Arthur Golden, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Behrouz Boochani, Book lists, Chloe Hooper, John McGahern, Sayo Masuda, Thea Astley

Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Rodham’ to ‘Tampa’

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, a book meme that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The starting point is:

‘Rodham’ by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)

I haven’t read Rodham, but I know it’s based on Hilary Clinton and imagines what might have happened to the trajectory of her life had she not met and married Bill Clinton. Another book that takes a real person and fictionalises their life is…

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry (2015)
This brilliantly inventive, funny, sad and wise novel fictionalises a short period in John Lennon’s life.  You don’t need to be a Beatles fan to enjoy it, because it’s a glorious adventure tale and the 37-year-old man at the heart of it could be almost anyone going through a personal and creative crisis.

Another book that is based on a real person, albeit someone who isn’t famous, is…

‘Annie Dunne’ by Sebastian Barry (2002)
This eloquent, heartfelt novel is about two children who go to stay with their aunt one summer in the late 1950s. That aunt, Annie Dunne, is actually Sebastian Barry’s own aunt — and Barry, himself, is the four-year-old boy in the story. Annie is not an easy person to like: she struggles with jealousy and rage, and is cantankerous and difficult. But her heart is in the right place.

Another book featuring a main character who is cantankerous and difficult is…

‘Amongst Women’ by John McGahern (1991)
Shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize, this is about an Irishman holed up at home in his dying days, surrounded by his three adult daughters who want him to get better despite the fact the relationship between them all is very strained. McGahern depicts Moran as all-too-human, someone who is so emotionally starved that you can feel nothing but pity for him. It’s a wonderfully realised portrait of an Irish Catholic family headed by a widower who manipulates his children using violence, emotional blackmail and an obstinate refusal to do anything that is not on his own terms.

Another book about a domineering, brutal father is…

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster (2010)
Set in working-class Melbourne, this story follows the lives of one family between the late 1960s and the present day. The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family. The book opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. Another book that begins with a funeral is…

‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor (1999)
In this rather dark story by one of my favourite writers, a widower interviews several young women in his search for a nanny to look after his baby daughter. One of the nannies he rejects develops an unhealthy obsession with him: she essentially becomes his stalker. While there’s a lovely aching quality to the overall storyline, there’s also an unspoken tension and unease, a kind of creepiness that pervades the woman’s motivations, which makes the book difficult to put down.

Another book about a woman who develops an unhealthy relationship and is similarly creepy is…

‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)
This book is quite outrageous and won’t be for everyone, seeing as it is about a female teacher grooming young male students for her sexual pleasure. It charts eighth grade English teacher Celeste Price’s obsession with a teenage student, Jack Patrick, and it’s fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, the literary equivalent of a car crash.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about Hilary Clinton, to a story about a female teacher who is a paedophile, linked via a fictional story about John Lennon, a cantankerous auntie, a dying man, an abusive father and a widower stalked by the potential nanny he rejects. How dark this all sounds, but honestly, I heartily recommend each and every one of these titles.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

Book lists

4 books published in 1965

The 1965 Club logoHave you heard about the 1965 Club?

It’s part of a twice-yearly initiative run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone’s encouraged to read (and review) books published in the same year. This month (22-28 April) the focus is on books first published in 1965. (You can read more about how it works on Simon’s blog.)

If you are considering joining in, I thought it might be useful to create a small list of books I’ve read and enjoyed that were published in 1965 and which should be readily available to purchase or loan.

Here is that list, which has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname — hyperlinks take you to my full review.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton (1965; republished by Text Classics in 2015)
Charming (and often outrageously funny) memoir about growing up in Bohemian Sydney during the 1920s and 30s by the leading UK literary agent of the 1960s.

The Dark by John McGahern — 2008 book cover

‘The Dark’ by John McGahern (1965; republished by Faber in 2008)
Semi-autobiographical novel about an Irish boy’s painful adolescence and his confused, ambiguous relationship with his violent, widower father.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965; republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 2008)
Deeply moving coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War by one of Australia’s most under-rated writers.

‘The Boarding House’ by William Trevor (1965; republished by Penguin in 2014)
Ealing-like comedy set in a Wimbledon boarding house peopled by eccentrics and oddballs intent on remaining residents after the death of their live-in landlord.

Have you read any of these books? Can you name any others published in 1965? If you are taking part in the 1965 Club, which book have you chosen to read? I’m planning on reading ‘Stoner’ by John Williams, which was originally published by Viking Press in 1965 and has been languishing in my TBR for at least a decade.

10 books, Book lists

10 books where location is key

10-booksI’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.

