2017 In Review: Some Books I Loved in 2017

on Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Wait! Can I count kids' books? I mean, board books like Where Is The Green Sheep or Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. What about Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas? Yeah, so forget what I said last post. I read closer to 350 books this year (including rereads of aforementioned kids' books). *sigh* But, of the seventy-odd books for grown ups - yeah this is how I distinguish my reading these days - there were a bunch that really stood out. I'm glad to note, as I write this post, that most were Australian. Yes, Australian writing is in a pretty bloody good state in 2017. I'll be hitting the pointy end of my pontificating year later in the week, but until then, here's a bunch of truly excellent books you should rush out and read:

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Quiet, sad and angry, Solar Bones reminded me of the kind of book Anne Enright might write if she were more experimental with form. Don't let the single sentence schtick put you off - McCormack's style mesmerises the reader as the novel progresses and you'll barely notice its peculiarity by the end. Ultimately, this is a beautiful novel about ordinary people in depressed times.

Atlantic Black by A.S. Patrić
Having won the Miles Franklin with his debut novel Black Rock White City (my 2015 Book of the Year, a designation that I'm sure totally crapped on that other prize), it would have been easy for AS Patrić to play it safe and continue to mine contemporary Australian suburbia for his long form fiction. Instead, Patrić opts for a big risk - a novel with thoroughly European sensibilities, set over the course of a single day in 1938 on the ocean liner, RMS Aquitana. Unlike its predecessor, Atlantic Black is a slow burn of a novel, perfectly constructed so that what you will first experience as a glacial broodiness gradually gives way to a sense of foreboding so intense that you might well break into a sweat. Throughout, we follow Katerina Klova, left to fend for herself after the complete mental collapse of her mother, as the ship lurches towards the new year and, at least in our minds, impending war. It is something of a sinister picaresque, if such a thing exists, unfolding in real time and pocked with moments of terror, both visceral and hallucinatory. There is a great deal to admire about Atlantic Black, but its true genius lies in Patrić's ability to compress the sand of history so tightly that it becomes a mirror in which we can see the impending catastrophe of our own times. A brave and important book.

Rubik by Elizabeth Tan
As a child of the 80s, I was well and truly a member of the Rubik's Cube generation. I totally sucked at it. While all my friends twisted and turned the little squares until they lined up into six beautifully solid sides, I was forced to resort to the safe space of the spatially challenged: cheating. Sometimes I'd peel off all the stickers and re-stick them to form a slightly off-kilter face with peeling edges. Other times, I'd pull the entire cube apart into its constituent squares and carefully reassemble it. All of which is a round about way of saying, I read Elizabeth Tan's Rubik with a sense of exhilaration I can only imagine was felt by those friends more savvy with the whole twist and win strategy as they neared completion. Rubik is wonderfully original; a series of stories that seem, at first, to be only tangentially related but which spiral into an intricately woven narrative that is quite clearly a novel. It's playful, weird, thrilling and, at times, rather moving. Put simply, you should read it.

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson
When it comes to genre-defying, brain-bending brilliance, nobody in Australia does it quite like Jane Rawson. It's easy to pick comparative reference points - Attwood, Ballard, Lessing, Lovecraft - but to reduce her to any combination thereof would criminally understate the sheer originality of her work. In From The Wreck, Rawson turns her pen to historical fiction of sorts - the story of a shipwreck off the South Australian coast and its aftermath. The SS Admella went down in 1859, killing 89 of its 113 passengers. Among the survivors was Jane Rawson's great great grandfather, George Hills. In Rawson's version of the story, another was a shape shifting alien who might have been rescued in the form of the only female survivor, Bridget Ledwith. Obsession, guilt and delusion play a big part in this thoroughly strange book, and Rawson has a lot of profound things to say about them all. When I finished it, I wasn't quite sure what had actually happened, but I knew I had just read something quite extraordinary.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Given its place in popular culture (and I'm not just talking about the bad 80s hair metal band), it's hard to believe that the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden haven't spawned a cottage industry in literary retellings. Apart from a couple of stories by Angela Carter, I can't really think of any worth its thwack of the axe. Enter Sarah Schmidt, who, in See What I Have Done, has ingeniously inhabited the mind of not only Lizzie herself, but three other important players in this great unsolved crime. The chain-of-voices works perfectly in keeping everything tense and uncertain, all the more so because all four narrators are decidedly unreliable. To that end it reminded me of Iain Pears's magnificent An Instance of The Fingerpost. Schmidt's Lizzie is a picture of creepy instability and is a masterwork of perfectly-pitched characterisation. As for whether she did it, though. Well...

