Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My top books for 2015

Here are my favourite books of 2015.

(It's not a list of the best books by any means, as there were so many well-reviewed books published. And I was very impatient this year for some reason. I started reading many new novels that my favourite reviewers raved about, but I wasn't grabbed in the first 100 pages so bailed.)

Australian Fiction:

1. Rod Jones, The Mothers.

This is a very powerful novel that frequently brought me to tears but mostly made me intensely angry.

It interweaves the lives of four Australian women living in Melbourne from the years of the first world war until the 1990's. While very young they became pregnant to young men who deserted them or treated them cruelly. Their parents were no better, imprisoned by the moral, social and legal strictures of the day. They were also battling poverty and unemployment.

Single motherhood was an absolute no-no. Marriage was compulsory, or the baby forcibly removed for adoption. The story of Anna, a feisty teenager brought undone by the Salvation Army's excruciatingly awful 'home for girls in your situation' is one of the most moving and dramatic pieces of social history you're ever likely to read. It will make your blood boil.

Jones brings his characters vividly to life. His writing is measured and assured, the stories tense and deeply emotional.

No doubt this wonderful book will be shortlisted for a number of awards, and deservedly so. It is magnificent. It will also become a celebrated ABC TV mini-series, no doubt.

2. James Bradley, Clade.

The main character in this new book from noted Australian novelist James Bradley is planet Earth. 

The human characters, none of whom we ever really connect with and most of whom arrive on the scene for a chapter or two then disappear, are inconsequential to the main drama of climate change which is reeking havoc all around.

The story is set in a 21st century future over the course of a few generations and Bradley is relentless in listing every possible disaster that climate scientists have long foretold and that is now happening.

A bleak, apocalyptic scenario unfolds and civilisations from East to West unravel. Genetically engineered crops are unleashing deadly viruses killing millions; 'illegal' immigrants fleeing starvation and disease are everywhere and being savagely rounded up. 

The final pages introduce an element of hope and optimism, and the author's reflections are beautifully articulated. We get a meditation on transience as if the camera is now panning out, seeing every little drama in a larger, more cosmic, context.

 3. Malcolm Knox, The Wonder Lover.

This is a powerful and mighty achievement. It captures and engages the reader, and grapples with a whole range of large issues rarely done well in modern fiction.

Essentially it's an essay on men, but also on women, on sex, on pain and suffering, on loneliness, ageing, beauty and love.

I don't think it's going too far to suggest that in a real sense it's a story of a man undone by strong and powerful women. It could be seen as a feminist tract - on the weakness of men and the power of women.

It reminded me very much of Howard Jacobson, especially his marvellous Zoo Time. It's a heady mix of the comic and the dramatic always infused with hyper real intensity. Jacobson in his Jewish style is a master of portraying males grappling with demanding, crazy women. But Knox brings far more compassion and warmth to his tale, and less social and political critique.

I loved it.

4. Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep.

This novel won the Miles Franklin this year and was a very worthy winner indeed. It caught me and most other readers and critics by surprise. The smart money was on Joan London's The Golden Age and Sonya Hartnett's Golden Boys. I had read both these novels and enjoyed them thoroughly.

The novel is a powerful and visceral adult drama even though a young boy, Jimmy, is the central character.

This is a drama of domestic violence. It's ugly indeed. Laguna skilfully conveys the horror but without emptying the father of all sympathy. Jimmy and his older brother Robby have a warm and loving relationship with both their parents. The deep connections between them are explored. Jimmy and his father Gavin have a bond that survives Gavin's extreme volatility. Gavin is a frustrated man who resorts to the Cutty Sark in the top cupboard for relief. He is eventually made redundant from his printing job, thus taking the narrative to a much darker place.

And the ending is very satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually.

Laguna has written an excellent, highly dramatic novel. What gives the book so much power is the innocence, joy and vulnerability of Jimmy. It's a magnificent portrait and it won't let you go. That boy gets under your skin.

5. Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things.

This new novel from the highly regarded Australian author Charlotte Wood is both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts, but nevertheless a compelling read.

A group of ten young women who in one way or another have recently featured in the media through unfortunate sexual experiences have been drugged, kidnapped and sent to an isolated, abandoned rural property in outback Australia where they are imprisoned and cruelly treated by two men.

The book is well written, some passages exquisitely so, and the narrative superbly structured. 

The women never talk of escaping. In fact they barely talk to each other at all. No ideas or theories are tossed around as to why they are being held or by whom, and no plots hatched.

As the months and seasons pass each woman in her own way is sent to the edge of insanity. But there's no evidence of any visceral anger at their captivity.

