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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Europa Editions, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Avenue of the Giants’ by Marc Dugain

Avenue of the giants

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 340 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Howard Curtis. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants 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 books 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.

A murderer’s memoir

When the book first opens, we meet Kenner in prison. Told in the third person, it reveals that he is desperate to get his memoir published. His only visitor is Susan, a woman in her 60s, who had a lucky escape from Kenner in the past. She is submissive to him in a way partly explained by the fact she is ever so grateful he spared her life.

The story then switches to the first person and covers Kenner’s exploits from his mid-teens onwards. We soon learn that he is not your average teenager. He is 7ft 2in tall, exceptionally intelligent (his IQ is supposedly “higher than Einstein’s”) and struggles to make friends. He has depraved fantasies about women but stresses that he would never carry them out.

My fantasies were enough for me. It never occurred to me to want to sleep with a girl for real, not only because I knew it would be difficult for me to find one who’d agree to it, but because it was a matter of control. In my fantasies I controlled everything, but what might have happened in real life? Anything might have gone wrong.

He’s constantly bored, sees himself as superior to everyone else, but has “a visceral fear of violence”. And yet one day, in 1963, he picks up a shotgun and brutally shoots dead his paternal grandmother, with whom he is living, because he is sick of her controlling his life. He then shoots his grandfather because he doesn’t want him to feel sad about the loss of his wife.

Kenner then goes on the run, but he is upset that his crime — which he hoped would make him famous — has been upstaged by Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinates President Kennedy on the very same day. He gives himself up and then spends the next five years in a psychiatric hospital, where he develops an academic interest in psychiatry.

When he’s released on parole he does his best to fit back in to society and reinvents himself as a fine upstanding citizen: he becomes a quasi police “profiler” helping to track down student runaways, gets engaged to become married and re-establishes contact with this estranged mother.

But all is not well. He struggles to contain “bad thoughts” and drowns them in vast quantities of alcohol — he must drink two bottles of wine quickly before he begins to feel “normal”.  He also finds it increasingly difficult to behave civilly towards his mother — and eventually this leads to his downfall.

A betrayal of confidence

When the book returns to the third person and we discover, right near the end, why Kenner is now back in prison seeking to get his memoir published, it comes as a terrific blow to the reader. Indeed, I felt winded — and betrayed. As a reader I’d been taken into his confidence, but he had not always been truthful and the crimes he carries out are utterly repulsive and shocking.

Dugain’s portrait of Kenner is exceptionally good. Instead of taking the easy route and painting him as a monster, he shows us all the complexity of his personality: his desire to be loved and respected; his need to control people and events; the ways in which he adored women but was fearful of intimacy; his inability to let go of his own ego; his constant struggle between right and wrong; and the amazing talent he had to con and deceive.

The author is also very good at capturing the spirit of the times. Most of the novel is set in California during the 1960s counter-revolution (at the time when Ronald Reagan was governor), and Kenner is constantly “at war” with the hippies around him — he rails against their concepts of free love, drug use and communal living, which all seems rather dated now.

Unfortunately, the narrative is patchy in places — it loses momentum after those first 100 or so pages and never quite recovers — but because it’s such a deftly written account of a sociopathic character’s mindset it remains a compelling page-turner. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted: it covers some pretty gruesome, stomach-churning crimes (I often felt “dirty” reading it). But if you’re fascinated about what makes people carry out horrendous acts, then The Avenue of the Giants won’t disappoint — but it will take you to very, very dark places.