Sunday, 31 December 2017

My Reading Year - 2017

I have had a wonderful 2017 in books. Each year I set reading goals which usually consist of a number and a list. My challenge in 2017 was 24 books - two a month – which I exceeded by reading 26 titles this year. Not too bad considering my heavy workload and the stress of changing jobs mid-year.

My list included a number of books which I wrote about in my Planning for 2017 post. I managed to get through a many of these books, including:
Alas, several of my planned reads did not eventuate as I got distracted by other books.

Throughout the year I decided to chuck a few titles off my towering 'To Be Read' pile as it is clear that they are never going to get read. I made a second and third attempt to read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in 2017, and even tried listening to the audio book version. I made it to the halfway mark but was not enjoying it. Life is too short to read a book I cannot get into... Clearly I have not caught the Ferrante Fever!

Other books that I started and put down in 2017 include: Paul Beatty's The Sellout, Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, and Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I may return to these some day, but was not in the right mood when I started them.

Well, enough about the books I didn't read! I had an enjoyable 2017 in reading, and this is why:

When looking back over the novels I read in 2017 it is hard to discern a pattern or theme. I read several mysteries this year, which was a bit unusual for me. With one exception, all were written by women. Most were written in the last few years.

Several novels were on my list at the start of the year, and I am so pleased to have read Australian Jane Harper's remarkable debut The Dry (2016) and her follow up Force of Nature (2017). While I was reluctant to begin Hannah Kent's second novel The Good People (2016), I quickly became engrossed in the story. Ian McGuire's vivid The North Water (2016) was a pleasure to read for his lush and descriptive writing. 

Many of the titles that I read this year came about because I suddenly found myself without something to read. For example, I found Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in a discount book shop while waiting for a meeting I had arrived too early for. Likewise I found Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) while tidying my book shelves. I read both Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Gillian Flynn's Dark Places (2009) as I had suddenly finished other books and went scrounging through my e-reader to find something else to occupy my time. 

Wherever possible, I like to read a novel before I see the film adaptation. That was my impetus for reading JK Rowling's screenplay Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel (1951). Rediscovering Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie, after a long absence, was a wonderful delight.

Of all the novels I read this year the ones I would most recommend to others are Jane Harper's The Dry,  Ian McGuire's The North Water, and my favourite novel from the past year - Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love (2016). Rose's Stella Prize winning novel, inspired by the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, lingered with me long after I finished reading. It is magnificently crafted, taking a real event and adding a fictional twist to the tale. 

My non-fiction reads this year were a mixed bag of memoir, long-form journalism, and essays.

I continued to be delighted by my subscription to the Quarterly Essay and greatly enjoyed Benjamin Law's Moral Panic 101 and David Marr's The White Queen. I also subscribe to Australian Foreign Affairs and The New York Times which have provided much food for thought and many of my Random Reads columns.

Carol Dweck's Mindset (2006) had long been on my reading list, and I finally read it this year. This book made me think a lot about my own mindset, how I problem solve, how I communicate and about my relationships with others. It is such a simple concept - how a fixed or growth mindset will determine how you approach life -  but one with deep ramifications. 
On the recommendation of my mother, I read Mark Tedeschi's Murder at Myall Creek (2016) about a brutal massacre of Aboriginal Australians in 1838 and the NSW Attorney General's determination to see justice. Another horrific crime took place in 1996 at Port Arthur, where a man killed 35 people. Sonia Voumard wrote an interesting book, The Media and The Massacre (2016), on journalism and ethics, which I heard about when it was longlisted for the Stella Prize.

I read a number of books which tackled serious subject matters. Richard Flanagan's brief but impactful Notes on an Exodus (2016) explores the refugee crisis by telling the harrowing stories of individual asylum seekers. Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World and Me (2015) explores race in America in the form of a letter to his teenage son. Feminist journalist Lindy West's essays are compiled in Shrill - Notes from a Loud Woman (2016) where she explores misogyny, fat shaming, and other subjects.

I read some interesting memoirs this year. I had been holding on to Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son (2014) since the 2015 Sydney Writers' Festival where he was promoting the book. I really enjoyed Cumming's conversational style. I also read Carrie Fisher's The Princess Diarist (2016) about her affair with Harrison Ford on the set of the original Star Wars film. This was a bittersweet book, read in the months after her sudden death.

JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) was an incredible read about the disenfranchised working class in America, and goes a long way to explaining why populist politics were able to take hold in the 2016 Presidential election.  The vivid characters in the Vance family, their struggles and triumphs, lingered with me long after I finished reading.

