6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ to ‘Song for an Approaching Storm’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI missed participating in Six Degrees of Separation last month because it crept up on me and I just ran out of time and energy to join in… but I’m a bit better prepared this month.

This book meme is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

This month, the starting book is…

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler (2020)
I am a longtime Anne Tyler fan and this one was up there with her best. This absorbing, perceptive and warm-hearted novel tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a 41-year-old man, who does his best to live a quiet, understated life in which he never puts a foot wrong. But things get turned on their head when a young man turns up on his door claiming to be his son… Another book about a middle-aged man having his life turned upside down is…

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle (2013)
This black comedy is the fourth book in Doyle’s acclaimed Barrytown trilogy — The Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — effectively turning it into a quartet. Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the soul band in The Commitments, is now 47 and is married with four children. He has a fairly happy and settled life until he discovers he has bowel cancer. This turns things upside down, but he manages to distract himself with a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932. Yes, it’s all a bit bonkers, but it’s charming and warm-hearted and definitely worth reading if you are familiar with the other novels in the set.  Another novel that gives music a starring role is…

‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor (2014)
This brilliantly immersive story is a fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s. It spans 25 years in Irishman Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and subsequent slide into obscurity, and details a massive falling out he had with the lead singer, a charismatic and flamboyant man reminiscent of Marc Bolan. Another “mockumentary” about a rock band is…

‘Daisy Jones and the Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Read (2020)
I ate this book up on a four-hour plane ride to Darwin last year. Supposedly based on the exploits of Fleetwood Mac, it is 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 a group called The Six, and helps propel them to worldwide fame, before everything goes drastically wrong. Another novel about music, albeit told from a rock journalist’s point of view, is…

Lola Besky by Lily Brett

‘Lola Bensky’ by Lily Brett (2014)
This is an entertaining novel about a young Australian rock journalist who makes a name for herself at one of the most exciting times in music history: the late 1960s. But there’s a darker edge, for Lola Bensky, the bright and bubbly 19-year-old at the heart of the story, is the child of Holocaust survivors and her life is governed by a particular kind of psychological trauma. Another book about a woman dealing with the impact of her parent’s traumatic past is…

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung (2013)
Australian-born writer Alice Pung is the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.  In this non-fiction book, she unearths the story of her father’s frightening past and comes to understand some of his peculiar, over-protective behaviours. She travels to China and Cambodia, meeting family members and other survivors, where she hears their harrowing tales of deprivation, torture and survival. Another book about Cambodia is…

‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Fröberg Idling (2015)
This novel is a fictionalised account of the early days of Pol Pot, 20 years before his rise to infamy as the head of the Khmer Rouge. It spans a month in 1955 during Cambodia’s first-ever democratic elections following independence and tells the story of a complicated love triangle between two political rivals and a beauty queen. I found it hard work but absolutely compelling and it is one of those stories that has stayed with me…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about middle-aged angst to a story about the early life of a dictator via stories about a man with cancer, two fictionalised memoirs of rock bands, a young Australian rock journalist and a non-fiction book about a Cambodian refugee.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award is one of my favourite awards. I have been following it for several years now and it has introduced me to some very good Irish fiction indeed, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and  My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Typically, the way the prize works is that no longlist is announced. Instead, a shortlist of five titles is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week and the winner of the prize is named on the opening night of the festival. This year, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Writers’ Week has been cancelled and I was beginning to think the prize may be cancelled, too.

But then I discovered this article via Google, so I’m delighted to share the shortlist with you here. (The official website, which I’ve been checking on an almost daily basis for news of the prize, has also been updated, so you can read the official announcement here.)

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. 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.

The five shortlisted novels are:

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

“It’s late one night at the Spanish port of Algeciras and two fading Irish gangsters are waiting on the boat from Tangier. A lover has been lost, a daughter has gone missing, their world has come asunder — can it be put together again?”

The River Capture by Mary Costello

“Luke O’Brien has left Dublin to live a quiet life on his family land on the bend of the River Sullane. Alone in his big house, he longs for a return to his family’s heyday and turns to books for solace. One morning a young woman arrives at his door and enters his life with profound consequences. Her presence presents him and his family with an almost impossible dilemma. The River Capture tells of one man’s descent into near madness, and the possibility of rescue. This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art.”

