2016: The Favourites as Reading Bingo

One of my favourite bloggers is once again challenging people to play Reading Bingo and another blogging pal has already played the game. Feeling a little left out I thought I would see how many of the 25 squares I could mark off with my favourite reads of the year. As well as being a bit of fun I realised this is a sneaky way to produce a list that is legitimately much longer than the usual 10. See what I did there?

reading-bingo-small

A book with more than 500 pages

SixFourHideoYokoyama26952_fI read two of these (though I suspect some of my audio books would equate to more than 500 pages). I enjoyed C.J. Sansom’s DARK FIRE (595p) very much but I have to highlight Hideo Yokoyama’s SIX FOUR which clocks in at 604 pages. We read this for my face-to-face book club and while we all gently(?) chided the person who selected it I am glad to have read the book. There is a bit too much detail in parts but this story of a missing persons case that tortures one policeman in particular also offers a fascinating exploration of the Japanese media landscape and its office politics. Worth persevering with.

A forgotten classic

TheChimneyMurderI’m not sure if this counts. It’s definitely forgotten and old but is that enough to qualify as a classic? For me, yes. I adored E.M. Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER which was originally published in 1929 and was recently re-issued by a wonderful UK publisher that has as its aim the publication of “Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone“. I want to hug them for that alone but this book is hug-worthy too. Funny and oddly subversive for its time this one also falls into my women who rock category which should be a bingo square all of its own.

A book that became a movie

RoadRageRendellAudioI re-read Ruth Rendell’s ROAD RAGE this year. I’m not a huge fan of this series but have always had a soft spot for this one because of its environmental plot line (thereby appealing to my inner greenie). What I noticed this time is that it is amongst that rare breed of crime novel that isn’t primarily concerned with murder (there is a murder but it’s not the main focus of the story). Also I found its exploration of Inspector Wexford’s personal life, brought about because his wife Dora is amongst a small group kidnapped by environmentalists, unexpectedly touching. Must be getting soft in my old age. The book was adapted into a 3.5 hour episode of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries featuring George Baker as Wexford that first aired in the UK in 1998.

A book published this last year

tellthetruthshamethedevilI read 41 books published in 2016 and a lot of them were jolly good. I have however snuck a few into other categories so will use this opportunity to mention Melina Marchetta’s TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL which I have been pressing upon anyone in my company for longer than a nanosecond since I finished reading it. It is a proper modern thriller full of action, suspense, humour and sadness yet with enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time.

A book with a number in the title

13PointPlanForAPerfectMurderI am very happy to have read David Owen’s 13-POINT PLAN FOR THE PERFECT MURDER and not only because it allows me to mark off a particularly pesky square of my bingo card. As I wrote in my review it “is funny, fast and has a fiendishly good plot. You should read it immediately.” I was chuffed to see these words and some more of my gushing included in the praise received pages of the second David Owen novel to be published this year (it’s called ROMEO’S GUN and arrived in my post box on December 23 to prove once and for all that there is indeed a Santa).

A book written by someone under 30

ITHEJURYI may have read multiple books in this category but I don’t know it. As someone who goes out of her way not to find out much about the authors who write for my entertainment I have no bloody clue how old most of them are and I was disinclined to spend time asking Google. Especially after it told me that even Hannah Kent, whose second book THE GOOD PEOPLE I read this year and who looks so very young to me, is 31 now! Time does indeed fly. So the only way I can officially check this box on my bingo card is to use Mickey Spillane’s I, THE JURY which was published when the author was 29 (in 1947). However this is by way of a negative recommendation. Do. Not. Read. This. Book. If you see a copy in your travels do the world a favour and slip it into the nearest shredder.

A book with non-human characters

TheJumpJohnstoneNot being one for books involving talking cats or paranormal beings this category is a bit of a struggle for me. I could of course mention Ellery Adams’ delightful LETHAL LETTERS, the sixth of her novels to feature a North Carolina writing group, the murders they encounter and a standard poodle called Haviland who, though he doesn’t actually talk, manages to communicate more effectively than many who have the power of speech. But I’m going to take a bit of leeway and highlight Doug Johnstone’s THE JUMP. The bridge you can see on the cover is the most influential character in this fantastic book about finding a way back from the abyss of a child’s suicide.

A funny book

whatstrangecreaturesemily28636_fI’m a bit worried this proved a difficult square to mark off. I’ve got plenty of eligible books on my TBR (Hiassen, Brookmyre, Bateman…) but this year I seem to have been pulled towards books about grief and tragedy and other un-funny topics. However I did laugh out loud more than once when reading Emily Arsenault’s WHAT STRANGE CREATURES. As she tries to get her brother off a murder charge the book’s main character – Theresa Battle – provides a narrative of self-deprecating observations about her life that I found really engaging and quite Austen-like which sits well with the book’s title.

A book by a female author

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireSad that this category is probably hard for some readers. A good one for me though as 66 of the 103 books I read this year were by women writers. I’m highlighting Emily Maguire’s AN ISOLATED INCIDENT which I have been unable to shoe-horn into any of the other bingo squares and I have to include it in my list. It ostensibly another story of a murdered pretty girl but quickly turns subversive and is actually about the impact of the death on those left behind. Its heroine is a barmaid and amateur prostitute. She’s fabulous.