I greatly enjoyed Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened (2017), her dissection of the Presidential campaign and the factors which lead to her loss. Her reflection is witty, passionate and sincere. She takes responsibility for her own actions and mistakes, and points the finger at those who share the blame.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was Mark Colvin's Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son (2016). Colvin was an old-school reporter and his memoir of learning on the job, covering major stories, and reporting from far-flung regions of the world was fascinating. So too was his early life as the child of a British diplomat/spy living in Austria, Malaysia and elsewhere. I have always admired Colvin as a journalist and his memoir was a delightful read. 

I have always loved poetry but often to forget to include it in my reading diet. This year I really enjoyed Clive James' Collected Poems (1958-2015), especially how he expressed his longing for Australia in many of his verses. Rupi Kaur's bestselling Milk and Honey was an underwhelming disappointment. I will not be rushing out to read her latest collection. 

Best of 2017
Of all the books I read this year the two works I regard most highly are Mark Colvin's memoir Light and Shadow and Heather Rose's novel The Museum of Modern Love. Honourable mentions go to Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened, JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, Jane Harper's debut The Dry and Ian McGuire's The North Water.

2017 was another great year in reading - enjoying new authors (Harper, Rose) along with old favourites (Rowling, Christie, Du Maurier). Plus, I managed to clear some books that have been on my 'To Be Read' list for way too long (Cumming, Dweck). Looking forward to a new year and new reading adventures in 2018.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

End of 2017 Book Lists

'Tis the season for the lists of the "Best Books of 2017" to be released by various media outlets. As a general rule, the lists contain books I haven't read and in some cases haven't heard of, so it is an opportunity to be introduced to new titles and authors. At the end of each year I compile my own list of what I enjoyed this year and my plans for the year ahead in reading. Before I share my own 'Best of' let's look at what others have to say...

Last Christmas I treated myself a subscription to the New York Times, and its section on books has provided me with much inspiration throughout the year.

The New York Times has two lists of recommended reads: the 10 best and the 100 notable books. The shorter lists contains fiction from Booker prize nominees Autumn by Ali Smith, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, along with Naomi Alderman's The Power, Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. For non-fiction it cites Richard O Prum's The Evolution of Beauty, Ron Chernow's Grant, James Formean Jr's Locking Up Our Own, Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy, and Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser's biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Well, I have read exactly none of these books!

I thought I might do better on the longer list, but alas no. The fiction side contains lots that I want to read: Rachel Cusk's Transit, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, John Banville's Mrs Osmond, and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Of the fifty non-fiction titles I have only read Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.

The Guardian invited publishers to nominate their favourite books of the year. Unsurprisingly, George Saunders makes the list, as does Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13, and Maggie O'Farrell's I Am, I Am, I Am. Of the listed titles, I want to read Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere and have read Jane Harper's magnificent debut The Dry.
Esquire magazine named 50 Best Books of 2017. Among the titles that made the cut which interest me are: Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing; Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach; Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere; Samantha Irby's We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.
The Boston Globe's list of The Best Books of 2017, contains a diverse mix of books. Of those listed, the ones which appeal to me are: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie; House of Names by Colm Toibin; The novels by George Saunders, Naomi Alderman, Jesmyn Ward, Mohsin Hamid, Arundhati Roy, and Min Jin Lee are among the Globe's best. Again, the only one I read off this list is Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.

NPR's Book Concierge compiled a treasure trove - a massive list with a diverse range of titles. The non-fiction list includes: Scaachi Koul's essays One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter; Ariel Levy's memoir The Rules Do Not Apply; David Sedaris' diaries Theft by Finding; Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies; Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race; Rebecca Solnit's The Mother of All Questions; and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Loads of great books here!

NPR's fiction list features familiar names: Hamid, Toibin, Ward, Roy, Ali Smith, Saunders and Strout. Other titles include Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; and Mike McCormack's Solar Bones.

Slate's Book Review writers Laura Miller and Katy Waldman each identified 10 books worth reading. Laura Miller's list includes Ali Smith's Autumn, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, Hari Kunzru's White Tears, and a number of non-fiction titles. Katy Waldman's lists always appeal to me more. Of the ones she has listed, I am attracted to Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, and the novels by Saunders and Egan.

