6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation (wild card): from ‘Academy Street’ to ‘The Dinner Guest’

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 a wild card — any book that’s been at the end of one of your previous chains — so I’ve gone back to June 2019 where I finished with a novella.

In honour of  Novellas in November, every book in my chain is a novella. The starting point is…

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello (2014)
This is a profoundly moving story about one woman’s quiet, unassuming life from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement (as a nurse) in Manhattan more than half a century later. It’s written in beautiful, pared-back language and remains one of the most emotionally potent stories I’ve ever read — of loneliness, of literature, of never quite fitting in. Another story about a woman not fitting in is…

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi (1960)
This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. A fiercely independent woman also features in…

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall (2013)
Translated from the Polish, this short novel is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer and internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it. Another story about a woman fighting for survival is…

The end we start from

‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter (2018)
Set some time in the future, this story follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. She has just given birth to her first child, so all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern. Another book that shows the world descending into chaos is…


‘High-Rise’ by J.G. Ballard (1975)
Set in an apartment block where the floor in which you live reflects your social standing, this dystopian-like novella shows what happens when petty grievances amongst the residents are allowed to escalate unchecked. The breakdown of the building’s social order is a metaphor for society as a whole when the thin veneer of civilization is allowed to slip. It’s really a book about uncomfortable truths. Another book about uncomfortable truths is…

‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra (2013)
Set in the author’s native Chile, this novella uses the devices of metafiction to explore memory, love, truth, deception, guilt, family life and political responsibility. It particularly focuses on the generation born after Pinochet came to power in 1973 and how, in young adulthood, they have had to come to terms with uncomfortable truths: that their parents were either victims or accomplices in the murderous dictatorship that lasted for 17 years. Another book dealing with the generational outfall of a deeply divisive and violent political era is…

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra (2018)
Billed as fiction, this novella is really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as the author attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born. It is an intriguing story, often deeply disturbing, about inter-generational trauma and forgetting, with a particular focus on the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children and families in the Basque Country.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a woman’s life lead quietly in 1950s Manhattan to a novella about the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children living in the Basque Country, via Egpyt, the Holocaust, dystopian London, a high-rise building, and modern-day Chile. Have you read any of these books? 

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

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mary Costello, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text

‘The River Capture’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Text; 257 pages; 2019.

Mary Costello’s The River Capture is a gently moving novel about a lonely young man who falls in love before it morphs into something else entirely: a stream of consciousness-like tale that mirrors the man’s descent into a short-lived madness.

A book of two halves

When the book opens we meet Luke O’Brien, an English teacher with specialist knowledge of James Joyce and his masterpiece Ulysses.

He has taken a leave of absence to work on a book about his favourite topic but this has been extended beyond the planned year following the death of his beloved mother. Now, living alone on the family farm, which is situated on a bend in the River Sullane in Co. Cork, he spends much of his time reading, walking the farm, ruminating about his family’s past (a string of tragic deaths in the 1940s that had long-lasting repercussions) and running errands for his elderly Aunt Ellen who lives nearby.

One day his quiet existence is disrupted with the arrival of a woman called Ruth, who has her uncle’s dog in her car. “He’s gone into a nursing home,” she explains. “I have to go back to Dublin and I can’t take him [the dog] with me.”

“I’m sorry for barging in on you like this,” she says. “They told me in SuperValu that you might want a dog. I was going to put up a notice and the woman at the till said you might be interested.”

Luke, who has a “bleeding heart for animals”, takes in the dog, partly because he is instantly attracted to Ruth. Their relationship plays out over the course of a few weeks, tentative at first because Ruth is wary of Luke’s almost immediate confession that he has had relationships with both men and women in the past (“I like to think of myself as just… sexual, not bisexual or straight or gay or any other label”), but before long the relationship becomes serious.

A demand to end the romance

Luke introduces Ruth to his Aunt Ellen, who is initially delighted that her nephew has found a companion because she truly wants him to be happy. But the day after the meeting Ellen orders an end to the relationship — “She’s bad news, Luke. Give her up.”

This demand throws Luke into a desperate tailspin. His devotion and loyalty to his aunt, and, in turn, the family name, supersedes his own happiness. (Note that I haven’t revealed Ellen’s reasoning because I don’t wish to spoil the plot.)

He breaks it off with Ruth via email and then spends an evening getting exceedingly drunk on Tempranillo and whiskey, descending into a single night of madness in which he cross-examines himself in a kind of parody of “Ithaca”, the penultimate chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To what does he now turn his attention?
To the copy of Ulysses propped open (at pages 776 and 777) on the bookstand.