A book with a mystery

seealsomurdersweazyOfficially the easiest of squares for my to mark off my card as I read less than a dozen books that wouldn’t qualify. Blush. Larry D. Sweazy’s SEE ALSO MURDER has truly haunted me. I keep thinking of its heroine – Marjorie Trumaine – and her no nonsense way of dealing with the crappy things life throws at her (these include a paralysed husband who wants to die, her nearest neighbours being brutally murdered and the fact that wintering in North Dakota in 1964 sounds darned cold and miserable). But Marjorie is an indexer and an old-fashioned trooper (another candidate for the missing women who rock category) and the book is wonderfully melancholic without being depressing.

A book with a one-word title

hellfirefossumaudioI’ll give an honourable mention to Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE which I had a few lapsed-Catholic related issues with but overall enjoyed (especially the narration of the audio book). But I’m using this square of my bingo card to highlight Karin Fossum’s HELLFIRE. It was one of two of her books I read this year and absolutely cemented her place in my very favourite authors list. Fossum is not one for car chases and axe-wielding psychopaths. Instead she shows us the cruel tricks fate can play on us all and ponders how seemingly tiny decisions can have everlasting consequences.

A book of short stories

ruthsfirstchristmastreea18510_fOk I’m going to cheat a bit here because I don’t like short stories much (they’re so short). But on Christmas Eve I did decide to get into the seasonal spirit and read Elly Griffiths’ RUTH’S FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE which is a short story she released as a freebie for fans of her Ruth Galloway series in 2012. It was cute and had plenty of Cathbad though did leave me wanting more. Which is, of course, the problem.

Free Square

ResurrectionBayViskicThe last square to fill and in some ways the most difficult but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the first book I read in 2016: Emma Viskic’s RESURRECTION BAY. It’s short and funny and genuinely thrilling and its characters – fallible and imperfect all – are truly memorable. I am not alone in my opinion as the book won several awards this year including the Davitt Award for best adult fiction and the Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction.

A book set on a different continent

adeadlycambodiancrimespree2308_fAgain I am spoiled for choice as I read 73 books set somewhere other than Australia this year. But this square is going to Shamini Flint’s A DEADLY CAMBODIAN CRIME SPREE which sees the series’ Singaporean protagonist sent to Cambodia to observe a war crimes tribunal. It is just about my perfect crime novel. It has well developed characters, a strong sense of place and explores interesting – if at times confronting – social and historical themes without making me feel like I’m at a lecture.

A book of non-fiction

ThisHouseOfGriefGarnerH25742BDR7_fI only read one of these this year (blush) but happily it was by Helen Garner who never disappoints. THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF made me equally sad and angry in its description of yet more innocent lives lost to the immature emotions of a saddo bloke (3 children driven into a damn by their father and left to drown while he escaped) and its exposing of some failures of the legal system. At times it required the application of multiple tissues and may have resulted in a couple of real-world rants about injustice but it reminded me what a bloody treasure Garner is.

The first book by a favourite author

afewrightthinkingmenaudioI re-read Sulari Gentill’s wonderful first novel A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN when it came out in audio format this year. It was just as good as the first time around with the added bonus of a narration by Rupert Degas. I am in danger of Sulari Gentill taking out a restraining order against me because I gush at and about her so much but I do love this series about friendship and doing what’s right even when…especially when…it’s hard. While I was twitter-stalking her Sulari told me that Rupert Degas has been booked to narrate the whole series so I have many more hours of enjoyment to look forward to.

A book you heard about online

TheLightOnTheWaterOlga27963_fAustralian Women Writers Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede first brought Olga Lorenzo’s THE LIGHT ON THE WATER to my attention with this review.  It is an absolutely riveting book about a life – a seemingly ‘normal’ life – that went horribly wrong without any warning. How did former journalist and suburban mum Anne Baxter end up in a prison cell? It is beautifully written and an absorbing character study. Thanks Elizabeth.

A best-selling book

TheDryHarperAudioAccording to several lists, including this one based on sales figures from Australia’s biggest bookstore chain, Jane Harper’s debut novel THE DRY is right amongst the best sellers for the year. At least in the case of Dymocks’ list that’s not just best-selling Australian books either. For once I am in agreement with the majority opinion: it’s an absolute cracker of a read in which there are no blood-thirsty psychopaths. Only ordinary people with secrets they want to keep hidden. And, of course, there’s the weather.

A book based on a true story

SweetOnePeterDocker23590_fIn 2008 an Aboriginal elder was essentially baked to death in the back of a prison transport van in Western Australia after being picked up for drink-driving. Peter Docker’s SWEET ONE takes this horrendous truth as the basis for a riveting, imaginary tale of justifiable vengeance. For a white, city-living woman it is awkward and confronting but should be mandatory reading for all Australians. An honourable mention in this category to Jane Jago’s THE WRONG HAND which sensitively addresses the topic of children who commit unthinkable crimes. I know we’d all like to pretend such things don’t happen but that really isn’t the answer.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile

sanctumminadenise4405_fDenise Mina’s standalone novel SANCTUM had been sitting at the bottom of my TBR since 2009! It’s a standalone novel and I liked that. Also like that Mina tries different things rather than sticking with a formula. It is the story of a man discovering that his wife is not who he thought she was and I was impressed that even though I didn’t particularly like Lachlan Harriot I was gripped by the exploration of his world.

