2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Hooray! Yesterday the shortlist for my favourite literary prize was revealed.

There are five novels in the running for The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, which is worth €15,000 to the winner.

No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week — Ireland’s oldest literary festival — and the winner is named on the opening night of the festival. This year the festival runs from 1st to 5th June.

I have been following this prize for many years now and I usually try to read all the books on the shortlist. I have read one title on this year’s list, have a couple already on my TBR and the remaining couple are new-to-me titles.

Below is this year’s shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

The five shortlisted novels are:

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

It is late June in Ballylack. Hannah Adger anticipates eight long weeks’ reprieve from school, but when her classmate Ross succumbs to a violent and mysterious illness, it marks the beginning of a summer like no other. As others fall ill, questions about what — or who — is responsible pitch the village into conflict and fearful disarray. Hannah is haunted by guilt as she remains healthy while her friends are struck down. Isolated and afraid, she prays for help. Elsewhere in the village, tempers simmer, panic escalates and long-buried secrets threaten to emerge. Bursting with Carson’s trademark wit, profound empathy and soaring imagination, The Raptures explores how tragedy can unite a small community — and tear it apart. At its heart is the extraordinary resilience of one young girl. As the world crumbles around her, she must find the courage to be different in a place where conforming feels like the only option available.

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Being Tommy’s mother is too much for Sonya. Too much love, too much fear, too much longing for the cool wine she gulps from the bottle each night. Because Sonya is burning the fish fingers, and driving too fast, and swimming too far from the shore, and Tommy’s life is in her hands. Once there was the thrill of a London stage, a glowing acting career, fast cars, handsome men. But now there are blackouts and bare cupboards, and her estranged father showing up uninvited. There is Mrs O’Malley spying from across the road. There is the risk of losing Tommy — forever.

‘Small Things like These’ by Claire Keegan

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him — and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church. The long-awaited new work from the author of Foster, Small Things Like These is an unforgettable story of hope, quiet heroism and tenderness.

‘Nora’ by Nuala O’Connor

When Nora Barnacle, a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel, meets young James Joyce on a summer’s day in Dublin, she is instantly attracted to him, natural and daring in his company. But she cannot yet imagine the extraordinary life they will share together. All Nora knows is she likes her Jim enough to leave behind family and home, in search of a bigger, more exciting life. As their family grows, they ricochet from European city to city, making fast friends amongst the greatest artists and writers of their age as well as their wives, and are brought high and low by Jim’s ferocious ambition. But time and time again, Nora is torn between their intense and unwavering desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living hand-to-mouth, often made worse by Jim’s compulsion for company and attention. So, while Jim writes and drinks his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, sometimes at the expense of her own happiness, and especially at that of their children, Giorgio and Lucia. Eventually, together, they achieve some longed-for security and stability, but it is hard-won and imperfect to the end. In sensuous, resonant prose, Nuala O’Connor has conjured the definitive portrait of this strong, passionate and loyal Irishwoman. Nora is a tour de force, an earthy and authentic love letter to Irish literature’s greatest muse.

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Here is rehab, where Ben — the only son of a rich South Dublin banker — is piecing together the shattered remains of his life. Abruptly cut off, at the age of 27, from a life of heedless privilege, Ben flounders through a world of drugs and dead-end jobs, his self-esteem at rock bottom. Even his once-adoring girlfriend, Clio, is at the end of her tether.  Then Ben runs into an old school friend who wants to cut him in on a scam: a shady property deal in the Balkans. The deal will make Ben rich and, at one fell swoop, will deliver him from all his troubles: his addictions, his father’s very public disgrace, and his own self-loathing and regret. Problems solved. But something is amiss. For one thing, the Serbian partners don’t exactly look like fools. (In fact they look like gangsters.) And, for another, Ben is being followed everywhere he goes. Someone is being taken for a ride. But who?

The winner will be announced on 1 June.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. 

News

Perth bookstore launches First Nations book subscription

How’s this for good timing?

No sooner do I decide to begin a Reading First Nations Writers project, than I discover an independent bookstore here in Perth is set to launch a First Nations book subscription!

Rabble Books & Games, in Maylands, will offer a book every month that will be “by an Indigenous author and from a range of genres for adults”.

Needless to say, I have signed up! I have opted for the postal subscription, which is $45 per month (via Direct Debit), but if you live locally you can choose the in-store collection subscription, which is $35.

If you sign up by 24th of March, you will receive the first book by the end of the month. The first book is one of the five on the Stella Prize longlist by First Nation writers, so you get to choose which one you’d like.

