Top Reads of 2017

Looking back over the books I read in 2017, I notice that I did read quite a bit of schlock. By shlock I generally mean genre books that are written to thrill, excite, divert, transport one to an exotic, unusual or just very different environment, all for entertainment. They are the sort of book you don’t like to admit to reading such as the romance thrillers of Mary Stewart (I read two of these – The Gabrielle Hounds set in Lebanon and the novella, Wind Off the Small Isles, set in the Canary Islands) or they are children’s/YA books like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries (I gobbled down The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag).

Nevertheless, I did read some more worthy tomes, and was glad to see that out of the 37 books I read, eleven were literary, and one a classic (Middlemarch). I was surprised that I read only two crime books, six fantasy/speculative and also only two kids/YA (Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and the Flavia de Luce).

What was not surprising is that I continue to overwhelmingly read female writers – 29 out of 37, and my top books for the year are all by women. Of the male writers, my favourite book was Hisham Matar’s gentle and atmospheric Anatomy of a Disappearance. In many ways this novel about an adolescent boy who has complex feelings towards his father’s new beautiful, young wife and the guilt he feels when his father goes missing, and he and his stepmother have to search for him, reminded me in tone of one of my favourite books of the year, Susanna Moore’s wonderful My Old Sweetheart. Here the adolescent is a girl, not a boy, trying to cope with an erratic, beautiful mother and distant father on their ravishingly-described estate in Hawaii (Matar’s beautifully-described setting is a 1950s Alexandria).

Top 3 books

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This book taught me so much about Maoist China. It was told from the inside because Jung’s parents were fairly high-up Communists having joined the movement during WWII. Her parents were idealists and their lives are told with insight and poignancy. How Jung managed to put together this huge book from interviews with her family, and make it so utterly compelling, is a marvel – it goes from her grandmother’s experience the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, through her parents’ time in the rise of Communism, and the true horror of Mao, onto Jung’s own experiences as a child and young woman, until she eventually gets a chance to escape to the West. It is an epic, it is beautifully written and constructed, and it is one of those rare books that takes you convincingly into an alien culture. Amazing.

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore
One of those books that you click with. The main character, Lily, is the sensitive, conflicted adolescent that I, rather nostalgically, relate to. Everything is felt deeply, the mother is idolised, yet fatally flawed, and we know that Lily is going to be hurt. It’s a life of beauty, ennui, longing. It’s like a Katherine Mansfield short story, or the delicious, sad, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Better late than never to come to this wonderful fantasy novel set in a reimagined medieval Japan. The two main characters: Takeo and Kaede, both teenagers when it starts are wonderfully realised, and both constrained, one way or another, by the strictly codified society they live in. I fell in love with the world-weary but essentially good Lord Shigeru, as did Takeo when Shigeru rescued him from the warlord who had destroyed his village. Takeo has to learn to craft his powers, and control his impulses, while Kaede has to survive being a hostage in a rival clan’s castle. These books (Tales of Otori) are beautifully written, paced superbly, great plotting, exciting, sad, gory – just everything you want from fantasy/historical fiction.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.

One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.

The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.

Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.

The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.

As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.

I was so angry that I decided I’d better write an essay

(Excepts are from a Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen)

A lot of people think Jonathan Franzen is a pompous git but I suspect he is vilified for speaking his mind and not being afraid to shake up the received wisdoms. I loved ‘The Corrections’ and enjoyed ‘Freedom’. This article is a mea culpa for an earlier essay he wrote critical of those who (in his opinion) mislead people by suggesting we, as a global community, still had time to avert devastating climate change. I thought he had some interesting things to say about writing that I’ve collected here.

Essays are like fiction writing

‘To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?’

‘Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.’

Essays against the ‘silo’ effect

‘Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed – students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them.’

‘And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.’

Apocalypse now

‘Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming.’

(Equally substitute indigenous Australians for indigenous Americans)

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

I haven’t read Egan’s award-winning ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ (2010) but ‘The Keep’ (2006) appears to be a precursor re her interest in metafiction, the use of intertextual devices etc. The ‘hero’ here is Danny, a New York dude who arrives in an unnamed Eastern European town because a childhood friend, Howard, sent him a free airfare and he had to get out of New York for crossing some underworld types. Danny strikes out at night to find the castle that Howard is renovating, intending to turn it into a hotel. There is no light, strange undergrowth and an impenetrable wall. Danny is dragging a portable satellite dish with him because he can’t stand to be out of touch with his NY friends. Funny how this plot device is redundant now, just ten years later, such is the perils of the speed of modern technology for writers.

While the smart-talking Danny could have been irritating, he is actually quite funny, and because he’s self-deprecating we forgive him his cynicism. He does get into the castle and find Howard (who after descending to drug-addiction etc. after a childhood trauma has made a motza out of bond trading) who is a sort of Steve Jobs figure to a horde of back-packer volunteers who are doing the renovation for him. There is also a tough-guy offsider called Mick who Danny recognises as a ‘number two’ figure to the great man, because Danny, too, has played the ‘number two’ role to some ‘number one’ men as well.