A book your friend loves

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fI don’t want to come across as some kind of crazy stalker lady (again) but I’m going to claim author and blogger Angela Savage as a friend. At least of the online variety. It was Angela’s raving about Jock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET that prompted me to go out and buy it. I then recommended it for my book club because you guys told me to. And now it’s vying for the spot at the top of my list of favourite noir novels of all time (Ken Bruen’s THE DRAMATIST has had a chokehold on that spot for years but now…). The book gets everything it tackles just right, including brothers and cricket in all its guises, and it made me feel sympathetic towards a sort of person I would otherwise sneer at (overpaid sports star who can’t control himself).

A book that scares you

runningagainstthetiedortleppAmanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is scary on two fronts. Firstly it depicts someone having to move from the city to a very small country town. I am a city girl down to my bones (it’s all about the anonymity for me). The year I spent living in semi-country New South Wales (North Richmond in the late 80’s for those playing at home) is the least favourite year of my life and the prospect of having to make a permanent move to a place everyone knows everyone genuinely terrifies me. Secondly it’s a darned good suspense novel as it depicts things going worryingly wrong for Erin Travers and her family in their new home. Ortlepp does a great job of making everyone appear potentially murderous.

A book that is more than 10 years old

AndThenThereWereNoneAgatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was first published under a less politically correct title in 1939. The book’s premise is, basically, that anyone is capable of committing murder and not just because they need to protect a loved one as might be ‘allowable’. This is one to recommend to people who dismiss Dame Christie as a writer of fluffy logic puzzles. This is about as dark as crime fiction gets.

The second book in a series

SatellitePeoplePlaying catch-up I read the second and third of Hans Olav Lahlum’s Norwegian historical mysteries this year. The second in the series is THE SATELLITE PEOPLE and it’s a treat. It is an homage to the golden age of detective fiction but with deeper characterisation than you might expect and it builds its own series characters up nicely.

A book with a blue cover

TheLongAndFarawayGoneLo27931_fThere are not as many options for this as I’d have thought but even though its cover is not entirely blue I cannot do a list of the year’s favourite reading without including Lou Berney’s THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE. A book of shared perspectives: two people attempting to deal with, or hide from as the case may be, past tragedies in their lives. Full of humour and heart.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

So in the end and with only a smidgen of rule-bending I am able to declare BINGO on 2016’s reading.

And once again reflect on the fact that I think I’d be in a padded room by now if it wasn’t for all the fabulous people – authors, narrators, translators, editors, people who empty the rubbish bins at publishing companies – who ensure I am supplied with such great reading. A heartfelt thanks to you all.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What about you? Any favourites for 2016 that you want to share? Things I should be adding to my own 2017 list? How many squares could you mark off your own Reading Bingo card?

 

 

 

 

Posted in Agatha Christie, Amanda Ortlepp (Aus), books of the year, David Owen (Aus), Denise Mina, Doug Johnstone, E.M. Channon, Elly Griffiths, Emily Arsenault, Emily Maguire (Aus), Emma Viskic (Aus), Hans Olav Lahlum, Helen Garner (Aus), Hideo Yokoyama, Jane Harper (Aus), Jock Serong (Aus), Karin Fossum, Larry D. Sweazy, Lou Berney, Melina Marchetta (Aus), Mickey Spillane, Olga Lorenzo (Aus), Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | 13 Comments

Books of the month: December 2016

For the sake of completeness a quick end-of-month post amidst the year-end ramblings

Pick of the month

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fI read 8 books and a short story during December which is right around my average monthly number for the year. There is a standout book but a couple too that in any other month might occupy the top spot. However I cannot go past Jock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET. A novel that deserves its noir categorisation for its achingly bittersweet ending alone. I am so utterly fed up with the overuse of this word but here it is truly fitting.

The rest, in reading order 

  •  Agnes Ravatn – THE BIRD TRIBUNAL (everyone but me raves about this one)
  • Margaret Millar – A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE (my second reading of a Millar novel this year thanks to Crimes of the Century and a more satisfying experience)
  • Hannah Kent – THE GOOD PEOPLE (great writing, evocative setting, too much exposition for me)
  • Jo Bannister – LIARS ALL (never got around to reviewing it, enjoyed the final instalment of the Brodie Farrell series which I had somehow completely missed when it came out 7 years ago)
  • Vanda Symon – THE FACELESS (thoroughly excellent standalone novel about people who’ve lost everything looking out for each other)
  • Jaye Ford – DARKEST PLACE (seriously scary story where everyone is a suspect)
  • David Owen – ROMEO’S GUN (delivered as if by Santa right before Christmas this is Aussie storytelling at its best)

Other ramblings & looking ahead

The year’s goals are completed, or not as the case may be.  I’ve also jotted down some thoughts about my five years of participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Other than that I’m working on my favourites list for 2016 and also have spent way too much time preparing some additional charts. Because holidays 🙂 As far as reading goes I was the chooser for January’s Crimes of the Century so will soon be embarking on 1959’s GIN AND MURDER by Josephine Pullein-Thompson, a book I procured from the excellent Greyladies press. Two of my favourite things are right there in the title so it should be a good one :).

