure of sorts from his previous, bestselling works Nora Webster and Brooklyn. A contemporary retelling of the Greek tragedy of Clytemnestra and her children, the new book is burning up bestseller lists around the world. And while both the idea for the story and its execution are strong in the hands of the Irish scribe, something simply doesn’t translate from the days of yore. Perhaps it is the thematic overplay of murder, jealousy, revenge and betrayal – or maybe it is the remote and cool nature of the characters. Likely, it is both. As a result, the four-part narrative never quite develops the same level of intimacy found in his past novels. Disappointing.

The Imperial Irish
By Mark G. McGowan
McGill-Queen’s University Press / 429 pp / $39.95

A professor of history at the University of Toronto, and Principal Emeritus at nearby St. Michael’s College, Mark McGowan is a powerhouse in Canadian academic circles. His third full-length work The Imperial Irish; Canada’s Irish Catholics Fight the Great War, 1914-1918, is by turns scholarly and accessible to everyday readers. Extensively researched, and peppered with graphs and detailed end-notes, the hefty tome examines the role played by Irish Catholic Canadians in WWI, both at home and abroad. While there is little doubting the work’s historical and sociological significance, the book’s true buoyancy is found in the personal stories of the individuals involved, and the impact that the early-20th century conflict had upon their lives, those of their families, and the Canadian identity as a whole.

The Fortunate Brother
By Donna Morrissey
Random House / 272 pp / $24.95

One of Canada’s finest writers, Donna Morrissey, returns with her sixth full-length narrative The Fortunate Brother. Though she now resides and works in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Morrissey draws upon her rural Newfoundland roots yet again for this troublesome tale of one family’s tragic loss of their son and sibling, and suspicion surrounding the brutal murder of a local thug on their property. Set in the 1980s, alcohol, illness, and guilt all take leading roles in this dark drama, which will surely do more than merely entertain and engage readers. A teacher by trade and by nature, the acclaimed author succeeds at shedding light on a people and a place that remain suspended, away from the Canadian mainland and mainstream, where time and life stand still.  

The First Prince of Wales?
By Sean Davies
University of Wales Press / 176 pp / £14.99

Historian and former BBC journalist Sean Davies brings the past to present with this fresh perspective on one of Wales’ most brilliant leaders, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, king of Gwynedd and Powys. Through six chapters, the author argues that his subject was more involved with events in England in the years prior to, and following, the Norman invasion of 1066, than was first believed. Through detailed research, and citing new sources, Davies paints the portrait of a master-tactician who skillfully maneuvered his enemies and allies in an effort to restore the kingdom of Wales. An academic by trade, the scribe does well to keep the narrative fluid with maps and other images, providing readers with a more holistic understanding of a powerful man in dangerous times.  

Where the Rivers Meet
By Danny Gillis
MacIntyre Purcell Publishing / 276 pp / $19.95

With the likes of Frank MacDonald and Ian Colford praising his work, Nova Scotia journalist, editor and author Danny Gillis is well on his way to establishing himself as a master storyteller and a strong regional voice. Set in a fictional Cape Breton community, Where the Rivers Meet is a powerful, poignant tale of one man’s struggle with religious and racial conflict. Credit the author for capturing local dialect and nuance, bringing a quirky cast of characters to life, and setting a climactic stage with a soaring narrative arc. Like renowned New Brunswick wordsmith David Adams Richards, Gillis skillfully weaves threads of moral dilemma into a fine fabric of intrigue and injustice, allowing the story to tell itself without crossing the fine line of over-dramatization.  

The Three Coins
By Christopher Lohan
Friesen Press / 162 pp / $18.99

Every once in a while, a little book will move me in ways that most do not. Forty years in the making, The Three Coins is one man’s love letter to his ancestral homeland. Born in Dublin in 1930, author Christopher (Bob) Lohan moved to Canada at the age of 21. His first work, published at age 86, is a warm, witty tale of two men whose paths cross upon returning to their native Ireland to solve a twenty year-old mystery. An impressive debut, the scribe spins a simple yarn that speaks to both human nature and to the rugged past of two countries. More than that, the work is a moving legacy for a father of five, grandfather of eleven, and great-grandfather of ten.

Celtic Tales
By Kate Forrester
Chronicle Books / 176pp / $22.95

Illustrator Kate Forrester has done a fantastic job of condensing and conveying these classic Celtic fairy tales and stories of enchantment for readers of all ages. Born of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany, the 16 ancient yarns are broken down into four core sections; Tricksters, The Sea, Quests, and Romance. Beautifully translated and told, the vignettes coalesce into a collage of mythology over the arc of the work, revealing the deep aural and oral customs of our ancestors. More than a blast from the past, however, the anecdotes set the stage for our contemporary storytelling traditions. Animated and accessible, and an ideal bedtime read for those looking to promote and preserve Celtic culture with their children, the book will ignite the imagination of younger generations.

