Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

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?

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.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (with playlist)

Forensic records society by magnus mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Magnus Mills takes the quintessential British obsession with music and turns it on its head in The Forensic Records Society. It is typical Mills fare: soporific, surreal and filled with deadpan humour.

It is about two friends who start a club called — you guessed it — The Forensic Records Society. It meets every Monday at 9pm in the backroom of the local pub, The Half Moon. The idea is for each member to bring along three 7-inch vinyl singles, which they listen to (“in strict rotation”) on an old portable record player. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. The idea is to listen to the music forensically.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Not everyone follows the rules. A rival group forms. A splinter group soon follows. And the rivalry between each society becomes more heightened — and more absurd — as this short, quirky story proceeds to its humorous conclusion.

An eccentric tale

I’m a big fan of Magnus Mills’ work and I’ve reviewed all his novels. This one is just as idiosyncratic, eccentric and fable-like as the rest.

I love the way it pokes fun at music obsessives and the sometimes snobby nature of those who collect records. The way that James, the co-founder of the society, wields his rule book brought to mind a funny experience of my own. In the early 2000s I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, in the round, at Wembley Arena. A family of four were sitting in front of me: mum, dad and their two sons, aged around 8 and 10. The boys were forbidden from dancing or singing along to any of the songs. “You must listen to them carefully,” instructed the dad. “There must be no singing!” And boy, did he keep them to this self-imposed rule.

I could just imagine this chap heading up The Forensic Records Society.

The book also pokes fun at that quintessential British establishment — the pub — and highlights how having a few drinks with friends can seem to make time speed up: you never quite know where the hours go.

The story also highlights how blokes bond over music; they don’t even need to talk about it. This is in stark contrast to the all-women rival group that forms — the Confessions Record Society (“bring a record of your choice and confess!”) — which encourages members to explain the emotional connection they have to particular songs.

Classic Mills

Like other Magnus Mills’ novels, there is little in the way of descriptive detail (I think he has a special aversion to adjectives), characters are only distinguishable from each other by their (rather ordinary) names and there’s no back story. The reader is simply plunged into a world that looks and feels familiar to our own, but isn’t quite normal. The fun is trying to figure out what is going on beneath the surface; what point is Mills trying to make about our society?

There’s a little smidgen of mystery in this one, too — what is the unbranded single everyone keeps wanting to borrow; what is Alice, the barmaid’s, secret; and what does the taxman have to do with anything — which adds an extra level of intrigue.

All in all, The Forensic Records Society is classic Mills. If you’ve never read him before, this is just a good a place as any to start.

—————————————————–
The Forensic Records Society Playlist

The book is littered with song titles (the performers are never mentioned, nor the genre), so I thought it would be fun to create a YouTube playlist of 10 tunes that were name checked in the novel. In no particular order, they are:

‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ (Split Enz)

‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Joy Division)

‘Come As You Are’ (Nirvana)

‘Waterloo Sunset’ (The Kinks)

‘Mr Brightside’ (The Killers)

‘The Day Before You Came’ (Abba)

‘On the Road Again’ (Willie Nelson)

‘Are “Friends” Electric’ (Gary Numan)

‘Substitute’ (The Who)

‘The Universal’ (Blur)

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ by Magnus Mills

The-field-of-cloth-of-gold

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I am a Magnus Mills fan, so I was naturally keen to read his latest book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, as soon as it came thudding through the door. It’s been almost four years since his last novel, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for this is another profound story characterised by Mills’ typical bare-boned prose, tongue-in-cheek humour and incisive commentary on the foibles of human beings.

A tented village

The story revolves around a large irregularly-shaped field — known as The Great Field — situated in the bend of a “broad, meandering river”.

Dotted across this lush, green field are several tents of various size, shape and description, but over time more and more tents appear as people arrive to take advantage of the beautiful views, fresh air and quietude. But as the population of this quiet backwater steadily increases, disputes over territory, views and resources arise.

When a trench is created under the guise of drainage control for the (always damp) south-east corner, it doesn’t take long for some inhabitants to realise it’s actually a wall — or a defensive rampart, depending on your point of view — designed to secure the best corner of the field for a select group: everyone else must simply move north.

If you think this sounds a little like a metaphor for Britain you’d probably be right. I read this surreal story trying to figure out its meaning — was it a fable about community? immigration? British history? — before I decided it could almost be anything you want it to be: it’s charm lies in its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It’s clever and smart and even if you don’t want to have to think about the points Mills might be making you can simply read the novel for what it is: a delightfully quirky and eccentric tale about a bunch of people living in a field and trying to get by the best they know how. I really loved it.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site — simply click on the book titles to read the review: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), The Maintenance of Headway (2009) and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (2011).