Thanks to all who have followed, read, lurked and commented here at the blog or gotten in touch with me via email. If I haven’t responded to you please know it’s more to do with the vagaries of technology (I cannot ever seem to get my email to sync 100% between web, laptop and mobile devices) and/or absent mindedness on my part. I love hearing from you, even when you’re writing to say I was wrong about a book recommendation. Wishing you all great reading in 2017.

 

Posted in Agnes Ravatn, books of the month, David Owen (Aus), Hannah Kent (Aus), Jaye Ford (Aus), Jo Bannister, Jock Serong (Aus), Margaret Millar, Vanda Symon | 6 Comments

Five years and 96 books later (thoughts on the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

awwlogos2012-16


The Australian Women Writers Challenge was born five years ago out of a frustration that books written by women are not taken as seriously as those written by men. Not reviewed as much. Not awarded as often and so on. Rather than whine about this state of affairs Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede decided on a positive course of action: to challenge herself and others to read and review books by Australian women.

I’ve been participating as a reader & reviewer since the beginning of the Challenge and as helper responsible for things criminal for the last four years. For the past few months Elizabeth and all the members of the team that wrangles the Challenge have been discussing its future. Should it continue? If so, in what form? Do we need to shake things up? Has the Challenge had any impact? There will be more to come on some of these questions (though in case you are wondering the Challenge is definitely continuing in 2017, you can sign up now) but it feels like the right time for me to take personal stock too.

Counting

Numerically speaking my own reading habits have clearly been impacted by my participation in the Challenge. In the five years preceding this Challenge I read a total of 56 books by Australian women whereas in the first five years of the Challenge I’ve read 96 books written by Australian women. In percentage terms the difference is more stark (9% versus 19%) because I’ve read less books in total over the past five years than I did during the five years beforehand. As a chart lover of long standing I feel the need to express this distinction visually

awwreadingtotals

Spreading out

I have read and enjoyed some books I would not otherwise have looked at. Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE is one that sticks in my mind. I had ignored it because the bookshop copies all had a giant “recommended by the Australian Women’s’ Weekly” stamp on the cover and that turned me off completely. I don’t read that magazine even at the hairdresser’s and loathe gender-based marketing. But the Challenge prompted me to give it a go and I thought the book so great I went on to read everything else Wendy James has written and am eagerly awaiting her 2017 release. I’ve tried out other authors too that I would likely not have bothered with if it weren’t for the Challenge. Some of them aren’t even crime writers such as Favel Parrett, Caroline Overington and Romy Ash.

Here are links to each year’s reviews I’ve posted for the Challenge

The bigger picture

Regardless of how much richer my own reading might be thanks to the Challenge I am probably more interested in whether anything anything is different in the wider world. Alas it’s hard to know (though there is some data  analysis coming from an AWW intern so I may revisit this question).

I could choose to be buoyed by the fact that over the past five years the country’s most prestigious literary prize has been won by female authors four times (in the preceding 10 years it had only been won twice by women writers). Though of course there is no evidence of a causal link between the Challenge and this fact. The creation of the Stella Prize in 2013  cannot be ignored as a factor. Nor can coincidence.

But I could also choose to be saddened that Challenge participants are still, by and large, women. I can’t do actual percentages because I don’t know for sure the gender of all the people who sign up or post reviews. However as someone who regularly peruses all the reviews posted by participants and an administrator of the Challenge’s new Facebook group for readers I’m pretty confident in saying that more than 90% of the people taking part in this Challenge are women. Some men try and can’t do it as this brave admission by Sydney bookseller Jon Page attests to (hey at least he tried). It seems there is a long way to go in getting men to accept that women writers have as much to offer as the blokes. Sigh.

I don’t think I can sensibly comment on whether the Challenge has had an impact on the quantity or quality of reviews of works by Australian women writers in mainstream publications as I just don’t have enough data to go on. And so many other factors must surely be influencing what data there is given changes in the media landscape over recent years. Hard to publish a review in a publication that no longer exists. I do have to say that the quality of reviewing amongst challenge participants varies greatly. There is a lot of enthusiasm but as a reader looking for a way to find good books to read I generally want more than plot synopses and gushing. That said, I’ve come across some reliably good reviewers over the course of the Challenge which has helped guide my book choices. The blogs I look to for thoughtful reviews include

There are of course other people writing good reviews too but when I looked back over my bi-monthly wrap ups for the crime fiction/true crime genre these are the blogs that make multiple appearances.

Looking ahead

aww2017-badgeI’m going to keep on as a Challenge participant and co-host. I was sorely tempted to bow out on the basis that it’s not making much difference but that was a bit defeatist even for me (cynical old curmudgeon that I am). Our tireless founder is gathering new blood in the hosting team and generating enthusiasm with behind the scenes changes and I decided this is one of those cases where it’s better to whine from inside the tent than outside it. Dammit I will find a way to get men reading crime fiction by Australian women writers.