Time magazine names 10 works of fiction including Danzy Senna's New People, Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Rachel Cusk's Transit, and novels by Ward, Saunders, Hamid, Egan. Time's non-fiction list includes Ariel Levy's memoir, Roxane Gay's Hunger, Ta-Nahisi Coates We Were Eight Years in Power, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.
Many of the lists contain predictable titles, but a few have hidden gems that I would not have heard of otherwise. After my exploration of these "Best Of" lists I have whittled it down to a handful of titles I would like to read in 2018, including:
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid 
  • Sung, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Conversation with Friends by Sally Rooney
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  • They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
  • We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
  • The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

So it's off to the library for me!

Notes on 'A Novel'
Finally, I am perplexed by the number of books I have come across on these lists which are subtitled 'A Novel'. What's that about? I could understand if it was part of a series like 'A Hercule Poirot Novel' or 'A Stephanie Plum novel' but not just 'A Novel'.

Is it done to help the reader find works of fiction? Is it to help shop keepers know which section to place the book in? Is it to ensure the reader knows that it is an invented tale? I reckon it is a either pretentious ('I am literature') or laziness (for those who don't read the back cover). Just saying...

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Rachel, my torment

Yesterday I finished reading Daphne Du Maurier's classic, My Cousin Rachel (1951), and last night I watched the 2017 film adaptation. Rarely do I find that film adaptations do justice to the novel, but I was pleasantly surprised this time.

Set in Cornwall, the novel is told in first-person by 24 year old Philip Ashley. Orphaned as a child, young Philip was taken in by his cousin Ambrose, a twenty-something bachelor, and raised on a large country estate. The two bond as father and son, and live in a world devoid of women. Philip returns from school and commits himself to remaining a stay-at-home bachelor like Ambrose.

When Ambrose takes ill, he is prescribed a treatment of good weather... so off to Italy he goes to take in the winter sunshine. Ambrose and Philip correspond and one day Ambrose mentions in a letter that he has met their cousin Rachel, a widow. As one season moves into the next, Philip learns that Ambrose has given up his bachelor ways and married Rachel.  Ambrose's health worsens and his letters become more erratic. Then one day he writes:
'For God's sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay it may be too late.'
Philip takes off for the continent only to arrive after Ambrose has died and the widow has left town. He returns home in a red-hot rage about Rachel, convinced that she has done wrong by Ambrose. But did she? Throughout the rest of the novel the reader contemplates whether Rachel is a mischievous gold digger who killed her husband, or a grieving widow who has lost the love of her life.

The challenge is that we only see Rachel through our unreliable narrator, Philip. His loathing soon becomes obsession as he finally realises that women have a place in the world. He has been so socially isolated that he cannot understand his desire and shows his affection in a number of ill-conceived romantic gestures. As Philip's love for Rachel grows, he resists gossip from the townsfolk and the warnings from his godfather and his long-suffering, would-be girlfriend Louisa.

I greatly enjoyed My Cousin Rachel for the way in which we readers are compelled to oscillate between Rachel's guilt and innocence. This is the torment, the not-knowing. Often times I get annoyed by books which leave me hanging, but with Du Maurier I loved the ambiguity.

The recent film version does the same. Rachel Weisz stars in the title role, with Sam Claflin as Philip. Incredibly talented, Weisz is so mysterious and bewitching, that the audience can see why Philip is enthralled by her.

I enjoyed the feminist undercurrent in Rachel's character, her desire to lead an independent life, free of any man, in a time in which women had few options. The acting was fine by all concerned (I especially loved the portrayal of Seecombe, Philip's ancient manservant). The scenery, sets and costumes were also superb.

If the film had a fault, it was in the heavy-handedness of the foreshadowing: Rachel brewing her herbal tisanas, the pruning of the laburnum, and so on. The film opens with Philip's voiceover asking 'Did she? Didn't she?' and ends with the audience left wondering. I will be pondering that for some time.

I would highly recommend reading Du Maurier's novel first for her incredibly sharp writing, her subtle wit and the way she draws the reader in. While the film is enjoyable, the book is more so.

My review of Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) can also be found on this blog.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Ms Rodham Regrets

Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir What Happened (2017) is her attempt to come to terms with her surprise defeat in the 2016 American Presidential election. Despite winning the popular vote by almost three million votes, she lost in the electoral college, handing the Presidency to Donald Trump.

