It’s rather small this year, and a little belated, but here it is.
Notes/Rambling: I can’t help but feel a strange common thread has run through my reading and thinking life this past year, about reincarnation and immortality and living in the present moment, a time being, moving through time. It’s there in David Mitchell’s novels and of course in A Tale for the Time Being and in My Name is Memory and in Orlando, both the stage production I saw at Sydney Theatre Company and the original novel that I finished off the reading year with. It’s here, it’s now. It’s consciousness. It’s maybe the opposite of death. I haven’t intentionally sought out this thread but it seems to keep finding its way to me, and I’m glad.
1. Sabriel by Garth Nix
Starting the year off on a light note. I’d heard a lot about this series, and that Sabriel was a solid female protagonist. I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely for younger readers and I’m not going to track down the rest of the series (but I probably would if I’d read it fifteen years ago!)
2. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss
Seriously… look how pretty it is!
Another successful ‘I bought this book because the cover was pretty’ venture. Bodies of Light is about one of the first female students to study medicine in London – her childhood, her frigid relationship with her mother, women’s suffrage, a certain period in history. The prose is almost as gorgeous as the cover. One of those happy accidents stumbled upon in a bookstore that I want to tell everyone about. Go! Find! Read!
3. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
Recommended by a friend (which is how I read most genre fiction). Very enjoyable urban fantasy where the city of London has developed its own magic of electricity and Biker gangs and graffiti. It was grungy. It was strange. I liked it a lot.
4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is one of those books I’ve always had a vague feeling I should have read, and this year I finally got around to it. Now I can finally sing the line about Maya Angelou in La Vie Boheme from Rent and know what I’m talking about!
5. Clade by James Bradley
I have been a reader of James Bradley’s blog on and off for a while now, and I really enjoy the way he writes. This is the first full-length piece of his fiction that I’ve read, and I was not disappointed. Though beautifully written, it left me with a lingering sense of sadness that was hard to shake. It follows generations of a family through a world devastated by climate change, and it just felt all too real to me. It didn’t feel like science fiction, it just felt like the future that we are all going to be stuck with.
6. South of Darkness by John Marsden
More than anything else, this reminded me of Treasure Island by my good ol’ great-great-grand-cousin, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a relatively simple tale of a young London orphan in the 1700s who gets himself sent to Australia as a convict to seek a better life. This is Marsden’s first ‘adult’ book, but to me it felt strangely much more child-like than his excellent Tomorrow When the War Began series, which was packed with heavy questions about war and death and reams of character development, all of which were lacking in South of Darkness.
On a happy side note, I did get to see John Marsden speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in 2015, and my tatty old well-loved paperback copy of Tomorrow When the War Began is now signed by the author, which makes my fangirl heart infinitely happy.
7. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Okay, we all know how much I love David Mitchell by now. His books are like dreams. It’s incredible to me that this was a debut novel. While I enjoyed some of his later work better (and Cloud Atlas will always be my favourite), this was seriously impressive for a first novel. I could only dream of writing something this powerful and original.
I got to hear David Mitchell speak at a couple of sessions of the 2015 Sydney Writer’s Festival, and I absolutely and unabashedly have a writer-crush on him. He is awesome, funny, humble, incredibly smart and creative, and ever-so-British.
8. Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This was the longest book I read this year. I read the first half of it very slowly and the second half very quickly – it takes a while to get going, and the fact that I was on holiday to read the second half definitely helped. This book is sort of like… the love-child of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen wrote a 19th century urban fantasy novel. I enjoyed it overall, but I’m not quite sure I understand what all the fuss and the cult following is about. It could have been shorter.
9. A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Another recommendation, this time from Mum, and I hereby proclaim it my Book of the Year. A few months after the 2010 tsunami, a Canadian writer (named Ruth) finds a lunchbox washed up on the shore and inside it the diary of 16-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl, who is quite determined to write a diary before she kills herself. The book weaves back and forth between the novelist reading the diary and the diary entries. While I found the schoolgirl Nao to be a more entertaining narrator, the real glory of the book is the way the two threads intertwine.
I can’t really describe this book. It did stuff to me. It was a book that I deeply needed in my life this year.
As per tradition (the fact that it happened once before makes it a tradition, right?) my Book of the Year gets the honour of my favourite passage transcribed:
“A single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. […] Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”
10. Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
This was my Unfortunate Disappointment of the year. I first read Eucalyptus in Year 11 English class and I remembered enjoying it at the time as an Australian fairytale-esque novel. On re-read a decade later, it appears to be a loose collection of short stories tied together by an irritating plot in which a modern Australian man sells off his daughter to whoever wins his stupid tree-naming competition. No one sees anything strange in this medieval marriage/competition throwback and the daughter mopes around doing and saying literally nothing for the entire book while her future is determined by a handful of male characters.
