20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Love’ by Roddy Doyle

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2020.

Roddy Doyle has cornered the market in stories focused on middle-aged Irishmen reflecting on their lives and loves.

This “trend” largely began with his short story collection Bullfighting (published 2011), quickly followed by Two Pints (2012) and Two More Pints (2014) (the latter two have been on my TBR since publication). Even his emotionally devastating novel Smile (2017) is about a middle-aged man picking up his life after the breakdown of his marriage.

His most recent novel Love is more of the same. It reveals how two middle-aged men discover that love comes in many forms, not just sexual.

A night on the town

Set over the course of one (drunken) night, it tells the story of two 50-something friends — Joe and Davy —catching up over a meal at a restaurant, which is then followed by a spontaneous pub crawl through central Dublin.

Told from Davy’s point of view, it is very much focused on a confession by Joe: that he has left his wife for another woman but has never had sex with her. (Davy, who moved to England decades earlier, has his own confession to make, but this is held back until the last 50 or so pages, giving the story a rather unexpected emotional ending.)

Comprised largely of dialogue interspersed with flashbacks to earlier times, the book follows an evening’s conversation, which remains stuck in a repetitive, single groove: that Joe is smitten with his new woman even though he still loves his wife.

Davy, whose own marriage has defied the odds, interrogates Joe because he thinks the relationship is far-fetched. He finds it difficult to believe that Joe hasn’t “traded in” his wife for a younger model but has moved in with a woman he went to school with some 37 years ago and whom he became reacquainted by accident at a parent-teacher evening a year ago.

He saw her at the end of a corridor and he knew. Immediately. She was exactly the same. Even from that far off. Even though she was only a shape, a dark, slim shape — a silhouette — in the centre of the late-afternoon light that filled the glass door behind her.
—She was never slim, I said.
He shrugged.
—I don’t even know what slim means, really, he said.
He smiled.
—Same here, I said.
—I just said it, he said. —The word. She was a tall shape – instead.
—Okay.
—Not a roundly shape.
—She’s aged well, I said. —That’s what you’re telling me.
—I am, he said. —And she has.

A long conversation

As the evening progresses, Joe’s conversation is like a stuck record. As more pubs are visited and an alarming number of pints are sunk, the pair’s circuitous conversation is mired by misunderstandings, occasional aggressive outbursts and comic moments.

And yet, despite the tedious nature of the banter, there’s something strangely touching about two men bearing their souls to one another. Here, in the pub, they can relax and be themselves.

Pubs, the world of men. There were women too. But the world — the pub — was made by men, put there for men. There were no women serving, no lounge girls, very few women sitting on the stools along the counters. Dark wood, old mirrors, smoke-drenched walls and ceilings. And photographs of men. Jockeys, footballers, men drinking, writers — all men — rebels, boxers. The women were guests. The men were at home. […] I’d discovered my life. The shy man’s heaven.

In fact, the succession of well-known Dublin pubs name-checked in this novel (many of which I’ve visited myself, including my all-time favourite establishment, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street) creates the perfect setting for the conversations that unfold within: dark and claustrophobic, rich with history and untold secrets.

Doyle captures the mood and atmosphere of the pub, as well as the little rituals between drinkers, in such a faithful, authentic way that reading this book made me thirsty for Guinness!

I watched the pints settle as if it was the first time I’d seen it happen, the tan darkening to black and the arrival of the collar. I couldn’t help myself.
—It’s a fuckin’ miracle, really, isn’t it?
He knew what I was talking about.
—It is, he agreed.
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it. It had been one of our lines, since we’d heard some oul’ lad say it, probably where I was standing now.
Joe picked up his pint and placed it a few inches closer to him. I did the same – I leaned across him and put my glass on top of a wet bar mat.
—I don’t think I want this one, I said.
I meant it.
—I’m fuckin’ full o’ drink, I said – another phrase we’d got from an old man when we were young men, an old man who had probably been younger than we were now.

Similarly, the characters in Love are as well-drawn as the pubs. Joe and Davy are funny and loyal, sometimes bewildered (by women) and often perplexed (by the onset of age). Their conversation and their antics feel very real.

Yet, despite these strengths, the premise of this novel is relatively weak. The story unfolds too slowly and feels too long. It could easily lose 100 pages and be none the weaker for it.

That said, I enjoyed spending time in the company of these men. And the ending, when it comes, is as touching as anything I’ve read in a good long while.

This is my 3rd novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book store last month.

