6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ to ‘The Tie That Binds’

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!

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 point is…

‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ by Judy Blume (1970)
I have fond memories of reading this as a teenager (so obviously not reviewed here). The story of a late developer who is concerned about boys and periods and fitting in and going to a new school, it’s one of my favourite novels from childhood. Another favourite book from childhood is…

Watership Down

‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams (1972)
This is an anthropomorphised take on the rabbit world. It charts what happens to a community of rabbits when their warrens are destroyed. The rabbits have a language all their own; it is that language that fascinated me most when I read this book aged 13. Another book about animals and language is…

‘The Animals in that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
This wholly original story is about a virus raging throughout the community which allows infected humans to understand what animals are saying. It’s not exactly a pleasant experience. Another book set during a pandemic is…

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth (2011)
Set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944, this is a gripping account of the polio epidemic as seen through the eyes of one man. This incurable infectious disease, which caused paralysis in infants and children, wreaked much fear and heartache around the world until a vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s. Another book about polio is…

The Golden Age by Joan London (Europa edition)
‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London (2015)
This gently nuanced novel is set in 1954 and follows a cast of characters with links to a children’s convalescent home for polio patients in Perth, Western Australia. It’s based on a real-life outbreak that was so bad that an impending visit by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had to be seriously curtailed. Another book set in Western Australia during the post-war period is…

‘Finding Jasper’ by Lynne Leonhardt (2012)
This debut novel highlights the immediate and long-term impact of the death of a World War Two Australian fighter pilot — the Jasper of the title — on three women (his wife, sister and daughter) left behind. His sister, Attie, is a strong, self-reliant, independent woman who just gets on with things, running a farm in harsh terrain and a difficult climate, without any male help. Another book about a woman running a farm is…

‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
In Haruf’s debut novel we met Edith, a woman who is born on a farm in the high plains of Colorado, and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” her and her brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about teen angst to a story about agricultural angst, via talking animals, pandemics, life in Western Australia and farming. Have you read any of these books? 

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

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?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, USA, Vintage

‘Where You Once Belonged’ by Kent Haruf

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 176pages; 1990.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Kent Haruf is one of my favourite authors. He only has a handful of novels to his name and I have read — and loved — them all. I had been saving this one up, knowing that once I had read it there would be no more Haruf novels to read, because he sadly died in 2014, just a couple of years after I discovered him.

Where You Once Belonged is his second novel. According to the copyright page in this edition, part of the book had previously been published in different form in Grand Street and Best American Stories 1987.

Like all the other books in Haruf’s backlist, this one is set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt. It has other trademarks I’ve come to associate with his work, too: well-rounded characters, an evocative prairie town setting, lean and elegant prose, whipsmart dialogue and an uncanny ability to tap into the inner workings of the human psyche.

But this tale doesn’t feel quite as polished as other novels he has written. The prose is characteristically taut, but the narrative feels pushed to its limits. It wanders a bit and lacks self-assuredness for it’s hard to tell if the story is about the narrator or the character he’s telling us about. Let me explain.

The story is narrated by Pat Arbuckle, the editor of the local newspaper, who went to school with a boy called Jack Burdette. Jack was the kind of kid who played pranks, got into trouble at school and was a bit of a handful, but he excelled at sport — he was taller and broader than his fellow students and looked like a man long before they did — which meant he was respected and popular, both on and off the pitch.

But as an adult, Jack takes advantage of people, including the people he’s closest to, and by the time anyone cottons on to his crimes, it’s too late: Jack’s upped sticks and is never seen again.

Eight years pass and then an older, fatter Jack is spotted in town. He’s sitting in a red Cadillac, which he’s parked outside the local tavern. The first local who notices him bolts to the sheriff’s office to report him — and then events play out in ways no one could possibly foresee…

It’s an interesting storyline and because Jack’s crimes are not revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the book, there’s enough intrigue to make the reader keep turning the pages. But the tale is told first-person style from Pat’s perspective, which means the focus swings between his own story — a humdrum working life and an unhappy marriage — and Jack’s story, and Haruf can’t quite seem to make up his mind which one should take precedent.

Of course that doesn’t make this a bad book — it’s just a little uneven and the storyline feels a bit thin. I suspect it would have been much stronger as a short story.

Where You Once Belonged is still a riveting read and it packs a real emotional punch. Its depiction of courtship and marriage, coupled with the 1960s setting and the brooding, melancholic nature of the story, reminded me very much of Richard Yates, another fine American writer.