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

“Leonard and Hungry Paul  is the story of two friends who ordinarily would remain uncelebrated. It finds a value and specialness in them that is not immediately apparent and prompts the idea that maybe we could learn from the people that we overlook in life. Leonard and Hungry Paul change the world differently to the rest of us: we try and change it by effort and force; they change it by discovering the small things they can do well and offering them to others.”

Girl by Edna O’Brien

“Captured, abducted and married into Boko Haram, the narrator of this story witnesses and suffers the horrors of a community of men governed by a brutal code of violence. Barely more than a girl herself, she must soon learn how to survive as a woman with a child of her own. Just as the world around her seems entirely consumed by madness, bound for hell, she is offered an escape of sorts – but only into another landscape of trials and terrors amidst the unforgiving wilds of northeastern Nigeria, through the forest and beyond; a place where her traumas are met with the blinkered judgement of a society in denial.”

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

“1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.”

The winner of the €15,000 prize will be announced on 27 May. 

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. 

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.

20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2019.

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay must be one of the most underrated books of the year. It won the Eason Novel of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, but it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention in the UK or elsewhere. And yet this is a truly amazing book, one of my favourite reads of the year, and deserving of a much larger audience.

Set largely in London in 1878, it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama.

It takes real-life characters — Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula; Henry Irving, an English actor and theatre director, who was later knighted; and Ellen Terry, the leading stage actress of the era — and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre, building a successful season from pretty much nothing.

As they battle to keep emotions in check (actors are prone to drama, after all), to balance the books and draw in the crowds, it is largely Stoker who holds everything together. A struggling writer (he did not become successful until after his death), he acts as Irving’s personal assistant, dealing with his petty squabbles, grievances and short temper, while also managing the theatre’s finances.

His marriage to renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe brings him into high society circles, but Stoker is never quite accepted by the upper classes. O’Connor paints him as a loyal and conscientious man, often derided by others who look down upon him.

Original structure

Like other novels by O’Connor, the story has a loose and experimental structure. The narrative, told from Stoker’s point of view, is comprised of diary entries, letters, private notes and sections written “in the voice of Ellen Terry”.

It is wildly imaginative, filled with rich historical detail and drips with witty one-liners.

And it’s hard not to keep seeing hints of Dracula in what Stoker conveys, such as this description of Irving, whom he slowly comes to realise is a vain, narcissistic and deeply unpleasant man.

Henry Irving stopped mid scene and stared down at them grimly, his eyes glowing red in the gaslight. Paint dribbling down the contours of his face, like dye splashed on a map, droplets falling on his boots, his doublet and long locks drenched in sweat, his silver painted wooden sword glittering in the gaslight, shimmering with his chainmail in the lightning.

As well as charting the rise and fall of the theatre, and providing insight into the lives and loves of the trio who worked so closely together, it’s a striking and evocative portrait of Victorian London, where long dark nights, fog-shrouded streets and wet cobblestones give rise to ghostly apparitions. This is the time of Jack the Ripper who stalks the East End, and O’Connor plays with this to create heightened tension for the reader.

A truly immersive read, Shadowplay represents storytelling at its wonderful best. It’s largely character-driven, but it is the prose and the structure of the novel that elevates it into something rather extraordinary. I don’t usually re-read books, but I will make an exception for this one: yes, it really is that good.

This is my 14th book for #20BooksOfSummer. Yes, I know I’m about three months late penning this review, but it was one of those books that I wanted to think about before rushing to write about it. Then, unfortunately, life just got in the way. I actually ordered this copy in hardcover from Dubray Books in Dublin because it had red-tinted page edges and was signed by the author. I must say, though, that O’Connor’s covers always look a bit fey. As much as I like the gold and black contrast on this one, the image of the woman makes this book look like romantic fiction of some kind, when it’s actually Victorian gothic with a literary bent.

Book lists

8 great novels written in the second person

Writing a novel using the second-person point of view — where the narrator tells the story to another character using the word “you” — is a difficult feat to pull off. In the wrong hands, it can feel tedious and wearing; in the right hands, it can elevate a novel into something really special, making you, the reader, feel implicated in the tale.

