My 10 best reads of 2018, just in time for the holidays

You will have noticed that this is not your regular ‘Last Word of the Week’ fix. As December draws to a close and everyone gets busy with end-of-year tasks and (for the lucky ones) holiday preparations, we’re putting LWOTW away for this year. In its place, I thought I’d give you a quick overview of my ten top reads of 2018. My aim was to read 60 books this year, but I am currently at 75 and hope to get a couple more in before 2019. Books are addictive, yes?

Not all of these books were published this year, but with TBR lists growing faster than I can read, it’s not always easy to keep up.

1. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

mandelMy best read of the year. First published in 2014, this book was recommended to me by word of mouth from a trusted friend. I found it to be: Wonderful. Uplifting. Thoughtful. Perceptive. Clever. Kind. Worrying. Sad.

It’s a perfectly comprehensible tale of the advent of the apocalyptic virus and the world inherited by the survivors. There is a large cast of characters, and at times it seems they have no connection, but their lives do intersect – as all of ours do, in truth. The hope and desolation of this novel will stay with me for a long time.

I’m so glad I read it.

 

2. Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

chambersThis is an amazing book, and I loved every minute of it. It’s my first Becky Chambers and now I have to read more. It’s rare and wonderful when fantastic books — and I mean fantastic in the sense of books that aspire to a different realism — speak to the reader in her own life. This book does.
Here are my three top quotes:
“Yet it was a quiet grief, an everyday grief, a heaviness and a lightness all at once.”
“That’s how we’ll survive, even if not all of us do.”
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.”
Yes!
I loved the cast of diverse characters and the plot threads that connected them all. I loved the worlds and the perspectives, and the clarity of this story. I was a little impatient with teenager Kip, but hey, that’s what teenagers are for! The alien viewpoints were also fascinating.
One of the best reads of 2018, for sure.

3. La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

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I am glad that I waited a bit to read this wonderful book, because now (I hope) I will manage the wait for the next of the trilogy. I confess guiltily that it’s my first Philip Pullman (he’s been on my TBR list for a long time) and I’m hooked. I could tell by the first page that this was exquisite, assured writing backed by a huge, compassionate, intelligent imagination.

The characterisation is masterly and Pullman doesn’t offer any short cuts or quick fixes to the dire circumstances of living in the time of a totalitarian government. I am in love with the daemons too. More please! Oxford forever.

 

4. From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

rawsonI really loved this extraordinary book. The dovetailing of historical family story plus alien lifeform may not be for everyone, but it really is worth trying. Some of the sentences will stay with you for a long time, even if you’re not entranced by the combination of alien and history. Personally, I LOVED it.

I don’t do spoilers if I can help it, so I won’t go into detail. I just want to say that this book makes the reader ask all the important questions. As in, what is life all about? What is our place in the universe? Are we the cosmic specks we sometimes feel? What about love and care for others? How do we take care of ourselves and our loved ones in the face of the vast majesty of life?

 

5. Winter, Ali Smith

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I fell in love with this book, after being a little puzzled at the start. Don’t get too caught up in the whys and wherefores in the beginning. A floating head? Why not? All will become clear.  I soon got into the swing of things and enjoyed every nuance. Essential reading for the Christmas holidays – thoughtful and compassionate, interesting and tender.

 

6. Den of Wolves, Juliet Marillier

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I very much enjoyed this third book in the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy – all of which I have now read. However it is so neatly written that it would stand alone. Very good consistency of characterisation, and the ending wasn’t squibbed. Loved it!

I pick up every Marillier book I see and have had some glorious times reading her wonderful, rich, insightful prose. This is the type of fantasy that resonates across the ages.

 

 

 

7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

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I absolutely loved this book from the very first line. Neil Gaiman’s writing is exquisite. Everything he writes about magical events seems so right that it sinks in. Of course the world is as he says it is.
You will love the Hempstocks and you will also be able to use ‘Ursula Monckton’ as an epithet for any annoying person you know!