But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.

Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

CrimsonPetalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.

EightMonths Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel

Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.

Forever Forever by Pete Hamill

New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

Offshore Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.

Shiralee The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland

The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.

SongsOfBlueandGold Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.

TaintedBlood Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.

ThatTheyMayFace That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

Tenderness The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Yacoubian The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

 So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2007

Books-of-the-yearYes, it’s that time of year again, time to look back on 12 months’ worth of reading to see what stands out and to choose 10 titles as my favourite novels for 2007.

It’s been a weird year, not least because my professional life got ratcheted up a few gears in May and the pace has been fairly relentless ever since. This means my reading (and blogging) time has been seriously curtailed, but I’ve still managed to devour at least one book a week.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title):

Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi (2005)
‘One of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.’

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007)
‘While there is no real storyline to speak of, Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.’

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
‘Amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.’

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (2003)
‘A delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.’

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2007)
‘A remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss.’

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
‘A fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs.’

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
‘A very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.’

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2005)
‘One of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose.’

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2003)
‘A beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.’

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany (2007)
‘A powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but also an entertaining and enlightening one.’

What books did you fall in love with this year?

10 books, Book lists

10 books that are harrowing

10-booksWe’ve all been there. Read a book and wept buckets over it. Or emerged from the story feeling completely shattered, as if the world has slightly tilted on its axis and we’re left standing on shaky ground.

I love reading books that make me think, that take me out of my comfortable existence and leave a lasting impression. Harrowing books, ones that are slightly distressing to read for one reason or another — maybe because the characters do terrible things, lead  distressing lives or are confronted by extraordinarily heartbreaking circumstances — reveal the power of literature to move, transform and educate us in ways we may never have expected when we first cracked open the pages.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I truly love books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that leave me feeling slightly devastated when I get to the last page. As we all know, reading is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes it’s nice to have almost tangible evidence of the journeys we’ve experienced in our mind’s eye.

While I realise not everyone likes a harrowing read, sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. If you want some help deciding what might be worth a try, here’s my top 10 harrowing books (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

There’s nothing like a war novel to take the reader out of their comfort zone and into an almost unimaginable world of death, horror and destruction. A Long, Long Way, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, is an unbearably sad read about an Irish soldier caught between two wars: the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. I read most of the book with a lump in my throat. But while the scenes on the battlefield are stomach-churningingly gruesome and harrowing, this is a beautifully written book that is also deeply moving.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Like A Long, Long Way, this is another book set during the Great War, but this one is told from a German perspective. The brilliance of this book is that it does not romanticise war in any way. It shows in clear, concise language what trench warfare was really like, and how young, innocent and patriotic young men became transformed by their experiences — and not necessarily for the better. Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the utter futility and pointlessness of war. I came away from this book feeling completely bereft, distressed by the knowledge that we don’t seem to have learnt a thing. Who says history does not repeat?

‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (not reviewed on blog)

This is the true story of Belfast-born Brian Keenan’s capture by Shi’ite militiamen when he was a teacher in Beirut in the 1980s. He was kept hostage for four-and-a-half years. I read the book not long after publication, back in 1991, and I remember it having a strong, long-lasting impact on me. How one man could survive such brutal treatment for so long without going completely insane was simply beyond my comprehension.

‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny (not reviewed on blog)

This non-fiction book is probably the most profound true story I have ever read. It changed my entire outlook on child criminals, how they should be treated and who should be held responsible. It looks at the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who was convicted of the manslaughter of two young boys (aged 4 and 3) in 1968. Sereny, an amazingly talented journalist who has devoted most of her life to exploring the reasons why people do bad, immoral things, interviews Mary as an adult about her experiences. It is a deeply chilling, life-changing read. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for every parent, teacher and social worker.

‘Due Preparations for the Plague’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Anyone who has a fear of flying should probably not read this novel by Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion. It certainly fed my paranoia for awhile there, and to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (not reviewed on blog)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers. Reading groups must have a field day with this one!

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (not reviewed on blog)

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I saw the movie and thought it was impressive, but it was nowhere near as harrowing as the book. As much as I admire McCabe, I don’t think he’s ever written anything to surpass the remarkable brilliance and dark, disturbing nature of novel which provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern

I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it almost 18 months later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Anyone would think the Irish have a monopoly on rotten childhoods — The Butcher Boy (see above), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down come to mind — but this one  is the first I’ve read from a female perspective. The narrator is a little girl called Tatty, who is caught in the middle of an unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father and her depressed, alcoholic mother. Yes, not exactly happy reading. But I loved this book and felt completely bereft when it ended, almost as if Tatty was a real person whom I was desperate to protect…

‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig (not reviewed on blog)

This is a real blast from the past. I read this book when I was 10. My dad brought it for me and I still remember him explaining it was a true story about one girl’s life during the Second World War. It was the true story aspect that got to me. I had recently read Anne Frank, so I guess this was a natural progression, given it’s about 10-year-old Esther Rudomin, who was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 with her mother and grandmother. They were shipped by cattle car to a forced-labour camp in Siberia, hence the book’s title. Sounds harrowing for a kid to read, but it taught me a lot about the Holocaust, a subject that has fascinated, enthralled and appalled me ever since.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend as a harrowing read?