Dan Daddow’s Cornish Comicalities
By Alan M. Kent
Ryelands Publishing / 496pp / £12.99

Set in the seedy, steamy underbelly of 19th century Cornwall, Dad Daddow’s Cornish Comicalities is the curious account of an impresario’s efforts to thwart off his competition by assembling a rag-tag troupe of has-been performers to bring about greater glories. The results are – as with all great theatre – both comic and tragic, as the clumsy cast of quirky characters find themselves embroiled with the shadowy and sinister side of Victorian-era Europe. A master storyteller, Alan M. Kent brings so many twists and turns to this often-morbid, over-the-top narrative that readers may find themselves doubling back for clarity. Part-Goth, part-Steam punk – and all Broadway Danny Rose – the work is a must read for anyone with an abiding passion for the performing arts. ~SPC

Rather Be the Devil
By Ian Rankin
Orion Books / 384pp / £12.99

I have always wanted to interview Scottish scribe Ian Rankin, if only to uncover how he manages the mélange of complexity and simplicity in his work. Case in point; his latest Inspector John Rebus thriller Rather Be the Devil. On the surface, the straight-up story of an ages-old murder, abuse of power, organized crime and deception makes for an easy and effortless read. Swirling below, though, is a mix of multifarious mental and emotional states, each a murky mass of mood. Perhaps this is at the core of the author’s enduring appeal; by tapping into the dark heart of the psyche, Rankin reveals our shadow self. Like Rebus, we are characters of huge contradictions. Unlike us, however, Rebus embraces, and even welcomes, his many inconsistencies. ~ SPC

VAIR: Ann’s Story
By Gunna Dickson
Virtual Bookworm / 294pp / $14.95

When Scottish-American journalist and author Stewart Dickson passed away in 2011 he left a lasting literary legacy with his first, and only, full length work of fiction. A tale of love, loss and political conspiracy, VAIR screamed out for a sequel. Bravely, the author’s wife gives the narrative – and its many bold, brash characters – a second life with her debut novel. Blond actress Ann Powell, jaded FBI agent John Taylor, beautiful Cuban special agent Emelina Calderon and other familiar figures from VAIR find themselves rewoven like threads into the fabric of international intrigue. Dickson does more than pay homage to her late husband here, however; with Ann’s Story she establishes her own voice, making a place for herself as a great American storyteller. ~SPC

Principles to Live By
By David Adams Richards
Doubleday / 336pp / $32

The ‘Bard of the Miramichi’ is back with perhaps his darkest and densest work in a decade. And while his new narrative is a challenging chew at times – chock full of choice-cut characters, platters of plot twists, and morsels of moral outrage – readers will be both full and fulfilled by novel’s end. Driven by the death of his only child, Officer John Delano sets out to solve the disappearance of another youngster from years past. En route, taking him from Toronto and New York City to the backwoods of New Brunswick and the jungles of Rwanda, the protagonist encounters hyperbole and hypocrisy at every step. Delano maintains his ethical footing on the slippery slopes of justice, however, making this a damn fine read.

Written in My Heart
By Mark Traynor, Emily Carson & Fuchsia MacAree
O’Brien Press / 96pp / €7.99

Hot on the heels of Bloomsday, when the world celebrates the life and love of novelist James Joyce – and the protagonist anti-hero from his epic narrative Ulysses, Leopold Bloom – a trio of Irish writers and illustrators have pieced together the ultimate guide to following in the footsteps of Eire’s greatest bard – literally. Written in My Heart traces the scribe’s daily outings through Dublin, stopping at significant signposts along the way to engage, educate and entertain readers (walkers?) with charming and curious tidbits of historical trivia. Easy-to-read trail maps and imagery accompany bite-sized chapters and paragraphs to shine a light on the acclaimed author, the magnitude of his work, and what it meant to a city on the cusp of a cultural revolution.

The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook
By Emily McEwan
Bradan Press / 95pp / $12.99

Given the huge popularity of Celtic/Gaelic body art in recent years, McEwan’s helpful handbook couldn’t be better timed. Though a mere 95 pages, the author successfully runs the gamut, covering topics such as translation, pronunciation, spelling, fonts, accents, apostrophes, alphabet, and more. Subject matters, including military service, nationalist sentiment, and love for a partner, are all on the agenda as well. Most pertinently, perhaps, McEwan examines the history and description of the language, along with its current status. A long-standing proponent of Gaelic survival and revival, she continues to make a compelling case for the inclusion of the idiom in everyday affairs. To that end, and as stated, her book could not be better timed, especially for younger people looking for ink about body ink.

Welsh Rugby in the 1970s
By Carolyn Hitt
Gomer Press / 98pp / €7.99

With the recent hooliganism on display at Euro 2016, the adage that soccer is a gentleman’s game played by thugs while rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen is more pertinent than ever. It takes the first woman to win the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame Journalist of the Year award, however, to flesh out the essence of that country’s greatest passion, rugby, during its greatest era. Profiles on the game’s finest fly-halfs, centers, wings, and backs – including Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett, and Mervyn Davies – are accented with text on tours, national and international play, scores, and colourful photographs. What Hitt does best, however, is capture and convey the unbreakable spirit of a people during an unspeakably harsh time.

