2017 Reading

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.

Smokehouse, Craster, Northumberland. 2017.

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

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.

Historical Fiction

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.

Nevermoor – Morality and Values in an Imagined World

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia. Design by Beatriz Castro, illustration by Jim Madsen.

‘I know everything about this world’, declares Jessica Townsend in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. Which world is she talking about? The world of Wintersea and the Free State; the world inhabited by Morrigan Crow, chief protagonist in Townsend’s new fantasy series, Nevermoor.

Writers of fantasy fiction create not just characters and plots for their novels, they imagine whole new worlds. Worlds with unique geographies and climates; technologies and customs; and even, on occasion, languages. (Think of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.)

In addition to these tangible elements, fantasy authors need to envision the moral framework that governs their created world and the values that underpin it. What principles will determine issues of right and wrong, of justice, of the exercise of power? Will their world operate within the boundaries of a belief system? Will myths and stories from the imagined world’s past (or from other, known worlds) influence the present?

The Story So Far…

In Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, Jessica Townsend begins to reveal the world she has created for her debut series. Very briefly, Morrigan Crow, an eleven-year-old, cursed child, is facing imminent death—a fate that awaits all children born on Eventide. Her family is resigned to her demise, perhaps even welcoming the shedding of an awkward burden. But Morrigan is offered an alternative, albeit uncertain, future.

She departs Wintersea under the care of her newly emerged patron, Jupiter North. Jupiter, a member of the Wundrous Society, runs Nevermoor’s Deucalion Hotel in the Free State. But entry into this realm is by invitation only. To remain there, Morrigan must compete with other children for admission to the exclusive Wundrous Society. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is the nebulous figure of Ezra Squall, who (like Jupiter) vies for the role of Morrigan’s patron.

What clues does Townsend offer her readers to help them understand the moral shape of her imagined world? There are hints in the names of people and places, in the values that are affirmed, and in the exercise of power.

Names: more than meets the eye?

Authors often give clues to the true nature of their created worlds through the names they select for characters and locations. Here are three of Townsend’s choices:

Morrigan Crow: Morrigan is the story’s main character. She shares her forename with an Irish goddess (who often appeared in the form a crow) whose name means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’. In Irish mythology, Morrigan is associated with power and sovereignty. Townsend seems to be offering her readers an insight into Morrigan Crow’s true nature and prospects.

Marble head from a statue of Jupiter. British Museum.

Jupiter North: Jupiter is Morrigan’s patron. His name suggests two associations: Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, who provides protection and upholds society’s laws, and ‘north’, the direction sometimes used to indicate the moral compass-point that guides us. When Morrigan’s new patron suddenly appears in Wintersea to take her away to Nevermoor, she asks: ‘Where are we going?’ Jupiter North responds: ‘We’re going home, Morrigan Crow.’

Deucalion: Jupiter’s hotel shares its name with that of the Greek god Deucalion—the Greek equivalent of the Judeo-Christian ark-builder, Noah. In Greek mythology, Deucalion survives a great flood and is offered a second chance at life. Does the Deucalion Hotel represent a hopeful future, in a kinder world, for Morrigan? On the roof of the hotel, soon after her arrival in Nevermoor, Morrigan feels ‘expansive, bursting with a new joy’:

‘It’s a New Age … and I’m alive … This was her second chance; the beginning of a new life she never dreamed she’d have.’

Character and place names help build a picture of the world Townsend is creating, a world where power is wielded, protection offered, and futures re-made.


The Free State is renowned for ‘innovation, industry and thirst for knowledge’. Those who seek to qualify for membership of its highly selective Wundrous Society must manifest those characteristics via a series of trials that test them ‘physically and mentally’.

In the Book Trial, candidates’ honesty is tested. Morrigan proves herself worthy through her ‘sincerity, reasoning and quick thinking’. The Chase Trial requires ‘daring, tenacity and an instinct for strategy’. The Fright Trial distinguishes ‘the bold from the meek’, exposing candidates’ courage and resourcefulness. Finally, the Show Trial reveals candidates’ talents or ‘knacks’. Interestingly, Morrigan learns that knacks are not regarded as candidates’ most significant quality. Jupiter explains that children with ‘fascinating knacks’ might be knocked out in the first three trials.

‘The point is … if you are not honest, and determined, and brave, then it doesn’t matter how talented you are.’

The Wundrous Society Elders need to establish ‘what sort of person you are’ first.

Honesty, tenacity, boldness and talent are the Wundrous Society’s entry hurdles. But, as Jupiter tells Morrigan, once admitted, members must earn that privilege, ‘over and over again, for the rest of your life’. The flip side of this commitment is that the Society will ‘have your back until the day you die’. This is especially good news for Morrigan who was viewed as an encumbrance and a liability in Wintersea. In Nevermoor, membership of the Wundrous Society could afford her: ‘Family. Belonging. Friendships to last a lifetime.’


Readers of Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow are not fully apprised of Jupiter North’s motives for bringing Morrigan into Nevermoor. (There are some clues and, no doubt, more will be revealed in the second book in the series.) In any case, Jupiter North is not the only one vying for control of Morrigan’s future and her latent power. There is also Ezra Squall to consider.

Almost all fantasy worlds are underpinned by a battle between good and evil. Townsend’s world is no exception.

When Morrigan is given the chance to choose Ezra Squall as her patron, the offer is couched in these terms: if she accepts Ezra’s invitation, she will eventually become heir to the Squall Empire:

‘Every citizen, every household in the country will owe you a debt of thanks. You will be their lifeline – the provider of their warmth, power, food, entertainment.’

Morrigan is asked to envision what it would be like to be ‘so beloved. So respected and needed.’

For those acquainted with the New Testament, this offer will have a familiar ring. In accounts of the temptation of Jesus, the devil shows Jesus ‘the kingdoms of the world’, saying: ‘All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me’ (Matthew 4:8). If Morrigan aligns herself with Ezra, there is evidently much to be gained.

Ezra’s offer also echoes the power afforded by the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo offers the ring to elf queen Galadriel, she sees clearly what acceptance would mean: ‘All shall love me and despair!’ She, like the wizard Gandalf, refuses the offer.  As Gandalf puts it: ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible … Do not tempt me!’

Which side will Morrigan (and Townsend) choose? Remember Morrigan’s name means ‘Great Queen’—there will be power at her disposal, but how, and with whom, will she wield it?

Want More?

This post only scratches the surface of Nevermoor’s moral framework. The narrative mix also incorporates anxieties over border control and ‘illegals’, litigious propensities, class distinctions, and Hallowmas and Christmas celebrations. To see how these factors influence Morrigan’s world, you’ll just have to read the book yourself! (In case you’re wondering, my own Nevermoor reading experience was entirely delightful. I’m ready and eager to ‘Step Boldly’ into book two. )

Links and Sources

Design by Beatriz Castro