The book begins on what was perhaps the most difficult day of Clinton's life - the inauguration of Donald Trump. She could have been forgiven for staying away, but instead she steeled her nerves, smacked on a smile and raised her head. Her reason for attending was to secure 'the peaceful transfer of power' and to signal a need to bring the country together again after a bitterly divisive campaign. Trump's inaugural address as 'dark and dystopian... a howl straight from the white nationalist gut', and a sign of things to come.

In this memoir of life on the campaign trail, Clinton is searching for the answer to why she lost, especially to such an unqualified, odious person. She writes:
'How could sixty-two million people vote for someone they heard on tape bragging about repeated sexual assault? How could he attack women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexican Americans, prisoners of war and people with disabilities - and as a business man, be accused of scamming countless small businesses, contractors, students and seniors - and still be elected to the most important and powerful job in the world?'
What Happened is a statement not a question. Clinton ponders the range of factors that lead to her loss: the desire for change, the disenfranchisement of large swathes of the population, the interference in the election by Russia and Wikileaks, the sensationalist media, the lingering of Bernie Sanders, the rise of third party candidates, her lack of 'likability' and 'those darn emails'.

Since reading the book I have seen a number of reviews which decry What Happened, stating that she doesn't take responsibility for her loss. I disagree. Clinton owns up to her own mistakes, but rightly points the finger at those who deserve to share some of the blame. This notion that she should curl up in a ball and never speak again is ridiculous.

Aside from life on the campaign trail, Clinton is also deeply personal in this book and spends a lot of time sharing stories of her family, her faith and her daily life. I enjoyed the 'at home with Hillary' insights and wish she had shown more of this side of herself in the campaign.

The chapter on women in politics reminded me of Julia Gillard's memoir, My Story (2014) and the misogyny she endured on a daily basis. Neither woman could get a break, and had to work doubly hard to be heard. As I watched this election from afar, I desperately wanted Clinton to smash the glass ceiling and take office. As she recounts her experience on the day of the election, preparing for victory and then switching to a concession speech, my heart ached for her. Like Gillard, Clinton has a deep reservoir of resilience.

I have read some of Clinton's earlier books like It Takes a Village (1996) and Living History (2003). They were smart but left me somewhat cold. What Happened is all together different, like she has found her voice and is free from the shackles of giving a crap about what the trolls say. She is witty and sharp. Reading this felt like sitting down with her over a cup of tea and listening to her tell stories. She is warm, quippy, and doesn't hold back.

I would recommend What Happened to anyone interested in politics. As she writes during the first year of the Trump presidency, her policies and positions on a range of issues stand in stark contrast to his self-serving and divisive initiatives.Given the events of the past year, the outing of high profile sexual predators (including many Clinton supporters), and the winding back of policies to protect those at the margins, the world needs the leadership she would have offered.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Law of the Land

Benjamin Law's Quarterly Essay (QE67) arrived in my mailbox this September, just before my same sex marriage survey did. The timing was prescient as Law's Essay, Moral Panic 101, was subtitled 'equality, acceptance and the safe schools scandal' and we were heading into a panic over the simple proposition that all people should have equal rights under the law to marry. 

Throughout September, October and November the hysteria around same sex marriage has been overwhelming. Those opposed have campaigned on fear and loathing, with slippery slope arguments which will bring about the end of days. While those in favour have argued for equality from a place of love and human rights. It has been a horridly difficult time for many in the LBGTIQ community and their supporters. Fortunately the result was a clear victory for the Yes! camp and the legislation to bring about this change has just passed in the Australian Senate. 

Law's essay is not about same sex marriage, but rather about the controversy surrounding the Safe Schools program. Essentially, Safe Schools was designed to address the problem of high youth suicide, particularly among LBGTIQ young people. The optional program would help schools be supportive and inclusive of LBGTIQ students, families and staff. The program was controversial largely because it was swept up in a moral panic by right wing media and conservative politicians.

Law explores the journey of the Safe Schools program from its origins to the hysteria surrounding it, and the eventual withdrawal of support from many states. Law deep dived into all the media reports about Safe Schools and from this was able to write with clarity about how the panic unfurled.

This was an emotional read: the tragedy of young Tyrone Unsworth who was driven to suicide at age 13 after relentless bullying; the bravery of  Caleb Nichols-Mansell who grew up gay in a small Tasmanian town; the passion of John Albiston, principal of a Victorian high school which adopted the Safe Schools program; and Law's own experiences as a young gay man growing up in conservative Queensland. These stories anchor the essay and make the reader ride waves of anger, grief and pride.

