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Posts tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Best Books 2014

The Golden AgeI’d hoped to get this up last Friday, but I ended up holding off because The Weekend Australian’s Best Books feature didn’t run until Saturday and I didn’t want to preempt my contribution to it. If you’ve got a few minutes I strongly suggest you take the time to check that list out, since it’s crammed with great stuff. You might also want to check out the lists in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the excellent Books of the Year feature in Australian Book Review (which I also contributed to but isn’t online and is available for the price of a couple of cups of coffee).

As I said in the Oz and ABR, two of the books that stood out for me this year were Ceridwen Dovey’s wonderful suite of short stories, Only The Animals and Joan London’s luminous new novel, The Golden Age. I suspect both sound like slightly odd propositions at first blush – the Dovey is a series of stories about animals whose lives cross over with literary figures such as Tolstoy and Kerouac and Lawson, and the London is about two teenagers in a polio hospital in the 1950s – but they’re both fantastic books, and I’d be very surprised if the London wasn’t all over award shortlists here and overseas in 2015.

Staying with Australian books for a moment, there were three others I enjoyed enormously. The first is Chris Flynn’s The Glass Kingdom. I loved Flynn’s debut, Tiger in Eden, but the often very funny The Glass Kingdom shows Flynn stretching himself imaginatively and technically as he interrogates the various ways men perform masculinity. I was also very impressed by Fiona McFarlane’s tautly written debut, The Night Guest, and the fabulous P.M. Newton’s gritty and brutally unsentimental take on Sydney and crime, Beams Falling.

I also loved two books I’ve already written about but hope to write something longer about soon, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I know I’m not alone in being deeply impressed by the Faber, which is both very strange and deeply affecting, but I was also very moved by the Mitchell, which seemed to be deeply and productively engaged with a series of questions about time and loss.

Only the AnimalsMoving further afield I also completely adored Ali Smith’s smart, sexy and very moving How to be both, Jenny Offil’s wonderfully fragmented and very witty Dept. of Speculation, and Will Eaves’ marvellous The Absent Therapist, and while half the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark had already been published in Faber’s Collected Stories a few years ago, even four new stories by Moore are something to celebrate. Something similar is true of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, almost all of which I’d read elsewhere (and sometimes as non-fiction, which gives the book an even more unsettling frisson) but gathered together the pieces form a powerful and troubling whole. And Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is exactly as smart, funny and wicked as you’d expect, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Whether Richard Ford’s new Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a novel or four short stories is an interesting question, but either way it sees Ford back on top form as he depicts the now retired Bascombe not quite adrift in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Next to Ford Colm Toíbín’s writing can seem deliberately unshowy, but his new one, Nora Webster’s portrait of a woman rebuilding her life after the death of her husband offers a reminder of just how good he is. And while it didn’t make the Booker shortlist Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo sees Powers interweaving classical music and biology and terrorism in typically brilliant fashion (just quietly, if I could write a novel like Orfeo I’d die happy).

As I mentioned the other day you can catch me, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe chatting about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books on the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, but as I say there, I was enormously impressed by William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, which is both brilliantly written and grounded in a fully lived social reality in a way his last couple of books haven’t been, and Adam Roberts’ darkly witty, deeply literate and very unsettling riff on talking animals, Bête. I also adored the second part of Sean Williams’ Twinmaker trilogy, Crashland (which has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I’ve read in ages), Simon Ings’ creepily visceral exploration of virtuality, Wolves, and although I think it’s an almost wilfully unlikable book, I was deeply impressed by Peter Watts’ chilly follow-up to the terrifying Blindsight, Echopraxia. And while I didn’t think Ann Leckie’s sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword was as successful at a narrative level as its predecessor it was no less thoughtful and uncompromising in its depiction of the nature of power.

Of the debut science fiction novels I read this year the one I loved the most was Monica Byrne’s jagged and sensual The Girl in the Road. And while I’m not sure whether it’s really a genre novel at all, I hugely admired Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle’s awkward and deeply distressing study of trauma and the possibilities of the imagination, Wolf in White Van.