In 2017 the Challenge is going to focus on classics in interesting ways. I’ll be looking to highlight classic crime fiction by Australian women writers and my first hurdle will be to get my hands on some (I do have a couple on hand but not nearly enough). Feel free to send me recommendations.

You can participate too

Do consider signing up even if you’ve never done a reading challenge before. You don’t need to have a blog or Goodreads account and the Stella level of the Challenge only requires you to read 4 books. Easy peasy. For ideas of what to read, news and discussion about the Challenge

 

Posted in memes and challenges, random thoughts | Tagged , | 14 Comments

2016: Bookish goals in retrospect

Back in January I set some goals for my reading year and before I think about 2017’s plans I want to draw a line in the sand under this year’s goals.

Read 25 books written by Australian women writers and review at least 20 of them.

AWW2016Almost there. I ‘only’ read 22 eligible books but I did review all of them. One of the books was by a father daughter team though so technically that doesn’t qualify as a full book. I’m pretty pleased with this progress even though I didn’t quite reach my goal, not least because several of the books will be on my favourites list for the year. I’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week.

Read 6 books by new (to me) authors set in different states of the USA

Success. This was part of my long-running Reading USA Fiction Challenge and I managed to read 7 eligible books this year. With several of these ending up on my favourites list for the year I feel like this was Challenge time well spent as I’ve definitely got some new potential favourite authors on my radar (I have read more USA-set books during the year but they were ineligible for inclusion if they weren’t by a new (to me) author or were set in a state I’ve already ‘visited’).

Reduce the TBR to 100 or less (from 145)

Fail. Despite a decent reading pace for at least some of the year and a little purging of titles I know I will never read I still have 130 books in my TBR. Sigh. My problem is being attracted by new reads, whether they be library holds or the result of shopping trips. During 2016 I only read 25 books that I owned prior to the start of this year. Sigh again. Must try harder. If only people would stop writing great books and people I trust would stop recommending them to me. Just for a little while.

Buy no physical or eBooks from stores outside Australia

Almost there.

This first chart shows how I acquired all 117 books this year.

2016booksacquired

This second chart shows where all the 74 purchased books came from. I separate out the audio books because they do come from overseas but I give myself a pass for that. To date there is no local source for downloadable audio books. You can occasionally buy CDs (if you take out a small mortgage) but I no longer own anything that will play that format.

2016sourceofbookspurchased

Aside from the audio downloads I only bought 4 books from overseas and I don’t think local booksellers can be too upset with me. Three of the purchases were not available to buy in Australia (one was a Kindle-only book and two were from a UK publisher that only sells direct from their website). So I only bought one book – Zygmunt Miloszewski’s RAGE for the record – that I could have purchased here. I succumbed and bought the kindle version because it was more than $20 cheaper than I could find it locally. In other cases I would delay purchase or wait for a library copy but this was for book club so I caved.

Participate at least 6 times in the monthly Crimes of the Century reading challenge

Success. As previously detailed I participated every month (and twice in September).

Read no Girl books

Success. Near Miss (as pointed out by Angela in the comments I actually did read a book called Ghost Girls this year)

My reasons for eschewing Girl books are complicated. I have enjoyed some (Stieg Larsson’s trilogy most notably, though it must be said they were not Girl books in their original language). But more often I have not (the Gone version got thrown against the wall long before I finished and the one on the train made me very cross). But as well as being sick of publishing bandwagons and stupid hype I think the overuse of the word says quite a bit about how women and our place in the world is viewed (Literary Hub expresses this with much more intelligence than I can muster). I wondered if my year would be the poorer for ignoring such a large and popular segment of the available reading. But I’ve read some outstanding books this year despite there being no girls in sight so I don’t feel that I’ve missed out on much. I don’t know if I will continue this challenge into 2017 or not though. I do have two Girl books on my TBR that I really do want to read (Derek Miller’s THE GIRL IN GREEN and Adrian McKinty’s GUN STREET GIRL) and perhaps I missing out on some other gems. Any Girl book you think I should be looking out for?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In summary then I had three two successes, two three near misses and only one outright fail for 2016’s bookish goals. More important than numbers is the fact that three of the challenges have steered me towards finding fabulous books I might not otherwise have read which is surely the point. And I am pretty comfortable that if the bottom falls out of the local book selling industry it won’t be my fault.

Did you set any bookish goals for yourself this year? If so, how’d you do? Got any interesting bookish goals for 2017 that you’d like some company with?

Post updated 30/12 because I forgot I had read a Girl book (well a Girls book to be accurate)

Posted in books of the year | 9 Comments

Review: THE FACELESS by Vanda Symon

thefacelessBilly is a young homeless woman living on the streets of Auckland. Her favourite thing to do is create street art. Beautiful street art; Billy is no tagger. Occasionally – to fund art supplies or food – she will sell her body. It’s a means to an end and she does it on her terms.

Max is homeless too. Much older than Billy he looks out for her as well as a man who’s checked out of regular life can. In fact the unlikely pair look out for each other. Which is why Max makes a fuss – does things he really doesn’t want to do – when Billy fails to come ‘home’ – the alley where the pair sleep on flattened boxes.

Bradley is a disgruntled office worker. His boss piles on the pressure at work and his wife nags incessantly at home. One evening he’s had enough and decides to pick up a prostitute. Billy. But instead of the release he seeks he becomes embarrassed and takes all his frustrations out on Billy.

