another year over, a new one just begun

War is Over was my favourite Christmas song as a child. Maybe it still is. I heard it on the radio while I was on the bus to work a few days before Christmas and I might have become a little teary.

The lyrics always confused me. Why, I remember asking my grade two teacher, did the man in the song say a new year had “just begun” when the song says that it’s Christmas?

My teacher had no answer for me. I mentally filed War is Over along with all the other vaguely ridiculous Christmas songs – like the one about “dashing through the snow” I remember singing at a sweltering end of year school assembly, the heat of the asphalt radiating through the soles of my school shoes.

I dread those “Oh, where has the year gone?” conversations that I’m often dragged into around the beginning of December. There’s something about that empty kind of chit-chat that I can’t stand. That, and it makes the feeling of time being dragged away from me worse.

But right at the heart of things, I think that’s what John Lennon was on about in those first few lines of War is Over – the way a year can seemingly whiz by in a flash, leaving you to begin again just as you were finding your way through a year that feels like it’s only “just begun”. Leaving you to ask yourself…so, what have I done?

For me, the answer is always the same: not enough. I’m hoping that at the end of 2015, I’ll have more to show for myself.

Before the New Year runs away from me, there’s some unfinished business I wanted to take care of first. In no particular order, here are five of the books I enjoyed the most in 2014.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

The highlight of my reading year was discovering Tove Jansson.

After my beautiful grandma passed away in the final weeks of 2013 – after the funeral, after the strangest Christmas ever – I found myself in the first days of 2014 standing in front of my bookshelf, looking for solace. The calm cerulean blue spine of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book appealed to me, and I started reading.

The Summer Book is a series of scenes that take place on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, inhabited only during the summer by one family – a grandmother and Sophia, her granddaughter. There’s also Sophia’s father, an artist, but he plays little part in the plot. In the opening moments of The Summer Book, we learn that Sophia’s mother has recently died. With the link between generations missing, Sophia and her grandmother begin to explore the island they share, as well as the gap left by Sophia’s absent mother.

On the second page, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered. “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

“Why?” her grandchild asked.

She didn’t answer.

There was something about seeing that exchange, the directness of it there on the page, that knocked the air from me. I remembered asking my own grandmother the same question when I was very young.

As Sophia’s life is beginning, her grandmother’s life is coming to an end. Over the course of The Summer Book, we watch as Sophia’s grandmother becomes weak, sick, forgetful. And Sophia has no idea it’s happening, because that’s what it’s like to be young.

Beautiful and devastating, The Summer Book is a contradiction; direct and oblique at the same time. It was the first book I read this year, and remains my favourite – a life-changing experience that came along right when I needed it the most.

Also in 2014, I read Jansson’s short story collections Art in Nature, Fair Play and A Winter Book (in the winter, of course). I also read her novel, The True Deceiver and reviewed Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, a biography published last year to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Jansson’s birth. I could make up a top five for the year featuring only Jansson’s books, but I’m restricting myself to just one book per author. The Summer Book will always be special. It was the book that sparked a literary love affair.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut

arcticsummercoverOn the subject of literary love affairs, as a devoted fan of E M Forster, when I first heard about Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – a fictional look at Forster’s life during the writing of A Passage to India, the last of his masterpieces – I knew I had to read it.

I was always going to have strong feeling about this novel. Arctic Summer didn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, Galgut’s inelegant, introspective Morgan Forster won me over completely. Arctic Summer is an understated, quiet book that left me flailing and defeated in its wake.

Arctic Summer might not be for everyone (last year’s Man Booker judges, for instance – Galgut didn’t even make the Booker longlist) but this novel is definitely for me. You can read my review over at Newtown Review of Books if you like.

The Swimming-Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst

Talking of the Man Booker prize, I mightn’t have read this year’s winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but at least did I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty this year which won the Booker Prize back in 2004. It seems I have ten years to catch up.

I read Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and The Line of Beauty in quick succession early last year and utterly lost myself in Hollinghurst’s immersive prose. I enjoyed both novels, but because I have to choose just one book per author, I’m putting Hollinghurst’s debut on this list.