5 books, Anne Enright, Arrow Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Bruce Pascoe, Fiction, History, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Smile’ by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Fiction – Kindle edition; Jonathan Cape; 224 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2017, I’m pretty sure it would be this one. Roddy Doyle’s Smile is a welcome return to form by the master of bittersweet black comedy, dialogue and drama.

It’s one of those novels you begin, thinking it’s about one thing — a middle-aged man picking up the pieces of his life after his marriage breaks down — only to discover by the denouement that it is something else entirely, something more emotionally powerful and disturbing, something that makes you want to turn back to the first page to read it all over again.

I read this one in the space of a weekend, but its dramatic effect lasted long after I’d reached the final page. I’ve read most of Doyle’s back catalogue, but even this one surpasses the sweet sadness of my favourite, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

A kind of home-coming

When the book opens we meet 54-year-old Victor Forde. He has just moved into a new “Eastern European style apartment block” in the suburb by the sea where he grew up. It’s 40 years since he’s lived here and he doesn’t really know anyone. He is so starved of human company he’s taken to going to his local pub, Donnelly’s, for a pint every night.

I had to force myself to do it at first, like going to the  gym or to mass. I’d go home — home! — cook something, eat it, then walk down the straight line to the pub. For one slow pint. I’d bring a book or my iPad with me.

He’s quite introverted, but does his best to befriend the bar staff while keeping out of everyone else’s way. One evening, face buried in his iPad (“I’d been looking at my wife’s Facebook page”), he hears his name being called and then a strangely dressed man approaches him, claiming they went to school together. Victor can’t remember the man; he can’t even remember his name, he just knows he doesn’t like him — “I knew that immediately”.

The book charts Victor’s friendship with Eddie, whose old stories about school and girls and sex prompt Victor to remember the troubled five years he spent being taught by the Christian Brothers (one of whom took a particular shine to him).

This, in turn, stirs up other memories for Victor: how he escaped his working class roots by marrying an attractive woman, Rachel, who became a much celebrated TV chef and successful business woman; how he found his own (minor) fame and fortune as a music critic turned radio pundit; and how their life together was full of passion and lots of good times until it all came crumbling apart at the seams.

But as Victor’s narrative swings seamlessly between the past and the present, between his school days and his happy marriage, between his current life living alone to the increasingly sinister behaviour of Eddie whom he can’t seem to escape, there’s the very real feeling that something isn’t quite right, that Victor’s life is about to properly unravel.

Vivid characters, vibrant dialogue

As ever with a Roddy Doyle novel, the plot moves along chiefly through dialogue. It’s punchy and vibrant and full of Dublin vernacular. His characters are richly drawn, believable and vivid. And all the scenes — whether it be in the pub, in the class room, or in the kitchen at home — are so beautifully observed that there’s a filmic quality to the entire story.

But it’s the careful plotting, the nuanced details, the mixture of dark subjects and light humour, and all the things that Doyle doesn’t say that make Smile such a profoundly moving, occasionally disturbing and important read.

The twist at the end will only make you reassess everything that comes before, for this is a deceptive story, where nothing is as quite as it seems…

2016 YWOYA, Andrew McMillan, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Poetry, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan

Physical

Poetry – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 65 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, has already won two prestigious literary prizes — the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize — and been shortlisted for several more. I came to it thanks to its inclusion on the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, otherwise it would have passed me by: I don’t read much poetry, which would explain the shocking lack of poetry reviews on this blog (I’ve only ever reviewed one collection — the sublime Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara). This means I feel slightly out of my depth writing about it here.

So, bearing in mind that I’m no poetry expert, I can really only share my honest opinion of how I felt, and what I thought, when I read Physical.

I think it helped that I heard McMillan read one of his poems at a recent event (which Annabel wrote about on her blog last week). Reading poetry out loud helps bring it alive: you hear the rhythm, you understand where the pauses fall and how they lend weight to the words. So, as I worked my way slowly through this collection, I had McMillan’s lovely Yorkshire accent in my head, helping to bring the lines to life in a way that might not have been the case had I not heard his recital.

Of course, reading poems in the “right” way is helped by punctuation: the commas let you know when to pause, the full stops when to stop. But there’s no punctuation in any of these poems. Many articles and reviews in the mainstream press have made a bit of a thing about this, but I don’t think it matters (and I say that as someone who until quite recently made her living from being a sub-editor). White space and the way the poems are laid out, line by line, on the page do exactly the same job: they assist the reader in knowing where the pauses lie, if not exactly how long to pause.

