Friday, 9 January 2015

Books I read in 2014

This year you'll find my top three reads at the end.  Suspense!  Again, I made a note of whether my books, 25 in total, were from the library, borrowed, purchased new or given to me for review purposes. An unsurprising 12 were library books, but I also purchased 9 new or second-hand books, an outlay of around $AUS180, in an effort to support other writers. Regrettably, I read a total of 0 books that were published prior to 2000. Tsk tsk. I will have to make up for this in 2015. 

Jasper Jones (2009)    Craig Silvey (Purchased second-hand)

I’d been wanting to read JJ for some time—expecting to be starry-eyed—and, regretfully, was disappointed. The positives are that I liked the well-thought out premise.  I liked Jeffrey Wu (he has some of the best lines) and Eliza, and Jasper Jones, and Jasper Jones is a good, catchy title. However, I was bothered by the women in the story; they are mostly terrible mothers, but the thing that bugged me most was the voice of the protagonist. I understood that he was precocious and intelligent and well-read but, like him, I was a teenager during the Vietnam War, from a small town, and his voice was just not believable—I kept hearing the author’s voice feeding him lines. And then there was the alliteration and assonance, a whole separate issue. I was prepared to let the first couple slide, but after a while they became so irritating, and ruined the story for me. The cover is attractive but the main character has glasses and this boy does not, and if he is meant to be Jasper Jones, that doesn’t work either. Go figure.

Lambs of God  (1997)     Marele Day (Borrowed)
A wonderful book. Beautifully written and imagined. Clever. Intense and sensual. Sexual. And funny. What more could you ask for?  One reason it isn't one of my top three is because it took me a little while to get into. I wasn’t immediately hooked. I think the story wasn’t started at the best place.  The other reason was belief, and I’m not talking about religion. There were some places where things were taken a little too far. But the writer has a wonderful way with language. Here’s an example:  Things happened to seeds in the ground. They would stay the same for a while then by and by something would break out. A tiny baby, yawning and stretching its body.
The nuns communicate mostly by single words: “Game?” “Play” and I found that so well done. The cover's great.

A Novel in a Year (2007)      Louise Doughty (Library)
Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t read this from cover to cover.  I skipped large bits I was familiar with, and skipped the bits where I thought, Uh-uh, that’s not how I write.  But on the whole I’d say it’s a great book for someone who’s never written a novel before.  Or for someone who has writer’s block—because there are exercises to do which will help. The cover is totally uninspiring.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)    Robert Galbraith (Library)

This was well-written and interesting—and you’d expect no less from J K Rowling. The characters are well-drawn and our private detective carries his fair share of baggage. The dialogue and plot are good, but here’s the thing: there’s nothing out of the ordinary or profoundly moving about  it.  I don’t often read crime, and I enjoyed this, but I imagine that regular crime-readers will be bored. Staid is the word that comes to mind.  The cover is attractive, but could have been so much better. 

When Mr Dog Bites (2014)         Brian Conaghan (Library) 
Does for Tourette’s Syndrome what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time did for Asperger’s.”
I am a big fan of Curious Incident, so when I saw this quote I knew I had to read WMDB. (Both books have “dog” in their titles.)  Other similarities between the books are that the protagonists are both boys being raised by single parents in the UK, and it would be fair to say both are coming of age books, but that’s where it ends. For one thing, Dylan Mint, the protagonist of WMDB is a lot older than the protagonist of Curious Incident, and that therefore the things he gets up to are a lot different. Tourette’s, the neurological syndrome that involves involuntary tics and swearing,  is not as well known or understood as Asperger’s, so WMDB is an interesting and illuminating  read from that point of view. It’s also surprisingly funny. And sad.  And heart-warmingly original. The cover is probably good because I don’t have a better idea.

Letter to George Clooney (2013)   Debra Adelaide (Given new for review purposes)

On the whole I was not impressed with this collection of short stories, given how much I enjoyed the writer’s The Household Guide To Dying. There was a sameness to them that rendered them pallid and boring. A couple of stories stood out like shooting stars in a night sky, but two swallows do not make a summer.  I was puzzled for another reason: the book was on the Stella Prize’s long list. Go figure. Love the cover.  

Eyrie (2013)   Tim Winton (Library)

This is another Tim Winton success, although having said that I notice a number of critics on who disagree. So this may be a Winton book that polarises readers, a la Cloudstreet. Eyrie is more of a fascinating than an enjoyable read. A statement, I think, on the way we live now, and the condition of society. Not pleasant to behold, or to read about. Doris, mother of Tom Keely, deserves special mention. As does the character of the boy on the cover, which, incidentally, is breathtaking. 