In a way they are complicit in their own victimhood. They internalise their plight, indulging in fantasies, obsessions and playthings. They retreat into themselves. They could organise to kill their captors, whose only weapons are sticks after all, and escape to freedom, but they don't. Some of them do form close relationships with each other which are sustaining and supportive, and two of the women are strong and independent. The other eight are weak, 'girly' and rather pathetic. Which may well be Wood's main point. 

It's a confronting and challenging meditation on what it is to be female.

International Fiction:

1. Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Child.

These three novels follow last year's My Brilliant Friend and bring to an end Ferrante's Neapolitan series. They tell the story of the intense friendship between Lila and Elena as they grow up in a poverty stricken neighbourhood in Naples mid last century and develop into strong, fiercely independent women confronting the challenges of love, sex, bad marriages, children, work, frustration, exploitation and desperation.      

It's a relationship exquisitely dissected with surgical precision. But there's so much more to the story than this. The setting is Naples but it could be any provincial Italian town or neighbourhood. The men, the parents, the powerful families and their businesses, the limited job opportunities and abusive workplace conditions, the schools and teachers, the ambitions and aspirations, the ignorance, the stunted lives, the vulgarity, the emergence of the middle class, the destructive power of love and passion. It's all there and more, and the story is beautifully told. And as it unfolds it becomes more and more encompassing, fascinating and thoroughly absorbing. 

It's the drama of our post-war development. It's a story of political and social development, ugly domestic violence, poverty, power, unions, class division, privilege, influence, sexism, abuse. Friendships are riven by the passionate tapestry of Italian politics: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, the Fascists, the youthful rebellion of the 1960's and terrorism. Running through all this are the personal narratives: the confronting relationships, the lovers, the marriages, and importantly the underlying drama of Nino - his beauty, intelligence and sexual attraction: 'the swift, brilliant, even cruel aggressions of Nino Sarratore, my schoolmate, my friend, born in the neighbourhood, like me.'

This is a rich, hard nosed, critical, unsentimental, unforgiving, relentless, dynamic and frequently savage story of ordinary but proud people in a proud and passionate country desperately searching for a way forward or a way out. 

2. Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman.

Go Set A Watchman is wonderful, stimulating, and a real pleasure to read. 

As much as anything it's a novel of dialogues, debates and ideas. And wit abounds. Scout, known by her real name Jean Louise and now in her mid-twenties, is a delightful, highly intelligent and feisty young woman who has spent the last few years in New York. This is a very playful telling by Lee who obviously identifies with her richly drawn and extremely likable character. 

Jean Louise's adult awakening to Atticus is so much more meaningful knowing as we do the child Scout's naive view of her saintly father in To Kill A Mockingbird. The two books enrich each other immeasurably. In fact they both need each other. It was pure editorial genius that Lee was persuaded to first retell the story from the child's point of view rather than proceed to publish Go Set A Watchman. But why did Lee and her publisher decide not to release the first book at all, rather than a few years later? Perhaps so as not to destroy the magic of Atticus that had taken hold in the public imagination? I guess we'll never know.

Unlike in TKAM, a strain of high amusement runs through the GSAW narrative. It has a vastly different tone, at times reading like a satirical village comedy. But Lee manages to expertly combine this playfulness with a serious and savage critique of racism in the South. It is a fiercely passionate denunciation of white supremacism and Lee is very angry indeed. The writing in the heated arguments, particularly those between Jean Louise and her father, is rich, powerful and disturbing. The contrasting ideas and beliefs are fully articulated and the reader served a sumptuous, invigorating feast. 

The final few chapters are intense, and some critics doubt their realism and credibility. Atticus is condemned, in fact demolished by an out of control Jean Louise, but gets a chance to explain his position. It's rational. He's a liberal, as we've always known, but now in his senior years, an Establishment one. He's a lawyer.

I thoroughly recommend you read this book, but if you haven't read TKAM you must read that first.

3. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life:

Basically a novel of abuse, of trauma and incredible pain, this Booker shortlisted book is viscerally powerful and confronting and at the same time exquisitely good.

A word of warning - it's not for the faint hearted. The author grabs you by the back of the neck and thrusts your head into a toilet bowl of depravity. You need a strong stomach. It's a Dickensian horror story for our time that I'm sure not even Dickens could bring himself to write.

The novel is the story of Jude, a child abandoned at birth and brought up in an orphanage run by a religious order. We are all too familiar these days with what inevitably goes on in these dark and sinful places. The boy is good-looking and highly intelligent.

Slowly, as the novel progresses on its meandering way through the lives and careers of his close friends from college onwards, Jude's awful history is revealed. Yanagihara teases, entices, diverts to other stories, but she never forgets, even hundreds of pages later, to tie up the loose ends. That is so satisfying.

4. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island:

Satin Island has a fascinating corporate premise at its core: a brilliant anthropologist is hired by an elite London-based consultancy company to read the contemporary zeitgeist and uncover patterns and theories to construct a unified theory of the whole that will revolutionise its offerings and bring it glorious success.

'U', as he's known, searches for meaning in the rich kaleidoscope of reality to construct this magic concoction. But he's constantly encountering and being fascinated by little dissonances in our social fabric, be they accidents, glitches and illogicalities - like oil spills, parachute failures, cancer cells, video buffering, torture, etc.    

But he keeps at it, encouraged by his boss, the mysterious Peyman, who is nothing if not insane. U's presentations at future-oriented conferences are unmitigated tripe, but he's ceaselessly celebrated by his corporate audiences.

As the dissonances attest a satisfying and meaningful whole is a baseless proposition. 

Ironically an air of meaninglessness, rather than meaning, begins to surface. An overwhelming sense of the unfathomable and the disjointed bombards our senses and unravels our comfortable webs of comprehension. 

Unsettling echoes of tragedies and disasters seep into the narrative. 

The final chapter is superb. U waits at the Staten Island ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan and simply observes ordinary commuters going about their daily business - queuing, buying coffee and donuts, waiting to board, etc. A sense of heightened normalcy pervades. Anything could happen. This is 9/11 territory. 

I was reminded very much of Colum McCann's lauded celebration of New York and the World Trade Centre towers Let the Great World Spin.

McCarthy is a writer for our times. Satin Island is a brilliant book.

5. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant.

A major Ishiguro theme is buried evil, the havoc it has reeked, the potential it has to erupt again and the courage needed to face it. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro's fascination with paranormal evil and how integrated with quotidian reality it is, continues. Dragons, ogres, savage pixies and the monster of them all, Querig the she-dragon, populate the landscape and are an integral part of this folkloric tale. But they portend the inevitability and horror of war and the destruction of love, civility, compassion and innocence.

There are a lot of old, malingering people in this book, including the two central characters Beatrice and Axl, who are absolutely delightful. Their love for each other is the central charm of the book. Like all the characters Ishiguro has them talking in a stilted, formal English. It's very theatrical and Elizabethan, often beautifully poetic with Shakespearean elegance. The Saxons and the Britons have been at war in the ex-Roman colony of Britannia but are now at peace, albeit a fragile one. It is guarded and cherished by the old and wise. Deep roots of hatred and vengeance lie buried - the Giant in the title - but threaten to break out at any time. 

Ironically it is the young who continue the hatred and relish the near prospect of renewed war and bloodshed. In his last novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro had the young as innocent victims of the old. Here it's the reverse.

The ending is intensely moving and profound. 

6. Adrian McKinty, Gun Street Girl.

This is the fourth novel in McKinty's Sean Duffy series, and fans will be delighted. It definitely delivers.

In fact it's probably the best. The central crime that Duffy's team attempts to solve is more dramatic, its tentacles spreading far more widely into the social and political spheres that make up the conflict-ridden reality of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

And Inspector Duffy himself is rather more fleshed out. His usual intelligence and courage are there, but special attention this time is given to his rather dissolute, louche and hopelessly disorganised personal life. (There's also more sex in this one - never a bad thing!)

But his career in the police force is going nowhere. On so many levels the man is a mess, and he needs to make some big decisions. Dulling his restlessness in ever larger gulps of single malt and sniffs of cocaine at all hours of the day and night, rarely sleeping, at least in anything resembling a bed, and never eating much other than toast and chips is not cutting it. He's even worse than Rebus.

All the swagger and vitality of McKinty's prose is here in spades, and it's glorious as usual.

Any new instalment of Duffy is a must-read. This one is no exception.


1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

This is an extremely moving, powerful and very personal examination of what it means to be black in America.

In the form of letter to his young son, it's beautifully written, honest, heartbreaking and angry.

The construction of the 'white' race, the imprisoning American 'Dream', the continuing economy of slavery - all construct 'black' as a losing proposition. The frequent police shootings making news today reflect these deeper malevolent traditions.

This is a critically important book. It has been heralded a classic, and rightly so.

2. Asne Seierstad, One of Us.

This is an incredibly powerful book, but for obvious reasons not a pleasant read. 

