6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Shuggie Bain’ to ‘My Buried Life’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

This month, the starting book is…

Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart (2020)
Last year’s Booker Prize winner, I bought this one when it was short-listed but it has sat in my TBR ever since. I’m keen to read it at some point, but it just hasn’t felt like the right moment just yet. The story, about a boy and his alcoholic mother, is set in Glasgow, Scotland.

Another book set in Glasgow and by a Scottish author is…

‘A Very Scotch’ by Robin Jenkins (1968)
This bleak but blackly comic novel is about a man stuck in a miserable marriage who decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer. This causes an immense scandal in his community, for he’s done something totally unconscionable, and yet there are two sides to every story, and in this one, it turns out the wife is not all innocence and charm. 

Another black comedy about a man who behaves badly is…

‘The Ginger Man’ by JP Donleavy (1955)
The story follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who is studying law at Trinity College just after the Second World War. He’s married, but is a cad and a chancer, misbehaving at every opportunity, getting drunk, wasting money and having affairs with other women. There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. But it’s a highly recommended read and one that has stayed with me for years.

Another book that stars an amoral protagonist is…

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)
Matt, the narrator of this novel, is a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and becoming dangerous. He begins committing offences that will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. 

Another book starring a hilarious man is…

‘The Oh My God Delusion’ by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (2010)
I rather suspect that Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (the alter ego of journalist Paul Howard) is Ireland’s best-kept secret because I have only ever seen these books in Ireland. This one is the tenth (out of 20) in the series starring Ross O’CK, a stuck-up lad from the south side of Dublin, who’s into women, rugby and scrounging off his parents. This particular story is a deeply funny satire about the state of Ireland’s economy circa 2009: the property bubble has burst, the banks have gone bust, big-name brands are going into receivership, people are losing jobs and no one has any money to spend. And Ross O’CK is bumbling his way around Dublin trying to get to grips with his own change in economic circumstances…

Another book that explores the collapse of the Celtic Tiger is…

‘Is That All There Is?’ by William King (2013)
This literary novel follows three main characters — middle-aged husband and wife Philip and Samantha Lalor, and Philip’s bull-headed boss, Aengus Sharkey, the powerful CEO of a (fictional) bank. All three are ambitious and hungry for success. Through these characters eyes, we see what the last few months before the economic crash was like. The story examines the moral culpability of those in the thick of it and asks important questions about who knew what and could they have done anything to prevent it?

Another book about the aftermath of the collapse, but this time from a woman’s perspective, is…

‘My Buried Life’ by Doreen Finn (2015)
This debut novel is set in Dublin after the economic crash. It tells the story of Eva, a New York-based poet and academic in her late 30s who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. She wants to get things sorted quickly and then return to Manhattan, but things don’t pan out that way and Eva’s carefully constructed life begins to unravel. The Irish economy becomes a metaphor for Eva’s own life. It’s a beautiful, melancholic read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a little Glaswegian boy’s love for his mother to the unravelling of a poet’s life in Dublin, via a trio of black comedies and a litery novel set in Ireland in the months before the economic collapse.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

5 books, Book lists

5 books starring amoral protagonists

5-books-200pixContemporary fiction is filled with bad guys, but how many stories put you firmly in the head of the nasty perpetrator and present their side of the story as a fait accompli?

Here are five novels that come to mind, all of which feature characters with skewed moral compasses.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

 

BookofEvidence

‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville (1989)

The wicked protagonist in this 1989 Booker shortlisted novel is Freddie Montgomery, a scientist, who steals a painting from a neighbour and accidentally kills a servant girl in the process. He then goes on the run to avoid detection. This dark and disturbing tale, which is told from Freddie’s point of view, recounts events leading up to his arrest — and it soon becomes clear he does not believe he has done anything wrong. The story is all the more disturbing given it is based on a real-life case, about a nurse murdered in Dublin, from 1982. (Note I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

The-ginger-man‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1955)

The Ginger Man recounts the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. The book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, and while you don’t exactly cheer on Dangerfield’s exploits, you do keep reading in order to see what amoral thing he will do next!

Talented-Mr-Ripley

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Tom Ripley, the talented one of the title, is a truly wonderful creation. A 23-year-old loner, he wants the finest things in life but cannot afford them — well, not until he bumps off a rich friend and acquires access to his monthly trust fund cheque first. While Tom’s actions are far from moral, or legal, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he moves from one Italian city to another in order to avoid the law which is breathing down his neck. The fast-paced narrative means you keep turning the pages to see whether our anti-hero gets away with his dastardly crimes! The ending may just surprise you.