Discovering the End of Time
By Donald Harman Akenson
McGill-Queen’s University Press / 548 pp / $39.95

End-of-times advocates and conspiracy theorists will want to get their hands on Akenson’s latest effort of academia, which explores the origins of ‘apocalyptic millennialism.’ Tracing the movement’s roots back to southern Ireland of the early 1800s, the author puts together a detailed – and often disturbing – snapshot of the father of evangelical dispensationalism, John Nelson Darby. A member of Eire’s religious elite, Darby laid the groundwork for Christian Fundamentalism, a set of traditional beliefs adhered to by millions of America citizens. The timing is particularly poignant given the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the ultra-conservative element of the GOP in this U.S. election year. Though dry at times, the work is well worth wading through if only to better understand the dirge of doomsday prophets.

Coast
By Rachel Allen
Harper Collins / 320 pp / $29.99

Subtitled ‘Recipes Inspired By Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Coast’, this 320-page tome follows Irish celebrity chef Rachel Allen as she weaves and winds her way up and down Eire’s rugged west coast. Part cookbook, part travel diary, this is more than a mere collection of ingredients, instructions, and individual insights; Coast is peppered with fantastic photos and revealing details that capture and convey the full flavour of a hearty land and its people. In particular, the closing chapter on Donegal – seasoned with regional recipes for Grilled Salmon, Pan Fried Gurnard and Fish Gratin – will leave you salivating for both the local landscape and cuisine. As well, her conversations with area farmers and fishermen offer powerful perspectives on the past, present and future of traditional industries.

Irish Legends; Newgrange, Tara and the Boyne Valley
By Eithne Massey & Lisa Jackson
O’Brien Press / 64 pp / €12.99

Of the seven Celtic nations, Ireland is the richest in legend and lore. After centuries of storytelling, mythology remains at the core of Irish culture today. Thanks to author Eithne Massey and illustrator Lisa Jackson, eight of those magical tales – originally put to pen by medieval Christian monks – will be preserved and passed along to another generation. As the Japanese discovered with anime, vibrant colours and text engage, entertain and educate young readers better than any other medium. Here, imaginations will ignite with stirring stories of The Origin of the Boyne, Aonghus and the Swan Maiden, The Hag of Loughcrew and more. Recommended for youngsters aged 7 and up, this is a fantastic way to introduce children of all ages to classic Celtic culture.

Piping Hot!
By Susan Hadley Planck
Moonscape / 364 pp / $24.99

Does the skirl of the bagpipes stir your soul? Are your Scottish or Irish roots calling to you? Have you ever wondered what a bagpiper’s life is like? Do you like unusual travel? These questions, and more, are at the heart of bagpiper and storyteller Susan Hadley Planck’s quaint and quirky memoir Piping Hot! A late bloomer on the instrument, Planck made up for lost time by taking her pipes on the road. The resulting tales of travel to the Great Wall of China, Mt. Fujiyama in Japan, South America, Scotland and across the United States, are both amusing and memorable. The author does well to bring readers behind the scenes with a bagpipe band, detailing the unique personalities that carry on the musical tradition.

1916: The Rising Handbook
By Lorcan Collins
O’Brien Press / 240pp / €14.99

With a glut of literature flooding the market in advance of Ireland’s centennial Easter Rising commemorations, there is no shortage of options for those looking to look back on the seminal events of 1916. Thankfully, Irish author, historian and lecturer Lorcan Collins sums it all up neatly with this slim volume of forensic facts, true timelines, listings, and biographies of all involved. Accented with maps, drawings, photographs and newspaper clippings, the bite-sized details are easily digestible, and, added-up, are more than filling for either hardcore readers with a passion for the past or those simply looking to see what all the hype is about. Either way, the author has pieced together the puzzle of an historic time and the people who made that history happen.

16 Lives
Various
O’Brien Press / €14.99

This stunning and stirring 16-book series from Ireland’s foremost publishing house goes well beyond the events leading up to Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. With individual titles on Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Michael O’Hanrahan, Edward Daly and twelve others, the collection digs deep into the psychology – and in some cases the psychosis – of the movement’s main players. The idea to have different authors for each book was brilliant, giving the collection a greater sense of variety and vibrancy, as if the writers developed personal relationships with their subjects. With pictures, and more, peppering each edition, the total experience is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. To that end, 16 Lives is addictive, and will bring new meaning to the term “binge reading.”