 

What does the sight of Ulysses, or the mere thought of it, always provoke in him?
Evocations of home. Metaphorical home, repose of the soul. A longing for Bloom, for filial love, fellow feeling.

 

Has he read the novel, in consecutive pages, up to this point?
He has circled back and forth in a haphazard but sometimes chronological pattern. Since his first reading (haphazardly) in the second term of First Year English at UCD in 1997, during which he failed to complete the Cyclops, Oxers of the Sun and Circe episodes, he has, on many occasions, read random episodes in their entirety and certain (favoured) episodes repeatedly, chronologically, obsessively (Emmau, Ithaca and Penelope).

Not a book to rush through

The River Capture is the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for; it requires patience and a slow reading to get the most out of it. It is not a book to rush through. It is filled with metaphors and recurring themes — when the soul begins, how water moves, the restrictive nature of labels, and the influence of sexually transmitted diseases on the creative process  — and is particularly focused on love and loyalty.

There are, as you might expect, many references to Joyce and Ulysses, but I don’t think you necessarily have to know much about either to enjoy the book. I have read Ulysses so some of the references — lines and scenes and characters from the book — resonated, particularly the following line:

Why does Bloom, at thirty-eight, seem so old — old enough for Stephen to pronounce him ‘a profound ancient male’?

That’s because when I began reading The River Capture I was under the illusion that Luke was in his 50s only to discover he was 34 and just living the life of an older man.

But equally, much of the book has no direct link to Ulysses, not least the idea of the “river capture”, a geological process by which one river captures the flow of another river or drainage system. This thwarting of one stream of water could be seen to be a metaphor for Luke’s life when Ellen demands that he give up a fledgling romance, forcing him to follow a different path, as it were.

Ultimately, as much as I admired The River Capture it didn’t quite live up to my love of  Costello’s debut novel Academy Street, published in 2014, which one of the best novels I have EVER read. I hold her short story collection, The China Factory, in similar high regard. I would recommend either of those as good introductions to her work.

This is my 4th book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published in Australia last October (the receipt tucked inside reveals that the actual date of purchase was 22 October) but kept putting off reading it because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my high expectation…

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

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

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

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

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

The five shortlisted novels are:

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

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

The River Capture by Mary Costello

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

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

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

Girl by Edna O’Brien

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

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

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

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

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. 

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?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Murmur’ to ‘Academy Street’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which can only mean one thing: it’s Six Degrees of Separation time!

You can find out more about this meme via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point from which to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves (2018)

I haven’t read Murmur — about the inner life of Alan Turing which won the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize last month. This book was also joint winner of the (lesser known) 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which is for the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than five full-time employees. Another book on the longlist for that prize was…

Soviet Milk

1. ‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)
This powerful novella, translated from Latvian, explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule. It is a highly emotional read (I cried at the end) very much focused on a strained mother-daughter relationship, which is also the focus of…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

2. ‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This is the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. Another story about a woman accused of murder is…

3. ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent (2013)
This is a fictionalised account of the life and crimes of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes had been convicted for her role in the murder of two men in 1828 but had no recourse to a fair trial. Her tale is a tragic one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is also what happens to the protagonist in…

4. Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood (1997)
Did she do it or didn’t she do it? This is the question that plagues the reader throughout this extraordinary novel based on a true crime in which teenage maid Grace Marks was accused of murdering her employer and his mistress in 19th century Canada. Found guilty, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. A doctor working in the burgeoning field of psychiatry tries to secure her a pardon, but you are never quite sure of his real motives. Another novel starring a psychiatrist is…

5. ‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath (2009)
In this story we meet a psychiatrist coming to terms with the break-up of his marriage seven years earlier. He treats patients who have gone through traumatic events but seems largely unable to confront his own demons, including a problematic relationship with his own (alcoholic) mother. The story is set in Manhattan, which is also the setting for…

6. Academy Street’ by Mary Costello(2014)
This is a profoundly moving story about one woman’s quiet, unassuming life from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement (as nurse) in New York more than half a century later. I read this one when it first came out in paperback and it was my favourite read of that year, helped partly by the beautiful pared back language but also the 1950s Manhattan setting. It remains one of the most emotionally potent stories I’ve ever read — of loneliness, of literature, of never quite fitting in. I wish she’d hurry up and write another novel!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning novel about a British cryptanalyst to a story about a woman’s life lead quietly in 1950s Manhattan. Have you read any of these books? 

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Mary Costello, Publisher, Setting, short stories, TBR40

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 176 pages; 2015.

Short story collections don’t come much better than Mary Costello’s The China Factory.