Over the years I’ve read several (mainly Irish) novels adopting this point of view — and they’ve all been exceptionally great tales.

Here is a list of books I have read that use the second-person point of view. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review.


‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

This debut novel from 2015 follows the up-and-down relationship between one man, a social misfit called Ray, and his rescue dog, whom he dubs “One Eye”, across four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title. Written in the present tense, with Ray addressing everything to the dog, it reveals how loss and loneliness can be alleviated by the love of a loyal pet. But it’s also a dark and disturbing look at what can happen to those people who fall through the cracks, who never fit in and are misjudged or cast out by society at large.

The sound of my voice
‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin

This five-star black comedy, first published in 1987 but reissued in 2018, is very much about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It is narrated by Morris Magellan, an executive in a biscuit factory, using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception. On the surface, it appears that Morris has it all, including an important job, a devoted wife, two children and a home of his own, but he’s a high-functioning alcoholic whose self-destructive behaviour is at odds with his own high opinion of himself.  The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses.


‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

This dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks, is about an illicit affair between a highly successful geneticist and a man she thinks might be a spy. When this exceptionally well-plotted story opens all we know is that the main character, Yvonne, is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What we don’t know is who she has murdered and why. The second-person voice that is employed conveys Yvonne’s constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this. It makes for a truly compelling read.

Montpelier Parade
‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Set in Dublin in the 1970s, this is an unconventional story about forbidden love, which is melancholy and bittersweet. Written entirely in the second person from a teenage boy’s perspective, it charts the relationship he has with a much older woman whom he rescues after a failed suicide attempt. As well as being about their illicit affair, the novel also explores class differences and what happens when others decide the path we should follow. Perfectly paced, it works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax. Expect to be devastated when you get to the end.

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

First published in 2009, this strangely haunting dystopian novel is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top-secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family, in danger. To protect her children from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read. It’s a tale that explores many issues, including science and religion, but its main theme is about the ability of humans to grow and change — for the better.


‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

This black comedy revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine; by night he’s out clubbing with his best friend, doing drugs and trying to hook up with women for one-night stands. The entire narrative — fast-paced and based on a series of set pieces — is told in the second person employing a voice that is, by turns, self-deprecating and pathetic. But while it’s mostly hilarious, the story is undercut by deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships. Highly recommended.

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

A lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story, You is about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life. Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty, funny, opinionated, cheeky and fiercely independent. You get pulled into the story because of her voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel particularly immediate, heart-breaking — and real.

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood and was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior. Told in the second person, it’s an intimate account of Molly’s life from her time as the rising star of the Abbey Theatre to a now-elderly woman living in London, in such dire straits she’s prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze. Molly’s feisty, humourous voice, married with her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol, makes her story an incredibly moving one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend a great novel written in the second person?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How to be Both’ to ‘Moderato Cantabile’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeYou all know that I don’t do memes, right? Well, I’ve decided to make an exception to the rule.

I’ve been reading and following the Six Degrees of Separation book meme, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and runs on the first Saturday of the month, for a long time. You can find out more about it via this post on Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then six other books are linked to it to form a chain.

It’s a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read.

Every time I see this meme pop up in my WordPress Reader I think, next month I’ll give it a go. And then of course the next month comes around and I think the same thing. And this month I figured it was about time I pulled my finger out and just did it.

So welcome to my first ever Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

How to be both by Ali Smith

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014)
Typically, I haven’t read How to be Both, so I can’t point you to a review, but I have read another Ali Smith novel, which is the first book in the chain:

1. ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith (2005)
Published in 2005, The Accidental was one of Smith’s early novels. I read it with a mixture of confusion and admiration, for it was quite unlike anything I’d read before and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not at the time. The writing was hypnotic and full of wonderful wordplay, but the characters — all on holiday in Norfolk one hot summer — were hard to get a handle on. In my review I said it had a “touch of the Paul Austers” about it, which leads me to the next book in the chain:

2. ‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster (2009)
Auster has a reputation for writing complex post-modernist novels but I like the way he uses meta-fiction to play with the reader’s mind: I often find his novels have an uncanny way of seeping into your unconsciousness to leave a long-lasting, and sometimes unsettling, impression. He’s not for everyone, but Invisible — his 16th novel! — is wholly accessible and quite a fun read for anyone wanting an introduction to his work. It’s essentially about a writer and how he comes to write a controversial book. It then examines whether that book should have been published because of its damaging revelations about the real life protagonist within it. The morality of writing novels is also explored in the next novel in the chain:

3. ‘About the Author’ by John Colapinto (2002)
About the Author is a hugely entertaining plot-driven novel about a struggling writer who steals someone else’s manuscript and gets it published under his own name. It was one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog way back in 2002, but I still remember it as a fun fast-paced read that explored lots of issues around writing and the trappings of fame. The trappings of fame are explored in the next novel in the chain:

4. ‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor (2014)
A wonderful fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s, The Thrill of it All charts the story of Irish-born Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and his subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also tinged with sadness and melancholia. It’s an ideal book for music lovers, especially if you like blues, ska, New Wave, punk or rock. Music lovers will also appreciate the next novel in the chain:

Forensic records society by magnus mills

5. ‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (2017)
The Forensic Records Society is typically kooky Magnus Mills fare: two friends set up a record appreciation society in which members meet in a pub to take it in turns to play 7-inch vinyl singles to listen to the music forensically. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. However, not everyone follows the rules and a rival group forms. The rivalry between them is what makes this story so funny — and quirky. Again, maybe not a book for everyone, but I’m a longtime Mills fan and I loved spotting the musical references throughout because the text is littered with song titles, minus the name of the performers, so it’s fun testing your knowledge along the way. Music is also the inspiration behind the next — and final — book in the chain:

6. ‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras (1958)
The title of this French novella is a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way, which could also be taken as a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. It’s a simple story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a murder that happens when her son is taking a piano lesson. But it’s not really about music; it’s more about class divisions and societal expectations, and is written in a beguiling, melancholic tone of voice, which I loved.

So that’s my first ever #6Degrees: from an award-winning British novel about art through to a French novella inspired by a musical direction.

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016

10-booksThe longlist for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, was unveiled earlier this week. There are 160 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

I’ve read quite a few on the list, so I thought I would highlight 10 of my favourite ones here.

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

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry
The-temporary-gentleman
“Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack McNulty’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a ‘temporary gentleman’ in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa.”

Academy Street by Mary Costello
Academy Street
“This debut novel has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. It charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person.”

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
Lost-and-found
“This is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.”

The Avenue of the Giants by Marc Dugain  (translated by Howard Curtis)
Avenue of the giants
“This book is loosely based on the life story of California ‘Co-ed Killer’ Edmund Kemper, who was active in the 1970s. It is one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read, not the least because it’s so gruesome and shocking in places, but also because it has such a strong and powerful narrative voice. The first 100 pages are especially gripping as you are placed firmly in the head of Al Kenner, a depraved yet highly intelligent killer. His first person narrative is immediate and rational, yet coolly detached, making for a rather chilling reading experience.”

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett)
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga. When the book opens we know that thespian Ralph Meier is dead and that his doctor, Marc Schlosser, who narrates the story has been accused of his murder through negligence. As Marc prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.”

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
Us-Conductors
“Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin. It’s an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything-I-never-told-you
“This novel focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowns in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.”

The Thrill of it All by Joseph O’Connor
The-thrill-of-it-all
“If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up? Irish writer Joseph O’Connor does exactly that with this gloriously clever novel, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.”

Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Family-life
“In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a tragic situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives an accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs. This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. ‘After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,’ he confesses to God at one point.”

Nora Webster by ColmTóibín
Nora-Webster
“The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.”

The prize shortlist will be published on 12 April 2016, and the winner will be announced on 9 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?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor

The-thrill-of-it-all

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up?

Film-makers have already done so with the 1984 cult classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, which satirises the so-called wild antics of a fictionalised heavy metal band, and the more recent BBC4 TV series, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, which lampoons Peter Gabriel’s career (with Peter Gabriel’s endorsement).