The K Club Cookbook: Producer to Plate
By Finbarr Higgins
Attic Press / 299pp / $53

Weighing in at 5.5 lbs, and measuring 11” across by 12” high, The K Club Cookbook is 299 pages of pure awesome and delicious. With recipes drawn from a quarter century of exquisite dining at Ireland’s elegant hotel and country club of the same name, this towering tome is a foodie’s delight; along with simple and seasonal instructions and ingredients, author and renowned Irish restaurateur Finbarr Higgins serves up a proper plate-full of photographs that will leave readers drooling and coming back for more. If the main dishes don’t get you, then the desserts most likely will. While not necessarily designed for the kitchen counter, this delectable collection will definitely look great on the coffee table. This is food porn at its absolute finest folks!

My Celtic Journey
By Gerald Herter
Independent / 138pp / $6.99

Suffice to say that American author, journalist – and Celtic Life International contributor – Gerald Herter has never been busier. Since retiring from a successful business career, he and his wife Lori – also a published author – have been pursuing their passion for all things Celtic by way of travel. Here, Herter recounts visits to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Canada, and across the USA, with warmth, wit, wisdom and a prevailing sense of wonder. Mixing insight, opinion, perspective with emotion and ideas, the author crafts a collage of “Celtisisms” that is both clever and quirky, inviting audiences along for the ride. Along the way, readers come to know the couple personally – something that is often sorely lacking in the wide world of travel writing.

With Our Blessing
By Jo Spain
Quercus / 544pp / $15.99

All of the hype and hoopla surrounding Jo Spain’s debut novel are well deserved. The Irish author hits the nail on the head with this historical thriller that has spent months atop Ireland’s bestseller list. Based upon revelations surrounding the “Magdalene laundries” scandal that haunted the Emerald Isle for generations, Spain has woven threads of fact and fiction into a tight, dim cloak of murder, mystery and intrigue. Characters leap off the page over a soaring narrative arc, where the most miniature of details carry great weight and meaning. Solid dialogue and a quickly paced plot will only heighten readers’ needs to turn the page. Both entertaining and educational, With Our Blessing opens the door on a dark past that can never be closed again.

Irish Thatch
By Emma Byrne
O’Brien Press / 192pp / €24.99

Multi award winning graphic designer and artist Emma Bynre has a flair for the beautiful. The Co. Wexford native brings her passion for colour, design and tradition together with this warm and wonderful coffee-table tome. Alongside simple and stunning photographs of Irish homes – past and present – tidbits of trivial text recount the history and heritage of both the structures and the area in which they sit. What becomes clear is that Ireland has done well to preserve its past, as evidenced by the growing number of visitors who come to the Emerald Isle each year in search of authentic experience. More than an architectural exercise, Irish Thatch is a series of snapshots into the country’s rich traditions, and the people who lived them.

George Best Will Not Be Playing Today
Edited by Mark Campbell, Jonathan Hamill, Barbara McNarry
Ulster Historical Foundation / 176pp / $49.95

Fans of the “beautiful game” will know that Belfast-born George Best was one of its most beautiful players. Also well-documented were his off-field antics, which were often forgiven for his on-field prowess. On the tenth anniversary of his passing, the Ulster Historical Foundation has pieced together this compelling collection of tributes to a colourful and complex man. Chock full of rare family photos, quotes and notes from friends and fans, sporting memorabilia, and other meaningful mementos, the 176-page hardcover edition offers up a collage of curiosities from those who knew and loved the man. The result is a unique and intimate portrait of a father, son, brother, friend and professional footballer whose lust for life was evident, and sadly, eventually got the better of him.

No Ordinary Women
By Sinead McCoole
O’Brien Press / 320pp / €16.99

With Ireland celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016, the spotlight on the individuals and events of that time has never been brighter. While the heroics of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and other revolutionary male figures are well documented, there were as many – if not more – brave women and girls working behind the scenes for the cause. Thankfully, author and historian Sinead McCoole gives them their proper due with this updated series of engaging and enlightening profiles, reminding us that the seeds of Irish independence would not have been sown without the unsung efforts of these female fighters. Most prolific, perhaps, is that the likes of Mary Colum, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh and Molly O’Reilly pulled double-duty as mothers and housewives.

The Kelpies
By Andy Scott
Freight Books / 224 pp / €25.00

The world took notice last year when Scottish sculptor Andy Scott unveiled his two 30-meter, 300-tonne steel horses in Falkirk. For those who have yet to visit Europe’s newest, and largest outdoor art installation, Freight Books gives you the full tour with this terrific table-top tome. With contributions from a number of reputed writers, and generously garnished with a strong, and often surreal selection of both colour and black and white images, the hardcover takes readers behind the sculptural scenes, exploring both the mind and matter of the artist, and placing the work within a larger cultural context. While it’s almost impossible to capture and convey the glory and grandeur of the massive monuments, the work does well to examine the undertaking from all angles.

Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks
By Heather Sparling
CBU Press / 357 pp / $19.95

I love that this book was launched at a small fire hall in the remote Nova Scotia community of Christmas Island. After all, where is one more likely to hear Puirt-a-beul – Scottish Gaelic mouth music? And kudos to author Sparling for coming up with a title that is as catchy and quirky as its subject; the toe-tapping, tongue-twisting genre of Gaelic song is as unique a cultural experience as you will find both in ‘New Scotland’ and back home in the Scottish motherland. Years of research, an array of historical references and interviews with Gaelic singers around the world result in a work that is engaging, entertaining, and educational, and one that will be enjoyed by those with a passion for revisiting their roots.

Saint Andrew; Myth, Legend and Reality
By Michael Trb Turnbull
Neil Wilson Press / 186 pp / $16.95

A lot has happened in Scotland since this book was first published in 1997. In this updated edition, educational consultant Michael Trb Turnbull offers up fresh opinions and perspectives on the country’s Patron Saint. From Andrew’s time fishing the Sea of Galilee to modern-day celebrations in his name, the work traces the life of both man and myth, detailing the cultural icon’s impact both at home in Scotland and across the Diaspora. Arguing that both the Saint and Saltire are the country’s most recognizable symbols, the author makes the case that each can be further used as “brand ambassadors” to drive Scotland’s social and economic growth. It might sound heady and academic, but the book is well written and researched, and verily accessible to all. 

Intangible Possibilities
By Lewis MacKinnon
CBU Press / 120 pp / $14.95

Long a champion of Gaelic history and heritage both in his home province and beyond its shores, author, scholar, musician – and Executive Director of both Nova Scotia’s Gaelic College and its Department of Gaelic Affairs – Lewis MacKinnon brings the language to life with his latest collection of poems. Accompanied by English translations, the forty+ works are equal measure rhyme, rhythm and romance, inviting readers into a culture that is both classic and contemporary at once. Particularly moving are his tender tribute to Irish scribe Seumas Heaney, a kindred homage to Rodney King, and the stirring 3-part “Soul Trilogy.” More than a collage of colourful Gaelic vignettes, however, Intangible Possibilities is a thoughtful and deeply personal exploration of the spirit of a modern Gael.

A Book of Death and Fish
By Ian Stephen
Saraband / 576pp / €18.99

Scottish author, poet and playwright Ian Stephen employs all elements of scribery in his epic debut novel. The tough and tender tale of one middle-aged man’s look back on life after a terminal cancer diagnosis, A Book of Death and Fish explores the bigger themes of love, loss, reflection and regret, through a series of smaller, personal vignettes. And while the protagonist (Peter McAuley) hovers over what was and what could have been via interactions with family members and friends, the author skillfully avoids being over-sentimental. The result is much more than a mere trip down memory lane; the work offers up powerful and poignant perspectives on the modern world, and in particular, Scotland from the 1960s to today. An excellent, enjoyable and engaging read.

The Last Word
By Diarmaid Ó Muirithe
Gill & Macmillan / 304 pp / €19.99

A senior lecturer emeritus at the University College of Dublin, Ó Muirithe is best known as a longtime columnist for the Irish Times. A wise and witty wordsmith by trade, he has penned a number of bestselling books about the use and abuse of the English, Irish and Scottish languages. The Last Word carries on where his previous works left off; exploring the constantly changing linguistic landscape. Traditional British and American English are in danger of extinction he says – albeit with a lighthearted hand – however, it is his examination of the growing continental drift between Irish and Scottish Gaelic that will be of most interest to readers. As always, Ó Muirithe approaches the issues with flair and fancy that is unmatched on the Emerald Isle.

Like Any Other Monday
By Binnie Brennan
Gaspereau Press / 224pp / $27.95

A cellist with the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra by trade, Halifax native Binnie Brennan is making beautiful music on the side as a scribe. After her debut novella (Harbour View) and follow-up short-story collection (A Certain Grace) struck chords with both readers and critics, Brennan reaches for the high notes with her first full-length narrative. The story of two failing vaudevillian performers who meet by chance and put together a touring act in early 20th century Canada, Like Any Other Monday explores the dynamic, and often distressed relationship between creative types. Set upon a series of stages, the work does well to transport readers back to the pre-talkies era, when Chaplin and Keaton ruled the entertainment roost with their unique brands of pure physical comedy.

The Irish Beef Book
By Pat Whelan & Katy McGuinness
Gill & Macmillan / 256pp / €18.39

Perhaps more than anyone, the Irish have learned to do more with less – and anyone who grew up in an Irish kitchen knows that no scrap of food was ever to be wasted. That same mindset has gone into The Irish Beef Book. Billed as the definitive guide to buying, preparing and cooking beef, the tasty tome covers all angles from stable to table, nose to tail, with no recipe left unturned. Chapters on proper butchery, culinary culture, history and breeding make for fascinating reading, and the accompanying, mandatory ‘food-porn’ will be sure to make mouths water. Traditional fare takes the day here, though there are contemporary recipes that better reflect the country’s more recent transition to a multicultural society. Definitely not for vegans.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
By Diana Gabaldon
Doubleday / 864 pp / $39.95

