Rather than a top ten or best of list for 2012 I’ve decided just to discuss the books that left a lasting impression on me for one reason or another. I feel more comfortable simply talking about the books I loved, even if some are a little imperfect. The headings are cobbled together from the annual end of year book survey (thanks Jamie of The Perpetual Page-Turner), Margot Kinberg’s thoughts on how you measure a reading year and the things I look for most when seeking great reads.
Storylines that aren’t the same old same old
When you read a lot of one genre as I do the adage that there are only seven storylines can sometimes feel true, but these tales stood out for me because they didn’t seem to me to be full of tired clichés:
- Karin Fossum’s THE CALLER has stayed with me because it is so unlike most crime fiction. In fact there’s barely a crime for the first half of the novel which depicts the fragility of the lives we build for ourselves. There is a nasty prankster at work – he pours blood on a baby in a pram, publishes an obituary for someone not yet dead and carries out similarly nasty activities and the book really dwells on how the victims of these pranks find it nearly impossible to go back to living their lives normally. It should be unbelievable that something so essentially benign could cause so much harm but Fossum does a brilliant job of depicting the fragility of happiness. For me THE CALLER is much scarier than any tale of barking mad serial killers could ever be.
- Deon Meyer’s TRACKERS is three books in one set against the backdrop of modern South Africa and it’s brilliant; never failing to keep the reader guessing and always having several layers of interest to focus on. The stories themselves – a missing person investigation, a disenfranchised woman seeking fulfilment in what turns out to be the wrong places and a body-guarding job with a difference – have common elements, an intricate plot and fantastic characters and together they comprise one of my year’s most satisfying reads.
- It’s rare for me to read multiple books by an author in a year but, having discovered her storytelling greatness relatively late in her career, I did find myself gobbling up four books by Val McDermid this year. While there wasn’t a dud in the bunch 1998’s A PLACE OF EXECUTION, which I reviewed in conjunction with its television adaptation, was the cream of this particular crop. It never fails to surprise as it tells the tale of a girl gone missing from a Peak District village in the 1960’s and the length of time it took to find out what really happened to her.
- Geoffrey McGeachin’s BLACKWATTLE CREEK starts out as a little, private story about a woman who thinks there is something odd about the funeral home that she used for her husband’s funeral and ends up uncovering a nasty but frighteningly realistic national secret. The path from one point to the other never fails to entertain and engage.
Character(s) met that I can’t forget
You meet a lot of people as you wander through life, some become instant friends:
- I fell in love with Thea Farmer, the octogenarian heroine of Virginia Duigan’s THE PRECIPICE, in April and I am still besotted. I loved Duigan’s writing and the humour of this book but I particularly love the fact that its undoubted star is an unattractive, un-grandmotherly 80-something year old woman. Stereotypes have no place in this novel, bless it.
- Jodie Garrow, protagonist of Wendy James’ excellent second novel THE MISTAKE, is another memorable character. She is treated abominably by…pretty much everyone in her world merely because she dares to dream of a better life and/or because she fails to react in what society considers to be a feminine way to the situations she finds herself in. I could not help but think that a man who behaved and thought the same way as Jodie Garrow would receive respect rather than the vilification heaped upon Jodie. A character to remind us that the headlines we read in the papers rarely offer the full story and sometimes aren’t even in the same post code as the truth of a thing.
- To be honest all the characters in Cath Staincliffe’s SPLIT SECOND made my heart ache at one point or another but the one who has lingered longest in my mind is Emma. She witnesses a teenage boy being harassed on the bus and she thinks of intervening…wants to intervene but can’t bring herself to do so, with fateful consequences. I loved the way Emma was drawn so believably and I also loved that, in the end, she does become a kind of hero. It’s not always about strapping on a gun ya know.
- In Caroline Overington’s SISTERS OF MERCY we meet Snow Delaney when she is in prison for, at that point, an unknown crime. Through a series of letters to a journalist she reveals her past and her psyche. I still don’t know if she’s evil, self-deluded, coldly calculating, merely pragmatic, disturbed or something else entirely but I do know I haven’t forgotten her or her compelling story.