It’s all about the language anyway. And what language McMillan uses. In just a few short words he can paint a vivid picture or capture a particular emotion that really brings his work to life. A woman “coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football”, the smell of ageing is “really the smell of unclean teeth” and a “room is exhausted as an empty city”. My favourite lines come from the poem If it Wasn’t for the Nights:

        a precious bird doesn’t comprehend
the language of its wings

As a collection, McMillan draws everything together by concentrating on three key themes: men, masculinity and gay love. One entire section (part ii protest of the physical) is about his home town of Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town on its knees following the closure of its pits:

town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double     carried

young men    and women   and younger men and women
as long as it could but    spinebroken
had to let them go

And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest.

All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands. Yes, some of it is confronting and occasionally shocking, but the honesty here — about passion, obsession, sex and relationships, of what it is to navigate the human heart — lends an exquisite beauty to McMillan’s work. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Anne Enright, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

The-Green-Road

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 310 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road has been long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. This is the Irish writer’s  sixth novel, but only the third one of hers I’ve read.

The first one I read, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and, perhaps somewhat unfairly, gave her a reputation for writing rather grim literary fiction, particularly as it looked at the outfall of sexual abuse on a family. The second book, The Forgotten Waltz, was slightly more accessible, but it still explored dark territory —  that of an extramarital affair as told by the “other woman”.

But this new novel treads totally different territory. It’s not exactly light-hearted but there are elements of black comedy in it, which make it a fun read as opposed to a depressing one.

Family life

The Green Road is essentially a forthright family drama following the lives of four siblings — Hanna,  Emmet, Dan and Constance — and their needy, domineering mother, Rosaleen, over the course of 25 years. Each character gets their own section, beginning when Hanna, the youngest child, is just 12 years old, and culminates with all of the siblings  returning to their childhood home as adults for a Christmas dinner in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

The novel highlights the differences between each of the siblings and the ways in which they all grow apart as they get older and pursue their own lives and careers so that they effectively become strangers — and yet as soon as they’re thrown together for a Christmas celebration all the old tensions, resentments and childhood dynamics come to the fore, almost as if they never moved out of the family home.

Enright takes her time fleshing out all of the characters — most of whom we meet as adults— each of whom is grappling with private difficulties: Dan, who once wanted to be a priest, has reinvented himself as an artist in New York but is living a double life during the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s; Emmet, an aid worker in Africa, has rejected the materialism of the modern world but finds it hard to make meaningful connections with women; Constance, raising her own family in Ireland, has a health scare that she keeps to herself; and Hanna, a first-time mother and struggling actor in Dublin, has an ongoing problem with alcohol.

But it is the central character, Rosaleen, that lends the book its gravitas — and humour.  This Irish mammy is manipulative, self-absorbed, living “her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people” and vacillating between “a state of hope or regret”:

You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare. Even though nothing happened – she saw to that too. Nothing was discussed. The news was boring or it was alarming, facts were always irrelevant, politics rude. Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments of course, other people’s diseases. Mrs Finnerty’s cousin’s tumour that turned out to be just a cyst. Her back, her hip, her headaches, and the occasional flashing light when she closed her eyes – ailments that were ever more vague, until, one day, they would not be vague at all. They would be, at the last, entirely clear.

Evocative writing

As ever, Enright’s writing is sharp and lucid and full of beautiful phrases and descriptions. I especially loved her depiction of the Green Road from whence the novel takes its name:

This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – the rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare. And if you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray. Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.

And her ability to dissect family life in all its madness and joy is truly wonderful. Somehow she’s able to show exactly what it is like to be a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover and a spouse, whether male or female, and how the “pull” of home never truly leaves us, even if we move countries or continents.

It’s also an interesting look at how our world view and attitudes are shaped by our travels. In this case, Rosaleen, who has never left Ireland, is parochial in outlook, while most of her children, who have had to move away to find work (and love), tend to be more open-minded and “educated”.

But for all the novel’s strengths, I found the structure somewhat let it down. Each character’s story is told in self-contained sections, rather than employing interwoven narrative threads, so it almost feels as if you are reading a collection of short stories. The final part, which brings all the children back home to Ireland for Christmas, feels slightly more novelistic and acts as a nice counterbalance, but overall I found that the whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes, The Green Road is a more gentle, forgiving, entertaining and accessible novel than Enright’s previous efforts, but whether it impresses the judges enough to make the Man Booker shortlist remains to be seen.

Anne-Enright-signed-copy

As an aside, I saw the author do a reading at Foyles flagship store here in London on 7 May. She was down-to-earth, forthright and funny — adjectives that could also be used to describe the book.