Law's writing is clear, frank, funny and packs a punch. This is an important essay and one that should be mandatory reading for parents, principals and politicians. Safe Schools has been pilloried when it should have been praised and funded. My hope is that now that the same sex marriage debate is drawing to a close, that young LGBTIQ people will feel supported by the overwhelming affirmation of equal marriage and that our nation will become more inclusive.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Listening and Learning (18/11/17)

My podcast obsession continues. Readers of this blog may recall my previous Listening and Learning post about S-Town, Trace, Revisionist History, Slate's Political Gabfest and Chat 10 Looks 3.

In recent weeks my attention has turned to some true crime podcasts - fascinating equivalents to a page-turning thriller. Indeed my 40 minute commute to work has not been long enough and I often reach my destination before the end of an episode and will want to walk around the block until it is done.

So here (hear!) are some of the podcasts I have been listening to lately.

Dirty John
Annabel Crabb mentioned that she had been listening to Dirty John in a recent episode of Chat 10 Looks 3. Sounded good, so I downloaded one episode to try it and within 48 hours I had listened to the whole thing. I also told a friend about it and she binged the six episodes in one sitting. It's that addictive!

Dirty John is the true story of a Californian family. Debbie, a 59-year old divorcee and successful business woman, meets a handsome Anaesthesiologist on an online dating site. She goes on a date with John and quickly falls for him. Within weeks they move in together and, despite the reservations of Debbie's adult children, they are soon married.

Over time it becomes apparent that John is not exactly who he says he is, creating a wedge in the family. The story builds as we learn more about John's past, the nature of his character and the lengths he is prepared to go to to keep Debbie. Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard narrates the podcast, which was released along with a print version of the story in the Times.

Be prepared to binge, as you will be hooked. Learn more about on the Dirty John website. There is also an interesting piece in The New Yorker by Sara Larson called "Journalism as Noir Entertainment" about the success of Dirty John which is worth a read once you've listened to it.

In The Dark
Once I had finished Dirty John, I looked for other similar podcasts and came across the Peabody Award winning In The Dark by APM reports. This podcast aired in 2016 and centres on a child abduction.

In 1989, 11 year old Jacob Wetterling was riding his bike to a video store with friends in rural Minnesota. They were approached by a masked man purporting to have a gun. He grabbed Jacob and kidnapped him. This crime gripped the nation and lead to 'stranger danger' campaigns and sex offender registry legislation.

For 27 years the mystery of what happened to Jacob went unsolved. Investigative reporter Madeleine Baran had spent nine months exploring this case and making a story about Wetterling's disappearance. A week before the podcast was due to air, an arrest was made, so Baran recut the first episode and release it early. The podcast is not about the mystery, but rather what went wrong in the investigation, what were the consequences, and what happened to those involved.

This podcast gave me a lot to think about and was an interesting expose on law enforcement, media and mass hysteria. More information can be found on the In The Dark website.

Missing Richard Simmons
I heard about this podcast through an article I read in the New York Times in March 2017 by Amanda Hess, calling it a "Morally Suspect Podcast".

Richard Simmons is a fitness guru that achieved fame in the 1980s with a talk show, series of exercise videos (Sweatin' to the Oldies), and an exuberant personality. Journalist Dan Taberski lived in Los Angeles, attended Simmons gym (aptly named Slimmons) and was a regular in the weekly aerobic classes Simmons led.

In 2014 Richard Simmons abruptly withdrew from public life and cut off contact with many people. Taberski investigated to find out what happened to Simmons. The result is an eerie, stalkerish podcast which attempts to show concern for Simmons' wellbeing but makes wild speculations about what happened to this celebrity.

New York Times journalist Hess was concerned about the way in which Taberski blurred lines and invaded Simmons privacy,  accusing Taberski of relentlessly pestering Simmons and his friends. She is forthright in accusing Taberski of exploiting and sensationalising the Simmons story. She also argues that public figures have a right to a private life. Her sentiments echoed mine as a listened to this podcast.

The ethics of journalism always interests me and in listening to all of these podcasts (and to Serial, S-Town, Trace and the like), I have reflected on the delegate balance between public interest and privacy. Fair minded investigative journalists know where the line is. S-Town in particular made me really uncomfortable with its voyeurism into the life of a troubled man.

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Sonia Voumard's The Media and the Massacre, and I often think about her consideration of the media response to the Port Arthur killings and the ethics of reporters exploiting those associated with the tragedy.