The Night Guest (2013)    Fiona McFarlane (Library)

This tale was slow to engage me, partly due to its passiveness and to useless sentences like “Ruth was happy and clumsy after her bath”. Then it took off. It might have been when I thought to myself why do we have a Richard Porter in a story about a tiger; what is the author trying to tell me? (See Life of Pi by Yann Martel: the tiger is called Richard Parker.)  An empathetic story about old age and trust, with some magic realism thrown in. A worthy contender for the Stella Prize.

The cover is a little too modern for my taste, but I do appreciate its colourfulness. 

The Visitors (2014)    Rebecca Mascull (Library)

Reviewing a book, it is sometimes hard to find the words to adequately express an opinion. The Visitors is one of those narratives, perhaps because there are one too many themes jostling for space. The story is a coming-of-age one, about a little deaf-blind girl in England in the late 1800s, but it takes a turn about halfway and we find ourselves in South Africa, embroiled in the Boer War. It’s true the author’s voice is confident and assured, that I was moved to tears on more than one occasion, captivated almost all the time, interested and compelled to keep reading – and as a debut novel these traits are all the more remarkable - but it might be that the number of themes (disability, friendship, love, ghosts, adventure and war) impeded the story from reaching the heights and depths it might otherwise have done. The cover is abysmally boring, flat and dull. An injustice to the novel. What were they thinking?

A History of Silence (2013)   Lloyd Jones (Purchased new)

If you’re looking for a book to read quickly this is not it. This is a rambling tale, to be dipped into every few days and savoured. In the hands of a lesser talent, this might have been a book where I didn’t progress beyond the first few pages but Lloyd Jones writes beautifully. He drifts effortlessly from one thing to another - instability being a theme.  I have lived in Wellington and I loved the naming of the streets and landmarks; I felt at home.  But I did forget from time to time who was related to who and why, particularly since the names of some family members are similar – May, Maud, Maggie. A family tree would have been useful reference. The cover’s great: mysterious and dark - more themes. 

Shadow Mountain : A Memoir of Wolves, a woman, and the Wild (2004)         Renée Askins (Library)

This was a fascinating read.  Well-written, sad, and touching. I remember crying more than once. I probably loved it because I love nature and dogs and I love the thought of wolves. (I do not know a wolf, so regrettably I can’t say I love wolves as if I had one in my backyard.)  Occasionally, the author got bogged down in details about conferences, which I skimmed. The cover is stunning.


The Maze Runner (2009)    James Dashner (Library)
This is marketed as Young Adult Fiction, but adults will find it enthralling. Dystopian totally engaging, it has an plot/premise that blew me away...But I couldn't ignore the bad writing. Plenty of reviewers before me have pointed this out. It's clunky and wordy. Young adult readers deserve better. Having said that, Dashner is a talent to watch. He can only get better. Good, that. Love the cover. And the title.

The Rosie Project (2013)    Graeme Simsion (Library)
So much has been said about The Rosie Project I don’t feel I can add anything new. I will just say that, for me, the standout feature was the voice.  The cover may be bright, but it's bland. 

Lost and Found (2014)   Brooke Davis (Purchased new)

This is a quirky, delightful book. I admit I struggled to get into it—I’m not accustomed to the style, which has been described as Roald Dahl’ish (and which says something about me, I suppose)—but once I was in, like Karl the Touch Typist, I was in love. I was lucky enough to be at the Brisbane launch of Lost & Found, and what struck me is how similar Brooke Davis is to her narrative—she’s natural and generous and warm-hearted and, yes, a little quirky herself.  And very composed for someone who bears the weight of grief on her young shoulders.  The standout feature? For me, it’s her love for elderly people shining through the narrative.  The cover? I wasn’t so sure about it to start with, but having read the book, it’s perfect. 

What I talk about when I talk about Running (2008)   
Haruki Murakami (Library)
I’ve only read one other Murakami book, Norwegian Wood, and was not prepared for being captivated by a memoir about running.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a runner and can empathise. Perhaps it’s because Murakami compares marathon running to writing a novel, and I know what that’s like too. They both require talent, focus and endurance, he says, and I couldn’t agree more. Murakami writes in an easy, relaxed way and reading this book every night in bed was like spending some time with a friend, a friend who was telling me all sorts of interesting things about himself and about running and just a little about writing. He says he’s not an easy person to get along with, or to like, but I have to disagree. And now that I am finished WITAWITAR I am inclined to want to read more of his work. And isn’t that what the aim of a novelist is? The cover is bland but very Japanese in its starkness. 

Nest (2014)   Inga Simpson (Purchased new and signed by the author!)
There have been some wonderful reviews of Inga Simpson’s latest novel so, sigh, I think it’s just me. I did not enjoy this nearly as much as Mr Wigg. It felt like much of this had already been said in that novel. The cover has grown on me.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)    Eimear McBride (Purchased new)

I picked this up in a bookstore to read on a long international flight home.  It is interesting and different and the writing is something else, and I enjoyed these things about it.  However—there always has to be an however to ruin things, doesn’t there?—the plot was so cheerless and depressing that by the time I was halfway through I was ready to rip open the door and spring out of the plane mid-flight. Anything to get away from the dismal dreariness dragging me down, down, down. You get the idea? I like the cover. It is deceptive enough to give the reader no clue what he or she is in for.  