What’s not to like about the latest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series? Like the previous seven tomes, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood has all the elements for a great read; action, history, romance, mystery, familiar characters and a soaring narrative arc. And where lesser authors might grow weary with this kind of winning formula, Gabaldon thrives as she brings something new to the table with each work; mainstays Claire and Jamie have grown over time, because the author’s ability to tell a great story has evolved. And while much can be said in 864 pages, it is in the things left unsaid where the novelist shines this time around, inviting her loyal and growing audience to fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

Scotland’s Referendum: A Guide for Voters
By Jamie Maxwell and David Torrance
Luath Press / 128pp / €5.99

Having grown up in Montreal during Quebec’s referendum years (1980, 1995), something like this would have come in handy. Scottish journalists Jamie Maxwell and David Torrance examine the coming independence vote from all angles – political, economic, social and cultural – to produce a well-rounded, balanced and objective perspective on what’s at stake on September 18. While facts and figures don’t lie, the most revealing element of this work is the authors’ treatment of the intangibles; the heart-felt desire of a people to stand alone versus the creature comforts of keeping within the confines of the UK. While post-vote outcomes are speculated upon, credit the duo for allowing readers both at home and away to better understand the grey areas that exist between black and white.

Beautiful Landscapes of Ireland
By Carsten Krieger
O’Brien Press / 144pp / €12.99

Those looking to visit the Emerald Isle will want to pick up a copy of Kreiger’s latest effort. Unlike his previous coffee-table sized collections, however, Beautiful Landscapes of Ireland is portable; the paperback edition has been designed specifically for travelers and will fit into any backpack or purse. Awash with amazing and inspiring colour photographs from across all regions of Eire, the book showcases the spectacular and diverse physical beauty inherent to the landscape. In particular, chapters on Donegal, Galway and Kerry are sure to lure visitors to the west coast. With a forward by Dr. Peter Harbison, and text by noted travel writer Muriel Bolger, this might be the only book you need to wind and weave your way through the countryside and coastlines.

Celtic Threads: A Journey in Cape Breton Crafts
By Eveline MacLeod and Daniel W. MacInnes
CBU Press / 176pp / $24.95

Journey is the keyword here, and authors MacLeod and MacInnes have done well to capture, convey and condense centuries of history and heritage into 176 pages. Under the guise of crafting, the authors examine the past and present patterns of Cape Breton customs – including its roots, traditions, tools of the trade, meanings, etc – weaving individual yarns into a vivid temporal tapestry. Accompanied by both colour and black and white photographs, and peppered with sketches, the work’s warm tone welcomes readers into the homes of those who kept the Island’s textile traditions alive. More than a treatise on weaving, however, Celtic Threads is an engaging, enlightening and entertaining examination of culture in Cape Breton, and an insightful look at the rich lives of its people.

Vair
By Stewart Dickson
VBW Publishing / 444pp / $15.95

Leith-born writer Stewart Dickson was both world-renowned and well-respected for his contributions to journalism. His experience and eye for detail serves him well in his first and only work of fiction, Vair, a political-historical thriller that takes readers on a wild ride from the Vatican to the USA, the UK and beyond. Engaging, entertaining and educational, this is a thinking-man’s The Da Vinci Code, blurring the line between fact and fiction, and challenging the audience to consider an array of angles and ideas. With solid character development, strong dialogue and a soaring narrative arc, those looking for a great story won’t be able to put it down. The only shame here is that, with the author’s untimely passing in 2011, there will be no sequel.

The Books That Defined Ireland
By Bryan Fanning & Tom Garvin
Irish Academic Press / 274pp / €17.95

Reading more like a fireside chat between friends than the academic exercise of seasoned scholars, The Books That Defined Ireland is a fascinating foray into the psyche of the Emerald Isle. Covering thirty fiction and non-fiction works, and spanning more than 375 years of writing, Fanning and Garvin examine the cultural, social, political and economic evolution of Eire as witnesses to the witnessing of history. Of particular interest are the chapters on Wolfe Tone, James Kavanagh, and Mary Raftery’s seminal work Suffer the Little Children, which helped to blow the lid off the physical and sexual abuse in the country’s industrial school system. Not for the faint of head or heart, but an excellent read for those looking to better understand where they come from.

The Demon’s Call
By Kim Gravell
Troubador Books / 391pp / €9.99

Fans of Diana Gabaldon, Game of Thrones and J.R.R Tolkein will enjoy this haunting jaunt into the paranormal, the first installment of Welsh scribe Kim Gravell’s Dark Places series. Drawing heavily upon Celtic myth and lore, The Demon’s Call is the story of young Aiden Morgan’s adventure into the Unseen Realm, a supernatural domain inhabited by evil entities. Seeking host bodies to carry them over into the Mortal World, the demons prey upon unsuspecting victims in which to dwell. Although listed as adult fantasy fiction, the work is easily accessible to younger readers. A strong debut, and it will be interesting to see where the author can take the storyline from here. It likely won’t be long before we see it on the big screen.