First published in 2012, then reprinted in 2015, this volume contains 12 stories, each of which is richly evocative and deeply moving.

There are recurring themes  — of longing, of missed opportunities, of loneliness and guilt — all told through the eyes of ordinary people, from a teenage girl about to embark on her first summer job to a teacher on the brink of retirement.

Relationships in crisis

It’s largely peopled by long-term married couples who have settled into their individual routines and grown apart. Through Costello’s perceptive eye she is able to reveal those small life-changing moments that alter forever a couple’s relationship.

For instance, in Things I See, Annie witnesses her husband, Don, having sex with her sister, Lucy, on the kitchen worktop, but decides to never mention it because she feels she has far too much to lose. Romy, in Room in Her Head, makes a similar decision when she discovers that her husband has a son he’s never told her about.

In Insomniac, Andrew and Ann rarely talk, and Andrew, the insomniac of the title, secretly leaves the house on the nights he cannot sleep to drive around town. When he confesses that he once spent the night with a female police officer, Ann regrets ever asking him, “Tell me what you think about. Tell me what you do here at night.”

There are other stories of infidelities, both physical and psychological. For instance, in The Astral Plane an unhappy wife, E, wants more from her marriage but doesn’t quite know what that “more” might entail. When she strikes up an email correspondence with a man in New York she falls in love with him despite never having met or heard his voice.

While in Sleeping with a Stranger, a happily married school inspector takes a shine to a young teacher but keeps the relationship wholly professional. But a decade or more later, when he spots her at a conference, he takes her back to his hotel room.

Coming of age tales

But least you think all the stories are about sexual encounters, they’re not. Costello does a nice line in coming-of-age stories too.

In the lead story, a 17-year-old girl takes a summer job at a china factory sponging clay cups and her world opens up into one of gossip and petty rivalries between her all-female co-workers. When she strikes up a platonic friendship with a lonely bachelor no one much likes and later gets a promotion for being so good at her menial job, her colleagues shun her for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

And in You Fill Up My Senses a young girl growing up on a sheep farm becomes distraught when she sees the male lambs being castrated for the first time, opening up her eyes to the harsher reality of farming life.

All in all, The China Factory is a powerful collection of haunting stories, showcasing Costello’s talent for capturing the darker side of life and looking at the myriad and profound emotions that love, and the loss of love, can unleash.

This is my 2nd book for Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. It is also my 11th book for #TBR40. I bought it when it was reprinted because I’d loved her novel, Academy Street, so much — it was my book of the year in 2014 — and wanted to read more by this exceptional writer.

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prize shortlist will be published on 12 April 2016, and the winner will be announced on 9 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

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.

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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.

Soon
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.

The-tie-that-binds
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.

Us-Conductors
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.

Eyrie_UKedition
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)
C
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, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mary Costello, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello

Academy Street

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate Books; 193 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street won the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards — and it’s my book of the year, too.

It’s a debut novel but has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. Unsurprisingly, the author is an accomplished short story writer — her work has been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly and her first collection, The China Factory, was published to critical acclaim in 2012.

One woman’s life

The book 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: she’s reticent, lacks self-confidence and never really knows “what to do or how to act”.

Occasionally she thought about retiring, moving house, taking a trip back to Ireland, but she did none of these things. There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.

Throughout this short, powerful novel, we follow Tess’s ups and downs — her occasional periods of happiness, her heartbreaking disappointments, her successes, her failures — and throughout it all her forbearance and stoicism shines through.

But aside from a friendship she develops with a female neighbour, she always feels at a distance from others and is unable to create the kinds of connections she so desperately craves:

All evening long she smiled and mingled, but she felt remote. It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.

Like many lonely people she finds solace in books, and some of the most touching scenes describe her very strong feelings towards novels and literature.

Tess found a new life in books. […] The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of character — his trials, his adversity — took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. […]The things she hankered after — encounters with beauty, love, sometimes the numinous — she found in books. […] She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.

A distinctive voice

Because Academy Street condenses one woman’s life into just 193 pages, some aspects feel a little rushed or skipped over, but that’s a minor quibble.

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.

It so encapsulates the human condition — our desperate desire to fit in, to make meaningful connections with others, to feel as if we are worth something to someone — it’s easy to identify with Tess’s situation. Adrift from her own family — and her own country — her sense of isolation resonates off the page. But while it’s quite a sad story, it’s more bittersweet than depressing and is never sentimental or cloying. It’s poignant and has an undercurrent of melancholia, but is punctuated with quiet moments of joy.

Tess Lohan’s life might be quiet and understated but the impact on the reader is nothing less than devastating.