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.

Using Your Personal Baggage to Dress a Book (Or, One Way to Read ‘Good Omens’)

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


We read a review. We browse the shelves in a library or bookstore. We scroll through the ‘recommended for you’ options from an online bookseller. We choose a book. We begin reading.

But this is not really the beginning at all. We readers, just like the authors of the books we choose, bring with us an accumulation of literary and other cultural ‘baggage’. Think of the book’s words and sentences as a fully functioning, but lightly clad, human form. In our baggage, we carry the means to clothe it further.

The Bare Form

I entertained this ‘clothing’ idea recently when reading Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The novel’s premise is clear from the start: the Apocalypse is looming, the date is set, plans are in place. The Four Horsepersons know exactly what they need to do. All that remains is for Aziraphale (‘an angel, and part-time rare-book dealer’) and Crowley (‘an angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards’) to follow their instructions. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything, actually. And it does. (Well, it probably does. It all depends on your understanding of the ‘ineffable plan’.)


The Omen (1976) 20th Century Fox

It is entirely possible to read Good Omens – and to essentially comprehend its meaning – without any specific knowledge of the 1976 film The Omen (or the 2006 re-make), without a working knowledge of the biblical creation stories or the imagery employed by John of Patmos; it all makes sense even if you don’t instantly start humming along when you read the words ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man’ or ‘I should be so lucky’. You can skim right past a reference to ‘666 Fifth Avenue’ and ‘Tadfield Six double-six’ and not have alarm bells ring; you can gloss over ‘Brother Slug’ and ‘Sister Potato Weevil’ and not be reminded of the troubadour saint from Assisi. But, if you do, you’ll miss much of the elaborate humour woven through Pratchett and Gaiman’s collaboration.

The ‘Foundation’ Garments

What to do? If you’ve received a tip-off from someone who has already read Good Omens, you will probably have come to your reading of the book well prepared. If you hadn’t already seen The Omen, you will have found a basic plot outline and perhaps watched a few YouTube clips of pivotal scenes. You’ll have reached for a Bible (in hard copy or in myriad places online) and worked out what’s going on in the books of Genesis and Revelation. (Good luck with the latter – there’s many a Christian theologian who’d like to hear from you if you figure that one out.) And you’ll have tracked down Queen’s discography and familiarised yourself with their most famous lyrics.

The Outer Layers

You’re now ready to start a more informed reading experience because you’ve added some useful undergarments to your scantily clad book. But what if you really want to dress it up? Pratchett and Gaiman provide a monster wardrobe, enough to satisfy the pickiest fashionista-reader. (Remember, it’s both authors and readers who bring their baggage with them.) The Good Omens’ authors are particularly prone to name-dropping. No problem there. When you come across an unfamiliar name, you simply open up your search engine and key in ‘John Maskelyne’ or ‘Rev. Watkins’ or ‘Matthew Hopkins’ and, bingo, up pops a thumbnail sketch of a 19th century English stage magician (Maskelyne), a tramping clergyman who wrote The Old Straight Track (Watkins), and an English Civil War-era witch-hunter (Hopkins). You might also have to look up a swatch of writers, painters, composers and music groups. (The Blue Oyster Cult certainly didn’t feature on my adolescent songlist. I was more of a Peter, Paul and Mary girl.)


E.T. (1982) Universal Pictures

Sometimes the references are more oblique, and the internet won’t present an easy answer. When you reach the point in Good Omens where Sergeant Deisenburger asks Crowley, ‘did any of them kids have some space alien with a face like a friendly turd in a bike basket?’, you might be in trouble if you weren’t watching movies in the early 1980s. If you were, you’ve got a picture of E.T. in your head right now; if not, the sergeant’s enquiry could seem meaningless (and more than a little odd). [Okay, the image I’ve inserted here gives the game away entirely. I do realise that.]


Ritz Hotel. London. Image: By Northmetpit (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

And how is your knowledge of popular songs from World War II? In one of Good Omens’ early scenes, Crowley suggests that he and Aziraphale ‘do the Ritz’. Chances are a good many readers have heard of the ultra swish London hotel and its legendary high teas. But how many will know the song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’? On the magical night when two lovers meet, so the lyric goes, ‘There were angels dining at the Ritz’. Towards the end of Good Omens, the two angelic combatants return to the hotel and, this time, Pratchett and Gaiman offer a blatant clue: ‘They went to the Ritz again, where a table was mysteriously vacant. And … while they were eating, for the first time ever, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.’ If you want to hear Vera Lynn’s 1940 version of the song, you’ll find it here on YouTube.

