Nuala O’Connor’s transporting flash fiction

Brief reviews of Birdie , The Mountains Sing, A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall, Happiness, a Mystery, Dear Reader and Me and Sister Bobbie

By Nuala O'Connor
Arlen House, €10.00
As you would expect from O'Connor, this collection of flash fiction is a menagerie of exquisite language. The stories transport us to moments in time, and to no-time, as the author paints fragments of history that are palpable with characters who come alive in a brushstroke. Artists and sitters are here as are servants, soldiers, mothers and sisters in stories of losing, longing, and home. Historical fiction can sometimes be clogged with research – not so in these stories which are glances, swift and sensory, with grace-notes of details to let us recognise where we are. Here is the "crookedness of nature," the lure and lore of home but also the emigrant, the lost lover, the perished child. This collection takes us from the olagón to the "shale-and-ripple of a shell": a pearl. – Ruth McKee

The Mountains Sing
By Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Oneworld, £14.99
Representations of women and silenced minorities in fiction focusing on the Vietnam War have occupied poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai for most of her literary career. Here, Nguyen offers her first novel in English as an account of the lost history of Vietnam, in some ways both the culmination and the beginning of her life's work. Woven throughout the horror and trauma of that history are the necessary realities of forgiveness and reconciliation explored through one family's struggles to survive, and ultimately, to live. A compelling and challenging novel that should be read as an attempt to recognise both the presence of the past and its profound effect on the formation of individual and national identity. – Becky Long

A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall
Neil Richardson
O'Brien Press, €19.99
Some 200,000 Irishmen participated in the first World War, between 35,000 and 50,000 died, tens of thousands more were wounded and countless more suffered for the rest of their lives. Yet for generations, such a cataclysm impacted little on the national consciousness. This fine book recovers veterans' memories of their experiences thus "giving a more personal edge to the famous battles and events of the war". These are the stories of the ordinary private soldiers, as told to their children and grandchildren, and through the latter to the author. An extraordinarily representative picture emerges of men of all backgrounds and political opinions: their motives for going, their terrible experiences at the front and what became of them afterwards. Illustrations and photographs add greatly to the insights as the forgotten are restored to the national consciousness. – Brian Maye

Happiness, a Mystery: And 66 Attempts to Solve It
By Sophie Hannah
Wellcome Collection, £12.99
Renowned crime writer Sophie Hannah is, it turns out, a bit of a self-help aficionada. Happiness, a Mystery is her second foray into the genre having published How to Hold a Grudge in 2018. Structured as a mystery, the book tries to get to the bottom of how to be happy and in doing so gives an insight into the hectic life of the prolific author suggesting it might actually be quite a burden to "have it all". I never expected Hannah to get to the bottom of this particular mystery, yet I did find myself longing for something as I read. That self-help delusion perhaps. I wanted the book to placate me a little, sell me false promises. What can I say, it didn't do it for me. – Niamh Donnelly


Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books
By Cathy Rentzenbrink
Picador, £12.99
Dear Reader, this is a book about books. Lots and lots of books. Reading, the author claims, has always been a great source of comfort, knowledge, pleasure and joy. And every page of this book confirms this. A thoroughbred bookworm the maximum number of books she could cope with in a day was three. Phew. She claims to have read Pride and Prejudice "at least 50 times", always crying her eyes out afterwards. In fact she does a lot of crying in this book. Rentzenbrink not only writes of the many books which influenced her (mainly novels) and the reasons why, but also engages us with her experiences when working in bookshops (Harrods and Waterstones). For good measure we learn of the ups and downs of her private life, especially the tragic death of her young brother and her wonderful relationship with her Irish father. But this book is principally about books. For various reasons many authors impressed her but Jilly Cooper seems to have been most influential when Rentzenbrink read how women were "gleefully enjoying sex, committing adultery and getting away with it". The author writes with ease, charm and humour. In many ways this book is an ode to the joys of reading. – Owen Dawson

Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band
By Willie Nelson, Bobbie Nelson, David Ritz
Random House, €23.99
Willie Nelson has already given us some entertaining memoirs but True Tales of the Family Band takes us somewhere slightly different. A dual memoir between Willie and his sister Bobbie, the book further expands the narrative about life on the musical road by paring it back to the personal – their shared history, for example, their early grounding in gospel music, to their individual struggles and sensibilities. What emerges is a love-letter of sorts from Willie to his sister: "If I was the sky, Bobbie was the earth. She grounded me. Two years older, she also protected me." An engaging and, at times, moving account of sibling revelry. – Siobhán Kane