Incendiary (2005)    Chris Cleave (Borrowed)
I began reading this on the recommendation of a friend who said she’d loved it. The first couple of chapters were fascinating, and then I began to tire of the narrator’s voice and her constant need to tell you how much she was suffering, and her bad grammar.  And while I understand the bad grammar was part of her voice, it was still annoying.  The entire novel is a letter to Osama Bin Laden, but I found the occasional Dear Osama irritating, pulling me out of the story and reminding me that I was reading a letter. I am afraid I did not really finish it, not in the true sense of the word.  The cover is dead boring, no pun intended. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)    Richard Flanagan (Purchased new)

My father was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and one of the first officers to arrive at Changi Prison, Singapore, to free POWs.  He would have been nineteen at the time. This book has helped me to understand him a little bit better.  It was not an enjoyable read, but I am glad I have read it. Lest we forget. The cover is colourful and sets the book apart, but I don’t get its relevance. 

Night Train to Lisbon (2004)    Pascal Mercier (Purchased second-hand)

I bought this because I saw the movie with Jeremy Irons, and loved it.  However, and alas, alack, I did not feel the same way about the book.  It started off promisingly but got bogged down in detail and incidents that failed to engage my attention.  Like Incendiary, I skipped and skimmed through to the end, but I couldn’t tell you what happened.  Unlike Incendiary, however, the cover is really lovely.Eye-catching and enticing.

My Top Reads for 2014.  Surprise! I have five. They are:

Gap (2014)    Rebecca Jessen (Purchased new and signed by the author!)

Wonderful debut verse novel from a young and powerful voice.  I forced myself to read Gap slowly and over two days, savouring the words. The things I loved (and there were many) were the glimpses of the ‘Gabba neighbourhood, the unresolved ending, the author’s voice shining through, the sparseness of the prose, and the cover.

All the Birds, Singing (2013)   Evie Wyld (Library)

I read somewhere that this was an impressive read and I wasn’t disappointed.  Two stories are told in turn, one from the narrator’s early life and one from her life now.  The twist is that the early life is told backwards, which is quite a feat, and one which the author manages to hold together. The other thing that’s obvious is a feel for the ugly things in life, and a talent for describing them without flinching.  The descriptions of Australia, and of the bleak cold place where the narrator breeds sheep in England, are lyrical and beautiful. This book was on the long list for the Stella Prize. In my opinion, it should have made the short list. The cover is beautiful. Haunting. 

Boy, Lost (2013)   Kristina Olsson (Given new for review purposes)

Kristina Olsson was one of my tutors at QUT for much of 2011. Occasionally, she shared the heartache she was going through in writing this memoir, and that heartache is crystal clear in the writing. A beautifully crafted memoir of what must have been an emotionally distressing and difficult tale to tell when the author is so close to it all. Olsson says as much:

“The only safe way in was as a journalist, objective, writing in
the third person. I’d been doing that for years. But outcomes in writing are never neat or predictable, I should have known that.”
Boy, Lost is worthy of every prize that comes its way, and there should be many.  The cover is stunning, haunting (that word again), but doesn’t do justice to the story’s overreaching and aching sadness. 

The Sea (2005)  John Banville (Purchased second-hand)
This is not a book that you read hurriedly. For one thing it’s not written hurriedly. It is languid and it languishes. For another, it is strewn with pearls. It is also, of course, a Booker prize winner. When I was about halfway through I couldn’t see why—I felt Ancient Light had been so much more wonderful—but shortly after that the light went on and there was nothing ancient about it. There are too many luminous things about The Sea to attempt to review here but, for me, the language is a standout. Banville likes to scour the dictionary for words you’ve not heard of, but he also constructs sentences which are like poetry. Consider this: “I…went softly past the silent and unseeing house and walked down Station Road in the polished pewter light of the emptied afternoon.”  The twist at the end made me gasp. I did not see that coming. But I think that is also the way I read—I go along for the journey, I never think about the destination.  The cover is okay, but could have been so much better. (I said that about some other book as well. Come on, cover designers, lift your game!)

The Dog Stars (2012)   Peter Heller (Library)

I'm not going to add a long review to the vast numbers of reviews already posted by others. I'm just quietly giving this book five stars. It is life-affirming. Different. I laughed, and I wept. I also went out and bought my own copy, so I can dip into it again. And again. Hello Peter Heller, I think I love you. The image alongside doesn't really do justice to the cover, which is beautiful.



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