And finally, turning to fantasy, two novels stood head and shoulders above everything else I read. The first was Garth Nix’s wonderful new Old Kingdom novel, Clariel, a book that comes at the world of the Old Kingdom from a new angle, and which doesn’t just provide a reminder of just how wonderful that world is, but of how rich and magical and funny Nix is when he’s working at full throttle. And the second was the emotionally expansive and deeply satisfying conclusion Lev Grossman’s fabulous Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.

H is for HawkOn the non-fiction front I loved Iain McCalman’s passionate and thrilling history of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef, and slightly closer to home, Ian Hoskins’ wonderful history of the New South Wales coastline, Coast. I also very much enjoyed James Nestor’s descent into the world of freediving and fringe science, Deep (a book I want to write something more about soon) and . But the two non-fiction books I loved the most this year were Helen MacDonald’s sometimes strained, sometimes eerily beautiful H is for Hawk (and interestingly the third book engaged by T.H. White’s legacy I’ve read in the last couple of years) and Sophie Cunningham’s tense, terrifying and frighteningly prescient study of Cyclone Tracy and its aftermath, Warning.

Of the graphic things I read I loved a number of the quirkier titles Marvel has been producing, in particular Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s brutal and brooding Moon Knight, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s joyous Ms Marvel and Charles Soule’s now-sadly cancelled She-Hulk, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Emily Carroll’s fabulously creepy collection of shorts, Through the Woods, a book that brilliantly marries a finely tuned affection for the pulp comics of the 1950s, an awareness of the cruelty of fairy tales and a wonderfully acute grasp of the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s great stuff.

Of course as always there are a number of things I haven’t got to yet but am looking forward to very much, in particular Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Boyhood Island, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a number of which I hope to get read over the break.

On the subject of which I hope the holiday season brings good things to all of you, and the year ahead is full of good things. Peace and goodwill to you all.

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

Best Books 2013

The KillsBecause it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure everybody’s mind is focussed on matters literary I thought I’d take a moment to pull together a list of some of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the past twelve months. As usual I’ve already made a start in my contributions to the annual roundups in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which also have contributions from Delia Falconer, David Malouf, Geordie Williamson, Felicity Plunkett and a lot of other people: if you have a chance I really do recommend checking them out.

As I said in my list for The Australian, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that the best new book I read this year was Richard House’s 1000 page metafictional thriller, The Kills, a book I’ve been proselytising about ever since I read it back in August. In a time when it’s occasionally difficult to make a case for the novel House’s book (or books, I suppose, since it’s really four short novels) is a reminder of exactly why fiction matters: smart, savage, politically ferocious, it’s also technically and formally audacious, pushing the boundaries of what novels are by incorporating video and sound into its structure.

I was also hugely impressed by Rachel Kushner’s dazzling study of art and politics, The Flamethrowers, a book that’s distinguished both by its intelligence and by the electric energy of its prose, Margaret Atwood’s occasionally frustrating but ferociously funny Maddaddam, Karen Joy Fowler’s characteristically smart, self-aware chimpanzee experiment novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Philipp Meyer’s sprawling Texan saga, The Son and Patrick Flanery’s brilliant, angry and thrillingly unstable exploration of contemporary America, Fallen Land.

Another book I liked very much but which seemed to receive less attention that I would have expected was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. Although I’m a big admirer of Barnes I was a bit underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending. But Levels of Life is a remarkable book, exhibiting both extraordinary control and a palpable sense of the raw, unprocessed (and largely unprocessable) nature of grief.

RevengeMeg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is another book that seems to have found a while to attract the attention it deserves, so it’s pleasing to see it turning up on a number of best of the year lists. Warm, capacious and very smart about the nature of friendship and the way age and success alters the dynamics of relationships, it’s also one of the most consistently enjoyable things I’ve read this year. And while I suspect it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, I loved Yoko Ogawa’s splendidly sinister matryoshka doll of a collection, Revenge.