On social media, the store said:

We hope that book subscriptions will give us a bit of a soft landing in what we expect to be a difficult year for Rabble, whilst spreading the joy of our book curation every month, and continuing to build a little community of book lovers. Hopefully, we can keep holding each other close in a socially distanced way!

To find out more, check out the store’s subscription page.

Literary prizes

2022 Stella Prize longlist

The Stella Prize longlist for 2022 has just been announced.

This is the 10th year of the prize, which is open to Australian women and non-binary writers. All genres, including fiction and non-fiction, are eligible, but this is the first year that poetry has been included.

There are four poetry collections on the longlist, as well as two short-story collections, two non-fiction books, an essay, a graphic novel and two novels.

Interestingly, out of the 12 books longlisted, seven are debuts and five are by First Nation writers.

This is what is on the list:

  • Coming of Age in the War on Terror by Randa Abdel-Fattah (non-fiction, NewSouth Books)
  • Take Care by Eunice Andrada (poetry, Giramondo Publishing)
  • Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen (poetry, University of Queensland Press)
  • She Is Haunted by Paige Clark (short stories, Allen & Unwin)
  • No Document by Anwen Crawford (essay, Giramondo Publishing)
  • Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (novel. Text Publishing)
  • Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss (novel, Simon & Schuster)
  • Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (graphic novel, Fantagraphics)
  • Permafrost by SJ Norman (short stories, University of Queensland Press)
  • Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki (poetry, Magabala Books)
  • The Open by Lucy Van (poetry, Cordite Books)
  • Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego (non-fiction, University of Queensland Press)

I haven’t read anything on the list, which isn’t surprising seeing as my focus is generally on literary fiction and there’s only two novels on this list. I will wait until the shortlist is announced on 31 March before deciding whether to read the entire shortlist as I have occasionally done in other years.

The $50,000 prize will be announced on Thursday 28 April.

In the meantime, you can find out more about the longlist announcement here and read the judge’s report here.

Book chat, News

A literary cause to support: the ‘Freadom Inside’ project

Image by Maaark from Pixabay

 

Imagine being stuck in prison with nothing to read. No opportunity to escape to a different world. No opportunity to better yourself.

This is obviously something that has crossed the mind of Australian writer Bri Lee (whose books I have reviewed here). Bri has set up the ‘Freadom Inside’ project, which is designed to provide women incarcerated in NSW jails the opportunity to read books that have been bought for them by the public. It is being backed by Independent bookseller Glee Books, in Sydney, which is covering the postage and dispatch of the books.

Writing on her Instagram account last week, Bri said: “What I found when researching #WhoGetsToBeSmart [her latest non-fiction book about power, privilege and education in Australia] was shocking, and I have chosen to commit to this work as one concrete way I can help share learning + resources instead of hoarding them.”

The project will be officially launched next week, on October 28, via Zoom. You can find out more and book tickets here.

In the meantime, if you would like to donate a book (or books) to the project, visit this page on the Glee Books website, choose from the preselected range (which has been approved by Corrective Services), purchase online using the “freadom” coupon code and Glee Books will cover the postage and dispatch. Find out more here.

As someone who has a TBR that spans two continents (!!), I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to exist without access to reading material. I tend to buy at least a couple of books, both new and used, per month, so I have put my money where my mouth is and ordered Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, a book I read last year and really loved, for the project.

[Hat tip: I first read about this literary project on Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s Instagram account.]

Literary prizes, News

Ned Kelly Award winners announced

The winners of the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Best Crime Fiction went to Consolation by Garry Disher. I am three-quarters of the way through this novel at the moment and it’s excellent, so expect a review soon.

Best Debut Crime Fiction went to The Second Son by Loraine Peck , which I read earlier in the year as part of my Southern Cross Crime Month.

Best True Crime went to Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian, which has been on my TBR since publication last year and which is another I hope to read soon seeing as it’s about an investigation that happened right here in Perth.

Best International Crime Fiction went to We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker.

You can find out more about the awards and what the judges said about the prize winners via the announcement on the official website.

News

2021 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists announced

Here’s some good news for fans of crime writing: the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Established in 1995, these awards are administered by the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) and are named after Australia’s infamous 19th century bushranger Ned Kelly.

The awards are split into four separate categories as follows (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

BEST CRIME FICTION

  • Consolation by Garry Disher (Text) (on my TBR!)

  • Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (Penguin Random House)

  • A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)

  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)

  • The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare (Hachette) (on my TBR!)

  • When She Was Good by Michael Robotham (Hachette)

  • White Throat by Sarah Thornton (Text) (on my TBR!)

