6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

Without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. Oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair regard themselves as travellers, not tourists, but for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Book lists

12 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2020

It’s that time of year again: the longlist for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, has been announced.

There are 156 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

Here are just a dozen titles, which I have reviewed on the blog over the past year or so. Note that inclusion here does not necessarily mean I recommend the book, only that I have read and reviewed it.

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

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (Ireland)
Rip-roaring and deliciously entertaining read about a writer with questionable ethics.

French exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (Canada)
Delightfully kooky story about a matriarch fallen on hard times who flees to Paris with her adult son and a talking cat.

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
Occasionally preposterous adventure tale focussed on a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Australia)
Award-winning (but poorly written) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (Australia)
Brash and gritty novel about an aboriginal family fighting to save their land from development.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Australia)
Best-selling tale based on the true story of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Japan)
An ode to remaining true to your self when the rest of the world sees you as an outsider.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Ireland)
Evocative and gently written tale of a recently bereaved man driving across the UK in a snow storm to rescue his son who has fallen ill.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
Stylish, award-winning novel that follows an on-off romance between two Millennials over the course of four years.

Lullaby

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (France)
Confronting story that centres around a rather abhorrent crime carried out by a seemingly perfect au pair.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)
A crime story with a difference narrated by an eccentric older woman who lives in a remote Polish village.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (Australia)
Engaging, fast-paced story about a teenage boy on the run across the Australian outback.

The prize shortlist will be published on 2 April 2020, and the winner will be announced on 10 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?

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Paris, Patrick deWitt, Publisher, Setting

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt

French exit
UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 256 pages; 2018.

Delightfully kooky is a good way to describe Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, French Exit, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I have previously read deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the Giller in 2011, and Undermajordomo Minor, which was longlisted in 2015. It’s fair to say that he has a penchant for the unusual and the peculiar when it comes to characters and settings, and this new one is no exception.

It’s essentially a comedy of errors — think a North American Jeeves and Wooster, except Wooster is a rich morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times and Jeeves is her loyal but hopeless son.

Canadian edition

The laugh-out-loud plot goes something like this: Frances Price, a wealthy 65-year-old widow from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has run out of money and is liquidating her estate by selling everything she possibly can to raise some cash to live on. She moves into the Four Seasons Hotel, taking her two constant companions — her 32-year-old son Malcolm and her cat, Small Frank, whom she believes houses the spirit of her late husband — with her.

To avoid scandal they decamp to Paris, France, where the trio plan to start afresh, but from the moment they set foot on the cruise ship that takes them there a series of minor disasters befall them.

Once in their new Parisian home they attract a weird menagerie of acquaintances and hangers on, including a persistent house guest they cannot shake off, but they fail to make any true friends and end up falling out amongst themselves. Small Frank even runs away.

Playful storyline

Loosely based around a series of set pieces, the book has a playful energy to it. And while nothing much really happens, it has a page turning quality because the reader wants to find out what outrageous thing Frances will do — or say — next and whether the trio will ever recover their financial standing.

It’s quite a voyeurestic read. Frances is a brilliant creation: a badly behaved woman who is an expert at droll putdowns, an eccentric sociopath who takes no responsibility for her poor decision making and feels hard done by without reason. I loved spending time in her company.

While I don’t think French Exit will win the Giller, it’s a fun, madcap read, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. While it’s a wonderful farce, it’s not without emotional depth — there’s a lot going on here about mothers and sons, fame for all the wrong reasons and maintaining dignity against the odds.

This is my 3rd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize. For another take on this novel, please see Marcie’s review at Buried in Print.

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2017

10-booksIt’s that time of year again: the longlist for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, has been announced.

There are 147 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

You may remember that last year I put together a list of books on the 2016 list, which was hugely popular, so I thought I’d do the same again this year. I’ve focused on the titles that come from the countries I like to champion on this blog: Australia, Canada and Ireland.

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

Fifteen dogs

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (Canadian)
The winner of the 2015 Giller Prize, this strange and surreal novel follows the antics of 15 dogs who, overnight, are granted the power of language and reasoning and then follows what happens to them.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Irish)
The winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize and my favourite read from last year, this book charts one man’s midlife crisis as he searches for the Irish island he bought years earlier but has never properly visited.

