Books of the year

My favourite books of 2018

books-of-the-yearSo, another year draws to a close, which means it’s time to sum up my reading over the past 12 months.

I read 68 books, quite a bit down on previous years, but I read a higher percentage of women (62 per cent) than ever before.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects, with mixed results.

On first impressions, I’d say it was a relatively mediocre reading year for me, and going back through my reviews I can see that it was a definite year of two halves, with the first being particularly strong and the second being much weaker.

So here’s my list — a mix of old and new, heavily weighted towards Australian novels with a handful by authors from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and South Africa  The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

The sound of my voice

The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (1987)
The day-to-day struggles of a biscuit factory executive who is also a high-functioning alcoholic.

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

The Sinners’ Bell by Kevin Casey (1968)
A heart-rending portrait of a doomed marriage set in small town Ireland.

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut (1995)
Suspenseful South African novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

Fairyland by Sumner Lock Elliott (1990)
Thinly veiled memoir about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in 1930s/40s Sydney.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Passage of Love

The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (2018)
Fictionalised account of the author’s own life trying to pursue a writing career at the expense of his marriage and financial security.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (2018)
Beautifully evoked portrayal of a father’s grief masquerading as a treacherous road journey across a snowy British landscape.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (2018)
Fast-paced tale about a teenage boy on the run through some of the outback’s most inhospitable territory.

Hope you’ve had an exciting reading year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2018?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2018 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sinners’ Bell’ by Kevin Casey

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 228 pages; 2017.

A few years back I read Kevin Casey’s A State of Mind, a memorable novel about a struggling writer living in Co. Wicklow, whose life is under threat from the IRA. Loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland in the 1970s, it was part political thriller, part romance. I thoroughly enjoyed it but was disappointed to find that the rest of Casey’s work (three earlier novels from the 60s and 70s) was out of print.

So imagine my delight to find that his debut novel, first published by Faber and Faber in 1968, sitting on the table in Hodges Figgis Bookshop on a recent trip to Dublin. Reprinted by Lilliput Press, The Sinners’ Bell comes with a short introduction by the author, who says his original intention was to write about the small Irish town in which he was born and raised to show how societal changes impacted the young people living there.

What ensues is not only a credible portrait of a town undergoing change, it’s a melancholy portrait of a miserable marriage between a young woman and the local publican’s moody son. It’s incredibly atmospheric and captures the loneliness, despair and isolation of the new bride so perfectly I feel my heart aching with each turn of the page.

A doomed wedding

From the book’s opening on the day of Helen and Frank’s wedding in a small town in Ireland, we know the marriage is not going to be a charmed one. It’s raining, Frank drinks too much, the piano is out of tune and played badly, and Keenan, the father of the groom, vomits at the reception. Later, safely arrived at their honeymoon destination — a seedy hotel in London’s Paddington — Helen hopes things will improve. They don’t.

She had borrowed a travel book from the library and read of the Tower and the Palace and Madame Tussaud’s. London meant excitement to her. […] Frank had spent two years there but seldom spoke about them.

Frank’s lack of talking about his time in London should be a warning to her: what is he trying to hide? But she’s just 20 years old and is rather naive. Raised by her father after the untimely death of her mother, she’s not exactly worldly-wise. She’s a good daughter, kind-hearted and optimistic about the future, but the first few days of her marriage are a major disappointment: there’s nary a word of romance or tenderness between the newlyweds (the wedding night itself is a shock to her), nor is there any chance to go sightseeing. Instead, Frank drags Helen to a succession of sordid pubs, so he can go drinking with his old mate, Tom.

When the couple return to Ireland, living in a provincial backwater town, it’s not much better. They move into rooms above the pub that Frank’s parents own and where Helen does shifts behind the bar. It’s a lonely, joyless existence. Frank is volatile, manipulative, childish. His parents offer no support: his mother is cold and indifferent to Helen; his father is an alcoholic prone to grotesque displays of drunkenness, which often requires medical intervention.