Anders Breivik was a monster, an embodiment of sheer evil. Seierstad spends a lot of time giving us a detailed psychological profile of an abused child growing into an emotionally immature youth and finally a self-obsessed, narcissistic adult. A bully incapable of sustaining friendships much less intimate relationships. Nobody really understood him, least of all himself

Interspersed throughout the chapters on Breivik's development are the life stories of some of the young men and women of the Young Labour Party who on 22 July 2011 tragically became his victims. 

Bano, the daughter of Kurd asylum seekers who struggled to make a life in Norway after fleeing Iraq, is an inspiration. As is Simon, widely regarded as a future political leader. These and other stories build incredible suspense. We know the ending but our sympathies are utterly engaged. The ultimate tragedy happens to individuals we love and care about deeply. It is profoundly moving.And then there is the gritty detail as the fateful day unfolds. Horrible but fascinating as a dramatic narrative. We are in the hands of an assured and talented writer.

The final chapters cover the aftermath, particularly for the families. It is immensely sad. 

This book is an enormously satisfying and revelatory read. Highly recommended.

3. A.A.Gill, Pour Me.

 Pour Me is the best autobiography I've read in many years, if not ever. It is a classic.

Gill was born into a loving family with libertarian, dissenting, argumentative parents. He was diagnosed as dyslexic when not much was known about the condition, so was sent to a 'special' boarding school (which was nothing of the sort). He survived the experience by indulgence - in books, music, protests, sex, drink and drugs, and 'good mates'.

He suffered severe alcoholism throughout his twenties. The book is unflinching in describing his descent into that hopeless, degrading, personal terror. It's an enlightening treatise on the psychology of addiction.

Read this memoir for the exquisite writing, and the wit that sparkles on every page.

The narrative keeps spinning off into memories, reveries and meditations on art, music, histories, teachers, doctors, other people of influence, painters (including a lovely few pages on Turner and his virtual invention of the colour yellow), and editors and cooks.

The final chapters of the book range over his career in journalism in the heyday of newspapers and features. It's a celebration of the craft, and of editors and photographers.

I can thoroughly recommend this wonderful book.

4. Cory Doctorow, Information Doesn't Want to be Free.

Author, Internet/technology guru and activist Cory Doctorow has written many articles (mainly on the popular and influential weblog Boing Boing) on copyright, Digital Rights Management (DRM) and privacy issues, but this little gem of a book brings all his insights and reflections together in one comprehensive, superbly written package.

It's an antidote to the sort of nonsense served up as sophisticated critique by whiny spokespeople for entertainment and publishing conglomerates like Andrew Keen (who's latest book I reviewed here). Its prime focus is helping creatives understand and appreciate all the ways in which they can make money in the new digital age - 'how do I get people to pay me?'

But it ranges far more widely than that. It's full of stories and histories, and most enjoyably quotable quotes.

If you're at all interested in or fascinated by the many issues, problems and solutions thrown up by the Internet age then you'll cherish this book.

5. Reza Aslan, No god but God.

If, like me, you want to know far more about Islam, this book is the one you should read. Reza Aslan is an Iran-born, American religious scholar of Islamic faith who wrote the 2013 mega-seller 'Zealot', a controversial book about the historical Jesus (which was superb by the way).

No god but God is the story of the prophet Muhammad, his successors and the religion he foundered, from the very beginning right up until today. As a drama it truly is fodder for a thrilling TV miniseries. The thing about Aslan is he can write. It's a tale exceptionally well told.

Aslan summarises the views of a range of scholars and their different opinions and interpretations. He assess and critiques fairly. Being a well regarded scholar himself, he writes with authority.

He details the debates, the controversies and the evolution of Islam over the centuries, including its spread to Asia, Africa and other non-Arabic countries. 

The chapters on Iran, India, Egypt and Islam's clash with colonialism are enlightening. He is also excellent on the Shia/Sunni divide and particularly Wahhabism, an 'uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam', and its patron Ibn Saud. This history is fascinating given today's iteration in ISIS. 

Aslan is fiercely and rightly critical of the West, particularly imperialist Britain and now the US, and its heavy-handed interventions:

'The French went to great lengths to cultivate class divisions in Algeria, the Belgians promoted tribal factionalism in Rwanda, and the British fostered sectarian schisms in Iraq, all in a futile attempt to minimise nationalist tendencies and stymie calls for independence. No wonder, then, that when the colonialists were finally expelled from these manufactured states, they left behind not only economic and political turmoil, but deeply divided populations with little common ground on which to construct a national identity.'

Reza Aslan has written a highly readable, truly enlightening book. I highly recommend it.

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