Now Irish writer Joseph O’Connor has entered the fray with his latest novel, The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.

My name is Robbie Goulding. I was once a musician. For five years in the 1980s I played guitar with the Ships. This memoir has been long in the making.

Now this is where I offer a caveat. I’m a huge music fan. I spent my teenage years and all of my twenties amassing the greatest collection of rock cassettes (remember them?) and CDs known to man, I went to countless gigs and had subscriptions to all the leading music magazines of the time, including Rolling Stone and Q. I viewed this as a kind of “male” hobby because none of my female friends were really into music — certainly not to the same extent I was. I would pour over sleeve notes and CD covers, learning all the connections between producers and session musicians, and explore new genres and discover new bands in much the same way I now do with books.

But when I read novels about music they never quite work for me. I think that’s because music is so special and ephemeral and subjective, how can you possibly translate that into the written word? How can you capture the way it makes you feel? And it probably doesn’t help that over the years I’ve read way too many non-fiction books about musicians and bands (here’s just a handful reviewed on this site), so it always feels a bit superfluous: why invent something when you could just read the real thing?

So, with that in mind, I picked up this book not really expecting to get along with it. But I needn’t have worried. O’Connor, who is a music fan himself (I actually saw him play guitar and sing at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre when he did a special gig with lots of Irish musicians called The Music of Ghost Light in 2011), doesn’t try to write so much about the music but the people who make it. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.

Life as a rock star

The Thrill of it All spans 25 years and tells the story of Irish-born teenager Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s largely set in Luton, England, a light industrial town 30 miles north of London, where he forms a band with Vietnamese-born Francis Mulvey, a Marc Bolan-type figure, who is charismatic and troubled but has a great singing voice.

When I first encountered Francis, in college in the eighties, he would pitch up for lectures sporting more lip frost and blusher than Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Apart from on television, he was the first male I ever saw in eye shadow, a weird shade of magenta he sourced by trawling theatrical-supply shops. ‘They use it for murderers and whores,’ he’d explain, with the insouciance of one on terms with both.

Joining them is cellist (and love interest) Sarah-Thérèse Sherlock and her twin brother Sean on drums.

When the book opens we know that Robbie and Fran have had a falling out and that Fran is elusive but still famous in a kind of David Bowie-type of way — there are countless “unauthorised biographies, a feature-length documentary, profiles and fanzines and blog sites and newsgroups” about him. But we don’t really know how they got to this point: that is all slowly revealed over the course of the narrative which is made up of Robbie’s own thoughts, interviews — conducted on radio and TV chat shows in the past and by Robbie’s daughter (and editor) Mollie Goulding specifically for the memoir — lyrics and diaries.

It charts the Ship’s steady rise in the UK and then its big success in America, where the band is courted by the rich and famous and where they make so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The excesses reveal themselves in typically predictable ways — um, drugs, anybody? — and before long it all goes to hell in a hand basket.

But even though O’Connor is deliberately working with stereotypes, his characters are richly drawn and always believable. They have hearts and souls, worries and troubles, dreams and ambitions. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that you could take any successful band from the 1980s and simply change the names, and this story would more or less match the one in this novel, that’s how realistic and spot-on it feels.

The narrative, which fast-forwards and rewinds (see what I did there) over time, is filled with vivid detail — of the era, of the music, the fashions and the politics of the day. It’s also peppered with great one-liners and playful, comic scenes that had me tittering in joyful recognition. It’s never cheesy, but often honest and raw.

I’ve seen some reviews bill The Thrill of it All as being a book for anyone who’s dreamt of being a rock star, but I’d say it’s appeal is far wider than that: it’s for anyone who loves music — blues, ska, New Wave, punk and rock especially.

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Joseph O’Connor

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is a very special one — Irish writer Joseph O’Connor.

Joseph has seven novels to his name — Cowboys and Indians (short-listed for the Whitbread Prize), Desperadoes, The Salesman, Inishowen, Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light — as well as a number of bestselling works of non-fiction. He has also written film scripts and stage-plays, including the award-winning Red Roses and Petrol.

