2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, John Boyne, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne


Fiction – Kindle edition; Black Swan; 488 pages; 2019.

According to an old proverb, ambition is like setting a ladder to the sky — a pointless waste of energy. It can also lead to a long and painful fall.

John Boyne’s latest novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is very much focused on ambition and what happens when you forsake all else — your relationships, your family, your ethics — in the desire to succeed at all cost.

It’s a rip-roaring read, starring one of the most manipulative and self-obsessed characters you are ever likely to come across in contemporary fiction, and I loved the way it explores personal morality through the prism of a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists.

That writer is Maurice Swift, a charming, good-looking man, whose terribly immoral tale is told in three parts using three different points of view.

In part one we meet the famous German writer whose career Maurice destroys by penning a novel that reveals he’d unwittingly sent two Jews to their deaths during World War Two; in the second, we are introduced to Maurice’s wife, an English tutor and successful writer, whose manuscript he steals when she’s hospitalised and which he publishes under his own name to much critical and commercial acclaim; and finally, in part three, we hear directly from Maurice himself, now an elderly man down and out in London, at a time when his ego is being massaged by a literature student who befriends, then interviews, him for his dissertation.

The book also features two highly entertaining interludes — the first has Maurice visiting Gore Vidal in his Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest, on the Amalfi Coast, propositioning him and then being humiliated by him; and in the second, we’re thrust into Maurice’s new life, about a decade later, where he runs a successful literary magazine in Manhattan but steals the ideas in submissions for his own ends.

Success at all costs

As you can probably tell, Maurice isn’t a particularly nice man: he will stop at nothing to pursue his dream of becoming a famous writer. Self-absorbed, sociopathic and narcissistic, Maurice doesn’t let his inability to come up with creative ideas, nor his lack of writing skills, hold him back. He will use people, steal their intellectual copyright, purloin their personal stories and pass off others’ work as his own. He truly doesn’t care.

Part of the fun of reading this rather chunky novel — apart from the cracking pace, the snappy dialogue and the withering put downs — is wondering whether Maurice’s repellent behaviour is ever going to catch up with him. Will anyone realise what he’s up to and put an end to it — and his career?

The book also has some tongue-in-cheek digs at the publishing industry, including the obsession with literary prizes, creative writing courses, publicity “buzz” and bestseller lists. It’s like a hilarious insider’s take down of everything that’s truly rotten with the literary world.

But the best thing about A Ladder to the Sky is that it is a genuinely fun read, with a brilliantly redemptive ending. I galloped through it, marvelling at Boyne’s rich mastery of plot and storytelling, and his uncanny ability to turn the art of novel writing into something so dastardly and chilling. Hands down, this is my favourite read of the year so far, and I’m now eager to read more by this super-talented writer —recommendations welcome in the comment box below.

This is my second book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I plan to read all of the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced on 29 May.

Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Shane Connaughton

‘A Border Station’ by Shane Connaughton

A Border Station
Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 240 pages; 2017.

Shane Connaughton is probably best known as the co-writer of the screenplay for the film My Left Foot for which he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989. He’s also an actor, who has appeared in a wide range of films and TV dramas, including Coronation Street and Neil Jordan’s The Miracle.

A Border Station, his fiction debut, was shortlisted for the Guinness Peat Aviation Book Award upon publication in 1989. It has recently been republished by Black Swan to tie in with the sequel, Married Quarters, which came out earlier this year (and which I bought in Dublin in the summer and am now looking forward to reading very much).

Life in rural Ireland

It’s a beautiful and eloquent book set in the 1950s that follows the day-to-day dramas of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland in a remote house, attached to a police barracks, that has no electricity, no running water.

We never find out the boy’s name, nor do we find out his age, but we do know his father is a fierce, bad-tempered man, a police sergeant at a Garda station on the border between the Six Counties and the Republic of Ireland.

We also know he thinks the world of his mother, a good-looking, mild-mannered woman, with whom he shares a bed, and he loves to spend his time outdoors, exploring the rolling green hills and country lanes by bicycle despite the often miserable weather.

