Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

I adore Marian Keyes’ books. They are the perfect holiday escape which is exactly why the release of this novel was such terrific timing. I devoured it while flying overseas (luckily when Covid-19 was still in its early stages – little did we know what lay ahead or what solace books would offer – something readers have always known and I hope others learn too through these really difficult times). 

This is the tale of the Casey family. A large sprawling Irish family who are constantly brought together through the largesse of the most successful of their siblings: Jessie. Re-married after the death of her beloved first husband, to his best friend, Jessie has since been estranged from her first husband’s family – a family she bonded with and adored. The wound of their rejection, of their assumption she had his best friend on the “side”, hurts deeply. But Jessie has other secrets and worries that she keeps from those she loves best.

She is not alone. There is infidelity, debt, obligation, control, passion, hatred, depths and shallows, and so much more. When the popular daughter-in-law, Cara, gets serious concussion and starts to spill family secrets at one of their big get togethers, things start to unravel swiftly. But is this what’s needed or the worst thing that could have happened to the Caseys?

Fast-moving, loads of characters who are alternately utterly believable and then only convincing within the world Keyes has created (which is fine), the dialogue crackles, you laugh, cringe, and, as the title suggests, wish they’d either all grow up or that the grown-ups would step up and start adulting.

Another great snapshot of family life that makes literary strengths out of weaknesses, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Book Review: Flame of Sevenwaters

What can I say? Oh. Wow. Talk about conjuring mixed emotions in the reader. I feel like either donning black and keening or dancing wildly through the room. I want to do the former because Flame of Sevenwaters is, I believe, the final book in this sublime series, and kick my heels up because it was so exquisitely beautiful.

Flame of Sevenwaters (Sevenwaters, #6) This novel tells the story of Maeve, one of Lord Sean’s daughters who, in an earlier novel, Child of the Prophecy, was badly disfigured as the consequence of a fire ten years ago. Sent to live with her aunt and uncle to recover, she learns to accept her physical limitations. Cruelly twisted and maimed, Maeve’s hands are all but useless, but she proves her worth to the household in other ways, mainly by working with animals. Maeve has an uncanny knack of being able to calm and reassure even the most fractious of beasts. What Maeve appears to be unaware of is that her talent can also work with the humans who come into her sphere.

When her uncle asks her to accompany a spirited, lovely and flighty horse, Swift, to Sevenwaters, Maeve reluctantly agrees, knowing her homecoming with be as much an emotional journey as it’s physical. In many ways, Swift’s nature functions as a mirror for Maeve’s and, in the horse’s doubts and transformation, Maeve’s is partially echoed.

Arriving back at Sevenwaters after such a long absence, she’s much changed. Forthright, loyal, brave and kind, Maeve’s mother particularly doesn’t know how to respond to the daughter she loves but whom she doesn’t understand. While her father appears to cope better, it’s really her young brother, Finbar, who seems to grasp Maeve’s needs and be able to read what she cannot articulate. Appearing at times stubborn and selfish and torn with self-doubt, Maeve’s struggles to be herself and live by her rules is also made clear.

Finding Sevenwaters on the brink of war, mostly brought about by the machinations of the lord of the Otherworld, Mac Dara, Maeve is at a loss to know how she can help. But other forces know how she can and they enlist her and her brother’s aid to resolve a dispute for power that’s long been brewing and for which Lord Sean’s family and his allies have been paying the price. But the cost of this power struggle between the fey is yet to be reckoned and not even Maeve may be prepared for the sacrifice that will be asked of her and those she loves.

I cannot begin to tell you how beautifully Marillier conjures this world and the people within it. Her prose is as lilting and haunting as the forest that encircles Sevenwaters. Her descriptions so evocative that you are transported into the stillness of the nemetons, the eerie Otherness of Mac Dara’s realm and the homeliness and memory-haunted halls of the castle.

Like all the novels in this series, there are tales within tales, stories that bind, reveal and conceal, and this novel is no exception. From the mouths of seers and seers in training come fables that function as thinly disguised lessons in life, relationships, love and choices as well as the future. Even the title of the book is a description, noun and verb. “Flame” is a role that can be fitted to more than a couple of the characters as they “flame” brightly at times. Indeed, the word ‘flame’ itself contains within it positive and negative attributes that evoke notions of destruction, cleansing, death, transformation and rebirth all at once. There is also the idea of power, steadiness, warmth and passion.