There are more occasions when Pratchett and Gaiman show their readers some mercy and offer up in-text clues. When lightning makes London’s skies ‘flicker like a malfunctioning fluorescent tube’, for instance, Crowley is put in mind of ‘A livid sky on London / And I knew the end was near. Who had written that?’, he wonders, ‘Chesterton, wasn’t it?’ Hints enough to find G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Old Song’ if you fancy a diversion.


Now we come to the part of reading where we start accessorising. By this time, the book is reasonably well dressed with the necessary undergarments and outer attire. But we might have some trinkets in our personal baggage collections that suggest meanings not necessarily envisaged by a book’s author.

god-moves-in-a-mysterious-way_smallTake me, for instance. I was raised among hymn-singing, Methodist congregations. When I read Pratchett and Gaiman’s words ‘God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways’, my mind fled straight to William Cowper’s hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform’. Did Good Omens’ authors knowingly intend that association? Were they familiar with the hymn? I don’t know. But I know it and the association adds another flourish to my reading. My Christian upbringing also asserts itself when I read ‘One does not … pass by on the other side.’ The compassionate Aziraphale, chiding Crowley, echoes the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37, in case you’re interested.) And what about this line from the horseperson personifying War: ‘Think of all the toys I can offer you … think of all the games’. Does that offer contain hints of the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11)? Obviously, the thought occurred to me. Who’s to say whether it was in Pratchett and Gaiman’s minds or not?

Here’s another accessory. On a particular dark and stormy night (and, yes, there are several of those Bulwer-Lytton nights in Good Omens), when Crowley was out driving, ‘a hard rain began to fall’. Am I the only one to have Bob Dylan’s voice in my head? (And do most of you, like me, wish it would get out of there ASAP and let someone else sing his words?)

Adding the Final ‘Bling’

Foundation garments, outer layers, accessories. All dressed up and ready to go. But wait a moment longer and the fairy godmother might appear and make your reading even more magical. Materialising from the end of her wand could be flashy little gems like Pratchett and Gaiman’s deliberate errors (‘compost mentis’ and ‘grass materialism’) along with cross-cultural mash-ups (‘A plaque on both your houses … One of those blue ones … saying “Adam Young Lived Here,” or somethin’?’).

I could go on, but why don’t you have a turn instead? If you’ve already read Pratchett and Gaiman’s book and have a favourite piece of Good Omens ‘baggage’, feel free to add it to the comments section of this post.

Links and Sources:

  • Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil. Good Omens. First published in 1990 by Gollancz, London. Now available worldwide through Penguin Books. (In Australia, visit Penguin Random House.)
  • You can find the full text of Good Omens online via Terry Pratchett’s fan site.  This free version is handy for tracking down quotes, but if you want to read the book, consider buying it or borrowing a library copy. That way the royalties go to Pratchett’s estate and to Gaiman. And there will be a few more pennies in the publisher’s coffer to help them keep on publishing.
  • The Omen: 1976 (with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick); 2006 (with Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles)
  • Neil Gaiman’s website
  • Terry Pratchett’s website

Want more?

  • If you want to discover more of the ‘hidden’ meanings in Good Omens, there’s a handy reference list on the Terry Pratchett fan site.  The list includes a good number of connections that went completely over my head, including one to George Orwell’s 1984 and another to W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’.
  • If you want my own 100+ Good Omens ‘baggage’ list, feel free to contact me and I’ll send it to you. (It’s not exhaustive; I ran out of energy much sooner than Pratchett and Gaiman.)

And here are the connections for the unexplained quotes mentioned above:

  • John of Patmos is credited with writing Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
  • ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man’ is from Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
  • I Should Be So Lucky’ is sung by Kylie Minogue.
  • ‘666 Fifth Avenue’ and ‘Tadfield Six double-six’ – 666 is commonly referred to as ‘the Devil’s number’. You’ll find a reference to it in Revelation 13:18.
  • ‘Brother Slug’ and ‘Sister Potato Weevil’ – Francis of Assisi names some elements of creation ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’ in his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’. You can find the words in many places on the internet. Here’s a link to one site, the UK’s Third Order of the Society of Francis website.
  • Blue Oyster Cult – a New York-based rock band, formed in the late 1960s.
  • captain-bligh-house_lambeth-road_plaque_for-blog‘A plaque on both your houses … One of those blue ones … saying “Adam Young Lived Here,” or somethin’?’ – In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 1) Mercutio says: I am hurt. / A plague o’ both your houses!  In London today, the Blue Plaques scheme links ‘the people of the past with the buildings of the present’ (English Heritage).