As often as he could, he escaped from the barracks to roam the drumlin fields or sit with the farmers in hedge or house until the rain had stopped.
There was water everywhere. In the sky, in the lakes, in the light; running off the hills, off the trees, off the roofs and cornered into barrels; in the lime-bottomed well, in the village pump, in the rain gauge at the rear of the Station, always in the air and constantly on tap in women’s eyes and children’s hearts.
‘They’re born with water in their veins instead of blood,’ his father said. Bucketing rain they called ‘A damp class of a day’.

The story, which is supposedly based on Connaughton’s own childhood, unfolds in seven interlinked chapters or — whisper it — short stories. There’s no real plot, instead we get a series of vignettes focusing on the boy’s home life. There’s nothing about school, little about friends; his world essentially revolves around his parents: the mother he idealises; the father he fears.

A young boy’s point of view

Because it’s written from a small boy’s point of view, the reader comprehends more than the child himself. We see that there are problems between his parents in the “bedroom department”; that his dad does not necessarily wield his power in a fair way; that he is prejudiced against Protestants or those that live over the border; that it may, in fact, be inappropriate for the boy to share a bed with his mother.

And it is this gap between a child’s naivety and the real world that makes A Border Station so deeply moving: it’s completely unsentimental, but is infused with a lingering sense of sadness, of people’s potential being thwarted by circumstance, religion and bad behaviour.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some terrific set pieces, some of which are ripe with black humour. The chapter entitled Beatrice is actually laugh-out-loud funny — the boy’s father deliberately chops down a tree he shouldn’t chop down on the neighbouring demesne owned by Lady Sarah Butler-Coote, an octogenarian Protestant spinster, and then pretends it is an accident. It’s tinged with sadness and a deep sense of injustice though, for the boy is blamed — and he saw it coming but is too young to do anything about it.

All in all, A Border Station is written with an almost unbearable ring of authenticity, nicely balanced with empathy, pathos and a good sense of humour. Reminiscent of the late great John McGahern, this is a truly lovely read. I can’t wait to crack open the sequel.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Nothing on Earth’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on earth

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan Ireland; 192 pages; 2017.

Irish writer Conor O’Callaghan has taken the concept of a “ghost estate” — an unfinished housing development abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy — and turned it into a modern horror story. His debut novel Nothing on Earth will have you checking the locks, making sure all your windows are closed and on tenterhooks for every strange noise you might happen to hear.

Yet this book, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, isn’t about ghouls or vampires or anything we might normally associate with the horror genre. It’s suspenseful simply because the plot is dotted with unexplained events, which play on your imagination, and O’Callaghan’s lyrical writing style, infused with a haunting, foreboding quality, ratchets up the tension.

Hot August nights

The story is narrated by someone looking back on a series of strange events that happened during the  “hottest August in living memory”. It begins with the sudden arrival of a 12-year-old “skin-and-bone” girl on the doorstep of his home:

She looked like one who had neither eaten proper food nor inhaled fresh air for years. Her teeth were yellow, her nails uncut and filthy. Her skin was sunburned, except for those white lines that had been covered by straps. It was also marked in places, her skin was: scratches, creases, streaks of dirt, and words.

The girl, who has a stilted, foreign accent, isn’t a complete stranger.  She had come to public attention when her mother went missing a few months earlier. They had been renting a house on a nearby ghost estate. Now the girl, who calls herself Helen, says her papa is missing too — “One minute he is behind you. And next time he was gone” — and it soon emerges her aunt, who had lived with them, is nowhere to be found either.

What has happened to the three adults? And where did the security guard who lived on site in a caravan disappear to? What does the landlord know? Who are the mysterious neighbours Helen talks about? Can the girl be trusted? Is she telling the truth?

Strange events

The story spools back to the arrival of Helen’s family on the ghost estate and charts how events unfolded over the summer. What begins as a semi-idyllic existence — heady summer days, sunbathing in the garden, drinking wine and having a laugh — morphs into something more sinister as the nights give way to strange knocking on the front door and mysterious messages written in the dust on the windows.

