NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017
For the first time in NRB’s history, Jean and Linda both have the same title on their books-of-the-year lists. What could it be? Read on to find out …
Jean’s picks (As I was one of the judges for the Ned Kelly Awards this year, I read a lot of wonderful Australian crime fiction and some of this has made it onto the list below.)
Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness
I reviewed this last week so it’s very fresh in my memory. This posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, some previously published in the New York Review of Books, displays the amazing breadth of his knowledge and interests, as well as his charming, lucid and poetic writing. From the mental life of earthworms to Freud as a neurologist and Darwin as a botanist, with many fascinating diversions along the way, all of these essays completely captivated my attention and, as always with Sacks, enriched my perceptions of the world and other people.
Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly
This is the sixth book in the Sean Duffy series, and possibly the best of them, though they are all terrific. It won the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction this year – the second time in a row for McKinty – and sees Duffy in all sorts of his usual trouble, but this time with a partner and a baby to worry about as well. The set-up behind this series provides lots of texture: Duffy is a Catholic in the Protestant police force of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, with both sides of the law often gunning for him. He’s also a maverick with a chip on his shoulder, not surprisingly, who checks his car automatically for bombs every morning.
The historical setting is fascinating; the writing is a dream, with great characterisation and plenty of dour humour; the plot, as always, is convoluted and convincing. (You can read Karen Chisholm’s excellent round-up of the series and full review of Police at the Station here.)
Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident
A devastating book about the repercussions of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in a country town, the loss and grief of those left behind, and the appropriation of that loss and grief by others. Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s sister, Chris, whose voice is completely distinctive and convincing, and the setting vividly lifts off the page.
It’s a terrific crime novel, beautifully written, but it is also an examination of the devastation of people affected by a brutal murder, and of the way women can be subjugated and abused. (Read Linda’s full review here.)
Wendy James The Golden Child
This is a fascinating novel with an absolutely original take on the online world of blogs and cyber-bullying (as well as bullying face-to-face). It is beautifully written and cleverly constructed, with smooth segues among several voices, both adult and adolescent, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn (and it takes a lot to win me over with adolescent characters), the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the subtle setting up of the plot through the various points of view, mostly of mothers and daughters, leads to a genuinely surprising resolution. ‘… domestic noir at its most intelligent and sharp.’ – Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald
Emma Ångström The Man in the Wall
Only one Nordic Noir made it onto the list, though I’ve read what seems like dozens this year. A lot of not-so-good stuff is being translated and published, unfortunately, trying to cash in on the recent popularity of the genre and some usually fabulous series writers have produced disappointing books – I suspect being urged into publishing the magical ‘book a year’.
Anyway, the discovery of a terrific new Nordic writer is a wonderful thing. The Man in the Wall is a Swedish psychological thriller with a difference. It has a genuinely original plot and characters and is not so much a whodunit as a creepy exploration of isolation and its consequences. One of the two main characters is an unhappy child, Alva, whose father is in prison, and who has moved with her mother and her two older (actively hostile) sisters to a new apartment building, where a bizarre murder occurs. Other disturbing things start to happen and we get both Alva’s point of view and that of the killer, who can come and go throughout the building unseen. She gets drawn into the killer’s games and we know it can’t end well. Just how badly it does end is an unexpected shock.
Benjamin Law Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal
A hugely important analysis of how a big lie took hold to derail a progressive policy that had nothing to do with teaching schoolchildren how to strap on dildos and everything to do with harm reduction. Information from Beyond Blue confirms that LGBTI people in Australia have poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than average, and statistics published by the Australian Human Rights Commission show that ‘80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education’. Written with a measured tone even when describing outrageous calumnies, this essay investigates how an initiative to keep children safe came to be so shamefully misrepresented. Required reading for everyone interested in how sections of the media and politics can work together to further ignorance and intolerance.
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
There was just so much hype about George Saunders – ‘a genius!’ they gushed, not to mention that Booker Prize he won earlier this year – that I held off reading this, believing only disappointment could follow such high praise. However, having now read Lincoln in the Bardo I’m determined to read more of Saunders’s work. This is an extraordinary novel – fresh and profoundly moving. Yes, it’s a ghost story that turns on the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie, but read it for its very human story of grief, longing, delusion and hope — and its wonderful wit and flashes of the absurd. Saunders’s habit of putting a speaker’s name at the end of each piece of dialogue/thought was a little confusing at first but in retrospect I can see why he has chosen to treat the voices in this multi-voice narrative in this way. Haunting in very sense.
Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly
Nothing like a crime novel that begins with its hero digging his own grave … Adrian McKinty’s evocation of Belfast during the Troubles is both energetic and chilling, and evokes the complexity of personal allegiances in a city at war. The plot unwinds in a sprightly manner with strong characters and dark twists. I can only salute the judges of the Ned Kelly Awards for giving it a prize.
Kamila Shamsie Home Fire
The complexity of personal allegiances is also a theme of Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, with the choices of Pavaiz Pasha, a young British man of Pakistani background, compromising his sisters in the eyes of the authorities – just as his jihadi father had done before him. This is a big novel and its themes are significant ones – how young men become seduced by extremism, and how those who love them most suffer for it. The novel is told by Pavaiz, his two sisters (the older, responsible Isma and Pavaiz’s beautiful twin Aneeka) and by father and son Karamat and Eamonn Lone. While the Lone and Pasha families are not quite the Montagues and Capulets, the relationship between Aneeka and Eamonn carries the story to its devastating conclusion.
Neal Drinnan Rural Liberties
This zesty tale is set in the small town of Moralla, where the old Colchester place has been turned into an establishment called Rural Liberties, ‘a fresh new frontier for love and life’. The local children – and not a few of their parents – believe this is code for orgies. Drinnan has a lot of fun with small-town life, and some wonderful lines: the disappointed father who tells his new son-in-law, ‘You were certainly not what we had in mind for our daughter’s first husband’; the local publican who greets new customers with ‘Welcome to Moralla! Tidy Town two years running!’; and the husband and wife relationship experts, authors of the bestseller Are You Awake Love? who are in town to flog the sequel, Are You Still Awake Love? Yet the novel opens with a tragedy, the death of beautiful teenager Rebecca Moore, and beneath the lightness of touch are darker issues such as date rape, bigotry, alternative lifestyles and the ethics of reality television. But it’s also fun and hugely readable, even when the plot threatens to spin out of control.