Investigative journalists are required to probe deeply in their quest for truth. They take time to uncover and interpret data, find multiple sources, check facts and ensure accuracy in reporting. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle and reduced resources in news rooms, there has been a decline in quality and a shortcut of ethics. Tabloid, sensationalist, click-bait news stories are prioritised and long-form, considered journalism is diminished.

As one of the thousands of people who has listened to these podcasts, clicked on sensationalist stories, and rushed to judgement on something I have seen reported, I know that I too have a role in this. I have much more to mull over here...

So those are my latest podcast obsessions. Stay tuned for more Listening and Learning.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Portrait of a Marriage

I stumbled across Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962) by accident. Early for a work meeting, I wandered into a discount bookstore - the kind where everything is under $10 - and there I found the Penguin Modern Classic version of this slender novel. Having never heard of the book, nor it's author, I bought it on a whim and found a nook to read while awaiting my appointment.

The novel tells the story of Mrs Armitage, a frequently married woman who has a wealth of children to each of the men she has  wed. Her latest husband Jake is an up-and-coming screen writer who desperately wants to be rid of all the children to boarding school and stop having more. Mrs Armitage is depressed due to her husband's infidelities and their newly acquired wealth which has left her with far too much time on her hands. Her psychiatrist gives her pills and encourages her to avoid pregnancy. Her sessions with the shrink take her back to her blossoming sexuality and her views on love, fertility and marriage.

This is said to be an autobiographical novel, and having read about Penelope Mortimer's life I understand why. Mortimer was married at least twice and had six children to four men. Her last husband was barrister and writer John Mortimer, of Rumpole fame. The book is a telling indictment of their relationship.

I really enjoyed Mortimer's writing style and the humour she infuses in a rather dark tale. She has a way of describing scenes candidly, often with tremendous wit. For example, a scene where Mrs Artimage remembers that as a teenager she read some women's magazines a friend had given her and
"learned many useful facts such as all men are children, all men are emotionally immature, all men dislike hairnets and criticism, all men are unfaithful, must be trusted, need hot breakfasts, want more than they should have and need more than they are given."
Another scene where Mrs Armitage is listening to her husband speak with her psychiatrist, Mortimer describes as:
"There was a short silence. I eased myself farther down the stairs. My heart was pounding again and I felt sick. Eaves-droppers my mother would say, hear what they deserve."
And again, when Mr Armitage returns from abroad, Mortimer writes that the children were awaiting his car:
"Most of them were in the front bedrooms, watching for him; when they saw his car draw up they cateracted down the stairs, swarming over him as he came through the door..."  
The novel was adapted into a film by Harold Pinter, which starred Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and Maggie Smith. The poster says it all - 'The marriage bed isn't always a bed of roses!' I am keen to track down a copy of the film and see how the novel was translated to the screen, especially given the talented cast.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Into The Wild

In the dense forest of the Giralang Ranges, five co-workers set off on a four day hike. Part of a corporate bonding experience, the excursion was supposed to bring them closer together. But when only four of the women arrived at the rendezvous point, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong.

Force of Nature (2017) is Jane Harper's second novel, released a year after her wonderful debut The Dry. It features federal police officer Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper, who have an interest in the matter as the missing woman is the whistleblower on a case they are investigating.

I love the way Harper writes and structures her novel. In alternating chapters between the weekend hike and the search and rescue operation, she slowly unfurls the mystery. The pace quickens as the story builds. Little clues, red herrings and the ominous location create an intriguing mystery. I thought I had figured the ending out quite early, but was delighted to find I was wrong.

Location is key in Harper's novels. In The Dry it was an outback town, dusty from drought. Here, the forest is dense and has a sinister past (evoking Ivan Milat's Belanglo State Forest). It is cold, wet and dark with clouds never lift. As you read, you feel the damp chill in your bones.

My only quibble is that some of the women on the hike were hard to tell apart. On occasion, I would have to stop and go back to figure out which one was which - Bree, Beth, Jill or Lauren. Readers need to pay close attention. All the women were pretty hard to like and have sympathy for. I definitely would not want to work with any of them, and remind me never to go on a corporate retreat.

In my review of The Dry, I said that Falk could become the next Cormoran Strike. With his second outing, I think that is true. He is a flawed detective - like Rebus or Wallander - smart and savvy, yet private and reserved. In the first half of the book we learned very little about Falk, but small insights into his character come out, largely thanks to Carmen's gentle probing. I would have liked more Falk in this novel, to draw him out a bit earlier, but I look forward to the reveal over the course of the series.

