Historical fiction and crime fiction, books marketed for children’s and young adult audiences, novels set in holiday destinations, even a sliver of non-fiction – here is an overview of my reading for 2017.
Books for Travel
Mid-year, I travelled in the UK, and I wanted to read, in situ, books that would lodge me in that landscape. One of the novels I chose for my Northumberland sojourn was Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water. There’s a shiver of recognition when I find myself in a place I’m reading about. When Into the Water’s Lauren wants to take her son for an outing on her 32nd birthday, she chooses Craster as her destination:
It’s my favourite place in all the world … after we’ve been to the beach and the castle, we’ll go to the smokehouse and eat kippers on brown bread. Heaven.
Lauren’s right, the ‘kippers on brown bread’ are heavenly.
My travels also took me to Devon’s Jurassic Coast. On my day trip to Lyme Regis, I imagined Mary Anning trudging across the sand, her keen eyes searching out traces of life from eons past – traces that would up-end 19th-century scientific theories and theological frameworks. Tracy Chevalier brings Anning’s undervalued contribution to palaeontology magnificently to life in Remarkable Creatures.
Children’s and Young Adult Books
2017 marked an end to my focused engagement with children’s and young adult (YA) literature. I wrote my last reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Reading Time journal in April. I was delighted that my final review bundle included Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle – a beguiling fusion of word and image.
Relinquishing my connection with Reading Time and with my @OzKidsYALit Twitter account doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books published for the children’s and YA market. A chance encounter with the name ‘G. A. Henty’ (a 19th-century English author) sent me trawling through the National Library of Australia’s excellent collection of Henty’s ‘boys’ own adventure’ stories. I was particularly interested in his 1887 novel (one of nearly 100 books from Henty’s pen) titled A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. Henty never visited Australia so how did he garner his information about life in the colonies? I went some way towards answering that question in the final instalment of my three-part blog post on Henty, ‘G. A. Henty and Australia: A Final Reckoning‘.
Later in 2017, I read Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. It’s the first book in a series about 11-year-old Morrigan Crow who, facing imminent death due to an unlucky birth date, is granted a reprieve provided she accepts an uncertain future with a previously unknown patron. My reading of Nevermoor set me thinking about the moral universes created by authors of fantasy fiction. Once again, my reading spawned a blog post, ‘Nevermoor: Morality and Values in an Imagined World‘.
I ended my children’s/YA adventures for the year by joining a Twitter book discussion hosted by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. These two Brits proposed a reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. (You can follow the discussion thread here.) For those in the northern hemisphere, the discussion coincided with the winter solstice, icy winds and flurries of snow – all mirroring the seasonal setting of the book. My reading took place during a pre-Christmas heatwave in south-eastern Australia. As I read Cooper’s novel, I took notes, and jotted down comparisons with other fantasy worlds (particularly J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series). One sentence, duly copied into my notebook, remains with me still. It concerns unintended consequences when rulers quarantine the land for their own private use:
But forests are not biddable places.
Crime fiction is my unabashed escapist reading. I love assembling puzzle pieces, detecting motives, spotting subtle revelations. This year, I started Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series – two down, four to go! And Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (her second book featuring Australian Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk) took me, willingly, into the dark forests of Gippsland and the even darker jungles of corporate Melbourne.
Crime novels are often ‘easy reads’. I skate through them, carried by the pace of the narrative. But Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident did not let me off easily. The intensity (for me) in Maguire’s novel is not about solving the crime, it’s about the bedrock of culture and sex and relationships in 21st-century Australia. This book wouldn’t let me go, even though I wasn’t ‘enjoying’ it. Finally, I reached the climax; a single, convulsing stream of words. Words about men. About men who butcher girls, and men who don’t cause quite so much damage, and men to whom women go for protection, and about men who are pure and good.
But we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps, is the most unbearable thing of all.
When I’m not reading crime fiction, I’m often buried in a historical novel. The ‘Collections’ on my six-year-old Kindle reveal 30 titles listed under ‘Crime Fiction’ and 54 under ‘Historical Fiction’. (There are also two books in the ‘Too Awful to Continue Reading’ collection, but they shall remain secret.)
I’ve already mentioned Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, set in 19th-century England. Another book with an English setting is Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns, a richly evoked novel of the Pre-Raphaelite era. I was captured by the contrasting lives of the male painters and the women who succoured them. I went in search of Georgie Macdonald and Lizzie Siddal and Jane Burden. I wondered whether their painterly princes simply wanted to possess their beauty and fix it onto canvas, while the women themselves wanted to cease being objects in a man’s life and become the subjects of their own. Again, my reflections gave rise to a blog post, ‘Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns’.
A glance at my ‘2017 Books’ Pinterest board exposes a reading diet comprising mostly fiction. But the odd work of non-fiction sneaks in. I’m going to cheat a bit here because I’m including a journal among my ‘books read’.
2017 marks the end of publication, after five years and 17 issues, for EarthLines magazine. The journal, edited by Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, sprang from ‘a way of life … rooted in the natural world and in the wild’. I was fortunate to have an essay included in the first issue of EarthLines and I subscribed to the magazine throughout its life. It provided many hours of reading and pondering, and it included fine photography and original artwork. Thank you, Sharon and David, for your care, commitment and curation.
Lastly, an essay. Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading is published in a small, A6-sized booklet running to just 36 pages. It speaks of friendship and community and gifts and sharing. Macfarlane reflects, in part, on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, particularly Hyde’s proposition (in Macfarlane’s words) that ‘in the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving … Although the outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving … the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good.’
And so, my thanks to all the authors who have gifted me with their books this year. You have acted upon me ‘for the good’. Keep writing; I’ll keep reading.