I really don’t want to give too much away, but there are two more points I’d like to make. In this novel particularly, Marillier does a simply lovely job of making her animals wonderful, steadfast and real characters. I adored the animals. Like the humans, I championed them, came to know and love them and wept copiously when they were in peril or worse.

This leads me to the other point. I cried almost non-stop throughout the final quarter of the book, pausing only to blow my nose, wipe my eyes (so I could continue reading) and absorb this magical novel. I admit, I was a compete sook, a wet-rag of emotion as I wept tears of sadness, joy, heartache and triumph. I went from sheer horror to exhilaration and was taken on such an emotional journey, all of which reminded me that, like Ciaran and the other seers who have featured throughout the series, I was in the hands of a master storyteller, someone who cares deeply about their tale and those who read it.

This was an experience I won’t fast forget and nor do I want to. But I do want to thank Juliet Marillier for creating such a beautiful world, populated by incredibly complex dark and light beings.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This quite extraordinary book with an even more extraordinary title was recommended to me by a good friend who neither revealed anything about the contents nor genre – she simply said, “read it, I think you’ll enjoy it.”

She was right.

A strange book in that it’s at once both incredibly comical and tragic, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian basically tells the story of two estranged sisters, Vera and Nadezhda (Nadia), who are appalled to discover that their widowed and elderly father is about to remarry a luscious Ukrainian woman, Valentina, many decades his junior. Valentina also has a teenage son whom she believes is a “genius”. And so a tale of reckless marriage, love thwarted, dishonour, honour, the past, memory, family and the human capacity to survive unfolds.

The opening of the book is quite stunning and sets a deceptive tone:

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eight-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky waters, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Enter Valentina: stage right, a ruthless, cunning and beautiful woman who seduces the old man into marriage believing that, as someone who has forged a life in a Western country, he must have money, and who intends, through wedlock to make a better life for herself and her gifted son.

Forcing the two angry sisters to co-operate in order to first prevent their father’s marriage and later, instigate his divorce, the book is told mainly from Nadia’s point of view. Filled with eccentric characters (none more so than the elderly father and Valentina), passion, purpose, and desperation, it is at once very funny and moving.

Like Nadia, we’re drawn into her father’s alternating states of misery and jubilation as his young, mercenary wife, both abuses and thrills him with her flirtatious and calculating ways. Just when you think she’s the “slut” and “gold-digger” the eldest sister, Vera, is persuaded she is, the book also exposes the pathos and hardship that faces those who are displaced – through war, politics and Otherness. Moving back in time to war-time Europe, we’re given insights into what faced inhabitants of occupied countries; the horror of camps, of having loved ones torn from your side and the constant fear that becomes a part of life – fear of loss, of dreams unfulfilled and so much more.

Having experienced this herself (indirectly – Nadia was a peace-time baby who nonetheless witnessed what the war did to her family and became an immigrant too) and through her family who suffered greatly and quietly during the war, Nadia is able to view Valentina and her actions differently to most. Seguing from anger to empathy, the sociologist in her struggles to understand, not only Valentina, but her father and sister and later, the other besotted and desperate characters who Valentina, as her marriage deteriorates, drags into their lives.

Running parallel to all the emotional and psychological chaos of the present is not only the upheavals and horror of the past, but the ordered and academic work that the father works on – the history of tractors. Functioning as analogous to the main narrative, it takes the reader through the glory of agriculture, the boons that technology offered, the abilities of humans to create and harness the power such technology and the ability to control nature offered, but also the huge dangers that lie in succumbing to progress without balance. It also offers a cautionary tale about the seductions of the West – something the Ukrainian refugees know all too well.

The book is also about families, old age, tenderness, love, the ties that bind even when we don’t want them too. It’s about loss, forgiveness and the capacity to both remember and forget. It’s about passion, compassion and human’s dreadful facility for cruelty – even the unintended kind.

Delightful, moving, funny and utterly unforgettable, A Short History is a book that will resonate with me for a long time to come.

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