Second novels are often awkward and rushed after the success of the first. I didn't feel that in this case. Harper is a really good writer, coming into her stride in this genre. I look forward to the next instalment.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Booker Prize Winner 2017

The 2017 Man Booker prize winner was announced this week. From the thirteen titles on the longlist, to the six on the shortlist, the judges have now chosen the one book that would take home the prize.

American writer George Saunders won for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a story focussed on one night when Abraham Lincoln buries his 11 year old son. The graveyard is filled with souls not yet fully transitioned who reside in the bardo between death and rebirth.

The chair of the judges, Lola, Baroness Young said:
"The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world.  Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy."
I am so pleased this book won as I expected it would. From the first few pages, I knew there was something remarkable about it. Will write a full review on this novel shortly.

Of interest, this is the second American winner in a row, after the eligibility criteria was changed in 2014 to allow writers from outside the Commonwealth. I imagine with Paul Beatty last year and George Saunders this year, there will be plenty of British writers concerned about the widening pool of talent and wishing it were constrained once more.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Insider

It was such a pleasure to read ABC journalist Mark Colvin's Light and Shadow - Memoirs of a Spy's Son (2016). Colvin's memoirs explore his early life with his Australian mother Anne, his British diplomat/spy father John, and his younger sister Zoe. The Cold War was quietly raging and the family moved from post to post - Austria, Malaysia and beyond - while his father worked in espionage, a profession under pressure following the outing of the Cambridge Five Spy Ring.

When Mark was old enough, he was sent to Britain to boarding school - a brutal, punishing experience which he describes in great detail. At school Colvin fell in love with reading and music. His memoir is peppered with the soundtrack of his life and the stories that he enjoyed.

While studying English literature at Oxford, Colvin visited his father at his latest posting in Mongolia for summer holidays. Colvin's stories of Mongolia and its nomadic people reminded me of my own travels to Ulan Bator via the Trans-Siberian railway.

Colvin was an old-school reporter, with a solid credo: 'don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts'. He learned on the job as a cadet covering events that shaped Australia in the 1970s and 1980s like the Dismissal, the Granville train disaster and the Hilton Hotel bombing. He describes the tape recorders, reel-to-real machines, editing suites and difficulties of reporting in the pre-Internet era.

My dad was a journalist and foreign correspondent. Colvin's life as a reporter reminded me so much of my dad, that I felt waves of reminiscence as I was reading. Whether Colvin described his assignment during the Iran hostage crisis, the trial of Klaus Barbie, interviewing Lech Walesa, or events in London in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I thought of the stories my dad had told me of his own experiences in the fourth estate.

After covering the major events of recent decades, Colvin's career as a foreign correspondent was cut short by a rare and devastating illness contracted on assignment in 1994. Later, Colvin became a beloved presenter of PM on Radio National, an advocate for organ donation, and amassed an enviable Twitter following.

My only gripe with this memoir was that it is not long enough. Colvin himself acknowledges that there are many more stories to tell. I wanted to know more about his mother and also about his later life. His wife and children are barely mentioned, indeed they are pretty much absent from this tale, although undoubtedly major influences in his life. His desire for privacy is further evident in the fact that his illness was covered in less than two pages. Colvin had a lot more to say, but unfortunately this memoir will have no sequel.

From time to time I would see Mark Colvin present at events in Sydney. The last time I saw him live was at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, when he interviewed the newly released Peter Greste about his year in an Egyptian prison, the decline of journalism as a career, and the vital importance of a free press. I didn't realise how little time he had left with us.

Mark Colvin died on 11 May 2017. I heard about his death from Colvin himself in a beautiful tweet: "It's all been bloody marvellous." That about sums up my feelings after reading his memoir - bloody marvellous!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Random Reads (5/10/17)