The deliberately archaic register of The Swimming-Pool Library immediately had me feeling as if I was reading something set in another alternative existence – which, in a way, I guess I was. Hollinghurst’s characters inhabit a risky world of double meanings, codes and glances; a world where every action speaks of a hidden desire. It’s irresistibly dark and inviting, and I was drawn under its spell.

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Every time one of those “best opening sentences of all time” articles makes its way around literary Twitter, I can’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. I hate the way these articles reduce books to just a few words, when a book is about so much more than that.

the-woman-upstairsThat said, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs has one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. As far as I’m concerned, any novel that opens with the sentence “How angry am I?” and rounds off its first page with the words “FUCK YOU ALL” gets my vote.

Messud takes this initial momentum, this anger, and carries it over 301 furious pages. It’s the literary equivalent of a raised middle finger and from the very first page, I was swept up, tumbled over and over like being caught by a wave.

But as triumphantly, deliciously angry as the novel is, there’s a lingering sadness at work in The Woman Upstairs. It’s this element of frailty that binds this novel together and adds yet another dimension to this story of a vulnerable woman betrayed by art and by life.

Messud’s novel is twisted and seething and incandescently brilliant – and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth, an elderly woman, wakes in the early hours of morning to the unmistakable sounds of a tiger moving about her house. The next day, the tiger has gone and Frida arrives, sent by the government to look after Ruth.

I really admire The Night Guest – possibly because this is the kind of book I’d love to have written myself. The psychological tug of war that takes place between the two women; the way we watch, helplessly as Ruth’s memory slowly begins to unravel and retreat from her; even the beach setting, the way the sand dunes begin to invade Ruth’s home – all of the elements that make up this novel come together in such a perfect way that I was left in awe.

The Night Guest is close to flawless. If you haven’t already picked it up, add it to your list.

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Anyone who knows me will know by now that I can’t possibly write a list of five books without naming a heap of honourable mentions, so here are another a few other books that I loved this year…don’t tempt me to keep going, or I’ll just list everything I read…

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

trumpetWhen the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.

Millie’s husband, famous jazz musician, Joss Moody has died, leaving a scandal in his wake. Distraught and grieving, Millie retreats to the holiday house she and Joss shared in Scotland to hide from the paparazzi while she begins to deal with her husband’s loss. Meanwhile, the son she and her husband adopted is processing his grief in a different way.

If you don’t already know what Trumpet is about, it’s best to keep it that way. Don’t read reviews. Don’t read the blurb. Just read this book.

Trumpet is a love story like no other – though doubtless there are many more love stories like it, just waiting to be told.

Cracking the Spine

Each of the short stories in this collection from Spineless Wonders is accompanied by an essay by the author. Some authors explain the story – how it came to be, how it was written, the thought process behind it – while other authors take am entirely different approach. In Cracking the Spine, fiction and non-fiction blend with fascinating results. I’ve got a half-written review of this sitting on my computer’s desktop – I’ll get to finishing it soon.

The Neighbour – Julie Proudfoot

Will I ever forget this chilling novella? I sincerely doubt it. More on The Neighbour soon – it’s another review-in-progress.

Captives – Angela Meyer

These tiny little stories have been carefully pared down to the barest of bones, but they’re still incredibly effective. I reviewed Captives for Newtown Review of Books and I’m quietly crossing my fingers that Meyer has Captives part two in progress, because I’m eager for more.

And because I really can’t resist adding even more names to this already lengthy list, I also really enjoyed Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders (which I also reviewed) and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light.

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I’m only one week into the New Year and already my schedule’s looking excitingly, terrifyingly crowded. I worked through Christmas and the New Year, so I’ll be taking some time off soon. I’m hoping to catch up on a few of the titles I’ve been eager to read for a long time, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ali Smith’s How to be Both and Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory, which has been sitting patiently next to my bed for the longest time. I’d also like to read more current science fiction, so if you’ve got any recommendations, let me know.