Reading the Gaelic Landscape
By John Murray
Whittles Publishing / 240pp / €16.99

My Uncle Michael, a renowned cartographer and historian, would love this little treasure trove of a book. The author, a Director of Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, makes full use of maps, charts, diagrams, photos, portraits, poetry, historical data – along with a couple of good yarns – to highlight the rise and fall of the Gaelic language in the Scottish Highlands. Though a wee bit dry at times, the work succeeds at putting a few missing pieces back into a very complex cultural puzzle, bringing the bigger linguistic picture into focus. And, with the renewed interest for the once lost-language in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the USA and Australia, the work is invaluable for teachers hoping to pass traditions along to younger generations.

Bannockburns
By Robert Crawford
Edinburgh University Press / 288pp / £19.99

With Scotland’s referendum on independence only months away, opinions and perspectives are pouring in from all four corners of the globe. Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature University of St. Andrews, comes out with a unique look – and a resounding NO – in his latest work, the thought-provoking Bannockburns. From the infamous battle of 1314, through the medieval, romantic and industrial ages to today, the author examines the interpretations of the conflict via the pens of poets, novelists and dramatists. Arguing that Scottish scribes have often idealized independence, and thus created a false sense of hope in the collective consciousness of their people, the scholar concludes that a YES vote this September will have a negative impact on Scotland’s economic and cultural landscape. ~ SPC

Lessons From the Northern Ireland Peace Process
Edited by Timothy J. White
University of Wisconsin Press / 264pp / $26.95

Just as the history of Ulster is complex, so was the process of bringing peace to the war-torn region. Thankfully, Professor of Political Science at Xavier University, Timothy J. White, sums it up with simplicity in his latest effort Lessons From the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Drawing upon an assortment of sources, the author approaches the matter holistically, offering unique – and sometimes differing – opinions on both issues and procedures. Readers not so familiar with the myriad of concessions and back-room deals will find fascination with the socio-political maneuvering, while others with knowledge of the events will enjoy the inside perspective from those who were involved with the negotiations. And excellent and important read, and essential for better understanding the ‘terrible beauty’ that is Northern Ireland.

War in the Shadows
By Shane Kenna
Merrion Press / 432pp / £17.99

Almost one hundred years before Northern Ireland exploded in violence, their Emerald Isle forefathers were wreaking havoc elsewhere. In the 1880s, Irish-American Fenians – known as the Dynamitards – launched a five-year bombing campaign upon London. A Doctor of Modern History, author Shane Kenna takes a detailed look back at the operations, arguing that the advanced methodology of madness laid much of the groundwork for today’s terrorist activities. Kudos to Kenna for covering both the conspiracy and the counter-conspiracy, with chapters devoted to the evolution and response of the British Secret Service and its network of spies, agent-provocateurs and informers. Engaging and enlightening, War in the Shadows both evokes and suggests the spirit of the times, proving again that truth is always more amazing than fiction.

Prayer For a Mill Town
By Ken McElroy
Blue Blossom Press / 68pp / £4.99

A bittersweet selection of poems and short stories from one of Ulster’s finest scribes, Ken McElroy, Prayer For a Mill Town is a warm, witty and wise series of snapshots chronicling daily life in Gilford, Co. Down. The author’s gentle reflections on linen mills, childhood, family, friends, and ‘the Troubles’, paint a poignant, poised, and sometimes pained portrait from one man’s memories of times past and present. Balladic in style, simple in structure, lyrical in tone, and ripe with nostalgia, this charming collection captures and conveys the heart, mind and soul of a land and her people. Like his other works, including the brilliant two-man theatrical production The Rare ‘Oul Times, the work finds its truest voice in the spaces and silence between the words.

Diary of a Cornish Fisherman
By Trevor Simpson
The Manuscript Publisher / 194pp / €14.99

After leaving the Royal Navy, Trevor Simpson shipped on as a crewman aboard a small lobster boat in the cozy seaside town of Newquay, Cornwall. From 1962-1967, he kept a journal of his daily activities, recounting his seafaring adventures and chronicling his observations on Cornish life. The result is a warm, witty, wise and poignant portrait of both a people and a place with feet firmly footed in the past, yet aching to catch up to the times. Along the way, readers will fall for the many quirky characters that come and go, bringing colour and flavor to generations of routine. Well peppered with grainy photographs, the work is entertaining and engaging, and will appeal to both landlubbers and sea-lovers of all ilk and ages.