BEST DEBUT CRIME FICTION

  • The Good Mother by Rae Cairns (Bandrui Publishing)

  • The Second Son by Loraine Peck (Text)

  • The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House) (abandoned this one)

  • The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland (Text)

BEST TRUE CRIME

  • The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette)

  • Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Public Enemies by Mark Dapin (Allen and Unwin)

  • Hazelwood by Tom Doig (Penguin Random House)

  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette)

BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME FICTION

  • The Guest List by Lucy Foley (Harper Collins)

  • The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)

  • Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (Text)

  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker (Allen and Unwin)

  • Broken by Don Winslow (Harper Collins)

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony next month.

You can find out more about the Ned Kelly awards on the ACWA website. All previous category winners are listed on this Wikipedia page.

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner named

Congratulations to Amanda Lohrey whose novel The Labyrinth was named winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award earlier today.

For once I am happy to say I have actually read the book — and I loved it.

In my review I said:

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

You can actually watch the announcement here:

The $60,000 annual prize is designed to recognise a novel of “the highest literary merit” that presents “Australian life in any of its phases”. I read a handful of the shortlisted titles this year and enjoyed them all.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2020.

Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It defies convention because it’s a seamless blend of literary fiction, myth, fairytale and dystopia. Perhaps it could best be described as an “eco fable”? Regardless, it’s a wonderfully evocative and compelling tale about humankind’s obsession with exploiting nature to make money — seemingly at any cost.

Fairytale about a mythical bird

In this masterfully created tale, which is split into four parts, we are introduced to the rain heron, a mythical bird that brings rain wherever it goes. It has blue-grey feathers that are so pale you can see straight through them, and whenever it flaps its wings a thick spray of water falls from them, almost as if it generates its own rain.

In a world beset by drought, it’s a much sought-after creature, offering abundance and helping boost harvests, but it also comes with risks: the bird is also associated with frosts, floods, destruction — and sometimes death.

In Part 1 we meet Ren, an older woman who is living in a cave on a mountainside in the forest. She’s self-sufficient, eating berries and other plants, hunting deer for meat and occasionally trapping a fish for her supper. She barters with a man and his young son living nearby, with whom she exchanges items — fleece gloves, vitamins, boots, vegetable seeds — that she cannot get elsewhere.

The trio is careful to avoid contact with other humans, especially the soldiers that have recently infiltrated the area and who are on a mission to find and capture the sole rain heron that they believe lives in the vicinity.

Ren knows where the rain heron lives. She was introduced to it by her mother as a young girl. But when the soldiers find her and become threatening, she’s left with no option other than to show them where it roosts. This sets into motion a drastic — and deadly — chain of events.

Back in time

The story, which reads like a fairytale, doesn’t have a single narrator, nor follow a linear route. We go back in time to meet the female soldier — Harker, as she is known —  who puts so much pressure on Ren to offer up her secrets. In Part 2 we discover her way of life before the military coup that transformed the world into such a strange and menacing place.

This change in direction is a little disorientating to begin with, but it sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Here, we discover that Harker had a happy childhood living with her aunt, who made her living from the “inking grounds” — a secret location out at sea where squid are caught, drained of their ink and then released back into the water without harm. (This, by the way, is not how ink is actually removed from squid — in the real world the squid are caught and killed first.)

This sustainable practice comes under threat when a northerner arrives in the port town seeking a way to make a lot of money quickly. He knows that the locals farm ink, which is worth a lot of money, but he doesn’t know how to do it and no one wants to share the secret with him.

Capitalistic tensions

This tension between a capitalist wanting to turn a secret into a business idea really does set the theme and tone of The Rain Heron, which is very much a book about humankind’s incapacity to just leave nature alone, to appreciate it intrinsically rather than trying to make money out of it.

In the final parts of the novel, which are essentially a road trip beset with danger and violence, this theme is developed further: how far would you go to capture a creature that may make you rich or give you an advantage over others?

It’s a beautifully realised tale told in graceful, elegant prose, which includes lush descriptions of landscapes and minimal dialogue. There’s a fable-like feel to the story, one that conjures up memories of other books I have read — think The Road meets Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and all those Narnia books) meets The Girl with Glass Feet meets The Silver Crown.

I love that we don’t know anything about this world — the politics or the events which have lead to soldiers taking over — nor the specific location (although I imagine it’s Tasmania, seeing that is where the author is from). Arnott simply plops you into this universe he has created and it all feels so real and vivid that you don’t need any explanations: you just accept it for what it is.

The ways in which he explores our fragile relationship with the environment is wonderfully evoked. It’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. This is the kind of novel you can really get lost in. I loved it.

The Rain Heron has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced next week (15 July). And yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’d be very happy to see this one take the prize.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it in July last year.