Then, of course, I’ve got a heap of excellent books to review. There’s also the small matter of rethinking my blog’s focus and working out what I really want to do with this space in the year ahead. So, you know, no pressure at all…

Welcome to 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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…and to all a good night

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Festive greetings! I hope today has been kind to you.

I know – it’s been a while between posts. Writing time has been scarce lately. I’m working on that. Another thing I’m working on? A list of my favourite five books of the year. Or maybe my favourite ten books. I’m still deciding. And there are so many worthy books…

More as soon as I’ve made up my mind.

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past, present and future with graeme simsion

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the rosie effect

Past, Present and Future is a (mostly) fortnightly series of posts in which a very special guest comes time travelling with me.

The idea is surprisingly simple – every second Monday, I ask someone bookish to spill the beans on the book they’ve just read, what they’re reading right now and what they’re planning to read next.

This fortnight’s guest is none other than Graeme Simsion, author of the wildly successful (not to mention incredibly enjoyable) smash hit The Rosie Project, and its much-anticipated sequel, The Rosie Effect – which I just so happen to be reading right now!

Curious? Of course you are! I know I am! Here’s what Graeme’s been reading…

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When I took a comedy class with Doug Anthony All Stars legend Tim Ferguson a few years ago, he warned us, ‘You may never laugh again.’ There is a general truth here: once you know how the trick is done, it loses its power. And artists look at others’ work with a professional eye.

Reading has not been the same for me since I became a novelist and, and, particularly, an editor of my own and others’ work. I’m constantly examining the craft. What techniques is Ms Tartt using to hold my attention? Why the sudden change of point of view, Mr Larssen? Are all those colons and semicolons a deliberate stylistic choice, Ms Mantel?

For relaxation, as distinct from education, I’m more inclined to pick up non-fiction, or fiction that’s a long way from what I’m trying to write myself. My kids gave me a copy of The Annotated Alice (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with notes by mathematician Martin Gardner) for my birthday, and it filled both criteria.

But, as it happens, my last book was a novel. So…

 

Past

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The cover of my edition has a bet each way: “One of the best twists in years – Stylist magazine” and “Shortlisted for The Man Bookcompletely beside ourselveser Prize 2014”. Maybe that confused positioning is why it has apparently disappointed many readers, who have given it a rating of 3.5 stars on the Australian Amazon site. Perhaps they were expecting a thriller (which it isn’t) or a more literary style of writing.

But it’s a five star book as far as I’m concerned. Effortless, clean writing, a distinct and sassy voice (it’s in first person) and a highly original premise that provides a base for an emotional journey, reflections on the human condition and liberal doses of comedy. A family makes a big, and in hindsight, disastrous, decision and does its best to manage the consequences. It was a situation I was familiar with from non-fiction. Beside Ourselves brings a different –and arguably more pertinent—perspective.

I can’t write much more about the plot without revealing the twist (many of the reviews contain the relevant spoiler, so read them later). That said, I had been made aware of it before I started reading, and, beyond missing out on one ‘whoa’ moment in many hours of reading, I didn’t feel my reading experience was compromised. Of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one I’d most like to have written.

Twists… They’re a vital part of plots in certain genres, but a big twist does not a story make, at least not for me, and the author needs to be careful not to break faith with the reader by being seen to withhold information that should have come out in the normal course of narration. Beside Ourselves’ twist breaks this rule – in spades – but it happens early and we are given a good reason for the deception. I bought it, but not everyone will.

The outstanding “twist-based” success of recent years has been Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and, again, the twist has pulled attention from what a good thriller – and intelligent study of narcissism – this book actually is. In fact, I’d argue that the mid-way twist denies us the possibility of empathising with the Amy character, and that the book is weaker for it. I’d have killed that darling – but it’s hard to argue with that grip it’s got on the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

 

Present

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcherI can’t write as much – or as reflectively – about what I’m reading now. It takes time to absorb a book, and sometimes years to understand its impact. I read Albert Camus’ The Plague when I was fifteen, and still reflect on it. But when I was briefly addicted to Robert Ludlum thrillers, I’d have been hard pressed to recall the plots a week later.