The-butcher-boy‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)

Francis ‘Francie’ Brady is the meanest and most deranged schoolboy you’re ever likely to meet in modern fiction. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his mother is beaten up by her husband, his father is an alcoholic — and when a neighbour calls his family “pigs” he takes it to heart and wages a campaign of abuse and retaliation that does not end well. The story, which is told stream of consciousness style with no punctuation, follows Francie’s exploits, which include running away from home, going to a special school for boys where he is sexually abused and later committing a quite atrocious murder of his own. This incredibly dark and hard-hitting novel earned McCabe a place on the Booker shortlist in 1992 and still remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. (Again, I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

Get-me-out-of-here

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Matt, the 30-something narrator of this novel, seems harmless enough to begin with. He’s a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and is quite a dangerous and manipulative character. As he becomes more and more troubled, he begins committing more and more offences which will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. While I can’t say I cheered Matt on while I read this book — I felt far too worried for his sanity — I did get some good laughs out of his exploits and just hoped he’d get the medical help he so clearly needed!

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend some other reads that place the bad guy (or girl) at the heart of the story?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!


Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Henry Sutton, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton

Get-me-out-of-here

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here languished in my reading queue for more than a year. Billed as a “credit crunch” novel, it wasn’t something that immediately piqued my interest. Then I saw Guy Savage’s perceptive review and knew I had to dig it out for a read.

The novel — Sutton’s sixth — doesn’t really have anything to with the global economy sliding into free-fall. Instead, it’s about a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman losing his grip on reality.

Aside from my introduction to Ross O’Carroll-Kelly earlier in the year, our narrator, Matt, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. But where Ross is pretty much harmless, Matt isn’t quite as innocent.

Matt is, quite frankly, absolutely delusional and filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. He’s the type of person who thinks the world revolves around him, and he has no sense of shame whatsoever.

When the book opens he’s busy trying to get a refund on a pair of sunglasses he no longer wants. That’s because he’s seen another, more expensive, pair in another shop that he prefers. What he doesn’t tell the sales assistant — although surely she suspects — is that he deliberately broke a lens and “possibly bent an arm back with more force thant was strictly necessary”.

This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book: Matt buys highly desirable products at great expense, then rashly changes his mind and returns his purchases, usually damaged, and demands a refund. He is a shop manager’s worst nightmare.

But these scenes, particularly when he’s arguing his case and lying through his teeth, are explosively funny. Take, for instance, his purchase of some Japanese-made luggage for an impending business trip. He takes home his new grey “indestructible” ballistic nylon suitcase and…

I thought I’d put the bag through its paces and test the strength of the handle and the play on the wheels and what would happen to the grey it if were subjected to a bit of tossing around in the yard. After all, this was probably mild compared to what the baggage handlers at Heathrow, or Pyongyang International for that matter, would subject the thing to — except they wouldn’t, of course, be getting their hands on it, as it was only ever meant to be hand luggage. However, the hopelessly young sales assistant in Selfridges’ luggage department — what was his ambition in life? To front a boy band? — didn’t necessarily know that. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the damn thing to see what it was really made of.

While the handles and wheels “held firm”, the nylon “marked atrociously”, so he returns it within a matter of hours, only to be greeted with a shocked: “Why does this one look so used?”

I said, “You told me they were indestructible. Bulletproof, is what you said. How, if that’s the case, is it possible that in a matter of only an hour or two they look like this, if they are really as tough and practical as you made out? What’s the point in having such smart and expensive luggage if it looks like this after its first outing? What would it look like if I took it on a trip to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo? And that’s beside the fact that my fiancée hates the colour. She’s right. For once. What a ridiculous fucking colour for a bag. It’s only ever going to show up dirt, like shit on a toilet bowl.”

So, as you can see, Matt is alarmingly shallow and manipulative. But what becomes increasingly clear as you get further and further into the story is that Matt treats his girlfriends — and there are a string of them — in exactly the same way, exchanging one for another as soon as he has become tired of them. But because he is narrating the story — in a wholly unreliable manner — the reader has to fill in the gaps. Why is he cleaning stains off the wall? And why is he dumping Bobbie’s secret shoebox in a skip in a laneway?

What makes Matt such a fascinating character is the gap between his reality and the real world. He is constantly making plans to leave London and set up some exotic business in far-flung locales, but never gets beyond filching expensive meals off his friends or shoplifting wine from the corner store.

All the while he moans about the state of the world, the state of the economy, the immorality of the times and his pet hate — fat people. Obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. Sutton scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

Get Me Out of Here is a truly memorable read, one that could best be described as a wicked satire about murder, madness and the never-ending quest to keep on shopping! It’s enormous fun and yet it’s probably the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year. Do try it if you are looking for something different.