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Dead Man Talking’ by Roddy Doyle

Dead-Man-Talking

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 100 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

I’m a long-time Roddy Doyle fan (I read most of his work before I started this blog, which means there are only a couple of reviews featured here), so I was keen to read his new title, Dead Man Talking, published as part of Galaxy Quick Reads.

Literacy initiative

For those not familiar with the Quick Reads programme, it publishes short books to encourage people to start reading. According to the press release that came with this book, Quick Reads titles are designed with adults in mind who “are either less confident in their reading skills or over time have become lapsed readers”.

It adds:

Founded in 2006, the Quick Reads initiative was launched to help the country’s one in six adults of working age who have difficulty reading, as well as the one in three adults who do not read for pleasure. Through demonstrating that books and reading can be for everyone, Quick Reads has now distributed over 4.3million books to libraries, workplaces, hospitals, schools, parents, family groups and even prisons, where literacy continues to be significantly low.

Doyle is the first Booker Prize-winning author who has written for the programme since it was launched  — and he’s perfect for it: he writes in an easy-to-understand style, his prose is simple and largely dialogue, and his stories are entertaining and “earthy”.

With that in mind, Dead Man Talking is pitched at adults but it could easily be read by a child with competent reading skills because it’s free of literary flourishes and big words. The chapters are short (some are only a page long) and the narrative clips along at a steady pace, so there’s no fear of an inexperienced reader becoming bored.

A short story about death

Dead Man Talking is essentially a short story about a man coming to terms with his own mortality.

It’s written in the first person from the point-of-view of a middle-aged man called Pat Dunne, who discovers that his friend, Joe Murphy, has died. The pair had a big falling out over a horse many years ago and haven’t talked since. Joe’s death raises lots of complicated feelings — guilt, sadness and nostalgia — in Pat, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with them.

The story has all the typical Doyle trademarks — a big heart, cracking one-liners and down-to-earth working class characters — but it felt a little cheesy to me. The cloying sentiment, however, is rescued by a nice little twist at the end, which gives the story a spooky, other-worldly feel.

True to the initiative’s branding, it’s a very “quick read” and could certainly be completed in a lunch hour or on a short train journey by those bloggers and bibliophiles who aren’t the target audience. It might not set your world on fire, but it raises some interesting issues, including what happens to us when we die, and why it’s important to treat friends, loved ones and complete strangers with kindness while we’re still alive.

It’s not a must-read by any stretch of the imagination, but as part of this initiative it fits the billing nicely — and I’m delighted such a “big name” author doesn’t think it’s beneath him to contribute in this way.

Several other titles will be published as part of the 2015 Quick Reads programme tomorrow (5 February). These include Paris for Two One by Jojo Moyes, Red for Revenge by Fanny Blake, Pictures or it Didn’t Happen by Sophie Hannah, Out Of The Dark by Adéle Geras and Street Can Bob by James Bowen. The initiative is sponsored by Galaxy chocolate and each book costs just £1.

Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Soon’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Soon

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 320 pages; 2013.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a lawyer-turned-writer from New Zealand with quite an extensive back catalogue to her name, but until Soon was published in the UK last year I had never heard of her.

The novel, which has reputedly been on the “bestseller list in New Zealand every week since publication there”, turned out to be a real “find”. It was such a delicious and powerful read that I’ve promptly ordered several more of Grimshaw’s novels and will look forward to reading them in due course.

Not your average summer holiday

Soon takes a time-worn, almost clichéd setting — that of a summer holiday where two lots of people happily coexist until a new person enters the scene to disturb the equilibrium — but gives it several refreshing (and dark) twists.

The first is that this is no usual set of holidaymakers — it’s the Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, no less, and he’s spending his summer in a three-storey house by the coast with the people he holds dearest: his trophy wife, Roza, and their five-year-old son, Johnnie; his best friend Simon Lampton, who is a doctor, Simon’s wife Karen and their teenage children, Claire, Elke and Marcus; the Minister of Police, Ed Miles, and his wife Juliet; and his deputy, known as “The Cock”, and his vacuous wife Sharon.