I’m a parallel processor. The stack of books beside my bed is embarrassing (in height, not content). I’m dipping into Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher but tonight I’ll resume reading How Plays Work by David Edgar. It’s one of several ‘craft’ books beside the bed, including two on comedy writing and one on screenplay.

I’ve always been interested in the theory, the foundations of what I’m doing. That’s not to dismiss the value of intuition or the unexplained moment of inspiration but I want to save my limited creative resources for when they’re needed. The more I can do consciously, purposefully and in a way I can understand myself, the better. And it gives me a language to discuss what I’m doing, and to coach others.

 

Future

once-upon-a-time-the-lives-of-bob-dylanNext on my list is a manuscript I’ve been asked to read. In the last year I’ve done this for my partner (Anne Buist) and a member of my writers’ group (Tania Chandler). Their novels, respectively Medea’s Curse (Text) and Grunge (Scribe) will be published next year. Reviewing manuscripts constructively is a big job, and I only do it for people I know well (or owe a favour!). I suspect this sort of work is what’s made me such a picky reader, but, truth to tell, it’s good for my own writing.

After that, I’ll probably pick up Ian Bell’s two-volume Lives of Bob Dylan. I’m a Dylan aficionado (falling short of Dylan tragic, I hope), and recently selected his album “Live 1966: The ‘Albert Hall’ Concert” as a favourite work of art to discuss on Radio National’s Masterpiece programme.

As a baby boomer, it’s hardly original to have Dylan as my creative hero, but he provides a model for reinvention and for continuing to do fine work as he ages (I’m talking about the song-writing and recordings – I won’t argue about the concerts!). And every time I prepare to do another bookshop talk, I remind myself that he’s getting up on stage every night at 72.


 

Thanks for stopping by to take part in Past, Present and Future, Graeme!

What do you think of Graeme’s choices? Are you a fan of novels (or short stories, for that matter) with plot twists? And how out of control is the stack of unread books beside your bed? Seriously, if mine collapsed on me during the night, I might not survive… (but what a way to go!)

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past, present and future with susan whelan

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It’s time again for Past, Present and Future, the fortnightly post in which I invite someone bookish over for a little chat about what they’ve read recently, what they’re reading at the moment and the books they’re planning to read in the future.

This fortnight, I’m rather chuffed to be hosting one of my favourite literary bloggers, Susan Whelan from Reading Upside Down! As a reader of pretty much everything, I was expecting Susan’s response to be somewhat eclectic. As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong…

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I generally have several books that I’m reading at any given time. My work at Kids’ Book Review means that I regularly read picture books as well as junior, middle and YA fiction and every now and then I even manage to squeeze in some adult fiction. It probably goes without saying that the pile of books on my bedside table is formidable.

Past

Picture Book – The Wonder by Faye Hanson: Such a beautiful picture book, all about valuing creativity and imagination. I love books that encourage children to think creatively and the illustrations in this story really capture the wonderful way children’s imagination can make ordinary things extraordinary.

Junior Fiction – Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George: This is the third book in a junior fiction series that balances all the stereotypical elements of a fantasy story for girls – a magical castle, princesses, mythical animals, dresses, handsome princes, etc – with a great adventure and a really strong, smart, brave, interesting female protagonist.

Middle Fiction – Finding Darcy by Sue Lawson: This book offers an interesting perspective on wartime experiences for older primary and tween readers. It really conveyed how the impact of the husbands and fathers who didn’t return home from the war flowed down through subsequent generations of families, affecting how they interacted with each other and the choices they made in their own lives.

Young Adult – A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray: I finished this book today and have found it hard to put down as I followed the unfolding story founded on the premise of travel between parallel universes. I really enjoyed the way that the characters worked through not only the physical aspects of interdimensional travel, but also the ethical and emotional issues it raises. Lots of tension, a little romance, and some unexpected plot twists mean that I’m already looking forward to the sequel to see how the story continues.