Things start to get decidedly stranger from here. There is a weird pool in the castle grounds where Danny sees strange shapes move beneath the water. There is also a keep where an ancient baroness (My family have lived here for generations and you can’t get rid of me – we saw off the Tartars and we’ll see off you etc.) is holed up.

Meanwhile we meet another character, Ray, who is doing time for murder and undertaking a writing course in gaol run by Holly. Ray finds he is good at writing and it provides him with the release from his predicament he craves (his cell-mate gets his release by listening to messages from a ‘radio’ he’s made out of a cardboard box). It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ray is actually writing the story about Danny and the castle. His fellow prisoners in the writing class ask newbie questions like: ‘Did this happen to you Ray?’, ‘You’re Danny aren’t you?’, ‘I don’t believe you could make this seem so real if it didn’t happen to you’ etc. As well as writing, Ray is falling for the teacher, Holly.

As the story progresses we find out that Danny has played a part in the childhood trauma suffered by Howard, and he (Danny) begins to suspect that Howard has brought him to the castle to wreak some form of revenge. Danny experiences a number of mishaps that may or may not be affecting his mind – with a supreme effort he manages to escape to the nearby town. Waiting around he buys an antique map of the castle, and when he can’t get out of the town and goes back to the castle, Howard thinks he’s a hero for finding the map that shows some ‘missing links’, i.e. tunnels that thread beneath the castle. These tunnels play a part in the denouement which neatly connects Danny, Ray, Howard and Mick.

Egan runs a fine line, messing with the readers’ sense of suspended disbelief, but it is so much fun, and Danny turns out to be such an endearing character, that she gets away with it.

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

Two hybrid novels

A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson

‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ is a hybrid novel – part dystopian thriller, part crime novel. Ex-journalist Stevie is working as a presenter on a TV shopping channel in London when an epidemic of illness strikes, peoa lovely wayple call it ‘the sweats’. Like a flu outbreak, no one thinks much of it until people start dying, quickly. Stevie is initially oblivious and waits in a bar for her new boyfriend to turn up, when he doesn’t she goes to his flat and finds him dead. Maybe its natural causes but she succumbs herself to the sweats before she think much about it. When she recovers (one of the few, it transpires, who do) she finds a letter to her from her boyfriend, a successful paediatrician, asking her to deliver a laptop to another doctor at the hospital where he worked, and to trust no one. As she tries to carry out this request, she has to navigate a London slowly shutting down as more and more people die. To make matters worse, it looks like someone is prepared to bash her, or worse, to get their hands on the laptop.

Stevie does all the normal things a crime character has to, interview people, follow up leads, outwit the masked man following her, piece together the puzzle that goes deep into clinical trials and corporate greed, amid a populous getting more and more desperate. I liked the way that the pandemic starts slowly and societal structures work for a while, and some people (including Stevie) try to carry on as normal for as long as possible. The detail is all there: choked hospitals, eerily quiet roads as people are instructed to stay home, outbreaks of vigilantism and random violence. Stevie is tough but aware of her own vulnerabilities, and the brief relationship she has with a computer hacker who helps her is a welcome respite against the horrors all around.

The hybrid nature of ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ reminded me of another novel I’ve read recently: Jane Rawson’s ‘From the Wreck’. This is an amalgam of Australia historical fiction (it is set in SA in the 1860s) and science fiction. You might think ‘steampunk’ but the novel is a far cry from that. It is really a thoughtful exploration of loneliness and being ‘other’. The novel centres around George, a steward on a ship that is wrecked off the coast of South Australia. While theFrom-the-Wreck_cover survivors are slowly dying of starvation, a strange woman appears among them – she may or may not be Bridget Ledwith, one of the passengers. George and this woman are the only survivors but the woman disappears soon after they are rescued.

George is forever after affected by the strange things that happened to him on the wreck. Meanwhile a sea-dwelling being from another world has seized upon him as their first contact with a human. The creature is desperately alone: ‘They are gone home and I am here and I am a million years too late’. To stay near George, the being fuses with George’s son Henry who develops a precocious interest in arcane (mostly natural history) knowledge. Another character Beatrice Gallwey, hard-drinking and tough, moves next door and we think she may be worthy foil for our extra-terrestrial. The interaction, and self-interest, of these four characters plays out to an ending that was, for me, unresolved. Rawson set herself a massive task to get these strands to work together; I enjoyed the parts: the other-worldliness of the creature, Rawson’s depiction of the rambunctious George who is alternately self-assured and terrified, her lovely portrait of young Henry who is at once enhanced and used by the creature, and the self-contained and cold Bea who pleases herself (below the radar) in a conventional society. Mixing these strands together didn’t quite work for me but it was interesting to go along with the ride wondering where this strange story was heading to next.