10 books, Book lists

10 books where location is key

10-booksI’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.

But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.

Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

CrimsonPetalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.

EightMonths Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel

Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.

Forever Forever by Pete Hamill

New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

Offshore Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.

Shiralee The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland

The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.

SongsOfBlueandGold Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.

TaintedBlood Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.

ThatTheyMayFace That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

Tenderness The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Yacoubian The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

 So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, New York, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘The Gift’ by Pete Hamill


Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 153 pages; 2005.

Coming in at just over 150 pages, Pete Hamill’s The Gift is a quick-to-read novella set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. The Americans are mired in a war with Korea, and Pete, the first person narrator, is a teenage sailor on leave for the Christmas holidays. It’s a bittersweet return, for as much as he’s happy to see his family again, there are two heartaches he must deal with: the father that he feels does not love him and the girlfriend who has replaced him for another.

In typical Hamill style, the writing is eloquent and the narrative appealing, but having just read his memoir, A Drinking Life, it’s plain to see that this story is actually thinly veiled autobiography. Indeed, The Gift, originally published in 1973, was Hamill’s first novel, and he claims to have written it for his father, a man he wanted to impress in order to win his approval and love.

Taking that on board, and noting that all the characters have the same names as Hamill’s real life family — his mother Anne, his father Billy and so on — it almost feels voyeuristic to read this. It comes across as a kind of love letter to his dad, an Irish immigrant, fond of the drink and handy with his fists, which, at times, threatens to cross the line officially known as schmaltz. The twee cover of a Brooklyn brownstone adorned in Christmas lights doesn’t particularly help.

But, in short, this is a lovely heartfelt book that showcases Hamill’s ear for dialogue, his flair for nostalgia, and his uncanny ability to chart the innermost workings of the human heart with honesty and candour.

Author, Back Bay Books, Book review, memoir, Mexico, New York, Non-fiction, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘A Drinking Life’ by Pete Hamill


Non-fiction – paperback; 1st Back Bay Ed; 280 pages; 1995.

I am a sucker for memoirs, especially if they’re written by “proper writers”, whether authors or journalists. It’s not so much that these particular people lead more interesting lives than others, but they can write about them so much better than anyone else. Essentially, they use the skills of novelists and reporters to turn their life stories into highly readable and entertaining narratives.

I was particularly keen to read journalist and novelist Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life because I knew so little about the man. I suspect Americans have a better handle on him given he’s been the editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, but I only discovered him when I read his 2002 novel Forever last year. I thought that book was excellent and on an excursion to New York last November I went on a mission to track down his memoir, expecting that I’d probably have to order it online at some point. But, alas, the first store I went into — Barnes & Noble in the Time Warner Centre — had it in stock. I felt like I’d found gold at the end of the rainbow!

Needless to say, it took me almost a year to dig it out of the ever-growing To Be Read pile, but the wait was worth it.

A New Yorker’s memoir

Given the title, I had expected A Drinking Life to be a story about Hamill’s battle with booze, but that’s not really what this memoir is about. While he discusses his relationship with alcohol very frankly throughout the book, from his first taste of beer as a child to his teenage discovery that drink could let him “get rid of something”, this is not solely an alcoholic’s confessional.

It’s actually a memoir of a lifetime New Yorker, and, more crucially, reveals how a poor working-class kid from Brooklyn managed to carve out a successful writing career despite several setbacks, poor decisions and a fondness for women and drink.

At times it reminded me very much of Betty Smith’s much-loved American classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, particularly Hamill’s account of growing up in Brooklyn the oldest of seven children (his parents were Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland), but it’s also a firsthand account of what it was like to experience everything from the Great Depression (Hamill was born in 1935) to the Korean War, McCarthyism to the assassination of President Kennedy.

A forthright account

What makes this particular memoir so vivid and interesting to read, however, is Hamill’s brutal frankness and the candid nature of his writing. He never shies away from being totally honest, even if it portrays him in a bad light.

His relationship with his father is often painful to read, because he makes it clear that he loved his father, a one-legged drunk, but did not feel that his father loved him in return — he was constantly seeking approval that never came. It was only when he left school at 16, moved out of the family home and took a job as sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that he gained some measure of paternal respect. This was helped, in part, by working alongside men that knew his father and who told him tales about Billy Hamill’s strength, determination and brains.