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Present

Junior Fiction – Journey to Eos by Paul Russell: This is the first book published by Blueprint Publishing, brought to my attention because the author attends my local CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) meetings. I really like to read books by local writers when I can, and I’m quite enjoying this story about the adventures of a little girl and her guardian fairy.

Young Adult – Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld: I’m 120 pages into this book and I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it. The book features two complete stories, told in alternating chapters –a novel written by a fictional debut author (Darcy Patel), and the fictional account of Darcy’s journey to publication. I loved the beginning, but I’m finding that I’m losing any sense of tension or pace because of the dual storyline. I’m hoping that as I continue some link or parallel will develop between the two storylines to tie things together. I’m finding that even though I’m interested in how the story will develop, I’m not feeling compelled to keep reading and I’m easily distracted by other books in my TBR pile.

Adult Fiction – The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion: I loved The Rosie Project, all the more because I heard Graeme Simsion talk about the process of developing the story at a local library event not long after it was published. I was keen to read The Rosie Effect and, while it doesn’t feel as fresh and exciting as The Rosie Project, I am enjoying the opportunity of revisiting these characters. I’m a little over halfway and I’m enjoying the humour of the story as well as appreciating the opportunity to view life from a different perspective. The well-known quote from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind as I read these books (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ) and I think beyond the story itself, there is value to be gained from the opportunity to view life through Don Tillman’s eyes and perhaps gain a little insight into what everyday life is like for those who don’t instinctively understand social cues and emotional nuances.

Adult Fiction – The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit: This novel reads like non-fiction as it gives an account of the experiences of the wives at Los Alamos, the partners of the men involved in the development of the atomic bomb. The story is told from the group perspective, merging experiences and perspectives in a way that is a little offputting at times, but I’m finding the concept and insight into the experiences of these women quite fascinating.

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Future

Junior/Middle Fiction – Race to the End of the World (The Mapmaker Chronicles #1) by A L Tait: I’ve heard good things about this fantasy action/adventure story for older primary children and as I chat with the author occasionally on Twitter and Facebook, I couldn’t resist picking a copy up when I saw it recently.

Middle Fiction – Tiger Stone by Deryn Mansell: Set in 14th Century Java, this book caught my attention as an interesting and unusual setting for a middle fiction novel. Books are such a wonderful way to connect readers with history and other cultures. With so many books set in Western countries and cultures, I’m looking forward to reading a novel with an Indonesian focus.

Young Adult – The Raven’s Wing by Frances Watts: I was chatting with Frances Watts at a writers’ festival recently and she mentioned this novel set in Ancient Rome. I enjoy Frances’ picture book and junior fiction novels, so I’m keen to read this tale of ‘marriage, murder and intrigue’.

Young Adult – Spark by Rachael Craw: An enthusiastic review on Kids’ Book Review from one of our team as well as several interesting, and at times hilarious, conversations with Rachael Craw on Twitter have moved this novel to the top of my TBR pile. I’ve heard lots of good things about this book, so I’m really looking forward to finding time to read it myself.

Non-Fiction – A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett: Terry Pratchett books are a foundational part of my reading journey. I have been reading Discworld books since they were first published and I’ve also enjoyed reading several other books written by Pratchett, fiction and non-fiction. This book includes a collection of essays and non-fiction articles by Pratchett that I’m really looking forward to dipping into regularly, like the hidden chocolate stash in my pantry.

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Susan Whelan9Susan Whelan is a freelance writer, blogger and children’s author. She maintains a book/personal blog at Reading Upside Down as well as a professional website focused on her own writing and general writing tips for authors, particularly those writing for children and teens. She is the Managing Editor of Kids’ Book Review, a popular Australian children’s book review website.

Susan’s first picture book, Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, is illustrated by Gwynneth Jones and will be published by EK Books in April 2015.


Thanks for being a part of Past, Present and Future, Susan. I feel somewhat inadequate now because I strictly read one book at a time! In comparison, my bedside table is a rather sparse affair. Anyway, you should also follow Susan on Twitter too.

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