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ by John McGahern

ThatTheyMayFace

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 304  pages; 2003.

This book, published in the USA under the title By the Lake, was the last novel by Irish writer John McGahern, who died, aged 71, in 2006.

It is a beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.

In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. But this is more than a book about what it is like to live in the Irish countryside. It also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

That They May Face The Rising Sun is brought alive by a cast of intriguing, some might say eccentric, characters, although it mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders — Kate and Joe, who fled the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way.

There is little action to drive the narrative forward. Instead the reader comes to know — and appreciate — the rituals of rural living that inch this story along. Aided by McGahern’s calm, meditative prose, it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by the simplicity — and realism — of the story. I loved every word.

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2006

Books-of-the-yearA year’s worth of novels. How do I choose which ones make my Top 10 list?

I read so many interesting books this year. I didn’t have any specific reading goals other than to read more foreign novels (that is, books in translation) and more books from my homeland (Australia). I did well on both fronts, reading some 15 books in translation and 12 Australian novels.

Most of my reads were modern fiction (released in the past five years) with a handful of classics thrown in and a helluva lot of Irish stuff. All up I read 82 books, a fine increase on last year’s 30-odd total.

My favourite read for 2006 was, without question, the extremely profound Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I found the book so incredibly thoughtful, weighty and sagacious that I could not bring myself to review it.

My top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title) is as follows — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (German)

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee (American)

3. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (Irish)

4. Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers (English)

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (English)

6. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones (Australian)

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)

8. Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason (Icelandic)

9. Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Irish)

10. The Sea by John Banville (Irish)

And an extra one thrown in for good measure:

The Barracks by John McGahern (Irish)

What books did you fall in love with this year?

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Leavetaking’ by John McGahern

TheLeavetaking

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 176  pages; 2000.

First published in 1974, John McGahern revised The Leavetaking, his third novel, a decade later because he thought it “lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess”. The result is a tautly written novel composed of two halves, each radically different to the other.

Essentially it is a love story, about a teacher, Patrick, who is facing dismissal by the school authorities for marrying an American divorcee while on a year’s sabbatical in England. A battle of wills ensues: he won’t resign because he does not feel he has done anything wrong; the church won’t recognise his marriage and make it ‘holy’. His wife, meanwhile, is holed up in rooms in Howth, a seaside suburb of Dublin, happily going about her business until they are found out.

Part One of The Leavetaking is set during the last day of Patrick’s life as a teacher. Knowing that he will be sacked at the end of the day, he recalls how he first fell into teaching, the ‘second priesthood’, when he realised he loved women too much to become a priest. As he reminisces about his past he also recalls his childhood, his parent’s unusual relationship and then his mother’s untimely death. (Having recently read McGahern’s Memoir it is safe to say that the first part of this novel is largely autobiographical.)

Part Two, which is a far more enjoyable and easier read, revolves around Patrick’s adventures in London while on a 12-month leave of absence from the school. Here he meets Isobel, a tall American divorcee, who is the same age as him but comes from a vastly different background. She is tied to the purse strings of her smooth-talking but morally corrupt father, but eventually comes to realise it is time she stood on her own two feet. When the couple marry and return to Ireland, that’s when their troubles begin…

While this book is infused with a deep melancholia it is nowhere near as dark as his previous two offerings, The Barracks and The Dark. Given that McGahern himself faced dismissal as a teacher under similar circumstances I am surprised at the restraint shown here; there’s no malice, no anger, just a quiet understated calm.

His graceful but carefully considered prose is a delight, and his ability to capture period and place is so pitch-perfect you swear you could be standing in that flat-roofed concrete schoolroom or walking on the hill path overlooking the sea at Howth even though you are not.

Ultimately The Leavetaking is a quick read, but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. There is a lot to consider here about vocation, familial relationships, marriage, the Church and 1970s Ireland. I imagine that this slim book could be hungrily devoured over and over, and new meanings, new insights could be gained with each reading. In short, a lovely book about love.