Anne Cunningham of First Chapter book reviews.

This week: a thriller set in Russia just before the invasion of Ukraine

This week there are two nonfiction titles, both concerning the natural world but from different perspectives. There’s also a novel about discovering a mother’s secret life during the years of World War II, there’s a heart-stopping story of a missing child and there’s a thriller set in Russia just before the invasion of Ukraine.

Wild Waters, Richard Nairn, Gill, €18.99

Ecologist Richard Nairn is always a joy to read and in his latest book readers can expect his usual lyrical passages as he continues to explore Ireland’s natural beauty. He has previously written (among other things) Wild Woods and Wild Shores, and this is his third in the trilogy, focusing on our inland waterways and although there’s much to celebrate, he also finds the spoils of heavy industry and unpoliced agricultural practices in many locations.

This book weaves the natural world with history, poetry and personal experience into a seamless tapestry, beginning on the banks of the Avonmore in Wicklow. From there, he takes the reader along several waterways, often in dismay at how disrespectful we have been towards these essential life forces. The latter pages discuss how Ireland could adopt rewilding projects that have already been tried and tested in other countries, solutions that have yet to be implemented here, despite our ticking clock.

Cacophony of Bone, Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Canongate, €20.99

This is not purely a meditation on the natural world, nor was ní Dochartaigh’s first book ‘Thin Places’. But nature and the seasons play a big part in her intimate musings on life, love and the concept of home. While ‘Thin Places’ was partially a memoir about growing up in Derry in fraught times and the author’s later battle with alcohol, it also celebrated the kind of spiritual peace found in the quiet of rural life. This second book was also written in fraught times, the year of 2020, when the pandemic swept in and upended our lives. Ní Dochartaigh had just then settled in rural Westmeath. And while so many of us found some solace in nature in those awful days, few of us could describe that solace as ní Dochartaigh can.

The book is laid out in diary form and the writing moves from the specific to the general, from personal to universal, from prose to seemingly impromptu poetry, with memories of books she’s read, social media posts she’s noted, and all the while the changing seasons around her. There are big changes afoot for the author too, but to say more would be to spoil.

Independence Square, Martin Cruz Smith, Simon and Schuster, €13.99

Cruz Smith fans, and they are legion, will be both thrilled and saddened with this, his 10th Arkady Renko detective novel, to learn that Renko has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and finds himself questioning whether the time he’s got left is worth living at all. But this Moscow cop keeps working and the story opens on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A friend’s daughter, a young woman who’s into music and politics in equal measure, has gone missing. Renko takes the case. Then a man Renko knows is murdered and he finds himself on that case too. Is there a possibility that the missing young woman and the murder are connected?

Cruz Smith gave us the unforgettable Gorky Park, his first Renko novel, which was adapted into the hugely successful movie of the same name. Several of his sequels have also made it to the screen. Now 80 years old, he’s not showing any signs of winding down and this novel is as tense and complex as ever.

The Paper Man, Billy O’Callaghan, Jonathan Cape, €14.99

Billy O’Callaghan writes unrivalled descriptive passages that the reader can almost wrap themselves in, and his words when writing about love in all its incarnations are simply transcendent. He’s fond of taking tiny scraps of family and local history and weaving works of fiction around them, both in his novels and short stories. He came across Austrian footballer Mathias Sindelar, ‘The Paper Man’, famous in the 1930s and a vocal opposer of Hitler’s Anschluss, while visiting Austria. Sindelar was found dead in mysterious circumstances in his Vienna home, just before the start of the war.

Rebekah is Sindelar’s fictional girlfriend, young, pregnant and Jewish in 1938. Sindelar fears for her safety and arranges for her to travel to a Jewish family in Cork, where she will be taken care of and – crucially – will escape the death camps. She arrives in Cork and later has her baby. She dies while her little son is still very young. Her son, Jack Shine, is sorting through her belongings while clearing house in the 1980s. He has never known of his mother’s prior history and is astounded by what he finds. Lyrical, lovelorn, beautiful, this is O’Callaghan at his peak.

No One Saw A Thing, Andrea Mara, Bantam Press, €16.99

Sive, a freelance journalist and Aaron, a prosperous lawyer, are a happily married couple with three small kids. A weekend get-together with Aaron’s old pals doesn’t quite work out as planned and they’ve had to endure an awkward couple of days. Afterwards, Sive loses her two older children on a London underground train. She finds the younger at the next stop, but the older girl, Faye, just six years of age, is gone. Vanished. The action is frantic from the outset, with lots of twists and turns. Is the bad weekend with the old pals somehow linked with this incident? Or has Aaron got something in his past that he’s being made to pay for? With this little girl’s life?

It’s an extremely tense page-turner and Mara’s many fans will not be disappointed in her latest slice of excellent domestic noir. A missing child is probably the most horrific nightmare any parent can endure and she describes the experience with blood-chilling precision. Time, of course, is of the essence in the search for a missing child. And the clock is rapidly ticking…


Should you find yourself in Donegal anytime in July, the Errigal Arts Festival takes place from the 8th to the 23rd. See for details. The Otherside music festival takes place in Slane from July 7th to 9th, see for details.