Book review – Kate O’Brien – “The Land of Spices”


My second read for Reading Ireland Month, and like “How Green was my Valley”, I took it on holiday, though it was my plane home read and I finished it at home. 

I bought this one in Stratford last October when I met Scott and Andy from America. The books I bought then I shared in this blog post and I haven’t read and reviewed any others of them yet.

Kate O’Brien – “The Land of Spices”

(18 October 2022, Oxfam Books, Stratford-upon-Avon)

From the beginning, chilled more than she knew by the shock which drove her to the purest form of life that could be found, and hardened in all her defences against herself by the sympathetic bleakness of Sainte Fontaine, she grew into that kind of nun who will never have to trouble about the vow of poverty, because poverty is attractive to her fastidiousness; who has looked chastity in the eyes with exaggerated searching, and finding it in the perverse seduction she needed at a moment of flight from life, accepted it one and for all with proud relief; but who sill have to wrestle with obedience. Not that she does not understand its place in the ideal, or that specific acts of submission trouble her. But because it is a persistently intellectual sacrifice, it is always an idea. (p. 19)

Like “Small Things Like These”, this book centres around a convent in Ireland, however this is a positive story with no laundries, just a school and a community of nuns, their mother convent based in Belgium and Mother Mary Helen, an English woman raised on the Continent who is mistrusted and somewhat feared by the mostly Irish nuns and school girls and the priests who are associated with the school.

The book follows both a linear narrative and a non-linear one, as we follow Anna Murphy’s progress through the school (starting very young, the youngest girl in the school) and dot back and forth through Mary Helen’s life so we only discover mid-way through the book what compelled her to rush into a vocation aged 18. Both women experience tragic losses and both experience spiritual development in this very subtle book, which has no sentimentality or melodrama, but a close and careful look at the petty jealousies and bad behaviour of nuns, school girls and old girls and the ways in which they can console themselves.

There are lovely, touching moments of friendship and fierce defences of what is right: I don’t know much about Kate O’Brien but Clare Boylan in her introduction names her an unsentimental feminist, and there is a strong thread supporting women’s education and right to have their own freedom running through the book. Different kinds of moralities are presented, with Anna’s brother giving his opinion on the nature of their father’s alcoholism and Mary Helen’s father presenting an atheistic view of the world, which makes for interesting contrasts but no lectures or over-philosophising. Another thread is the loss of innocence, again shadowed by the two main characters.

It’s a gently paced book with some remarkable scenes and I very much enjoyed it: I might not have picked it off the charity shop shelves without this challenge to read it for, and I’m glad I did.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the second of the two I had hoped to read for the challenge, and completes my Reading Wales / Reading Ireland double challenge with two books for each. It also fills in a year of my Reading the Century project, which hardly ever happens these days!

In another Bookish Beck Serendipity moment, this and “How Green Was My Valley” were published within 3 years of each other (1942 and 1939 respectively) and were set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, not a gap I encounter frequently – I also note I chose to share a quote from p. 19 of each book!

Book review – Claire Keegan – “Small Things Like These”


It’s Reading Ireland Month and this was a quick win read in one or two great gulps, as I’m reading two books to review for Shiny New Books but wanted something to talk about here, too.

My lovely friend Meg kindly gave me her copy of this wonderful book in November 2022 (of the seven print books incoming in that month I have read and reviewed two, but that’s not that long ago, is it … ). I feel like everyone in the world has read this jewel of a novella, and it’s hard to say anything new about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I have read it at last.

Claire Keegan – “Small Things Like These”

(November 2022, from Meg)

Always it was the same, Furlong thought; always they carried mechanically on without pause, to the next job at hand. What would life he like, he wondered, if they were given time to think and reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same – or would they just lose the run of themselves? (p. 19)

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror? (p. 108)

Deceptively simply written, as so many great books are, and with an air of almost a fairy tale, this beautiful and perfect novella takes an ordinary man, runs us through his life, thoughts and emotions, gives him time, indeed, to think and reflect over things, shows us his community and his upbringing, subtle hints woven throughout (a kind man; a man who was himself the child of a single mother; a man who will give the change in his pockets to the child in poverty with an alcohol-abusing father; a man who worries if his daughters will be resilient enough for the modern world) and then has him do first one strange, out of character thing and then one absolutely extraordinary thing.

We’ve all read about a man finding someone in a coal shed when doing deliveries, but there is much more to it than that: a man who was adopted by a Protestant widow in a big house but whose mum died when he was a child still himself, and a Catholic convent on the hill with whisperings about its “training school” and who exactly does the laundry work. What’s shocking is that this story about the Magdalen laundries is set in 1985 and that the afterword explains the last one was closed in 1996, thousands of young women incarcerated and often worked to death, their babies taken from them to be adopted or to die.

So there’s a pretty modern world of shops and phone calls and offices and then a terrible place on the hill where the nuns clearly close rank and punish anyone who steps out of line. Who shut Sarah in the coal shed and what eventually happens to her we will never know; but she is named, she is seen, and Bill Furlong makes sure of it. The women characters are superbly done, especially Bill’s wife, Eileen, and the whole is enthralling, enchanting and heartbreaking. A Christmas tale that can be read any time of the year, a lovely Irish turn to the language and a very special book.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the first of two I hope to read for the challenge.

