Book Chook 2017 Year in Review

06 Dec 2017

2017 has been an exciting year for Australian authors, with many new entrants to discover. The success of Jane Harper's The Dry has heralded the release of many new titles in the Australian crime fiction genre.  The following is a list of titles the Bookchook has enjoyed, but is only a sample of the many on offer.

The Power by Naomi Alderman is a novel of speculative fiction about the use and abuse of power. What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being afraid of men? This is a crazy, sometimes funny, thriller with themes of gender politics, religion and violence and of course power, where women become the dominant sex after waging a brutal and bloody war on men. This also won this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Ashley tells of the life and work of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the famous ornithologist, John Gould. Overshadowed by her famous husband, Elizabeth created over 650 handcoloured lithographs - images which many of us still love today and which are a striking feature displayed in the re-vamped Newcastle Library. This is a fascinating account of her relationship with Gould and the joy she experienced through her love of nature. This work has been chosen for the 'One City, One Book' event to be held in Newcastle in 2018.

The Scandal by Fredrik Backman is set in a small Swedish town, in the middle of a forest, where hockey reigns supreme. Late one evening, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, and put the gun to someone else's forehead. This is the story of how they got there. I know very little about hockey, apart from some schoolgirl antics which are best forgotten, but the characters drew me in from the first page. Backman, who also wrote A Man Called Ove, brilliantly teases out many layers of intrigues in the small town - the tensions and rivalries, the families and friendships and the loyalties and inequalities against a backdrop of snow and blood, guns and desperation. (The novel is called Beartown in the US and is being adapted for television by the team who made The Bridge).

Sarah Bailey's The Dark Lake is an Australian rural crime thriller, reminiscent of The Dry. The murder of local schoolteacher, Rosalind Ryan, shatters the close-knit community. Small town secrets and suspicions intensify and the brooding  presence of the lake is somewhere no one wants to go.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne opens in the small Irish village of Goleen, where the local priest shames and banishes a sixteen year old girl because she is pregnant. This same priest has fathered two children in the town and thus begins Boyne's rage against the Catholic Church. We follow the life of the child of the banished girl, Cyril Avery, as he struggles to find out who he truly is. Cyril, a gay man in a society that hates his sexuality, takes decades to deal with his shame and guilt. This is a heartwrenching read, at times very funny, but with a deep sense of sadness. Ireland, like Australia, has recently voted in favour of marriage equality, however the shadows of the past still remain.

Wimmera by Mark Brandi is another new entrant in the Australian crime genre, and has been compared to The Dry and has met with widespread acclaim. Set in rural Victoria in the 1980s, it explores the friendship between two boys and what happens when the arrival of a disturbing newcomer to town threatens that friendship.

Alan Carter has been around for a while with his WA crime series featuring Cato Kwong. Marlborough Man is set across the ditch in New Zealand's South Island. UK Sergeant Nick Chester is working incognito in NZ to avoid various criminal elements who bear him some very serious grudges. The death of two local boys draws Nick and his family into increasingly dangerous territory, set against the harsh beauty of NZ. Carter's style is very Australian, with a dry laconic wit that makes all his novels such excellent reads.

Garry Disher's Under the Cold Bright Lights is a standalone thriller featuring Alan Auhl, returning to work cold cases, and who shrugs off the title of 'retread'. Written in a stripped back style, Disher shows that the pursuit of justice raises many moral and ethical issues. Auhl fights the good fight and administers his own form of justice, one not sanctioned by the courts. Another great Australian crim read.
Too Easy is the second of JM Green's Stella Hardy crime series. Set in Melbourne, Stella is a social worker dealing with dodgy characters who find themselves on varying sides of the law. Stella also has many police acquaintances, some more friendly than others and she inevitably becomes embroiled in a bikie feud, police corruption investigations at the same time as protecting  vulnerable street kids. This is a cracker from start to finish and has a nice dose of caustic wit. A great addition to Australian crime fiction.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper sees the return of Federal Agent Aaron Falk. Five women walk into bush as part of a work team building exercise, but only four return. Like The Dry, the landscape plays a pivotal role in setting the mood of this novel. If you enjoyed The Dry, you won't be disappointed.