The enigmatic nature of the story is its greatest strength. You’re never certain if something terrible has happened to Helen’s mother — was she murdered, for instance, or did she simply escape to a better life? Why isn’t her husband, Paul, upset, or is he just putting on a brave face for the sake of his young daughter? And has Helen’s auntie come to harm, or did she do a runner with the security guard who may, or may not, have been her lover?

This is the kind of novel that holds more questions than answers. You are never quite sure who to believe. And you’re not even sure that the events being described even happened.

It’s difficult to explain how O’Callaghan achieves this without giving away plot spoilers, but let’s just say it all adds up to a haunting and troubling and deeply unsettling read. There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the storyline, which gives it a necessary tension. And it’s hugely compelling; I wanted to eat it up in one long hungry sitting but had to ration it out because, you know, a little thing like going to work got in the way. I’d recommended clearing your schedule: once you begin Nothing on Earth you’ll want to read it all in one greedy gulp. Just remember to lock the doors.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Broken Harbour by Tana French: A crime novel set on a ghost estate that brims with menace and unease.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Johan Theorin, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Darkest Room’ by Johan Theorin


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 475 pages; 2009. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy.

Earlier this year I read Johan Theorin‘s debut novel Echoes from the Dead and was immensely impressed with it. I was therefore keen to read the follow-up, The Darkest Room, which is the second book in Theorin’s planned quartet set on the Swedish island of Öland.

The novel is not so much about a crime, but what it is like to live in a haunted house where mysterious things happen for which there is no logical explanation. Or at least, that’s how the book feels when you begin reading it.

This is largely because the story revolves around a young family — Joakim, his wife Katrine and their two small children, Livia and Gabriel — who move from the Stockholm suburbs to renovate an old dilapidated manor house on the coast of Öland. The house, which was designed for the family that looks after twin lighthouses on little islands out at sea, was originally built from timber salvaged from a German vessel that was shipwrecked in 1846. According to Swedish folklore, it is bad luck to build a house from the spoils of a shipwreck, and there are plenty of local ghost stories attached to the house. But is it really haunted?

He [Joakim] stopped in the grass by the shore and took a long look at the buildings behind them. Isolated and private location, as it had said in the ad. Joakim still found it difficult to get used to the size of the main house; with its white gables and red wooden walls, it rose up at the top of the sloping grassy plain. Two beautiful chimneys sat on top of the tiled roof like towers, black as soot. A warm yellow light glowed in the kitchen window and on the veranda; the rest of the house was pitch black.

Odd little things do start to occur, which makes Joakim think twice. But when one member of his family dies suddenly, and in mysterious circumstances, it’s easy to see how a sensible adult might begin to believe that there are supernatural forces at work.

But to dismiss The Darkest Room as a horror story is to miss the point. There’s a lot more going on here, helped by multiple story lines in which each character has a dark secret to keep.

The first involves Henrik Jansson, a local tradesman, who goes into partnership with two small-time criminals, Tommy and Freddy Serelius. Together the three of them embark on a series of burglaries in which they steal valuables from holiday homes along the coast.

Then there’s the story of Tilda Davidsson, a new police officer, who is conducting a sordid affair with a former colleague. Tilda is also embarking on a personal research project, in which she “interviews” her great uncle in order to find out about her late grandfather.

This is the glue that melds all the story lines together, because her great uncle is Gerloff, the retired sea captain now living in a residential home for the elderly, who made his first appearance in Theorin’s earlier novel Echoes from the Dead. Gerloff is essentially an amateur sleuth, and it is his wisdom and pet theories that drives the narrative forward and helps Tilda in her official investigations. But he has a secret to keep, too, as does Joakim, who’s drug-addicted sister still haunts his conscience.

Theorin interleaves a fourth and final thread throughout these other character-driven threads, and this is about the history of the manor house. The history comes in the form of book extracts written by Mirja Rambe, Katrine’s mother, covering the period 1846 to 1962. (The Darkest Room is set somewhere in the mid 1990s, going by the age of Gerloff and the lack of mobile phone technology.) These extracts help to shape the idea that the house is haunted, because it reveals a rather sordid succession of troubles and deaths associated with those that have previously lived in it.

