Debut Roundup. May and June.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 10th July 2015
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Weightless. Sarah Bannan. Bloomsbury.

It’s the summer in a High School in small town Alabama, and a group of girls watch as the cheerleaders perform their practised routines. Wondering at their sheer perfection, their air of coolness despite the punishing heat, the girls aren’t exactly jealous of their classmates – but rather admiring. They’re comfortable with the status quo.

Then Carolyn Lessing comes to town. Both beautiful and friendly, she gains instant popularity, bagging the coolest football dude, who abandons his girlfriend, Brooke, without a backward glance, and then being voted number one on the school’s hot list.

The trouble starts when it becomes clear that Carolyn either doesn’t know her place in the school’s hierarchy, or doesn’t care. Joining the swim team – something cool girls never do – she’s happy to mix with the wrong people. Through eavesdropping, rumour, and exaggeration on social media, much of it perpetrated by the less cool onlookers, the tide starts to turn. When a tragedy ensues, is it the fault of a gang of mean girls, or is the victim also culpable? That, and the passive role of the first person plural narrators, is left for the reader to decide.

This is an astonishingly assured debut which asks difficult questions, and doesn’t stoop to giving easy answers. With a perfectly judged plot, its tone is pitch perfect. This is the strongest debut I’ve read in ages.

Belfast Days. A 1972 Teenage Diary. Eimear O’Callaghan. Merrion.

The journalist Eimear O’Callaghan doesn’t remember keeping a teenage diary.  Coming across one for 1972, written when she was 16, and a pupil at St Dominic’s High School for girls in Belfast was a shock. She had blocked out the constant trauma of living in the midst of the troubles, and had forgotten the moments of sheer terror.

On February 7th she writes,  ‘We are more concerned for our lives, than for exams.’ And the  entry for May 30th reads. ‘Came to bed convinced that prayer is our only hope, seeing we haven’t got a gun.’

This side of the boarder we became inured to the stories of bombs and killings coming out of the North in the seventies, and the period has been well documented by the participants and peacemakers. But there’s something especially shocking about this account from someone who was not directly involved, yet whose life as a teen was dogged daily by the violence of others.

When there was rioting throughout the city, and buses were burnt, Eimear had to walk to school for the coming days, and sometimes weeks. Sometimes she had to dodge plastic bullets. The grind of this, and sheer tiredness it evoked comes across strongly. Yet the family was determined to carry on with life as normal. Eimear and her mother headed into town one day, even though there were riots, and talk of an imminent civil war. They bought a dress, then turned tail for home, but only because a bomb had exploded in King Street.

The author added comment and explanations, but left the diary entriesunedited, and the resultant rawness adds poignancy.  And though the teenager mulls over friendships, boys, and clothes she wants to buy, her acute observations and detailing of political events make her an interesting chronicler.  Highly readable, this is an important addition to the narrative of the troubles.

Over Our Heads. Andrew Fox. Penguin.

A mother encourages her son to befriend a social misfit; then when trouble starts, begs him never to see him again. A music journalist, lonely because his girl friend has relocated to London, delivers a misdirected parcel to a neighbouring Dublin flat, and becomes embroiled in the drama between the couple and their missing dog.

A man, wandering around New York on the eve of his wedding, bumps into a former best friend. They’ve been estranged since, in a moment of weakness the groom to be slept with his friend’s girlfriend.

There’s awkwardness for a father at his son’s graduation. They’re a blended family, and his son hasn’t told him about his long-standing girlfriend.

And in the longest, most accomplished in this collection of stories, a relationship plays out its bitter course to separation, onto for the couple to be reunited when the ex reveals she’s pregnant. Rushing to the birth, the man realises he isn’t the father, but finds he doesn’t care.

This varied collection centres on the rootless young, who feel unsettled whether they’re at home or abroad. This most talented Dublin writer, who now lives in New York, captures the protagonist’s passions and uncertainties to a tee.

Spill simmer falter wither Sara Baume. Tramp Press

The latest author to come out of the innovative Tramp Press has already proved her worth. She won the Davy Byrne Award for her short story last year. And this surprising debut, with its distinct voice of dysfunction confirms her as someone to reckon with.

The narrator, an old reclusive man, rescues a dog who is due to be put down. The two misfits soon build a bond, but the dog loves to fight, and after an especially vicious attack, where he, possibly bit a child, its time for the pair to flee their seaside home. What will happen when the duo return to face their demons?

This is a powerful evocation of what can happen when a child isn’t properly socialised. My heart bled for the man, who retains a deep fear of children. With resonances of the bleakness of the writing of Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett, this novel is tough, sad, touching and ultimately tragic. A most unusual love story, it will hold you in its grasp, as surely as the dog held on to its prey, and it’s not a book you will forget in a hurry.

Vendetta. Catherine Doyle. Chicken House.

Books for Young Adults have been going from strength to strength of late; and the authors seem to be getting younger too. Galway girl Catherine Doyle was barely twenty when she penned her debut, and she hadn’t cut her teeth on shorter fiction either.

From the start of this ‘romantic thriller,’ it’s clear the author is in control of her material. With a director’s precision, she sets the scene showing best friends Sophie and Millie, two ordinary teenagers in a dull Chicago suburb, as they serve food in an everyday diner.

Then Sophie spies five brothers; shadowy figures standing outside a spooky abandoned mansion. One chases her almost giving her a heart attack. And that’s where the fun starts. Told visually, this tribal tale of violence and love, is like Romeo and Juliet for a modern generation.

Teenagers will appreciate the depths of character. Is Sophie too quick to judge? Will she learn to stick up for herself better? This is the first of a trilogy, and has already sold rights worldwide, so it won’t be long until more about the narrator is revealed.

Marked Off. Don Cameron. New Island

Debut writers aren’t always wet between the ears, and at around sixty, Don Cameron is a case in point. An accountant who then worked in semi state bodies in London, Don published a raft of short stories over the years, but it was only recently that he attempted the longer form. His debut thriller was picked out by New Island in a competition ‘Get Your Novel Published,’ devised in conjunction with Rte’s Today Show.

A local woman, inoffensive and early middle-aged, is found dead in a leafy street in Booterstown, South Dublin. She hasn’t any enemies, and inspector Danny O’Neill, grieving the death of his wife, can’t find any coherent clues. And when more women die – all of them blonde, though of different ages and circumstances, but all stabbed with a pencil, it seems a serial murderer is at large, and the inspector starts to feel the pressure.

This page turner, with its clever twists and turns had me gripped until the end, when, the final clue solved, there’s a frenzied fight to the finish. And if Cameron’s decision to give the reader a glance into the killer’s psyche, and show some scenes from his point of view irked me rather, it’s a method he shares with many other crime writers, so presumably other readers don’t object to it.

There’s a plethora of police in this book, but O’Neill, as the main protagonist, is the best drawn. A fitness fanatic with an eye set at a colleague, he is set to reappear, should the publishers decide on a trilogy.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine.

© Sue Leonard. 2015

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