Bringing history to life
I have always loved history. It was one of two major areas of study for my undergraduate degree (the other was politics) and I love reading historical non-fiction. But there’s no doubt that good fiction writers can bring the past alive in ways that those tied entirely to facts cannot. A couple of books really stood out for me on this front during 2012 were
- Honourary Aussie Adrian McKinty’s THE COLD, COLD GROUND takes us on a relatively short jump in time to Northern Ireland in 1981 where newly promoted Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy investigates the death of a low-level informant. McKinty brings the period – full of riots, fear, long-held hatreds and social tension so think you can taste it. It’s the only book I read, in two different formats this year (print and audio) and I’m itching to get my fingers on the second book in a planned trilogy which is due out this month.
- Sulari Gentill’s fourth novel to feature an Australian artist Rowland Sinclair and his friends, PAVING THE NEW ROAD, surpassed even Gentill’s normally high standards for making me feel like I’m there (and sometimes being quite grateful I’m not). This book took the characters to Germany in the early 1930’s as they were tasked with preventing an Australian politician from being able to forge alliances with the Nazis and it does a marvellous job of mixing fact with fiction to provide a realistic feeling of the turbulent, worrying period in world history.
Location, Location, Location
Once upon a time I backpacked all over the globe, these days my travel tends to be of a more virtual kind (I’m not sure I could go 4 months without a hot shower any longer) and so I love books that have a strong sense of their setting
- Julia Keller’s A KILLING IN THE HILLS is the sort of thing the local tourist bureau would want banned if its town, Acker’s Gap West Virginia, weren’t fictional as it paints a fairly grim picture of the area both physically and spiritually. There are a few things wrong with this book, notably its silly ending, but I loved it regardless. Some of the best writing I have read all year, reminding me of Adrian Hyland.
- I can’t imagine anyone who has read Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE forgetting their virtual trip to the remote Scottish island of Lewis in a hurry. We follow the story of a man returning to his childhood home where unpleasant memories lie and the book soon envelops the reader in its darkness.
- Sylvia Johnson’s WATCH OUT FOR ME evoked my Australia very strongly as it first took us back to the 1960’s and the loss of innocence a community faced after a baby goes missing in a park and then takes us to the mid 2000’s as the country lost the plot by allowing all kinds of previously unthinkable intrusions into private lives and public spaces in the name of security. And it’s a ripper of a yarn too.
- Andrew Nette’s debut novel GHOST MONEY takes an Australian private investigator to Cambodia on a missing person investigation at a time when the country was just beginning to recover from years of civil war and foreign occupation. It’s a wonderful (scary) eye opener showing the beauty and the ugliness of the place and its people. Top notch stuff.
What took me so long to read this?
These days a lot more of what I read are new releases that used to be the case but I do occasionally delve into prior years of publishing.
- Favel Parrett’s PAST THE SHALLOWS doesn’t really belong in this category as it was only published in 2011 but it’s included here partly for what it represents. I had tired of more literary fiction after many years in a book club which read an endless stream of misery lit but was prompted by the Australian Women Writers Challenge to dip my toe back into this particular pool and I am thrilled to have done so with such a brilliant book. I will admit now to picking it partly due to its diminutive size but was left wanting more…it’s gorgeously written…like poetry, tells a beautiful, sad story and has characters to make the iciest hearts melt.
- I’m very late to the Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo party but THE MAN ON THE BALCONY, the third of their 10 Martin Beck novels and released in 1967, is another outstanding instalment of this classic crime series. I am stunned that a 45 year-old novel can have the feel of something written last week in terms of its topicality and style. It wouldn’t take much to convince me these two were really from the future and travelled back in time to release these novels.
If you want to see reviews for most of the rest of the 110 books I ended up finishing this year take a peek at my 2012 reviews page.
As always my thanks and warm wishes to all the authors, editors, translators, understanding partners and myriad of others who helped ensure such a treasure trove of delight crossed my path during the reading year.