The second is that there is a bit of a power play going on — and not in the way you might suspect. Although David and Simon are friends (“What I like about you is that you’re not political. Your mind’s on other things. That’s so refreshing to me”), they are connected in another, quite unusual, way:

When he married her, David’s second wife Roza had been keeping a secret. It was not a sensational one, as secrets go: aged sixteen, she had given birth to a baby and adopted her out. Eight years later, after the adoption and a number of foster placings had failed, the girl, Elke, had been adopted by Dr Simon Lampton and his wife Karen. In the following years, the Lamptons had come to love Elke as their own. But just before David Hallwright had been elected Prime Minister, Roza had located the child, and had introduced herself to the Lamptons (and revealed herself to David) as the birth mother.

The two mothers are now best friends — or so everyone thinks — and the two families have become close because of their shared love for Elke, who has grown into a rather beautiful, self-confident young woman. But Elke is now preparing to leave home for the first time to go to university and Karen is anxious that she will be lost to them forever. It doesn’t help that the Hallwrights are pushing Elke to come and live with them.

So before the events of the novel really get underway, Grimshaw has introduced a simmering tension between these two supposedly close families. But that’s just the half of it.

Extra twists

Additionally, there are two pivotal moments in this book that raise the tension — and the stakes — even higher.

Simon receives an unexpected phone call from a journalist researching the disappearance of a Greek-Maori woman called Mereana Kostas, the same woman that Simon once had a secret affair with. And then Simon’s older brother Ford turns up to disturb the relative peace and quiet of the holidaymakers: he’s vehemently opposed to the right-wing Government and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the less than fair policies it has adopted.

Things really come to a head when a crime is committed, but to say any more would give the game away…

A tense read

Soon, if you haven’t guessed already, is a novel brimming with all kinds of anxieties and strains. This is mirrored in the relations between the characters, which are all very complicated and messy. There’s an interesting sub-plot between Simon and Roza, which revolves around whether they will act on their sexual attraction to one another, and another between Simon and the journalist as to whether his affair will be exposed to the world.

It’s testament to Grimshaw’s skill as a writer that she makes the reader want to keep turning the pages despite most of these characters, perhaps with the exception of Simon, being hugely unlikable. (Think The Slap but set in New Zealand.) The way in which she juggles multiple storylines between this mish-mash of characters is superb, too, so that as a reader I was constantly surprised by the unfolding of events.

Unfortunately, there was one element that I think didn’t work. This involves Roza narrating a rather menacing story to Johnnie about a badly behaved character called Soon. This has uncanny parallels to events happening in the real world, but I felt this merely got in the way of the rest of the narrative. That’s a minor quibble, however.

Politics in action

Perhaps the thing I liked most about this exhilarating novel (and exhilarating is exactly the right word to describe it because it often left me feeling breathless and on edge) is the glimpse it provides, not only of modern New Zealand society, in which the gap between rich and poor has widened, but the people in power who have helped create it.

And while I’m not a fan of political novels, per se, I found much to enjoy in this one. Despite there being an unwritten rule that house guests cannot talk politics (they’re on holiday after all), there are several eye-opening conversations between the PM and his minsters about how his party should go about winning the next election that make you realise just how cynical, manipulative and immoral modern politicians have become.

Soon is a rather seductive novel, in all senses of the word. It draws you in to a closed, protected world and shows people acting at their most primal. It’s a literary page-turner of the finest order, one that is deliciously dark, atmospheric and deeply unsettling. I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Author, Book review, James Lasdun, Jonathan Cape, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘Give Me Everything You Have’ by James Lasdun

Give-Me-Everything-You-Have

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 218 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I like narrative non-fiction, especially if it is about moral issues or true crime, so James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked sounded like my cup of tea.

While I can’t fault the well written, engaging and effortless prose, I found the entire “story” incredibly frustrating and just a little “icky”.

Yes, it’s upsetting that this man, a creative writing tutor, was stalked (and continues to be stalked) by a former female pupil, but at the risk of sounding judgemental, I couldn’t help but think he had brought a lot of it upon himself. When someone is clearly crazy and obsessive, you don’t fuel the craziness and obsessiveness by engaging with that person — you simply can’t reason with unreasonable people — but Lasdun seems hellbent throughout the entire sorry episode in scratching the itch and giving this woman exactly what she wants: attention.

I read this book, which publishes many of the stalker’s emails in full (and brings Lasdun’s own ethics in to question), expecting some kind of resolution to be reached by the end. But despite quite a fast-paced narrative, there’s no real resolution here.

There are some interesting tangents — Lasdun writes eloquently and thoughtfully about Middle Eastern politics, his relationship with this father, anti-Semitism and so on — but on the whole Give Me Everything You Have is a frustrating read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle

The-Guts

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (www.kelticpunk.com), which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
—Brilliant.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
—Coolio.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.