Pity allowed me to see him as man, instead of a father who could not play the role that my childish imagination and need had assigned him. I could see him in Belfast as a boy, running streets and fields with his twin brother, trying to eat in a kitchen with a dozen other kids, listening to commands from his own father. […] In a new way Billy Hamill came alive to me, a person cobbled together from sparse facts and my imagination, and in that summer of my own defeat, I pitied him, with the glibness of a child, and felt the permanent grieving hurt in all his black silences.

Strength from drink

But despite Hamill’s vow that “I didn’t want to be like my father. I didn’t want to be a drunk”, he discovers that drinking gives him “strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true”. It is the drink that sustains him through a myriad number of changes in life direction: he studies art, has an affair with a much older nude model while dating a “nice girl” his own age, flees to Mexico City with a male friend to study painting and writing, and later returns to New York, as a fugitive, to work as a graphic designer. In 1960 he makes the dramatic switch from pictures to words, and becomes a reporter for the New York Post.

He later marries, has two children, and travels the world in pursuit of stories and good times. When his marriage breaks down, mainly because of his drinking, he decides to quit the bottle for good. It was a move that produced another dramatic turn in his life, because he met and later moved in with actress Shirley MacLaine, and developed a career writing fiction, including novels and TV scripts.

According to Hamill’s own website, A Drinking Life was on the New York Times list for 13 weeks when it was published in 1995. I’m not surprised. It’s a terrific account of a life well-lived, even if much of that life was marred by drink. You certainly don’t need to have read any of his novels to appreciate the wonderful story recounted here, but it will no doubt encourage you to seek out his other work. It’s emotional, forthright, funny and informative: what more could you ask for in a memoir?

Books of the year

My favourite reads of 2008, part 2

Books-of-the-yearYesterday I posted my list of favourite fiction reads for 2008, which basically comprised all those novels I’d read across the year to which I’d given a five-star rating.

Today’s list is a little more chaotic, whimsical and “interesting” in the sense that these are the books that have stuck in my head long after I’ve finished reading and reviewing them.

The list comprises a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and is presented here in alphabetical order by book title:

‘Digging Up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon’ by Druin Burch (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch — himself a medical doctor — describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and “rather wonderful”.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is more than just a biography of a man, it’s the history of modern medicine and how we owe so much to the surgeons who went before. I can no longer walk past any of the big London hospitals — Guys, St Thomas’ — without thinking of this remarkable book.

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1988)
From my review: ‘The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.’
Why I chose it for this list: It deals with so many big themes — is there such a thing as evil? does class structure affect our family lives? to what extent should a mother take responsibility for her child’s misbehaviour? is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them? — that you can’t help but cogitate on it long after you’ve read the last page.

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill (fiction, 2004)
From my review: ‘Forever is part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan.’
Why I chose it for this list: It’s beautifully written for a start, but I’ve yet to come across any book that presents the history of Manhattan in such a realistic, entertaining and memorable way.

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream thoughts.’
Why I chose it for this list: There’s something about the dreamlike quality of the writing that has stayed with me, but there are certain scenes from this book that still remain fresh in my mind almost nine months after having read it. A fight between the two brothers that begins as ugly fisticuffs but ends with them laughing at the absurdity of their behaviour, is just one.

‘The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left’ by Ed Husain (non-fiction, 2007)
From my review: I never got around to reviewing this book, but it’s an eye-opening account of how Islamic extremism has taken root in modern Britain. As a teenager Husain was radicalised by extreme clerics in Tower Hamlets, East London — and his parents, traditional Muslims, were powerless to do anything. He eventually saw the error of his ways and managed slowly but surely to change his poisoned mindset.
Why I chose it for this list: If we want to understand the root causes of home-grown terrorism this book provides some quite radical (and unexpected) insights. If you listen to the media in this country you’d be forgiven for thinking so many young men turn to radical Islam because they’ve been marginalised by society and want to express their anger and resentment. Husain’s argument is exactly the opposite. He, himself, came from a respectable middle-class family and wanted for nothing. This is an imminently readable book that shows how religious extremists have flourished in a society that values freedom and tolerance. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between traditional Muslims and extremists, and how a peaceful religion has been hijacked by political activists.