State of the TBR – March 2023


Well, in good news, the bulk of books on my TBR has stayed essentially the same as last month, the bad news being that I still have almost an extra shelf of it!

I completed 20 books in February (one left to review) and am part-way through four more (one my new Reading With Emma Read). Sadly I didn’t read quite what I intended to, as I was struck down by an unpleasant virus that seems to be doing the rounds and only able to read a series of (nine!) very light and enjoyable novels on my kindle for about a week in the middle of it. I read three of the #ReadIndies books I’d laid out for myself, with one still on the go and therefore should still Count, and added two that came in through the month handily from indie publishers. So six ReadIndies challenge books in total, plus two of the ones I laid out for myself I really didn’t like at all and put to one side, at least thus removing five from the print TBR. I finished one of my other print review books (review to be done for Shiny) and am part-way through another (see below). And I DID read all five of my NetGalley books published in March, hooray, plus three more NetGalley books by Christie Barlow that were waiting for me to read the first six (I did). So eight books off the NetGalley TBR and my percentage is 88%!


Not quite so many incomings this month (mainly because I couldn’t see very well or leave the house much this month, I suspect). The kindness of friends and publishers kept me supplied, though!

Ada Leverson’s “Bird of Paradise” was a kind gift from the publisher, Michael Walmer, and I have read and reviewed it already (here). Bookish Beck sent me Jeremiah Moss’ “Feral City” which is about New York and the pandemic (I’m aware I need to send this on to Laura Tisdall so will try to promote it up the TBR!). I spotted Bob Mortimer’s autobiography, “And Away” in The Works when milling around on the High Street and couldn’t resist it. Charlie Hill dropped a copy of his historical novel “The Pirate Queen” round (read and reviewed here) and my lovely friend Jenny dropped Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” (racy stories!) and Cyndia Lauper’s memoir round on the same day. I bought Hunter Davies’ “The Heath” for Emma as she lives near Hampstead Heath and we decided to make it one of our Read Together Books – even though we have one on the go and another two in hand, I decided I had to have this one, too, so ordered it from the (Heath!) Bookshop. Michael Hann’s “Denim and Leather” is the story of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal: I did a very small amount of transcribing for it (and he added me to the acknowledgements!) and decided to pre-order the paperback LAST Feb so thank you, Past Me. And Vertebrate Publishing sent an enticing email about review copies and I chose “The Outdoors Fix” by Liv Bolton which has essays by a lovely diverse group of people and how the British countryside has helped them in various ways (look out for that review soon as it’s out on 9 March).

I won four NetGalley books this month and didn’t buy any other ebooks:

Ryan Love’s “Arthur and Teddy Are Coming Out” (published April) is a feel-good novel where a grandfather and his grandson both want to come out as gay but one finds it easier than the other. Paul Morgan-Bentley’s “The Equal Parent” (March) looks at research from around the world about why parenting gets gendered and how to combat it – so much so that as a man married to a man, he gets called MummyDaddy by their local chemist. Christie Barlow has another one out but this time I’m caught up so can read it at the right time – “A Summer Surprise at the Little Blue Boathouse” (April) returns us to Heartcross and more warmth and community. Finally Catherine Joy White’s “A Thread of Gold” (June) brings Black women out of history to celebrate them as they should be.

So that was 20 read and 13 coming in in February, two of which I’ve already read – a win!

Currently reading

As well as Adam Nicolson’s “The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides” with Emma, I’m reading Lauren Fleshman’s “Good for a Girl”, about her own life in athletics and women’s experience in general, for Shiny New Books, and Liv Bolton’s “The Outdoor Fix” as described above.

Coming up

This month, I’ll also be reading for both Bookjotter’s Reading Wales (Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green was my Valley” and Charlotte Williams’ “Sugar and Slate” (which was the main read for it last year but I was balking at buying the ebook until I just had to) and Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland (Kate O’Brien‘s nun-based novel “The Land of Spices” and the novella “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan which I know everyone has read except me) for once (I usually manage one or the other).

My NetGalley TBR for March has eight books on it and an equal mix of fiction and non-fiction:

Jacqueline Crooks’ “Fire Rush” is set in reggae clubs in London and Bristol and takes our heroine through gangs and to Jamaica. Monica Macias tells of her life as a West African growing up in North Korea in “Black Girl from Pyongyang”. Nikesh Shukla’s YA novel “Stand Up” has teenager Madhu caught between helping her family and wanting to be a stand-up comedian. We’ve seen “The Equal Parent” above, and Katherine May’s “Enchantment” looks at how to help your mental health through finding wonder in life. Julie Shackwell returns to Scotland with “A Scottish Country Escape” – another reliably good light novelist. “Rootless” by Krystle Zara Appiah is a poignant novel about a British-Ghanaian marriage in crisis. Finally, Elizabeth Day explores her own friendships and broader discussions of friendship in “Friendaholic”.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong with Emma as we won’t finish it this month), that’s three books to finish and twelve to read, which feels OK, though I would like to continue progress on reading hardbacks I bought recently before they come out in paperback …

How was your February reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection?