For reasons I shan’t bore you with the last half of this year has been…difficult. So much so that I have read little, blogged less and almost entirely let down my fellow Australian Women Writers challenge co-hosts by dropping that particular ball (for which I have given myself a good slap). Among my non-achievements for the year was a failure to meet my personal goal of reading and reviewing 25 books as a participant in that very challenge.
However I did manage to achieve the highest official level of the challenge (the Franklin) by reading 18 books and reviewing (or at least discussing) 13 of them. As has been the case in previous years my participation in this challenge has provided some of the year’s best reading and led to me discovering some new favourite authors. In no particular order, highlights for the year include
The absolutely fabulous THE WHISPERING WALL by Patricia Carlon. Written in 1969 (and therefore crossing over with my classic crime reading) the book is a deliciously suffocating tale of domestic suspense in which a woman who cannot move or talk overhears a murder being planned in her very own house. The book is truly timeless – it was as suspenseful today as I imagine it was when published – and has not dated. And despite her physical limitations its 61 year old protagonist is as dynamic a leading character as you could hope to find. The only depressing thing about this find is learning that Carlon was then and is still virtually ignored in her home country and many of her books have never been published here.
J.M. Peace’s A TIME TO RUN couldn’t be more different. Published this year it, mostly, takes place in the wide open spaces of Australia’s outback and its heroines are two young women. But the book shares one trait with Carlon’s in that its central characters are ordinary, credible people even if sometimes they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It depicts the story of a young woman who is kidnapped by a psychopath but, thankfully, he is not the focus here. Instead the victim and a switched-on female detective advance most of the action in this ripping yarn from a debut novelist.
Although set in France (and Russia) I included Anna Jaquiery’s THE LYING DOWN ROOM for this challenge because the author was living in Australia when the book was published. It introduces an intriguing, origami-loving detective who must investigate a complex case in which several elderly women have suffered bizarre deaths. It’s an evocative read and its protagonist, Serge Morel, was interesting enough for me to read his second adventure, DEATH IN THE RAINY SEASON, later in the year.
My year’s reading also included some outstanding installments from favourite historical crime fiction writers. All three offer that perfect balance between the fictional and real worlds, allowing almost-impossibly difficult subjects to be explored with enough distance that we don’t have to cover our eyes. All three explore subjects that remain, in some form, as realistic, and worrisome, today as they were in their time.
Sulari Gentill’s seventh novel set in 1930’s Australia and featuring artist, amateur sleuth and all-round nice guy Rowland Sinclair. My failure to review the book reflects only my own distraction from things bookish late this year, not the book’s quality. Indeed I think it is Gentill’s best book yet and I have adored all of its predecessors. Here our hero is taking part in a charity race at Sydney’s iconic Speedway when he and his friends become involved in the investigation of the death of a journalist. At the same time Rowly is still attempting to get people in power to understand the consequences – and potential danger – of the troubling scenes he witnessed in Nazi Germany (depicted in PAVING THE NEW ROAD). The story is nail-biting, the character development nuanced and the weaving together of real and imagined events is done to perfection.
Malla Nunn’s fourth novel to take place in 1950’s South Africa is also, in my opinion, her strongest to date. PRESENT DARKNESS attacks the theme at the heart of this series by drawing the reader into a world in which skin colour determines where you can live, what jobs you can get, what kind of health services you have access to, whether or not anyone in authority will give a damn when you are the victim of a crime and a myriad of other aspects of your life. It is a haunting tale and though I read it early in the year I was immediately reminded of it when the voices of the #blacklivesmatter campaign began being heard around the world a few months later.
THE INSANITY OF MURDER is Felicity Young’s fourth novel set in Edwardian England and pitting progressive-thinking female autopsy surgeon Dodi McCleland against the establishment of the day. The book explores the subject of the extraordinarily barbaric ‘treatment’ women were subjected to, not so very long ago, due to the various mental ailments they – we – were thought to have. It is, of course, a great yarn into the bargain but it did make my skin crawl to imagine a world in which women weren’t allowed to read because they are too delicate!
Part of my challenge to myself was to read outside my comfort zone a little and I definitely achieved that with Lizzy Chandler’s SNOWY RIVER MAN which was my first romance novel in a couple of decades and one I enjoyed. I wasn’t even wishing for a dead body when one was entirely possible 🙂 Tracy Ryan’s CLAUSTROPHOBIA was probably less of a stretch but it’s not my usual fare. The intense character study (which I chose because I liked the cover) was eminently readable.
My full list of reading for this year’s challenge (with links to reviews where available) is here.
All that remains is to invite you to join us all for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2016 but more about that in a few days.