I suppose authors hate people like me. People who buy their books then forget to read them for four years. Better than not buying the book at all I suppose. But still. Shame on me for neglecting this excellent novel for so long. Although sadder and more poignant than I anticipated based on my reading of Symon’s police procedural series, this standalone novel is a cracker of a read.

What impressed me most was the way each character is so well realised. It would – I imagine – have been much easier for Symon to use stereotypes and manipulation to lead the reader into feeling a certain way about each of her three main characters. But she takes the tougher route of giving each person a range of personal qualities and allowing us to really understand how they came to be at the point in their lives where we meet them. Even though he is clearly the least sympathetic of the main characters Bradley is not the caricature of evil that psychopaths often are in less nuanced thrillers. I can’t begin to endorse the choices he makes but Symon does make me see how plausible it is for good people to turn bad and thus provides a much scarier and more sobering villain than the italics-written freaks beloved by modern publishing. I can’t help looking at my office colleagues a lot more warily just now, wondering which of them might be a Bradley in the making.

The story too is cleverly constructed. It unfolds from multiple perspectives, sometimes overlapping and providing different views of the same events, sometimes leaving tiny gaps which result in tension and doubt for the reader. This is a great technique when it works and Symon has mastered it. And this is not one of those books in which the ending is inevitable; until the very end there is uncertainty about whether there will be a satisfactory – let alone positive – resolution for anyone we meet.

In short THE FACELESS is a cracking read. It balances a decently paced story with thoughtful character development and deftly addresses some topical issues such as the experience of homelessness in our modern communities. Strongly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Penguin [2012]
ISBN 9780143567202
Length 324 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, New Zealand, Vanda Symon | 3 Comments

Review: THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent

thegoodpeoplekenthannah29009_fFair warning…this is going to be one of those confused reviews in which I try to explain why I didn’t like a book as much as (a) I wanted to and (b) almost everyone else seems to have done.

I thought Hannah Kent wrote superbly in her debut novel BURIAL RITES but if anything she has improved here. There’s less floweriness of language and thought, and if possible her descriptions are even more evocative. In a way though I suppose that skill is part of the problem: we are given a such a strong a sense of what it might have been like in 1825 living in a cold, crumbling hut in some remote Irish valley surrounded by ignorance and fear that it’s difficult to feel anything but wretched as a result. Kent has created a world in which pagan folklore and Catholicism co-exist uneasily but which between them provide the framework by which people live their daily lives. Personally I find both sets of strictures equally absurd but Kent has created a world in which these beliefs are a constant and meaningful presence for the people within it.

For me though Kent’s research is too present. I know this kind of novel relies on accurate and authentic-seeming historical details; it’s one of the main reasons I read them. But there has to be a balance between that and the advancement of story or characters. Otherwise we may as well read non-fiction. Here I don’t think the balance was achieved. There’s just too much detail of fairy lore and which herbs produce what health or spiritual outcome for me. At the same time there is precious little development of the three main characters. Widow Nóra Leahy, Nance Roche the local ‘nanny’, and Mary Clifford, a young girl Nóra hires to help her look after her grandson Micheál, do not really change at all from novel’s beginning to end. And the story didn’t have an element to draw me in and demand my attention throughout. That shouldn’t be true because at its core is a child in peril but, perhaps because the story is never his but rather that of the people around him, that drama did not engage me as it ought to have.

And I keep coming back to the fact that the book is almost nothing but unrelenting misery. It opens with the unexpected death of Martin Leahy and things go downhill from there. Martin’s widow Nóra is already grieving the death of her adult daughter earlier in the year and now she is left alone to care for four-year Micheál. The boy is unable to walk, talk or feed himself and cries and screams enough to induce madness in those around him as they suffer from a lack of sleep and lack of means to soothe him. As the book progresses Nóra becomes convinced she has care of a changeling; that her real grandson was ‘swept’ by the ‘Good People’ (or fairies) and she grows ever more desperate to reverse the procedure with the help of Nance and her increasingly bizarre (and cruel) ‘cures’. This horror plays out against a backdrop of dreary weather, subsistence living and a series of grim misfortunes that befall the community’s other residents. Again this is familiar territory for historical fiction but here the misery becomes overwhelming which does not have the be the case. Kent’s first novel BURIAL RITES is no cheerier on the surface and Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS (one of my all-time favourite novels) has an equally grim setting but those books manage to offer a tonal light and shade that is missing from THE GOOD PEOPLE.

The last quarter of the book is actually pretty decent as far as story goes because action moves to a nearby town and there is a court proceeding at which some of the elements I feel Kent was trying to tease out throughout the novel are finally laid bare. The tension between genuine knowledge and ignorant superstition being the most obvious. However this level of structure and plot development arrived a bit late to make the book entirely successful for me.

There’s no doubt that Kent is a talented writer with a gift for creating evocative settings. I did not find THE GOOD PEOPLE as engaging as I did her previous novel because the minute details of folklore and herbalism left me yawning and the characters did not speak to me in the way I like them to do. But I can certainly appreciate the skills Kent brings to the table and will happily read whatever she writes next.


