Flares Up: A Story Bigger than the Atlantic; The Green Man of Eshwood Hall; The Book of the Gaels

Reviews in brief: Belfast Punk and The Troubles: An Oral History; Antarctic Affair; Rose and the Burma Sky

Author Niamh McAnally at the launch of her book Flares Up in Hodges Figgis, Dublin, with actor Jeremy Irons, who wrote the foreword to the book. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland
Flares Up: A Story Bigger than the Atlantic by Niamh McAnally (Pitch Publishing, €14.99)

Anyone with even a passing interest in the trials and terrors endured by Irish Atlantic rowers Dr Karen Weekes and Damian Browne will know that reaching the start line is at least half the battle.

When English firefighter Paul Hopkins (55) and businessman Phil Pugh (65) took on the 2019 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in a fourth-hand wooden boat, they had already experienced so many setbacks that it was a small miracle they managed to set off from the Canary Islands at all.

And if they had hoped to toast their first sunset at sea, they had something of a rude awakening – colliding with one of the marker buoys at the start, experiencing severe seasickness and encountering a violent storm within the first few days of a 3,000 nautical mile row.

Driven by pure determination and love of family back home, the pair defied expectations to cross the finishing line off Antigua – where they were photographed, celebrating with flares, by Niamh McAnally, herself a sailor and curious to know more about the “why” than the “how”.


Her riveting account of salt sores and storms, hallucinations and hellish mind wanderings, draws on the searing honesty of both men. Her enviable skill for dialogue transports the reader from pontoon to mid-Atlantic and beyond, where the moon rises from the ocean, pods of dolphins and whales surfacing to check them out sustains them, while one unsinkable boat named Didi becomes their first love over 70 days, nine hours and 11 minutes. With an introduction by actor Jeremy Irons. – Lorna Siggins

The Green Man of Eshwood Hall by Jacob Kerr (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)

Set in a fictional version of Northumberland, Kerr’s novel (the first in a trilogy) focuses on Isabella Whipper, ”zzy”, and her family as they move into the country home of Eshwood Hall. However, the Whippers are not aristocrats: her father is a repairman, so Izzy and her sister are left to squabble over the allocation of rooms in the servant’s quarters. With juvenile curiosity and beyond-her-age bravery, Izzy explores the vast grounds. She hears about Eshwood’s troubling history and the mysterious “Green Man”. Although Kerr seems to desire telling both a detached gothic horror story and a more intimate coming-of-age tale, which can slacken the pace in crucial moments, Kerr’s eco-horror preaches embracing rather than avoiding your fears. A terrifying prospect indeed. – Liam Bishop

The Book of the Gaels by James Yorkston (Oldcastle Books, £9.99)

Yorkston sets his novel in Cork in 1975, focusing on Fraser, a widower and struggling poet (what else?) who is raising two boys, Joseph and Paul, with barely enough spit to wash themselves. Fraser has a vague promise from a small Dublin publisher of printing his work, which sees him set off, Paddy Kavanagh-esque, for the Pale, but with the poor children in tow. A road trip develops, with them cadging lifts, food, and shelter, but the plot feels full of holes right from the off. The father waits until he arrives in Dublin – following a trip stuffed with handlebars and hassles – before ringing the publisher. Then he’s surprised a tiny poetry house isn’t offering a big pay-off. Sadly, the story proceeds towards further silliness by its end. – NJ McGarrigle

Belfast Punk and The Troubles: An Oral History by Fearghus Roulston (Manchester University Press, £80)

Joe Strummer said that if punk should have happened anywhere, then it should have happened in Northern Ireland. So this small book is a welcome addition to recent work researching and archiving the music and spirit of rejection in a binary conflict zone during the 1970s and 80s. The writing is for the academic admittedly, but there’s enough for the general music fan to enjoy in its evocation of time and place. Roulston interviews back-in-the-day punks and draws out many of the nuances and difficulties of being part of a scene trying to find a shared space in a place split in two. By the end you realise their attitude to the madness around them was simple, yet powerful, and Roulston refers to the “concept of refusal”; pure punk. – NJ McGarrigle

Antarctic Affair by Fergus O’Gorman (Harvest Press, €25, €16.99pb)

Fergus O’Gorman believes he’s the only surviving Irishman to have wintered in the Antarctic. Now aged 87, he spent three years there (1957-60) as a young biology graduate, as part of the British Antarctic Survey; this is his account of that period and of his lifelong love for the region. We see clearly what it means to him to have walked in the footsteps of his heroes Shackleton and Crean. There is much awe at the often-breathtaking impact of the extraordinarily unique landscape (“the terrible beauty of the Antarctic sunrise that ricochets into one’s very soul and lodges in the heart”), but much awareness of its dangers also, and sadness at the loss of beloved friends that it claimed. Gripping, not for the squeamish but nicely laced with humour. – Brian Maye

Rose and the Burma Sky by Rosanna Amaka (Doubleday, £16.99)

Rosanna Amaka’s latest novel opens in 1939 with Obi, a young Nigerian boy captivated by the promised thrill of a soldier’s life, not realising that the world is on the brink of war again. He has given his heart to Rose but in the years that follow, betrayal leads to tragedy, even as Obi is shipped out to fight in the Burma Campaign. Building on the success of her historical fiction debut, The Book of Echoes, the author explores similar themes of colonialism, trauma, and redemption here but in a no less compelling way. By asking the reader to walk with Obi and see through his eyes, Amaka offers the reader another way into the often-overwhelming narrative of the second Word War – an emotionally resonant and lyrically written story of one young man’s heartbreak, set against the trauma of a world falling apart. – Becky Long