ClanDonnell; A Storied History of Ireland
By David K. McDonnell
Burrowing Owl Press / 928pp / $34.95

Readers are well-advised to put aside some serious time for this terrific tome; at 928 pages, ClanDonnell; A Storied History of Ireland is the epic tale of the Emerald Isle told through the lives of McDonnell Clan members and their descendants. Thankfully, the work is well-worth the emotional and intellectual investment, as author David K. McDonnell connects the dots between his namesake Clan and Ireland’s evolution; bringing the past to life through colourful characters, an array of excellent images and illustrations, superb and succinct writing, and a soaring narrative arc to the present day. You don’t have to be a member of the Clan Donnell to enjoy this grand journey, though you may want to sign on after savouring this larger-than-life slice of Irish life.

The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic
By Michael Newton
CBU Press / 96pp / $9.95

Renowned Celtic scholar and author Dr. Michael Newton lets his hair down with this kinky volume of vile verbosity. Subtitled All the Scottish Gaelic You Need to Curse, Swear, Drink, Smoke and Fool Around, the work delivers as promised, with chapters covering everything from basic four-letter words to insults, hexes and sex. The author does well to place the foul-language within historical and everyday context, citing sources that could lead willing readers down a dirty-minded trail. Fun and fascinating, and layered with gorgeous illustrations from Nova Scotia artist Arden Powell, the book is much more than a mere encyclopedia or dictionary of expletive expressions however – it is notice that we really aren’t that far removed from our potty-mouthed ancestors as we like to think.

The Irish Dancing
By Barbara O’Conner
Cork University Press / 192pp / €39.00

Subtitled Cultural Politics and Identities, 1900-2000, The Irish Dancing is a critical study of the impact that Irish dance has had upon the Emerald Isle. Based upon empirical evidence and in-depth discussions with dancers themselves, the author makes the chronological case that the art/sport/pastime has shaped the way Ireland sees itself, as well as the manner in which the world views Ireland. In particular, O’Conner examines themes of ethnicity, gender and social class and the influence they have on both stereotyping (negative) and the passing along of cultural tradition (positive). Though dry at times, and reading like a thesis of sorts, there is enough here to qualify the work as important. However, only those with an interest in Riverdance and the like will take note.

Fighting Back; the Chris Nilan Story
By Chris Nilan
HarperCollins / 336 pp / $32.95

NHL enforcer Chris Nilan certainly earned his nickname “Knuckles” during his 13 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers; his 222 on-ice fights and 2,248 penalty minutes still rank among the league’s highest. However, it is Nilan’s off-ice conflicts that are featured in this bruising biography. Born and bred in Beantown, the Irish-American enforcer’s roots eventually led him down the pathway of self-destruction. And while the book chronicles that descent, it is his road to recovery that reads so well, with redemption coming both personally and professionally in recent years. Unlike other salvation stories, however, Fighting Back is chock full o’ humility and gentle wisdom, endearing the tough-tender boy from Boston to readers. Even non-hockey fans will enjoy this spirited effort.

Hunger Strike
By Thomas Hennessey
Irish Academic Press / 496 pp / $42.95

Subtitled Margaret Thatcher’s Battle with the IRA, and based on recently declassified documents, this gripping tome bears witness to the test of wills between the ‘Iron Lady’ and the ‘Provos’ during the tensions of 1980-81. Intrigue and suspense take centre stage, as backdoor deals and political posturing by both the British Government and the Bobby Sands-led H-Block hunger-strikers sought to sway the already divided communities of Northern Ireland. Particularly poignant are the details of Sands’ offer to end his stand in an effort to reach a deal that would see his fellow prisoners granted special status. More than an historical retrospective on ‘the troubles’, Hunger Strike is an intimate study of time and place, and an insightful, informative and engaging examination of power and personality.

Membrane
By Carol Moreira
Fierce Ink Press / 280 pp / $11.99

Nova Scotia author – and former Celtic Life International editor – Carol Moreira pieces together a ripping good Young Adult yarn with her sophomore effort Membrane. Dissatisfied with herself, sixteen year-old Tanya meets an alternative version of herself in a parallel universe. Themes of teen-angst, bullying, romance and insecurities come to the forefront, as the protagonist and her double – now confidently called P for Princess – wind their way through a series of sci-fi twists and turns. Moreira does well to keep the plot moving along at a good pace; solid dialoguing, strong characterization and a swift, smooth narrative arc ensure that readers of any age will be engaged and entertained. A terrific tale for young adults, and for parents looking to better understand their hormonal offspring.

The MacHugh Memoirs
By James L. McWilliams
Independent

History buffs and those interested in military records will want to pick-up the two volumes of creative non-fiction that make up this compelling collection; the Fugitives and Black War Bonnet. Canadian author, historian and piper James L. McWilliams fleshes out the daily details in the life of young Roderick Gaspard (Rory) MacHugh, from his days on the Canadian prairies to his service overseas in Egypt and Europe. En route, readers are treated to tidbits of hardship and glory, and a unique perspective on the impact of the Scottish Diaspora. Harkening back to an era when stories were passed down to younger generations by word of mouth, McWilliams leaves just enough space between the lines so that readers may fill in the blanks with their imagination.