Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2017

I always love this time of year. It’s not only a chance to put my feet up (and read a few extra books), it’s also when I look back over my reading year to choose the 10 books that made the biggest impression on me.

This year wasn’t a typical reading year. My day job really ate into my time, and when I did have the time, my brain was too tired to focus on reading.

Or at least that’s the impression I had until I looked back over this blog and my GoodReads account to see that I’d actually read 74 books (10 more than 2016). Interestingly, 90 per cent of those were from my TBR — in other words, books that I’d purchased myself rather than review copies supplied by publishers.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects. I read the entire shortlists for the:

(And agreed with all the winning choices, which have made my top 10 below.)

I also took part in 20 books of summer (though I only read 15) and read 10 books by Australian women writers as part of the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Unsurprisingly, my top 10 favourite reads of the year are a mix of fiction by mainly Australian, Canadian and Irish writers, and because I really delved into my TBR, there’s less reliance on new books, with several being published in the 1950s and 60s.

So here’s my list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (1961)
A cleverly plotted tale of suspense (and murder) set in Paris on Christmas Eve.

My Name is Leon

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (2016)
Bittersweet coming of age story about a mixed race boy going into foster care in the 1980s. Winner of the 2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle (2017)
A deceptive and compelling novel about a middle aged Irishman coming to terms with his past.

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Lock Elliott (1963)
Set in Great Depression era Sydney, this warm-hearted and rambunctious novel explores one family’s emotional tug-of-war over a six-year-old boy.

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (2010)
Lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower (1957)
Disturbing story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Solar Bones

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (2016)
Award-winning stream-of-consciousness novel that charts one man’s struggle to be a good father, brother, son and husband.

Beastings

Beastings by Benjamin Myers (2014)
Gothic horror story about a priest and a poacher pursuing a woman, who’s stolen a baby, across the wild and windswept landscapes of northern England.

Bellevue Square

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (2017)
This year’s Giller Prize winner (and Shadow Giller winner) begins as a psychological thriller before morphing into a mesmerising tale about medicine and mental illness.

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (2017)
This year’s Stella Prize winner asks what is art and what is its purpose, framing the story around a real-life performance art exhibition staged in New York by Marina Abramović.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2017?

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mike McCormack, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack

Solar Bones

Fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 224 pages; 2016.

On the face of it Solar Bones by Mike McCormack should not work. I can’t imagine how anyone would agree to publish a novel boiled down to two unescapable facts: the entire story is written stream of consciousness style and there’s not a single full-stop in more than 200 pages of prose.

What’s more it covers the unholy trinity of subjects polite people should never discuss at dinner parties: sex, religion and politics.

And yet there’s no denying this is a brilliant novel, a thrilling novel, a mesmerising, hypnotic novel. I read it enthralled by not only the beauty of the language, but the ways in which McCormack gets to the very heart of the extraordinary ordinariness of people’s lives, how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, and the ways in which our integrity, our moral goodness, is tested every day.

One man’s story

The book is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged man called Marcus Conway. He’s a civil engineer living in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland with his wife Mairead. They have two grown up children: Agnes, who’s making a name for herself as a performance artist, and Darragh, who’s travelling around Australia on an extended gap year.

The narrative charts Marcus’s train of thought as he stands in his kitchen listening to the Angelus bell…

      ringing out over its villages and townlands, over the fields and hills and bogs in between, six chimes of three across a minute and a half, a summons struck on the lip of the void which gathers this parish together through

all its primary and secondary roads with

all its schools and football pitches

 all its bridges and graveyards

all its shops and pubs

the builder’s yard and health clinic

the community centre

the water treatment plant and

the handball alley

the made world with

all the focal points around which a parish like this gathers itself as surely as

the world itself did at the beginning of time, through

mountains, rivers and lakes

As you can see from the above quote, the narrative reads like poetry in places, helped in part by the clever use of line breaks which helps guide the reader through the rhythm of this one-sentence novel, lending it a rather lovely musicality.

A surreal adventure through time

As we follow Marcus’s inner-most thoughts we get taken on a rather surreal adventure that includes everything from the ups and downs of raising a family to the difficulties associated with being an engineer working on important projects for which politicians take all the credit. There are poignant moments, comic episodes, angry outbursts, instances of shock, pride, awe, and the occasional wry observation.

This seamless narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, charts Marcus’s sometimes strained relationships with his children, his father, his sister and his wife. But there’s a refrain here: Marcus is constantly exploring what it is to be a good father, a good son, a good brother, a good husband. Even his career — or maybe especially his career — he is often tested by men who want to take short cuts, to flout the law, to ignore the long-term benefits in favour of the short-term.

And it is, indeed, this lack of accountability of those people in power (the novel is largely set during the boom years of the Celtic tiger) that results in the near hospitalisation of Marcus’s wife, Mairead, who succumbs to a dreadful illness caused by contamination of the local water supply. But, as the story draws to its final, shocking, conclusion, it is not Mairead that Marcus need be worried about…

Audacious and unforgettable

This is an audacious and unforgettable novel, perhaps my favourite read of 2017 so far.