AWW2016This is book 20.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Pan Macmillan [2016]
ISBN 9781743534908
Length 380 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Hannah Kent (Aus), Ireland | 9 Comments

2016 – Crimes of the Century

As a way to ensure I read some older crime books in addition to the contemporary ones I generally prefer, I set myself a personal challenge this year to participate in the Crimes of the Century meme at least 6 times. The premise is simple: a year is selected and over the month people post reviews of books they have read (and movies they have watched) published during the nominated year. I outdid myself on this one, participating in all 12 months and even reading an extra qualifying book during September.

Even though I didn’t enjoy all the books equally I did enjoy participating in the challenge overall. For me this one achieves just the right balance: it prompts me to read outside my comfort zone but doesn’t bog me down for too long in things I really have no interest in spending my leisure time doing. I particularly like it when I can track down older Australian crime novels though this is difficult and expensive.

Some random things I gleaned from this year’s reading:

  • Not all old books are classics. Mickey Spillane’s I THE JURY is just a bloody awful piece of crap; burying every copy in existence under nuclear waste in a distant desert is the only sensible way to deal with it
  • I think I might have liked Dorothy L. Sayers as a person but I’m never going to be a fan of her most famous creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. Turns out my working class, Irish/Australian roots have a stronger hold on me than I’d have imagined prior to encountering this upper-class, English pratt. He made me want to join a revolution.
  • If you can park the not-so-casual bigotry (or stop yourself from cringing at the thoughts your own ancestors most likely expressed) Arthur Upfield’s series featuring half Aboriginal, half white police inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is actually quite insightful for its time. Upfield’s settings are wonderfully evocative too and these have a timeless quality.
  • With a few exceptions (Holmes and Poirot spring to mind) I am not really a fan of the master detective who has mignons fawning all over him (a la THE RED THUMB MARK and the aforementioned Wimsey)

One of the reasons I tend to prefer more recently published novels is that it’s easier to find ones in which women are more than dead bodies, sex objects or mother figures. It has been my experience that a lot of older crime fiction wouldn’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel Test let alone have truly well-rounded female characters responsible for their own destinies. I do try to look out for books in which women have some agency of their own for this challenge though and this year’s favourite find was Ethel Mary Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER (thanks again to my blogging pal at Clothes in Books for alerting me to the existence of Greyladies Press, the niche publisher breathing new life into forgotten books by women writers). It is an utterly delightful tale about a woman who is not the little mouse she might first appear to be and will surely make my list of favourite reads for 2016.

The only downside of this challenge for me is that there are often books from the nominated year that I would like to read but they are just not available to me at a reasonable cost. The first book I looked for to read in December for example was going to cost me $63AUD for a used copy from overseas (shipping to Australia is prohibitively expensive). That’s too much pressure for any book to have to live up to. I don’t have a collection of my own older books and where I live there are not a plethora of decent second hand book stores. So I tend to rely on my library system (which has a fairly eclectic selection of older books) and those titles which have been re-issued in eBook or audio format which restricts me somewhat. But not enough to avoid participating in the challenge if it continues in 2017.

This year’s full list of ‘classics’ read for this challenge is

2016crimesofthecentury

Posted in A.E. Martin (Aus), Arthur Upfield, books of the year, Crimes of the Century, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.M. Channon, Margaret Millar, memes and challenges, Michael Gilbert, Mickey Spillane, Pat Flower (Aus), R. Austin Freeman | 15 Comments

Review: A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE by Margaret Millar

This is my second foray into the work of this Canadian/American author for the Crimes Of The Century meme. The first was in May of this year for 1957’s AN AIR THAT KILLS.

astrangerinmygraveaudioIt’s difficult to know how to talk about A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE without giving away too much of what makes it an interesting story so I’ll give the briefest plot synopsis possible. Daisy Harker, seemingly well-married and without much to fret about in life, has had a dream. In it she happens upon her own gravestone with a date of death some four years prior to the book’s present day. No one in Daisy’s life – not her mother, not her husband, not her husband’s best friend – thinks there is much to be made of the dream but Daisy becomes consumed by it. When she encounters a private investigator she hires him to help reconstruct that day in her life and determine what significance it has.

I’m not sure I completely buy this story’s premise – which is essentially that Daisy has blocked out an entire day from her personal memory (my subconscious kicked in every now and then with ‘really, just the one day?’) – but even so I was captivated by Daisy’s story. Millar reveals that what you see on the surface – Daisy’s perfect life with her perfect husband – isn’t even close to the truth. And the peeling back of the layers of betrayal she has experienced at the hands of just about everyone who should have been looking out for her makes for compelling reading. Of course they all had their reasons. They were protecting Daisy or saving her from some imagined hideous fate. Or was it all just self-interest and prejudice?

This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read but in both Millar explores the subject of childlessness. I wonder if there was something personal in the subject for her (though she did have one daughter) or if it was just an interesting subject for someone so keenly observant of the psychology of women. Here she also explores the subject of parenting more widely. In fact in a way almost all of the threads of the story are about parenting in some way and I liked the way they juxtaposed the traditionally accepted notions of ‘good parenting’ with someone brought up without parents. Stevens Pinata is the private detective Daisy engages and as the book progresses we learn that he was an abandoned baby who has no real knowledge of his heritage. Yet in many ways he is the most morally sound character in the book and this felt like Millar was making a kind of ‘up yours’ statement to the establishment. Or maybe I’m reading too much into things but either way I liked this element of the story.