Spill Simmer Falter Weather

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Irish)
This beautifully written debut novel follows the up-and-down relationship, over the course of a year, between a troubled man and the viscious rescue dog he has adopted.

Under major domo minor

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (Canadian)
This is a dark, often funny, Gothic fairy tale about a young man who experiences many strange things when he begins working for the “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a remote village.

The Green Room

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Irish)
A family drama-cum-black-comedy, this prize-winning novel follows the lives of four siblings and their needy, domineering mother over the course of 25 years.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Australian)
This is an engaging story about a 13-year-old girl being brought up in the 1980s by a single mother living in a hippy commune.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Australian)
An environmental novel, or perhaps even a cli-fi one, this is a beautifully constructed tale about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in a rural village in northern New South Wales.

The Little Red Chairs

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (Irish)
War crimes, retribution and justice are the central themes of this novel, which looks at the long-lasting impact of the Siege of Sarajevo and focuses on a (fictional) war criminal who goes in to hiding in a small Irish village.

Salt Creek

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Australian)
A superb historical novel, Salt Creek tells the story of one family’s attempt to settle and tame a remote region on the South Australian coast in the mid-19th century, and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Australian)
The winner of this year’s Stella Prize, this anger-fuelled dystopian tale set in the Australian outback focuses on misogyny and sexual shaming.

The prize shortlist will be published on 11 April 2017, and the winner will be announced on 21 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?

1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

Five-fast-reviews-300pix


‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Granta, Patrick deWitt, Publisher, Setting, USA, Western

‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt

The-Sisters-Brothers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2011.

Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

It is the kind of book that could best be described as an enjoyable romp. It’s billed as a Western, but I saw it more as a road story — with guns and horses.

Set during the California gold rush of the 1850s, it is narrated by Eli Sister, one half of the Sisters brothers of the title, who makes his living as an assassin. But Eli is not your average killer for hire — he has a sensitive side, troubled by his weight, worried he’ll never find a woman to settle down with and constantly dreaming of a different life, perhaps running a trading post “just as long as everything was restful and easy and completely different from my present position in the world”.

His elder brother Charlie is more what one would imagine as a typical killer — he is ruthless, is attracted to violence and doesn’t suffer fools. But he’s also an alcoholic and his love of brandy means he spends a lot of his time on the road nursing horrendous hangovers.

At the beginning of the novel we learn that the pair have been hired by the Commodore — a mysterious man whom we never meet — to kill gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (now, that’s what I call a great character name!). The brothers are based in Oregon and Warm is supposedly in California, hence their journey on horseback to hunt down their prey. Neither of them know why they have been asked to kill Warm, but this is the least of their concerns: there is tension between them because Charlie has been hired as the “lead” and therefore will get a greater share of the fee. Eli is not pleased.

Part of the reason that the novel is so entertaining is the relationship between the two brothers. The banter and constant, often petty, arguments between them are quite hilarious, especially the way in which they wind each other up and try to push emotional buttons just to get a reaction.

‘What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel and you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling, but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s wrong, and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’

While we only ever see things from Eli’s perspective, he is a genuinely likable character, with just a few (quite serious) flaws. But what makes him so empathetic is that he recognises these flaws — “When my temper is up everything goes black and narrow for me. […] I do not regret that the man is dead but wish I had kept better hold of my emotions. The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me” — and strives always to improve himself.

He loves his brother, but wishes he wasn’t so free and easy with the drink — and his gun.

At first, his rather stilted old-fashioned voice takes some getting used to — mainly because it is free from contractions (these only appear in reported speech) — but there’s a lovely rhythm to it which makes for a refreshing change.

My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries. This scene, in which Eli gives a woman he meets a generous tip, perfectly captures the contrast between them, but also the bond that they share:

She dropped the coin into her pocket. Peering down the hall in the direction Charlie had gone she asked, ‘I don’t suppose your brother’ll be leaving me a hundred.’ ‘No, I don’t suppose he will.’ ‘You got all the romantic blood, is that it?’ ‘Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.’

But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching —  “I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all” — and later admitting that, “Sometimes I feel a helplessness”.

If there is a moral to this story it might be this: that hired killers will get what’s coming to them, eventually.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.