If you haven’t read Haruf before, this probably isn’t the place to start; I’d argue this one is for the fans and “completists” only.

This is my 3rd book for #20BooksofSummer and my 22nd for #TBR40. According to the receipt I found buried in the back of this book, I purchased it from the Book Depository on 21 February 2013, so it has been in my TBR for more than six years!

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Dry’ to ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI had so much fun doing last month’s Six Degrees of Separation book meme, that I’m back to do it again this month!

Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…

The Hands by Stephen Orr

1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…

2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…

3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…

4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haru

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 180 pages; 2016.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you will no doubt know that I am a Kent Haruf fan — indeed, he’s listed on my favourite authors page — but it was with some trepidation that I picked up his novel All Souls at Night. That’s because Haruf died shortly before its publication (aged 71 in November 2014) and it felt too sad to read, knowing it was his final novel.

As it turns out, the story it tells is as bittersweet as the circumstances in which I read it.

A simple tale well told

Our Souls at Night is a wise and simple tale about growing older, the importance of doing your own thing and the value of companionship.

It goes something like this: in Holt, Colorado (the same location used in all Haruf’s novels), an old lady (widow Addie Moore) invites an old man (her widowed neighbour, Louis Waters) to come sleep with her, but not in that way. The pair break with small town social conventions and spend their nights sleeping in the same bed to ward off loneliness.

What ensues is a relaxed, comfortable friendship in which they tell each other about their lives and share their innermost fears and secrets while they lie side by side in bed.

The narrative, mainly composed of dialogue (without the use of quotation marks), allows us to get to know both characters and their troubled pasts. Both have adult children who don’t appreciate or approve of their nightly arrangement, and yet when Addie’s six-year-old grandson comes to live with her it is clear that her relationship with Louis provides the stability young Jamie needs.

Typical Haruf style

The story is written in typical Haruf style with pared back, almost soporific prose, where every word is chosen as carefully as one might choose the pearls to thread onto a necklace. It is a masterclass in letting nouns and basic verbs do all the work without being ably assisted by adjectives or extraneous detail. This makes for a super fast, uncluttered read.

And yet the novel is strangely powerful and incredibly moving, taking the reader from joy to sorrow to laughter and back again, all within the space of just 180 pages.

For example, when Louis makes the decision to buy a dog to provide companionship to Addie’s grandson, I could feel my heart leaping with the joy of it. Later, I could feel it splintering in two when things begin to go slightly awry. And yet I also laughed a lot while reading this book, not least at the “in-jokes” Haruf includes that readers of his Plainsong trilogy will appreciate:

On a Sunday they sat at the kitchen table over their morning coffee. There was an advertisement in the Post about the coming theatrical season at the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts. Addie said, Did you see they’re going to do that last book about Holt County? The one with the old man dying and the preacher.
They did those other two, so I guess they might as well do this one too, Louis said.
Did you see those earlier ones?
I saw them. But I can’t imagine two old ranchers taking in a pregnant girl.
It might happen, she said. People can do the unexpected.

All Souls at Night is a truly lovely, delicate and eloquent read, bringing to mind the likes of Anne Tyler and many of the Irish prose writers I admire so much.  It is a lasting tribute to a very fine writer indeed.

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer. I was actually given a review copy prior to the novel’s publication in June 2015, but somewhere along the line it got misplaced (probably when I put all my non-Australian books in storage prior to my Reading Australia project in 2016), so had to buy my own copy. I can’t recall the exact date, but it’s been in my TBR for less than a year.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.

5 books, Book lists

5 uplifting reads

5-books-200pixAs we near the end of 2016 I can already hear the collective rubbing of hands from across the world as people prepare to say goodbye to what, quite frankly, has been a terribly distressing year.

So many cultural icons have died (David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Alan Rickman, Prince, Leonard Cohen et al), the gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us has got ever wider, migrants and refugees are drowning in ever-greater numbers as they cross the Mediterranean, the war in Syria has got worse, post-truth politics has gripped the west and I dare not mention Brexit or the fact that Donald Trump has been elected as the next President of the United States.