8. The Orchard Underground, Mat Larkin

First up: I knew this guy in a former life, so I had some trepidation reading Mat Larkin’s debut middle grade novel. What if I didn’t like it? What could I say? I planned some soothing platitudes in advance, crossed my fingers and eyes, and started to read…
Well, all my planning was a waste of time. The Underground Orchard is seriously good. It’s smart, funny, accessible, well-structured and a wonderful read. I’m SO sorry that I didn’t get to read books like this when I was in middle school. Sure, I made a heroine out of Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong (who could ride horses, muster cattle, AND cook!), but where was Attica Stone, with her confidence, succinct way with wirds, love of strong black coffee, and refusal to give up?larkin
You’ll love Pri Kohli and his quirky way of talking, and his world-view completely immersed in the town of Dunn’s Orchard. You will meet the amazing Attica Stone, and the wonderful Slotcar character (who reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series). Pri’s parents – it’s nice to have a middle-grade protagonist with parents, just for a change 🙂 – are doing their best to stay cool while he navigates the craziness of the Razz Wood and does his best to save his town – or the wood – or the orchard – or his friends – or … but no spoilers here.
Read it. Read it to yourself, read it aloud to others. Nobody needs a backup plan with this excellent offering. I have my fingers crossed that Mat has more adventures planned for Pri, Attica and co.

 

9. The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

26032825CPThis novel has given me much to think about. I am so enthusiastic at the brilliant writing and the neat characterisation, but the plot is pretty dark. It’s my first Holly Black, and perhaps I need to read one or two more to delve a bit deeper. I wrote a blog about it, which you can read here — warning, *spoilers*.

That said, I’ve rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.

By the way, I adore the cover.

I think if you love GOT, you will love this. So that’s most people!

10. Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills

I devoured this fascinating book, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s a sign that it has some important things to say, I think. There are also many phrases that I noted as worth re-reading, and adding to my list of cool things written by excellent authors.
The story in this novel is like a cracked mirror – there are shards of time and we don’t always exactly know where or rather when we are – but every piece shines with reflections of reality that we almost recognise, but of course everything looks different now that reality has been broken apart and reassembled.

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This novel charts the dystopian future of a careless Australia, where the environmental damage is so gross that there is no future to be had. The wondrous, worrying dreams of local girl Samandra (Sam) are dismissed as, Cassandra-like, she debates how much to tell the people around her, people who prefer not to believe. Her mother Ivy in particular is determined to be head-in-the-sand, spending years trying to have Sam’s migraines diagnosed correctly. The resulting pronouncement of ‘dyschronia’ never quite settles the question, for Ivy, of whether Sam is truly foreseeing the future or just dreaming vividly and strangely. The entrepreneur Ed (who is meant to be charming, but I have pre-raised hackles about this kind of guy) is a credible saviour-cum-villain, or is it villain-cum-saviour, of the town. Sam’s best friend Jill is probably the most likeable of all the characters. I loved the device of the ‘chorus’ of locals whose comments intersperse Sam’s dreams and Sam’s story.
Equally prescient of a dire future and nostalgic of the simple ignorance of the past, this elegant story of loss and the inevitability of bad choices deserves an enduring place among the best Australian books of recent years.

 

So that’s it for another year! I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings in terms of new, re-discovered, and old books. Then of course there’s my TBR pile waiting patiently.

Safe and happy times to you all!

Two points about Truth in Fiction

I’ve just been reading on of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels – the first I’ve read, and the last of the series. And there was a TV series too. I know, I’m well behind. But here a a couple of writerly things to note:

POINT ONE: The book I read was Book Eight (Mary Ann in Autumn). While I was aware – vaguely – of this series, I’d never read any of the novels. (I will now.) However, I had absolutely NO trouble following the story, keeping on top of the characters’ relationships with each other, or accepting their back stories, no matter how light the mention. This book stood alone. How did this happen?

I think it’s because the links are there. Maupin’s technique was to introduce a new (to me) character at the end of each chapter, and then pick up that character’s story in the next chapter. The continuity of scene and time/space (ie the realism of the San Francisco of the 2000s) connected every character’s story line to the others. As a writer of fantastical and historical stories, I appreciated Maupin’s mastery here. Complete consistency of time and space is necessary for the story to feel ‘true’. World building is essential, even when writing modern realist novels.

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POINT TWO: Life wisdom can jump out of any story line. If a particular life truth happens to gel with the reader’s current or recent life experience, then that reader is hooked into the truth value of the story.