‘Nefertiti’ by Michelle Moran (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.’
Why I chose it for this list: Let’s face it, I don’t want you to think I only read heavy stuff all the time. This book by first time novelist Michelle Moran is simply a fun read set during an intriguing period in human history. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the trilogy, The Heretic Queen, which has been sitting in my reading queue for months now.

‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: This is another book I never got around to reviewing, but I’d describe it as a ‘book of our times’. It made me very angry and basically confirmed all my cynical beliefs about the current Bush administration and other money-hungry governments around the world which have their sights set on getting richer at any cost.
Why I chose it for this list: Because it turned my thinking on its head. It’s by no means a perfect book, and there were some elements I considered slightly far-fetched, but, for the most part the examples Klein uses to support her hypothesis are alarming. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next, especially given the current state of the world economy.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1973)
From my review:The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.’
Why I chose it for this list: This story resonated very strongly with me, probably because I’m almost the same age as the main character and know what it’s like to become invisible as you get older. There are certain scenes from this book which have stayed with me.

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan (fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is the first novel I’ve read in a long time that presents the modern world as it really is and does it in such a way that it feels almost too real. Rampant consumerism, the media out of control and the politics of fear, all dished up in one delicious book that I could not put down.

‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett (memoir, 2008)
From my review: ‘Not only does Everett lose a succession of family members under various tragic circumstances — his father of a heart attack aged just 51, his mother of lung cancer, his drug-addicted older sister of suicide and his air stewardess cousin in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 — but many of his friends and colleagues in the music business have also died before their time.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is one of those books that makes you thankful for what you have and not what you don’t have. It’s a book about survival — and for someone with a pessimistic streak as strong as mine it’s a brilliant example of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. Plus, I have rather fond memories of attending the book launch at St James’ Church in London.

Author, Back Bay Books, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill


Fiction – paperback; Back Bay Books; 613 pages; 2004.

Sometimes you pick up a book and get totally swept away by the story that you forgot all sense of time or place. So it was with this critically acclaimed novel by Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

At 613 pages I expected this hefty tome to last me a couple of weeks but I was so caught up in the life of Cormac O’Connor, an Irish immigrant who lands in New York in 1740 and remains…forever, that I raced through it in less than a week — and even then I tried to draw out the last hundred or so pages because I didn’t want it to end.

I’m not sure how to describe Forever. It’s part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations.

Over the course of some 300 years he witnesses (and sometimes partakes in) many great scenes in history, including the American Revolution and the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. During this time he also meets and falls in love with several women, learns many different trades, carries out various professions (printer, artist, journalist) and teaches himself a host of languages.

But this is no fairytale. Violence and mayhem follow Cormac throughout the ages, particularly as he is on a quest to avenge his father’s brutal murder. According to Celtic code this means he must not only seek out and kill his father’s murderer, he must also ensure that all of the murderer’s heirs are slain. (I admit that I quietly struggled with this aspect of the storyline, because it seemed too brutal for my liking — and I wanted Cormac, such a well-rounded and likeable character in so many respects, to learn that revenge does not solve anything. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing whether or not he succeeds in achieving his goal.)

What I loved most about Forever is the way in which Hamill has made New York as much a character in the book as any of the people Cormac meets. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

But the book is not just about Manhattan. To my surprise the first 124 pages are set in Ireland, so you get a brief sense of Celtic history, too.

My only quibble is that Hamill devotes much attention to the 18th and 19th centuries but then skips ahead from 1868 to 2001 in one giant leap. The great technological advances during the 20th century are mentioned only in passing, and all the best bits about New York history — the jazz era, the Great Depression, prohibition, the quest to build taller and taller buildings — are given scant regard. But, on the whole, this does not destroy the magic of this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening story.

Forever is a unique and original tale about history, humanity and the sometimes horrible things people do to each other. But it’s also a story about courage, conviction and how we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not learn from others who have gone before us. I thoroughly enjoyed it.