Last year Solar Bones won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year. Next week, I suspect it will win a third accolade: the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

This is my 4th book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Writers' Week

Now that my Stella Prize reading is over, it’s time to shift my attention to another literary project: the Kerry Group Novel of the Year.

This is one of my favourite book prizes. It’s an annual award — worth €15,000 — for Irish fiction. Over the years it has introduced me to some brilliant reads — The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, to name but two — so I usually pay attention to it.

This year the winner will be announced at the opening ceremony of Writers’ Week at Listowel, in Kerry, Ireland on 31 May. Before then I hope to have read all five titles on the shortlist.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, including a synopsis. 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.

Inch Levels
Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty
“Patrick Jackson lies on his deathbed in Derry and recalls a family history marked by secrecy and silence, and a striking absence of conventional pieties. He remembers the death of an eight-year-old girl, whose body was found on reclaimed land called Inch Levels on the shoreline of Lough Swilly. And he is visited by his beloved but troubled sister Margaret and by his despised brother-in-law Robert, and by Sarah, his hard, unchallengeable mother. Each of them could talk about events in the past that might explain the bleakness of their relationships, but leaving things unsaid has become a way of life. Guilt and memory beat against them, as shock waves from bombs in Derry travel down the river to shake the windows of those who have escaped the city.”

My Name is Leon 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
“Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not. As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile — like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum. Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.”


The Wonder
by Emma Donoghue
“An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth — is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.”

Solar Bones
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
“Once a year, on All Souls Day, it is said that the dead may return; Solar Bones tells the story of one such visit. Set in the west of Ireland as the recession is about to strike, this novel is a portrait of one man’s experience when his world threatens to fall apart. Wry and poignant, Solar Bones is an intimate portrayal of one family, capturing how careless decisions ripple out into waves, and how our morals are challenged in small ways every day.”

Nothing on earth
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
“It is the hottest August in living memory. A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again. She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust. Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he? In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?”

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mike McCormack, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, Soho Books

‘Notes from a Coma’ by Mike McCormack

Notes-from-a-coma

Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 199 pages; 2013.

Mike McCormack’s Notes From a Coma was first published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 2005.

This newly reprinted edition by American publisher Soho Press has a cover adorned in lavish praise: “The greatest Irish novel of the decade” (Irish Times); “The next step in Irish fiction…visionary” (author David Means); and “The finest book yet from one of Ireland’s most singular contemporary writers” (author Matt Bell).

Any wonder I was itching to read it?

Irish setting

At its simplest level Notes From a Coma is the tale of JJ O’Malley, a Romanian orphan who is adopted by an Irish bachelor and raised in the west of Ireland.

JJ’s childhood is a happy one, but his life goes off the rails as a young adult when his best friend — and the closest thing he ever has to a brother — dies. Plagued by guilt and grief, JJ decides to do something radical and volunteers for a Government experiment in which prisoners are put into a deep coma and kept on a prison ship.

So, on one level this is a charming, easy-to-read tale about one boy’s life in small-town Ireland, but on another level there is a strange science fiction element to it.

Strange structure

It gets stranger. This narrative arc of JJ’s life from birth to adulthood is told by five different narrators — his adopted father, a male neighbor, his girlfriend, a government minister and a teacher — who give us a well-rounded picture of a complicated and highly intelligent person.

Each narrator is looking back on JJ’s life and each is trying to put it into some kind of context now that JJ is taking part in a daring and controversial experiment, an experiment which has made him a household name across the globe.

This story is undercut by an excessive number of footnotes, which spark off the main text and delve into all kinds of topics, including neuroscience, incarceration and communications theory. So, while you’re reading about JJ’s childhood you might suddenly be transported, via a footnote, into a philosophical exploration of how the internet has changed the way we communicate with one another.

Of course, you could choose not to read the footnotes, but they do inform the text and add an extra layer of meaning to the novel’s main story arc. And they certainly made me think about many things in a new way.

Highly original read

The big question is: did I like Notes From a Coma? It was certainly odd and I spent most of my time trying to work out whether it was literary fiction, science fiction or complete bollocks, before I decided it didn’t really matter.

I was enjoying the ride and I liked the almost clinically morbid atmosphere it evoked. Indeed, it felt very Ballardian at times (I was occasionally reminded of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise, not least because McCormack seems equally obsessed at the notion of what happens to us when the veneer of civilisation begins to slide). Yet it was written in a graceful, elegant prose style, so typical of Irish writers, that it seemed at odds with the concepts and ideas being presented.

There’s no doubt it is an audacious book, bold and daring, and pushes the limits of what fiction can do. And while it has some unusual elements, the structure of the book — specifically its clever use of footnotes — means the flow of the main narrative is not interrupted. (The structure of J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year tried something similar, but there were three narratives in his novel all vying for equal space, which made it a particularly difficult read.)

Perhaps my biggest problem with the narrative (and the reason I’ve given it three stars and not four) lies more with the fact that almost two months after having read it none of the story has stuck: to write this review I went back to my notes and reread chunks of the book. But on the whole, this experimental novel is an intriguing, highly original read. It covers big themes — politics, crime and science, to name just a few — but at its heart it is a simple story about love, redemption and acceptance.