So, in these rather dark and troubling times it’s refreshing to be able to escape into a good book. While my literary tastes are relatively dark, every now and then I read a novel that could best be described as happy or uplifting.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite novels that put the human race in a positive light and show the redemptive power of kindness, generosity of spirit, tolerance and benevolence. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis (2015)
A rather delightful story about a young girl who loses her mother in a department store and then goes on a long cross-country adventure with two elderly people to find her. It’s quirky but big-hearted, and the way it explores the twin themes of loneliness and grief without being schmaltzy or sentimental makes it a fun and rewarding read.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf (1999)
This is a beautiful, sincere story about a wide cast of characters leading complicated, messy lives. By examining the ties that bind people and communities together, it shows that our lives are made all the richer by putting others before ourselves. My favourite read in 2014; nothing’s really surpassed it since.

Miss Garnet's Angel

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers (2005)
Set largely in Venice with a lonely spinster at its heart, this is an inspirational story about second chances and living life to the full when you’ve always lived life in the shadows. Art, religion and grief combine to show that emotions — and our ability to express and experience them — are what makes us truly human.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson (1938)
An enchanting mid-century take on Cinderella, this book is another one about second chances and the fact that you are never too old, too poor or from the wrong class to pursue them.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion (2013)
This unconventional story about an unconventional man looking for love is a charming read about being yourself and never giving up on your dreams. It’s often laugh out loud funny, too.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other happy and uplifting reads?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2014

Books-of-the-yearSo, as 2014 draws to a close, it’s time for me to choose my favourite reads of the year.

I didn’t read as many books as I normally would in the space of 12 months, but that’s because I had other things taking up my time — I went back to study part-time (I graduated in October with a distinction), started walking five miles every day (thanks to my FitBit, which means I’m now 10kg lighter than I was this time last year — although I might have put a sneaky 2kg back on over the Christmas break), trained for London NightRider (your sponsorship helped me raise more than £400 for Arthritis UK) and then bought a road bike to take part in a 64-mile non-competitive sportive. And, of course, I transferred (and cleaned up) 10 years’ worth of content to Reading Matters’ new home, which took three months of hard graft! Oh, and I worked full-time (on a freelance basis) for the entire year. It’s a wonder I had any time for reading at all!

Still, taking all that in to account, I read some pretty amazing books. My 10 favourite books comprises a mix of old and new (with a self-confessed antipodean bias), covering all kinds of themes and subject matter. What these novels have in common — aside from the fact that I read them in 2014 — is that they entertained me, educated me, intrigued me and moved me.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Academy Street

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
My favourite read of the year, this extraordinary debut novel charts one woman’s life from her childhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. It’s a deeply moving story about an Irish émigré who struggles to find her place in the world. I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

17905709
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014)
I’ve read all of Flanagan’s previous novels (some are reviewed here) but this one moved me more than anything else he’s written. In fact, it moved me so much I struggled to write a review and in the end I didn’t bother. But this story, which is largely set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, explores what it is to be a good person and looks at the ways in which those who survived such horror and brutality coped with normal civilian life after the war. It’s also a beautiful love story — and was the deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw (2013)
This New Zealand best seller is one of those gripping accounts of a holiday gone wrong. But the holidaymakers are not your usual every day people; it’s the prime minister of New Zealand no less and his elite group of friends and their families. Part political novel, part psychological thriller, it’s an exhilarating and intelligent read, perfect if you like fast-paced novels with a dark, unsettling edge.

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The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf (1984)
Kent Haruf’s debut novel, first published in 1984, has a bright ring of truth about it. Set in rural Colorado, it traces the life story of Edith Goodnough, an 80-year-old woman, accused of murder. But this is not a crime novel: it’s a grand sweeping drama tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy. Like Haruf’s much-loved Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. It’s bittersweet, heartbreaking and uplifting — all at the same time.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012)
A pretentious group of people eating a pretentious meal in a pretentious restaurant has all the makings of a pretentious novel, but The Dinner is a rip-roaring read. It’s a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

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TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (2013)
This accomplished, intricately crafted novel explores the connections between North America and Ireland over the space of 150 years. It comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift. This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”. I found it an entirely absorbing read and loved its compelling mix of truth and fiction.

Spider
Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This novel, first published in 1990, sadly appears to be out of print. Goodness knows why, because it’s one of the best depictions of a man grappling with mental illness that I’ve ever read. It’s set in London, mainly before the Second World War, and tells the story of Spider, who returns to the East End after 20 years living in Canada. His account of coming to terms with his troubled past is so vividly drawn and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him, that it’s hard not to feel for his situation, particularly as his narrative becomes increasingly more paranoid and confused as the novel unfolds. It’s a brilliantly powerful book — and certainly the best one I read this year that was published prior to 2014.