He broadcasts a popular weekly radio diary on RTE’s Drivetime With Mary Wilson and writes regularly for The Guardian Review and The Sunday Independent.

His latest novel, Ghost Light, which has received rave reviews and topped the Irish best-sellers list for more than 9 weeks, has been selected for Dublin’s One City One Book initiative, in which everyone in the city is encouraged to read the same book during the month of April.

He was recently voted ‘Irish Writer of the Decade’ by the readers of Hot Press magazine.

I met Joseph on my last trip to Ireland, and over the world’s biggest pot of coffee talked about Ghost Light, literary influences and what it’s like to see giant covers of your latest novel plastered all over Dublin!

Mid-way through our chat, I asked him to nominate three books that mean a lot to him. He very graciously made his Triple Choice Tuesday selections on the spot. This is what he chose:

 

Dubliners A favourite book: Dubliners by James Joyce

James Joyce’s Dubliners contains the most perfect short story ever written in the English language: The Dead. It’s about a couple of people going to a party in a house in Dublin on the 6th of January – it’s not even Christmas Night, it’s not even New Year’s Eve.

The story is a remarkable Joycean miracle, because it appears to be about nothing but you realise in the last paragraphs that it’s actually about everything. It’s about the deepest things that it is possible to write about – love and memory and desire, and how we can never really know the people we love and how we carry our ghosts, and how life is a process of adjusting and reaching a kind of agreement with the past.

And the prose is so beautiful, so memorable. I just think every single sentence in it is perfect. Joyce writes about that book that he was trying to develop a style that he called “scrupulous meanness”, that he would never waste a word, that he would be absolutely scrupulous because it was about putting the words in the right order.

It’s just a wonderful involving read that you can read again and again, and it reveals new pleasures every time you do so. I love Ulysses, but Dubliners is my favourite Joyce book.

 

Catcher-in-the-rye A book that changed my world: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger’s great book, changed my world — and my life. I was a bookish kid and both my parents loved books, so by the time I was 16 or 17 I was a very keen reader. My first girlfriend’s parents had lived in America and they were very cool and had an air of raffish Bohemianism about them, and she gave me a book that her father loved, The Catcher in the Rye. I had never read anything like it in my life.

I remember it with the same kind of joy as I remember hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time. And I can remember the moment — I can probably date it — when I closed the last page of The Catcher in the Rye and I thought I would like to do that — write a book that would touch people and take them on a journey — with my life. It changed me from being a reader to an aspiring writer.

I still read it every three or four years. It has the hallmark of every great novel, which is that it changes as you age. The first time you read it as a teenager you love the humour and the fact that Holden Caulfield is so cheeky and irreverent and so fucking smart and he’s got all the answers. And you love that opening paragraph when he talks about that “Charles Dickens crap” because all the stuff you’re reading at school is the Charles Dickens crap.

And then, when you read it when you’re a bit older and you’re a parent, you see the great grey darkness and sadness in the book and you want to put your arms around Holden and mind him, you want to step through the prose and tell him that everything’s going to be all right.

 

Journey-home The book that deserves a wider audience: The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger

The Journey Home, first published in 1990, is a masterpiece. I wouldn’t be writing myself if it wasn’t for this book.

Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments came out around the same time.  Both books just opened up such doors to me, because they were the first books I came across where people were writing about an actual place called Dublin, not a stage set they’d inherited from the works of Joyce, with that funny little photogenic Dublin of gaslight and parasols. Suddenly, along come Roddy and Dermot, and they kind of blow the doors off that particular theatre, and they both, in their different ways, write not about the two great places of Irish literature, the city and the country, but instead write about where most of us live — the suburbs.

And they’re brilliant about the unofficial goings on in this society, which of course pretends to have its fealties  to the church and conservative politics, but deep down, at grass level, other things are happening. And I think that Dermot is just the laureate at capturing that.

Poet Paul Durcan once said about Dermot that he’s Dublin’s Passolini, and I really think he is. I love all of his books. He has a readership in the UK, and in Europe too, where he’s been translated. But the Journey Home was only published in the United States in 2008. It got the front cover review in the New York Times Book Review section.