Her own father, with whom she has always had a close relationship, keeps his distance, not wanting to meddle in his daughter’s affairs now that she is married and no longer in his care. And strangely, she does not seek comfort from him, preferring to just get on with her lot, even if she’s desperately unhappy and doesn’t know where to turn.

A claustrophobic read

Largely told from Helen’s point of view, The Sinners’ Bell could be seen as a dreary, domestic novel, but Casey’s ability to get inside a woman’s head and to articulate her thoughts so well is a minor triumph. There is sadness, disappointment, betrayal and moroseness here, a dutiful daughter and wife whose passivity slowly gives way to a mounting anger and desire to take control of her own destiny — even if it’s too late.

I read this book with a sense of dread. But I loved it’s beautifully evoked sense of claustrophobia, where everyone in a small town knows everyone else’s business, and where the Church controls every facet of a person’s life. It reminded me very much of  John Broderick’s The Pilgrimage, which is also about small town life in 1960s Ireland, and Elizabeth Harrower’s Down in the City, which is a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage between polar opposites that is doomed to failure.

The Sinners’ Bell isn’t a cheery read. But it’s bold and atmospheric, an unflinching examination of a way of life long since over. Thank goodness.

I read this as part of Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Casey, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A State of Mind’ by Kevin Casey

State-of-mind

Fiction – Kindle edition; Lilliput Press; 296 pages; 2011.

Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, is increasingly becoming my Irish publisher of choice. I’ve only read a handful of their books but I am yet to find a dud one. Kevin Casey’s State of Mind, first published in 2009, is no exception.

Set in rural Ireland

The story is set in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s and is loosely based on British author Frederick Forsyth’s experiences as a tax exile living in Ireland. Apparently Mr Forsyth upped sticks and moved back to the UK in 1980, because of kidnap fears.

In A State of Mind, the Forsyth character is played by Bill Cromer, a wealthy, best-selling author from England, who moves to Wicklow to take advantage of Ireland’s then tax-free concessions for those working in the creative industries. He brings his much younger German girlfriend, Ingrid, with him.

The story is not so much about Bill and Ingrid but about their neighbour, John Hughes, a former newspaper reporter, who turned his back on journalism to write novels — several of which were hugely successful and enabled him to buy a nice five-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the Wicklow countryside.

A serious case of writer’s block

But now John, who is the first person narrator of the story, is suffering a severe case of writer’s block. His wife Laura, who is an English-born radiographer, and his teenage daughter Rachael, don’t seem to mind that he now lives a life of “rural leisure and private desperation”.

It is the arrival of Bill and Ingrid into their rather sheltered community that unwittingly provides John with new material. The book opens with these fateful first lines: “This is an attempt to record the events of last summer. I want to understand what happened.”

Without giving away crucial plot spoilers, John begins an affair with Ingrid that has serious repercussions. As he jumps in and out of bed with her — taking advantage of his wife’s long commute to Dublin, his daughter’s absence at boarding school and Cromer’s trips back to the UK — there is more going on than meets the eye. Yes, he’s gathering material for his new book and finding out some painful truths about himself and his marriage, but he is also getting mired in something more dangerous: the local republicans have already marked Cromer as a target for blackmail and possible kidnap.

An understated, sexy thriller

A State of Mind is one of those rare books that defies classification, because it’s part sexy romance, part political thriller. It’s told in a very gentle, understated way, almost to the point of being flat, yet there’s something about the prose style — and the narrator’s limpid voice — that weaves a certain kind of spell. I found myself completely caught up in the story, wanting to know what was going to happen next. Was John going to get caught by his wife? Were the IRA going to bump him off as a case of mistaken identity? Would Ingrid call it quits?

There’s a lovely 1970s feel to the story too — it’s all cosy dinner parties, gin and tonics, and endless telephone calls on the landline — and setting it in Wicklow, among a small enclave of foreign writers, makes it even more intriguing. Lunch time visits to the pub will never be the same again!

Kevin Casey was once the Abbey Theatre’s youngest playwright. His novels include The Sinner’s Bell (1968), A Sense of Survival (1974) and Dreams of Revenge (1977). A State of Mind is his first book in more than 20 years.