Pinata is also responsible for my favourite line of the book. It occurs when he and Daisy encounter the name Camilla which Daisy assumes to be based on the camellia flower but is dismayed to find out it actually means “a little bed”.

Daisy: Oh. It doesn’t sound so pretty when you know what it means.
Pinata: That’s true of a lot of things.

Indeed. Millar – via Pinata mostly in this novel – is adept at distilling truths such as this one.

In short I liked this book a lot. It’s not really very mysterious in the traditional sense but it is full of tension because we don’t know if Daisy will learn everything she needs to, nor how she and those around her will react if she does. It’s just as easy to imagine the poor woman being hauled off in a padded jacket as what actually happens. Although it is in many ways a product of its time – some of the attitudes to women and racial minorities are wince inducing today – the book also has something of a modern sensibility in the way it explores a very domestic environment in great depth.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Jennifer Bradshaw
Publisher This edition Audible Studios 2013, Original edition 1960
ASIN B00B8CDCWM
Length 9 hours 44 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Crimes of the Century, Margaret Millar, USA | 5 Comments

Out of step on THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn

thebirdtribunalI’m quite used to having a dissenting opinion about a popular or much-praised book but in the case of THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn I seem to be a completely lonesome voice. Whether on Good Reads or Amazon or blogs I enjoy like Raven Crime Reads or This Crime Book or Crime Fiction Lover everyone is raving about this book. Yet even though it’s only 185 pages short I was bored and waiting for it to start until the very last page. When I put it down in frustration.

The premise of the book is one I struggled with from the outset. It is the present day. A young woman – Allis Hagtorn – leaves her life for mysterious reasons and goes to look after a loner living in the woods at the edges of some un-named town whose wife is away. To me what follows is a whole lot of not very much followed by a fairly predictable ending. Neither the first person point of view from the frankly pathetic Allis nor the brooding loner (Sigurd Bagge) who is too mysterious for words engaged me and there are no other characters to speak of (save for the world’s unlikeliest shop keeper).

In short, it’s not for me.

But everyone else seems to think this book is haunting, suspenseful and tense and the characters compelling. So clearly I missed something.

 

 

 

Posted in Agnes Ravatn, mini review, Norway | 10 Comments

Books of the month: November 2016

Pick of the month

givethedevilhisdueaudioI felt pretty wretched after watching the US election unfold at the beginning of the month, both because of what it might mean for the world and for the delayed grief over my mother’s death it sparked. But, as has often been the case over the last 49 or so years, it was a book that got me out of my funk. Sulari Gentill’s GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE, which I read in print the moment it was published last year, was recently released in audio format and I am in heaven. English actor Rupert Degas, currently living in Australia, gives wonderful voice to all my favourite characters. As well as being a ripping historical mystery full of great characters the book is particularly relevant to the present day. For one thing its cast of characters cross political and social circles but still manage to get on one with one another for the most part. It’s nice to imagine that kind of thing being possible. But the book also explores the rise of fascism in the 30’s and how those who could see the dangers ahead struggled to get their fears heard. There are some worrying parallels. But even so I am buoyed by reacquainting myself with Rowly Sinclair and his stalwart chums and was delighted to learn via a tweet from Sulari that Rupert Degas will be narrating all the books in the series over the coming months. Squee as my inner teenager might say.

The rest, in reading order 

  •  Margot Kinberg’s PAST TENSE (a terrific, classic-style whodunit featuring a cold case on a university campus)
  • Sulari Gentill’s THE PRODIGAL SON (because there is not a full novel in the Rowland Sinclair series being released this year Sulari and Pantera Press released a free novella which is a prequel to the first book in the series and depicts how Rowly and his best mates all met)
  • Felicity Young’s A DONATION OF MURDER (the fifth fabulous book in the historical series set in pre WWI London contains dastardly organised crime, a dead body that wakes up, police corruption and a marriage proposal)
  • Pat Flower’s VANISHING POINT (my Crimes of the Century read for November was published in 1975 and takes place inside the head of a very disturbed woman)
  • Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE (listened to this one narrated superbly by Roy McMillan and enjoyed aspects of this tale of a papal election though as a conflicted, lapsed Catholic with what Kath & Kim might call isssssues there were parts I wasn’t so fond of. Overall an enjoyable read though).

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read 19.5 and reviewed 19.5 books (the 0.5 is due to a male/female writing team)
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  7/6 [Successfully Completed]
Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 134 at end of month
Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1 this month, 4 in total this year [Failed]
Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  11/6 [Successfully Completed]
No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

So it looks like I’ll end the year with 3 successfully completed goals, 2 near misses and a pretty sad fail. Not so bad really but I’ll do a final wrap up later this month.

What about you? Did you have a great read during November? Anything good coming up for December?  Do you read seasonal books in December? Got a favourite Christmas or Hanukkah mystery to recommend?

Posted in books of the month, Felicity Young (Aus), Margot Kinberg, Pat Flower (Aus), Robert Harris, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | 2 Comments