He’s a really important writer, and a beautiful stylist. I love his characters, I love the honesty of his work, and his incredible creative imagination. He’s a poet, he writes for the theatre, he works as a publisher. There are very few Irish writers who Dermot has not helped at some point, he’s a wonderful man and he’s a national treasure, and I’d love his books to be known all over the world.

The Journey Home is as important as James Joyce’s Ulysses or as Joyce’s Dubliners or Roddy’s The Commitments, for what it reveals, and the permission it gave to subsequent generations of Irish writers, to write about what is actually in front of you. [He effectively said] open your eyes, wake up! The stories are actually there and all around you, like the birds. If you open the windows of the dusty old house of Irish literature and reach your hands out, the birds will come to you…

Thanks, Joseph, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’m delighted to say that I’ve read all three, and had only just finished The Journey Home a few days before this interview took place. Indeed, I had chosen it for my book group. I agree that it’s a wonderful book, which deserves a wider audience, because while it’s a challenging read it offers up a view of Dublin life not really told before, of what it’s like to be cast adrift in the suburbs, going from one crappy job to another, all the while trying not to get sucked into the world of drugs and corruption.

What do you think of Joseph O’Connor’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

GhostLight

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2010.

I’m not one for making predictions, or backing horses, but if Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light doesn’t make the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, I’ll eat my hat. This is an accomplished novel that should firmly cement O’Connor in the cannon of contemporary Irish literary fiction. Of course, he’s already achieved extraordinary success with Star of the Sea and its follow-up Redemption Falls, but Ghost Light, released earlier this month, feels as if he’s “arrived” in the sense that he can now take his rightful place alongside the likes of fellow countrymen Colm Toibin, John Banville, Sebastian Barry and the late (great) John McGahern.

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood. She was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior, at the time of his death to Hodgkin’s disease in 1909. Their relationship was frowned upon by pretty much everyone, including their families and Synge’s great friend William Butler Yeats, with whom he co-founded Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

O’Connor takes pains in his “Acknowledgements and Caveat” to point out that while his novel features characters from real life, the story is a work of fiction. “The experiences and personalities of Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in unaccountable ways,” he writes. “Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.”

Does it really matter that O’Connor has taken liberties with the truth? I think not. He has crafted an amazing story, from basic facts, and given life to a woman that history has sadly neglected.

We first meet Molly in London in 1952, where she resides in a lodging house, and as she makes her way across town towards an afternoon appointment at a BBC recording studio, we learn about her previous life in Dublin in 1908 when she was the star of the Abbey Theatre. By jumping backwards and forwards in time in tune with Molly’s memory, we discover how she met Synge, became his lover and spent much of their relationship waiting for him to commit himself to her (it’s no spoiler to say he merely kept her hanging on for what appears to be no good reason) and we come to realise the direness of her present circumstances, so close to destitution that she is prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze.

What I loved most about this book is Molly’s inner voice, which swings between pity and self-loathing, to a terribly wicked potty-mouthed sense of humour ripe with Dublin vernacular. Take this interior monologue as she looks at paintings in the National Portrait Gallery:

Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God’s honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford’. Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.

But it’s her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol that makes her story such an incredibly moving one. (In an exchange on Twitter, O’Connor’s agent, Carole Blake, told me that “Joe says he fell in love with her”.) I came to the end of this book feeling as if I knew Molly personally, that I had witnessed her pain and her shame, her glorious success and her confusion at being passed over by lovers and theatre-goers alike. I wanted to put the book down and have a good old howl. And almost 10 days after finishing the novel I have spent my days thinking about Molly and her tragic life, always a good sign that I’ve read something meaningful and brilliant.

Finally, I’d like to add a caveat of my own: the story is told in the second person, which can take some getting used to, and O’Connor experiments with the novel’s form by including an entire chapter written as if it’s an act in a Synge play (which, in my view, is quite hilarious, seeing as it is a bit of a piss-take on Synge’s own tendency toward “Oirishness”). But the book is so bursting with character that I think even those readers who favour traditional, straightforward narratives will find Ghost Light an entertaining and accessible read. Let’s just hope this year’s Booker judges feel the same way.