I put the book down around the last chapter and lost track of where I’d left it for a little while. When I found it again, I couldn’t even be bothered finishing it off. Ugh.
11. Fools Quest (Fitz & the Fool #2) by Robin Hobb
Imagine your absolute favourite long series of all time. Imagine reading twelve novels set in this fantasy world with the greatest characters you have ever read. Imagine reaching the end of the twelfth book, where everything is more or less wrapped up, only there is this little tantalising and frustrating thread of the unknown left. But the author says at the time that that’s it, that was the final book, there will be no more sequels for these characters.
Years later, the author changes her mind, and pants are peed in excitement.
This is the second book of the ever-so-incredibly-and-desperately-long-awaited Fitz & the Fool series, and it really kicks off in book 2. If you read it, sacrifice chickens to the God of Cliffhangers and offer prayers of thanks that at least Hobb is a quick and reliable writer, and the next one should be coming out in 2016.
12. number9dream by David Mitchell
See my happy rant about David Mitchell for #7 on this list. I don’t know if it’s the way all of his books are set in the same mega-universe, or the dreamy quality of them, or if it’s just that they blow my mind so much I can’t keep track – but I do have a hard time differentiating between Mitchell’s books. So I can’t give a very effective recap. As it’s set in Tokyo and it’s a coming-of-age story for the main character, it echoed A Tale for the Time Being in a strange and interesting way for me.
13. Spinster: making a life of one’s own by Kate Bolick
Another recommendation, this time from Laura The Selfie Queen. This book is part memoir, part non-fiction, about Kate Bolick’s life and the lives of a group of writing and thinking women who she has chosen as her inspiration. What makes a ‘spinster’ different to a ‘bachelor’? It’s an interesting look at society’s expectations and judgments surrounding marriage, motherhood and creativity. No offence, Kate Bolick, but I found the historical women you wrote about rather more interesting than your own life. That’s just the hazard of having good source material, I guess.
14. The Collected Poems, Sara Teasdale
Rarely have I devoured a book of poems so voraciously and easily as I did this one. Sara Teasdale has a deceptively simple style and vocabulary, but her poems have this deep ache and joy and beauty in them. She died in 1933 but I swear she gets me.
I made you many and many a song,
Yet never one told all you are —
It was as though a net of words
Were flung to catch a star;
It was as though I curved my hand
And dipped sea-water eagerly,
Only to find it lost the blue
Dark splendor of the sea.
(“Time,” echoes Josh Pyke, “is like the ocean; you can only hold a little in your hands.”)
15. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
How could I resist this book? It’s dedication is ‘For the librarians’:
People of the Book is a fictional re-telling of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th Century Jewish prayer book which has survived wars and violence and centuries, and the story of the people who created it and saved it and discovered it through the many years of its life. Historical fiction is not a genre that I read a lot in, but I really enjoy Geraldine Brooks’ work.
16. Looking for Alaska by John Green
I quite possibly would have loved this book if I had read it as a young teenager. As an adult, I found Alaska (the love interest of the main character) to be a shallow and hugely self-absorbed brat. So it was rather irritating. I felt like the main character was too smart to be obsessed with such a yucky person. Alas.
17. My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares.
Yes, Ann Brashares, of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants fame! This book is about (again) reincarnation and immortality, but this time with the frame of a love story. Two soul mates are reborn again and again through the ages, but only one of them remembers and tries to seek out the other in the next life. This would have been great, if only I hadn’t discovered in THE LAST THREE PAGES that this is actually the first book of a (as yet unpublished) series, so there was no closure whatsoever. Argh. It should be illegal to publish a non-stand-alone book without mentioning somewhere on the cover that it is Book One Of Many.
18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
This was my other favourite book of the year. I picked it up from the library after seeing the Sydney Theatre Company stage production at the Opera House. It has further cemented my love of Virginia Woolf, and was one of those books that come along at just the right time when you need it the most. It was also surprisingly funny, although when I look back at the wry humour in A Room of One’s Own, I’m not actually sure why I was surprised. It’s about many things – sex and gender, history, memory, our multitude of selves, the surge of time and the present moment. And it’s about writing.
The book is inextricably mixed with the production I saw in my head, so when I read the first I was picturing and hearing the voices of the second. The tiny boat reaches the crest of the wave… I am beginning to understand.