In my case, it was a line about dementia:

“Ray had Alzheimer’s these days … which rendered him foggy but jolly, a nicer person than his former ornery self.”

Now, I’ve read SO much about dementia since my mother was diagnosed with an invasive brain tumour, and nowhere else have I found an echo of the situation that now faces us. Our prickly, argumentative, one-up-woman-who-knows-everything has become sweet and gentle and positive and welcoming. Mum is a whole other story, but that sentence in Maupin’s book was the first time I had felt affirmed in my family experience of dementia.

Truth in fiction. It’s one of the reasons we read, one of the reasons we write.

Deep Blue cover reveal: I can’t wait

Here’s a great cover reveal for a new instalment in Jane O’Reilly’s Second Species trilogy – Deep Blue, the sequel to Blue Shift.

Add this blurb, and it’s yet another book I can’t wait to get my hands on!

Jinnifer Blue opens her eyes to find herself in a ship that is the source of her darkest nightmares. Her plan to expose the horrific truth behind the government’s secret Second Species programme has failed, and now she’s being turned into a weapon by her worst enemy . . . her mother.

At the other end of the galaxy Caspian Dax, ferocious space pirate and Jinn’s sometime lover, is facing an even more terrifying fate. He’s being forced to fight in the arena on Sittan, a pitiless, ruthless alien landscape where blood is the only prize that matters. They will use him, destroy him, change him.

Jinn has only one chance – to go to Sittan and find Dax before his mind is completely destroyed. She must rely on her friends and one old enemy, leave her beloved ship the Mutant behind, and travel to a hostile planet. But hardest of all, she must keep faith that when she finds Dax, there will be something left of the man she knew.

One thing’s for sure: the fight has only just begun

The buried genre

After a week or more’s musing, I think I have worked out what was so difficult for me in the reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I recently reviewed on Goodreads.

The sticking point, for me, is the description of the novel as ‘fantasy’. Turns out that I have quite set expectations of ‘fantasy’ novels – that there will be a resolution to a specific problem being one of them. I can cope with an unusual fantasy protagonist – our hero/heroine/main interest character doesn’t need to fit the traditional handsome (and maybe hidden) prince model for me to read on happily. I can cope without romance, and in fact found the constant ‘princess’ tribute by Axl pretty annoying, though it was clear that he truly loved Beatrice. I don’t need dragons or witches or spooks, black cats or shape-shifting baddies.

What I do want in a fantasy novel is plot, character-driven plot for preference.

I now think that what made me so uncomfortable was the lack of resolution in The Buried Giant. I loved the writing, and I think that, had the novel been described differently, I may have been more relaxed with it.

Genre, genre. Ever since The Game of Thrones (ie George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire) killed off Ned Stark in Book 1, I’ve been floundering!

The Cruel Prince: dangerous fiction

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Maybe that should be ‘dangerous reality’. I’ve just finished reading Holly Black’s excellent fantasy novel The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1). I’ve rated it 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.

By the way, I LOVE the cover.

*warning spoilers*

I became totally absorbed by this story, but also increasingly troubled. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m wondering if it’s the reflections of domestic violence that are worrying me? Let’s look at the story line:

Our protagonist Jude is kidnapped and taken to Faerie by a violent redcap general called Madoc. Madoc was married to Jude’s mother – she left him, taking their child. So Madoc murders both Jude’s mother and her new partner (Jude’s father), reclaims his own daughter, and takes Jude and her twin for good measure. The three girls are brought up in the dangerous, deceitful Faerie court.

So that’s problematic – being brought up by the man who killed your parents because your mother was once married to him, and failed to make a complete escape.

Then Jude, as a teenager, is bullied and despised by the Faerie court, in particular the friends of the beatutiful and very cruel Prince Cardan (who rips off a fairy’s wing the first time we meet him, for not a good enough reason). The bullying is vicious and relentless, and Jude is effectively isolated from any help – even her twin Taryn betrays her.

I was hoping against hope that this wouldn’t turn out to be a story where the girl falls for the violent, abusive love interest, who, you know, really loves her underneath it all. However as we discover that Cardan himself has been abused, I’m suspecting that he is being transformed from perpetrator to victim and that they may end up as a pair.

Scary. Too real.

What do you think?