Jean Harley Was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson is a heart warming novel that explores the impact of the death of a loved one on her family and friends. It is a lovely celebration of a life , with an uplifting message of hope.

Grace by Paul Lynch is a grim story set during the time of Ireland's Great Famine. Grace's pregnant mother, a widow of four children, cuts Grace's hair, dresses her as a boy and sends her to seek work away from the appetites of men. Grace embarks on a brutal journey of despair, starvation and betrayal. However, this is a work of great beauty and strength. Lynch's writing is poetic and haunting and he has a way of opening up phrases to send them on another level. Of Grace's deepening despair he writes that she is 'past want to a point that is longing narrowed down to the forgetting of all else'. A surprisingly beautiful read.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon is set on the banks of Lake Illawarra and traces the human impact on the area over four centuries. From the early days of European settlement, to the not too distant future of 2033, Storyland links four different storylines in a moving, sometimes brutal account , of our relationships with country and environment, with community and the issue of climate change. An unusual read, but a timely reminder of our place in the wider scheme of things.
Michael Sala's The Restorer is a local offering. Set in Newcastle's East End just before the 1989 Earthquake, Restorer follows a family's attempt to rebuild their lives while restoring a dilapidated terrace. Sala portrays a family under pressure and the tension within the family echoes broader events - student protests in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the murder of Stockton teenager Leigh Leigh. Issues of masculinity and family violence increasingly dominate the later part of the novel and Sala's depiction of Newcastle is brilliantly done - you can almost smell the salt in the nor'easter.

On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong is a thriller on many levels, weaving together issues relevant to Australia's role as a nation, both here and abroad. Set in international waters between Australia and Indonesia, the novel deals with the impact of tourism on local cultures, notions of class, privilege and gender, as well as the unresolved concerns of politics and asylum seekers. A fast read, but an important one none the less.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters is a work of historical fiction set in the time of the Black Plague in 1348. This is a departure from Walter's usual crim fiction and was written to remember the many forgotten victims hastily buried throughout the countryside. This is a warm, compassionate novel, with strongly drawn female characters and is to be followed by Book 2.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre is vintage Le Carre. The master of the spy novel returns and delves back into the Cold War, with a nod to his most famous spy, George Smiley.

I love a good spy novel and I have discovered three spy series that I will continue to follow:

John Lawton's Joe Wilderness series is set mostly in post WW2 in Berlin. Joe is not your usual spy, born in the slums of London and growing up with prostitutes and safe-crackers. This series is strong on historical detail and is an intelligent series, filled with conflict and intrigue, but with a richness of character that makes it an enthralling read.

The Thomas Kell spy series, written by Charles Cumming, has a disgraced former MI6 agent as its central character. This is a contemporary series, set mainly in London, but with jaunts to Istanbul, France and North Africa, that tick all the essential spy features. The books will shortly be made into a television series , similar to The Night Manager, starring the dishy Colin Firth as Thomas Kell.

The Jackson Lamb books by Mick Herron are among my favourites - so far there are five and fingers crossed for a few more. Jackson Lamb heads the unit for fallen spies, known as slow horses -  those who have made enemies or who have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Full of dysfunctional characters, none more so than the rather unsavoury Jackson Lamb, this is a fast, clever and very witty series. The third in the series, Real Tigers, won the Last Laugh Award at Crimefest 2017 for best humorous crime novel.
I hope that you find at least one book that you enjoy. We all read for many reasons - to escape, to understand, to explore, to relax, to challenge, to be inspired, or, best of all, because we can. Reading should be an experience and we all take different things from what we read. Some of the books on this list are not the best-sellers, which are easily accessible, but are slow-burners to savour.
"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading."
William Styron from Conversations with William Styron.
Have a lovely Christmas.