The Man Who Took To His Bed by Alex Skovron
As a huge fan of Alex Skovron's extraordinary novella, The Poet, I was excited to hear that he was returning to the world of prose (after 15-odd years) with his first ever short story collection. I'm glad to say that The Man Who Took To His Bed did not disappoint. One of Australia's finest poets, Skovron brings a lyrical beauty few possess to these wonderful, compelling and, at times, odd stories. But it's not just the writing that should draw you in - the imaginative range and creative energy are nothing short of superb. Ranging from the hyper-realist to the downright surreal, this is a collection to not only enjoy, but to truly savour.

Dinner at the Centre of the Earth by Nathan Englander
Great to see Englander eschewing the tempting pretentiousness of the 'literary' novel and going for a straight-up John Le Carré style thriller. Of course, it still is Nathan Englander so it's chock full of complex layers and beautiful writing but, damn, is it a fun ride! Coming from Australia, there is a weird sense of familiarity and discomfort as Prisoner Z's fate closely mirrors that of the infamous Prisoner X story - a young Australian former Mossad agent kept in secret solitary and ultimately left to die after he cracked on the job. An unsettling, challenging but ultimately enthralling read.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a year that will be remembered for the mass displacement of people from their war-torn homes, and my own country's shameful mistreatment of those seeking refuge, no book seemed as relevant or humane as Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. At its most basic, this is a love story - two young people meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern country just as war breaks out. Through their efforts to simply be a couple in love, we witness the disintegration of society around them and come to understand the ease with which "normal" can slide towards catastrophic. What sets Exit West apart from other such refugee narratives is a particular magical realist twist: doors appear in the city which transport those who enter them to other countries. This strange dreamlike device works at its most basic in giving the reader some insight into the refugee experience across the globe. But it also operates on a more philosophical level; we are forced to consider the meaning of "borders" in a time of mass migration, and the moral obligation of the individual in the receiving state. All in all a beautiful love story with profound implications.

The Student by Iain Ryan
Listen up, Bookworms. It pays to listen to your local bookseller. A few months ago I was browsing the shelves of the bookstore around the corner, not really sure what I felt like reading, when the manager (hi, Amy) sensed my deep existential distress and raced across to rescue me. In her hands was a copy of Iain Ryan's The Student. Now, it's kind of weird because I almost never buy crime novels, but she insisted I buy it because, well, "you'll really like it. I promise." Of course, she was right. Set in the town of Grattan (I feel that ought to be noted because, seriously, who the fuck sets their crime novel in a Queensland country town???), The Student is a gritty thrill-ride of murder, drug deals gone wrong, outlaw bikie enforcers, sexual deviance and general criminal hijinks. It's tight, no-holds-barred Aussie noir of the best kind. I mean what a bunch of unlikeable losers, and yet here I was rooting for them at every turn. Probably the most enjoyable book of the year for me.

The Lost Papers by Marija Peričić
My old friend Franz Kafka had something of a resurrection on the page in 2017. Nicole Krause played the chutzpah card in Forest Dark, imagining that Kafka faked his own death only to set up in Max Brod's Tel Aviv apartment where he could write undisturbed. It was a masterful play on the literary obsession with "Kafka's suitcase" and was, to me, the highlight of an otherwise uneven novel. But Krause's lark was nothing next to the sheer gaul (and I mean that in the best possible way) of Marija Peričić's reimagining of the friendship between Brod and Kafka in The Lost Papers. Rather than propping up the party line of a supportive friendship, Peričić nails what those of us who love Kafka have always thought - that Brod was insanely jealous of his far more talented friend. In The Lost Papers, it drives him to obsession, to compulsion, to delusion. As the novel unfolds, the layers of chicanery are peeled back, leaving us with something that owes more to Dostoevsky or Saramago than Kafka himself. A deliciously playful delight.

Well, that about does it. Join me on Friday for my final countdown of my five favourite books of 2017.


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