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Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (2014)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year. Who would think a book about a Russian scientist who invents a weird musical instrument could be such a terrifically enjoyable romp? 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. It was my pick for the Shadow Giller and I was delighted to see it win the (real) Giller Prize, too.

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Eyrie by Tim Winton (2013)
I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I thought it was even better the second time around. It tells the story of a middle-aged man who has lost his high-flying job and is now living like a recluse in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower. When he meets a woman from his past, things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous. It’s a wonderful novel about redemption, helping others less fortunate than ourselves and doing the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment.

Animal People
Animal People by Charlotte Wood (2011)
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harlotte Wood deserves to be far better known outside of her native Australia. This novel, published in 2013, is an extraordinarily rich family drama come black comedy written in pared back language. It’s another Australian book about a middle-aged man who’s lost his way. It deals with big themes, including consumerism, social prestige and climbing the career ladder, but it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I loved it.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2014?

Finally, before I pop open the champagne, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, clicks and links — over the past 12 months, and here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! See you back here in 2015 for more ‘readerly’ inspiration!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf

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Fiction – paperback; Picador; 248 pages; 2002. 

When I first “discovered” American author Kent Haruf last year, I was so enamoured of his 1999 novel Plainsong that I promptly ordered his entire back catalogue. He wasn’t a particularly prolific author, so this meant I only had to buy a handful of titles.

Sadly, he died earlier this month, which is one reason I decided to pull The Tie That Binds from my shelf. First published in 1984, it was Haruf’s debut novel — and what an extraordinary novel it is.

Colarado setting

Set in the high plains of Colorado, just seven miles from the fictional town of Holt which features in all of Haruf’s novels, the book tells the tale of a pioneering farming family, the patriarch of which is a rather angry, embittered man called Roy Goodnough who comes from Iowa.

But the story is not about Roy per se nor his delicate wife, Ada, but his daughter, Edith, who is born on the farm and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. When the book opens she’s 80 years old, lying in hospital on an IV drip, with a police guard at the door. She’s been charged with murder, but the reader doesn’t know who she’s murdered — or why.

That’s where our narrator comes in to fill the gaps.

Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.

The narrator is Sanders Roscoe and he’s Edith’s neighbour, whom he knows well (once-upon-a-time his father asked Edith to marry him but Roy Goodnough was against it). In his intimate bar-room raconteur voice, Sanders spools right back to the start — before Edith was even born — to explain how events over the course of almost a century lead to the current situation.

A domineering father

It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” Edith and her younger brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.

Despite the strong sense of community and neighbourliness that surrounds them, the Goodnoughs must get by as best they can — resisting, wherever possible, dependence on anyone else but themselves, and all carried out against the backdrop of a harsh but beautiful landscape.

What they found when they got here — and I don’t believe Ada ever got over the shock of it — was a flat, treeless, dry place that had once belonged to Indians. It was a hell of a big piece of sandy country, with a horizon that in every direction must have seemed then — to someone who didn’t know how to look at this country and before Henry Ford and paved highways diminished it just a little  — to reach forever away under a sky in summer that didn’t give much of a good goddamn whether or not the bags of corn seed Roy was going to plant in some of that sand ever amounted to a piddling thing, and a sky in winter that, even if it was as blue as picture books said it should be and as high and bright as anybody could hope for, still didn’t care whether or not the frame house Roy was going to build ever managed to keep the snow from blowing in on Ada’s sewing machine.

Rural hardship

Through Sanders lovingly crafted narrative — angry one moment, disbelieving the next, but always fiercely defensive of Edith and her motivations — Haruf depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices Edith makes for her father and brother. There’s an aching sadness to this grand sweeping drama but it’s tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy.  And it shows how one woman’s steely determination and fortitude sustains her through good times and bad.

Like Haruf’s Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. This sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman who’s lead a tough and unremarkable life is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.

I got so drawn into the intimate narrative that I lost all sense of time; The Tie That Binds is a wonderful novel that deserves a wide readership. If you loved Plainsong, this one won’t disappoint — and if you’ve never read Haruf before, this is the perfect introduction.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Setting, USA

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf

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Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.

One last summer

In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.

But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.

Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.

And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.

Ordinary people

There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.

And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their back stories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.

I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.

I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action”  in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.

But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.

And finally…

Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.