There are also a couple of books I came to late, but which blew me away. The first is A Death in the Family, the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical fiction, My Struggle. I’ve yet to read the second, A Man in Love, which was released in an English translation earlier this year, but I was mesmerised by A Death in the Family. The Sydney Review of Books has just published a brilliant review of the two of them by editor James Ley; if you only read one piece about Knausgaard it’s the one to read, not least because it’s very articulate about the reflexiveness of Knausgaard’s project, and about the Proustian edge to the books, which seems to me to have been mostly misunderstood. I suspect a lot of the impact of A Death in the Family is due to the power of the final third, and its unflinching depiction of the narrator’s father’s death of alcoholism and its aftermath, but the book is also fascinating for the way it explores the tension between mimesis and banality.

The other book I came to late was the late Ian MacDonald’s thrilling study of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, which I read alongside Pete Doggett’s whip-smart account of the lead up to and aftermath of their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money and Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s huge but often fascinating biography of the band and its members, All These Years. While the others are all good, MacDonald’s book is hands-down the best book of pop music criticism I’ve ever read, although it’s given a run for its money by one of the other standout books I read this year, Bob Stanley (late of pop group, Saint Etienne)’s endlessly absorbing, occasionally problematic and constantly delightful history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah. I want to write something longer about Yeah Yeah Yeah at some point: for now I’ll just say that while Stanley lacks MacDonald’s deep critical intelligence he’s never less than engaging and his command of his extraordinarily diverse material is remarkable, and like many such works my arguments with it only added to the pleasure of reading it.

Caspar HendersonI have to confess I didn’t read as much Australian fiction as I should have this year, but of the things I did read a couple of books really stood out. One was Tim Winton’s Eyrie, a book that in its portrait of the contradictions underlying the West Australian boom was more explicitly engaged with contemporary Australia than a lot of Winton’s fiction, but the real standout was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan seems to have spent most of his career looking for a way to marry his family history to the national narrative; in The Narrow Road to the Deep North he’s done just that, with remarkable results.

On the genre side of things I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Graham Joyce’s slyly unpredictable follow-up to the wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale, The Year of the Ladybird, and Ann Leckie’s terrific debut, Ancillary Justice, as well as Paul McAuley’s final Quiet War novel, Evening’s Empires and Madeline Ashby’s queasily acute exploration of the line between human and Other, iD, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Guy Gavriel Kay’s gorgeous, allusive sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. All Kay’s books are terrific but I suspect River of Stars is the best thing he’s written to date.

Of the non-fiction I read this year the best thing was Caspar Henderson’s prismatic exploration of our ways of thinking about animals, Nature and ourselves, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, but I was also dazzled by Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s astonishingly beautiful compendium of bird lore, Birds and People. I admired Cocker’s last book, Crow Country, very much, but Birds and People is a much more singular creation, and, interestingly, one that has more than a few resonances with The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Other non-fiction books I enjoyed include Tim Dee’s deeply disquieting study of four spaces, Four Fields, Philip Hoare’s peripatetic exploration of the ocean and its meanings, The Sea Inside, psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully humane and psychologically sophisticated The Examined Life and John Ogden’s magnificent study of Sydney’s southern beaches, Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (if you’ve got a moment the interview with Ogden on the ABC’s Late Night Live is well worth a listen).

And last, but not least, a book I came to late but loved quite immoderately, Stephen Collins’ delightfully weird contemporary fable, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. As I said in my piece for The Australian on the weekend, even if you don’t normally read comics please take the time to track one down; you won’t be sorry.

And finally my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season: I hope you’ve had a great year and the twelve months ahead are full of life, love and all good things.

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Coode Street and Me

the-coode-street-podcastA little after the fact, but if you get a chance you might want to check out Episode 154 of the Coode Street Podcast, which features me chatting with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe about subjects ranging from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paul McAuley’s Quiet War series to Margaret Atwood, Tolkien and the future of science fiction.

I’m a big fan of Coode Street, which I think is necessary listening for anybody interested in science fiction or fantasy, so it was great fun to be a part of it. You can download the episode from Podbean or from iTunes.

If you’re interested I’d also very much recommend taking the time to check out M. John Harrison’s recent appearance on the show (available via Podbean and iTunes), in which he demonstrates he’s exactly as brilliant in person as on the page, and the conversations with Graham Joyce (whose new book, The Year of the Ladybird, is a delight (again, Podbean, iTunes)) and Ursula Le Guin (Podbean) from a while back.