Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Book lists

12 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2020

It’s that time of year again: the longlist for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, has been announced.

There are 156 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

Here are just a dozen titles, which I have reviewed on the blog over the past year or so. Note that inclusion here does not necessarily mean I recommend the book, only that I have read and reviewed it.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (Ireland)
Rip-roaring and deliciously entertaining read about a writer with questionable ethics.

French exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (Canada)
Delightfully kooky story about a matriarch fallen on hard times who flees to Paris with her adult son and a talking cat.

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
Occasionally preposterous adventure tale focussed on a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Australia)
Award-winning (but poorly written) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (Australia)
Brash and gritty novel about an aboriginal family fighting to save their land from development.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Australia)
Best-selling tale based on the true story of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Japan)
An ode to remaining true to your self when the rest of the world sees you as an outsider.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Ireland)
Evocative and gently written tale of a recently bereaved man driving across the UK in a snow storm to rescue his son who has fallen ill.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
Stylish, award-winning novel that follows an on-off romance between two Millennials over the course of four years.

Lullaby

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (France)
Confronting story that centres around a rather abhorrent crime carried out by a seemingly perfect au pair.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)
A crime story with a difference narrated by an eccentric older woman who lives in a remote Polish village.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (Australia)
Engaging, fast-paced story about a teenage boy on the run across the Australian outback.

The prize shortlist will be published on 2 April 2020, and the winner will be announced on 10 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

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.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Writers' WeekIt seems like book prize short- and longlists are coming thick and fast right now. Today the shortlist for one of my favourite literary prizes — the Kerry Group Novel of the Year for Irish fiction — was announced.

Over the years this prize, which is worth €15,000 to the winner,  has introduced me to some brilliant novels, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and  My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, so I usually pay attention to it in the hope it will introduce me to a few more.

As per tradition, the winner will be announced at Writers’ Week at Listowel, in Kerry, Ireland on 29 May. Before then I hope to have read all five titles on the shortlist; I’ve already had one and all the others are on my TBR.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, including a synopsis. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
“You’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, that it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. It can lead to a long and painful fall. If you look hard enough, you will find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be-novelist Maurice Swift decides early on in his career. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated author Erich Ackerman gives Maurice an opportunity. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell; whether or not he should is another matter. Once Maurice has made his name, he finds himself in need of a fresh idea. He doesn’t care where he finds it, as long as it helps him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous, but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse. This is a novel about ambition.”

The Hoarder by Jess Kidd (NB: in the US, this book is published under the title Mr Flood’s Last Resort)
“Unintentional psychic Maud Drennan arrives to look after Cathal Flood, a belligerent man hiding in his filthy, cat-filled home. Her job is simple: clear the rubbish, take care of the patient. But the once-grand house has more to reveal than simply its rooms. There is a secret here, and whether she likes it or not, Maud may be the one to finally uncover what has previously been kept hidden…”

The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin
“Abandoned by her parents when they resettle in Meath, Mary O Conaill faces the task of raising her younger siblings alone. Padraig is disappeared, Sean joins the Christian Brothers, Bridget escapes and her brother Seamus inherits the farm. Maeve is sent to serve a family of shopkeepers in the local town. Later, pregnant and unwed, she is placed in a Magdalene Laundry where her twins are forcibly removed. Spanning the 1930s to the 70s, this sweeping multi-generational family saga follows the psychic and physical displacement of a society in freefall after independence. Wit, poetic nuance, vitality and authenticity inhabit this remarkable novel. The Cruelty Men tells an unsentimental tale of survival in a country proclaimed as independent but subjugated by silence.”

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park
“The world is shrouded in snow. With transport ground to a halt, Tom must venture out into a transformed and treacherous landscape to collect his son, sick and stranded in student lodgings. But on this solitary drive from Belfast to Sunderland, Tom will be drawn into another journey, one without map or guide, and is forced to chart pathways of family history haunted by memory and clouded in regret. Travelling in a Strange Land is a work of exquisite loss and transformative grace. It is a novel about fathers and sons, grief, memory, family and love; about the gulfs that lie between us and those we love, and the wrong turns that we take on our way to find them.”

Normal People by Sally Rooney
“Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life — a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us — blazingly — about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.”

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. There’s just over 10 weeks to do it!

Author, Book review, Children/YA, Definitions, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, John Boyne, Publisher

‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne

BoyInStriped 

Fiction – paperback; Definitions; 224 pages; 2007.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one of those commercially successful cross-over books, originally written for children but now read by adults, that has been lauded by the critics and nominated for countless awards. It even has its own wikipedia entry.

I knew little about the book when I bought it, save that it was about the Holocaust and was written by an Irishman. The blurb on the back gave even less away:

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. We hope you never have to cross such a fence.

Initially, I thought the book was probably too simple for my tastes and wondered whether it was worth the effort. It didn’t take long for the short, sparse sentences and the repetitive nature of some of the phrases to wear thin. But once I got past the half-way mark, I began to feel soothed by the rhythm of the writing.

I also noted that the plot was not as straightforward as I might have thought and that there were little surprises dotted along the way. Of course, the biggest surprise — nay shock — is right at the end, although I won’t give it away. Let’s just say it’s a memorable and devastating one, and if you can reach the end without a big lump forming in your throat there may just be something wrong with you.

All in all, this is a simple book about big themes, and quite unlike any other Holocaust novel I have read before. The killer punch delivered in the final pages means I will be thinking about this story in the days, months and years to come…