And there’s constant reference to Öland’s infamous blizzards, which roll in almost unannounced and claim lives. (Interestingly, the original Swedish title of the book was Nattfåk [Night Blizzard] and Theorin includes a short essay he wrote about the blizzard at the rear of the book.)

Told over the space of three months (the book is divided into sections labelled “October”, “November” and “December”), it is filled with secrets, ghost stories and Swedish folklore. The darkest room of the title turns out to be a secret room in the barn attached to the manor house, but it could also be seen as a metaphor for the secrets we all hold dear to us.

While I preferred Theorin’s debut to this one, The Darkest Room is an effortless read with plenty of momentum, and the resolution is a believable — and surprising — one.

The Darkest Room was named the Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2008 and won the CWA International Dagger in 2010.

Australia, Author, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Down Under’ by Bill Bryson


Nonfiction – paperback; Black Swan; 398 pages; 2001.

Bill Bryson’s Down Under is a hilarious romp across the world’s “driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents”.

As an Australian I had expected to take offence at this travelogue given the caning Bryson received from British reviewers when the hardcover came out, but I was pleasantly surprised, finding myself nodding in agreement one minute, laughing uproariously the next. I particularly liked his chapter on Canberra because it cut so close to the bone:

When a man as outstandingly colourless as John Howard turns his nose up at a place you know it must be worth a look. I couldn’t wait to see it.

My only gripe is that Bryson tended, on occasion, to gloss over certain locations (the Great Ocean Road barely gets a mention, and there’s no explanation as to how he got from there to the Mornington Peninsula on the other side of Port Phillip Bay), but he more than makes up for it with his funny observations and biting sarcasm. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Dead Famous’ by Ben Elton


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 382 pages; 2002.

Put succinctly, Ben Elton’s Dead Famous is a superb whodunit. It’s also a superb spoof on reality TV — in particular the Big Brother phenomenon — and the way in which the culture of celebrity pervades modern day life.

The 10 contestants on House Arrest are vacuous, self-obsessed 20-somethings who are naively manipulated by the show’s producer to boost ratings and advertising revenues. Before long the contestants all have a reason to hate one another, and then the unimaginable happens:

It’s Day 27 in the House Arrest house and there’s a murder in the toilet.

Despite all the hundreds of cameras recording the housemates 24/7, there is no evidence to show who committed the crime. Consequently, ratings soar as viewers try to determine who is the killer.

Elton’s story sounds like a straightforward plot, but it’s not. He cleverly withholds the identity of the victim until you are at least half way through the novel. This means that while you know someone’s been killed, you begin to analyse every housemate, looking at their potential to kill or be killed. You end up turning the pages at a furious pace and, if you’re like me, you may find yourself reading this book in one sitting.

If you’re a Big Brother fan, you will love this book. It’s clever, wry and funny, but above all it is hugely entertaining.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Five Quarters of the Orange’ by Joanne Harris


Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 363 pages; 2002. 

Reading a Joanne Harris book is like catching up with an old friend — enjoyable and comfortable. Five Quarters of the Orange is no exception.

Building on from her thematic explorations of the world of chocolate in Chocolat and wine-making in Blackberry Wine, this novel serves up more delicious and mouth-watering descriptions of food and baking set in a French creperie by the River Loire.

The narrator, an elderly French woman called Framboise, recalls her childhood growing up under the shadow of Nazi occupation. The experience in which her mother, an ill-tempered woman prone to migraines, is singled out as a collaborator, has forced Framboise to reinvent her past. But now this dark history, so carefully hidden, could be exposed by her nephew and his profiteering journalist wife who have their eye on their grandmother’s recipe book, now in Framboise’s possession.

Wonderfully written, seamlessly weaving the past with the present, and capturing so vividly wartime life and childhood adventure, this is a highly recommended read.