Cover to Cover

Top reads to get you through the wild Winter

By Brian Toal

So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan’s stories have won many prizes and she has been shortlisted for many more. I’d just finished a couple of hefty tomes, so I thought I’d choose something small and light for a change. Small it is; light it is not. 

She clearly has a big fan base, judging by the reactions around me in the shop. I’d barely touched the book when someone leant in and declared that she loved Keegan and hoped I would too. So enthusiastic was the sales assistant about ‘Small Things Like These’, one of her previous books, that he got it for me and insisted that I buy it as well.

How could I possibly refuse? So, with these two slim volumes in my backpack, off I went into the Sunday sunshine to find a café. I mention café because the best way I can describe this book is by using a coffee analogy. We’ve all read books which are the literary equivalent of a mediocre large Americano – lacking taste, heat and any distinguishing feature, really. This book is not a mediocre Americano, it’s an exquisite wee espresso so full of punch and flavour that you’ll imbibe it all at once and feel wide awake afterwards. Indeed, I romped through it that very afternoon! 

Wow. So, what’s it about? It’s Friday night and Cahal is heading home to face the weekend alone. He’s on the bus, ruminating over the one that got away. But why did she get away? Did she run or was she pushed? You’ll need to read it to find out. We are given snippets of their relationship – the highs and the lows – and we can see the train wreck coming, but it’s with ghoulish fascination that we watch the relationship slowly, then quickly, unravel. “She said things may now be changing, but that a good half of men your age just want us to shut up and give you what you want, that you’re spoiled and turn contemptible when things don’t go your way…He wanted to deny it, but it felt uncomfortably close to a truth he had not once considered.” And so we start to see the root of the problem.

Keegan doesn’t lecture us on the misogyny of modern men and their emotional incontinence. Neither does she castigate men who simply can’t commit and who want their cake and to eat it too. Satire would be too easy. Instead, Keegan simply lays it all out for us and allows us to see nature take its course, to watch as Cahal is left alone with his thoughts, his wedding champagne and cake, and his microwave dinner. 

The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole

‘What appears to us today as a ‘green and pleasant land is’, in reality, a desert compared to the glory of what once existed’. Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, mainly thanks to our political decisions and farming policies. Shrubsole, in this fascinating book about the Atlantic rainforests of Britain, demands change before it’s too late. Our rainforests only cover around 1% of the country, where around 20% is in the rainforest zone. We’re quick to criticise Bolsonaro and campaign to save the Amazon, but what about our own temperate rainforests? 

From the works of Tolkien to George Monbiot, Shrubsole takes us on an academic journey detailing what has happened to our rainforests, as well as taking on us on a literal journey as he visits the west coast of Scotland, Wales and the West Country in England. This vast crescent shape on our western seaboard is host to the last remnants of our temperate rainforests, and they’re dying on their feet due to overgrazing, invasive species and crazy policies. The importance of these places throughout history can be seen in literature ranging from Shakespeare to Tolkien to ‘The Mabinogion’ legends of Wales. However, they are just as important now as a form of carbon capture – the trees themselves and the soil in their canopies both ameliorating our damage to the planet. So, pay attention, campaign, raise awareness and educate yourselves and others to save our rainforests. 

Shy by Max Porter

This is the story of a few strange hours in the life of a troubled teenage boy. Shy is a resident of Last Chance, a home for ‘very disturbed young men’, and Porter takes us into the unravelling mind of the boy in a breathtaking, lurching journey. I read this in three hours, so compelling did I find it. Saying that, at 120 pages, it’s slender, and there’s a lot of white on the pages. This is mainly due to the clever and innovative ways in which Porter uses a variety of typefaces and fonts, just as he had done in ‘Lanny’ and in ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’, both of which I loved. 

Shy’s mental state is confused, and we’re taken on his confusing journey at such a breakneck speed that we are forced to feel the momentum and lack of control which Shy feels. Novels should transport us from our everyday lives, and some, if they’re good, will make us think about who we are and our place in the world. This novel forces us to spend some time in the mind of Shy, and by the end, we feel what he feels, see things as he sees them, and perhaps we’re left a little wiser and feeling humbled and fortunate that we’re not inhabiting his world any longer than the duration of the book. Given his past, can he really have much of a future? Can we escape our pasts? Do they have to define us? 

The books reviewed are available from all good book shops – Waterstones Byres Road

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