I have read a number of fascinating articles lately which are worth sharing.
  • "The Dying Art of Disagreement" by Bret Stephens, published in the New York Times, is the text of a lecture Stephens delivered in September at the Lowy Institute in Australia. It is a powerful speech and one which I have thought about many times since I read it. Stephens talks about the polarization of viewpoints and the demise of liberal education in which we are taught to have an open mind. He talks about the rise of identity politics and the role of the media in speaking truth. One paragraph that really resonated with me is when Stephens says 
' disagree well, you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.'
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer sent over 60 journalists out into the city to cover a week in the life of its citizens to explore the impact of drugs. The result is an incredible "Seven Days of Heroin: This is what an epidemic looks like" and how one July week resulted in 18 deaths, 180+ overdoses, 200+ incarcerations, and 15 babies born with heroin-related conditions. In this compelling piece we meet the addicts, their distraught family members, the first responders, the police officers and others who are impacted by the heroin epidemic. It is a powerful portrait of a city in crisis and the images are astounding. 
  • I love Joni Mitchell. She is a music pioneer and legend. So I was drawn to an article in The Atlantic by Jack Hamilton called "The Unknowable Joni Mitchell". Hamilton reviews many of the biographies written about the singer and talks about the intimacy of her music. Reading the article reminded me of many of her songs from early albums and encouraged me to put my Joni playlist on repeat. Here is a live performance from 1974 of 'A Case of You', perhaps my favourite Mitchell song.

  • The mass shooting in Las Vegas on 1 October 2017 has produced countless column inches of coverage. It is a horrible, devastating crime that should be a wake up call to the gun loving Americans about the need for restraint. Perhaps I have become numb to the inevitability of the aftermath commentary in which the white perpetrator will be called a lone wolf rather than a homegrown terrorist, his owning a ridiculous amount of semi-automatic weapons is not questioned, and there is no action on gun control. There are plenty of articles covering this story and asking why it is allowed to happen. One of the best is by Roxane Gay's "No More Shootings That Follow The Rules" writing in the New York Times.  Also, Jimmy Kimmel opened his show on Monday 2 October with a moving plea for change which I found really powerful.

  • Finally, there was an interesting piece in the New York Times by John Herman called "What if platforms like Facebook are too big to regulate?" in which he explores the recent eviction of Uber from London and Facebook's attempts to 'strengthen the democratic process'. Many of the  big tech players - Google, Facebook, Twitter - see themselves as democratic tools, giving voice to the disenfranchised and bringing about connectivity and community. These platforms are now part of the modern infrastructure and yet these tools can be used with malicious intent as seen in last year's American election. So should they be regulated? And if so, how? Much to think about...

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Booker Shortlist

The shortlist has been announced for the 2017 Man Booker prize. The thirteen titles in the longlist have been whittled down to six.

When the longlist was announced I predicted Arundhati Roy, George Saunders, Moshin Hamid and Colson Whitehead would be shortlisted. Well, I was only half right; Roy and Whitehead were booted. Three Americans made the cut, which will undoubtedly reopen debate about whether the Booker should have expanded beyond Commonwealth writers.

The authors vying for the prestigious prize are:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (USA)
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (USA)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK)
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (USA)
  • Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)
I wasn't all that enamoured with the longlist, and so I find the shortlist disappointing. The only ones I expect I will read are Hamid and Saunders. I have started the latter and, if I had to guess, I would pick Lincoln in the Bardo to win. But don't take my word for it. I never get it right!

The Winner with the announced on 17 October 2017.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Miles Franklin Award Winner 2017

The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced on Thursday 7 September.  Perth-based writer Josephine Wilson was the recipient of the honour and the $60,000 prize for her novel Extinctions. The novel had previously won the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

The story focuses on a retired engineer who has had a once-thriving life as an academic and expert, and has now moved into a retirement village. Widowed and estranged from his adult children, he lives in miserable isolation. When a neighbour intervenes he is forced to confront his loneliness.

The Judges described Extinctions as:
a meditation on survival: on what people carry, on how they cope, and on why they might, after so much putting their head in the sand, come to the decision to engage, and even change. 
I have not read this book, so cannot comment on its merits directly.   The shortlist from which this novel was chosen as the winner was made up of first-time nominees:

Of these, I have only read Emily Maguire's novel and really enjoyed it.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Morsels of Verse

I was drawn to a Rupi Kaur's bestselling collection of poetry, Milk and Honey (2015), in part because I love reading new contemporary poems, but also as I was curious about this poet who had achieved such extraordinary commercial success.

The collection is divided into four parts: hurting; loving; breaking; and healing. The poems themselves align with these themes and are accompanied by the author's drawings.

Some of the poems I found quite moving, but as a whole the book left me flat. Many of the poems are only a few words long and sound like fortune cookies or horoscopes, for example:

    in love 
    with your solitude

    if the hurt comes
    so will the happiness

    accept yourself
    as you were designed

This was frustrating, leaving me underwhelmed. Lowercase, lacking punctuation, and often rather twee, these morsels drew my attention away from her more meaningful verse with its feminist undercurrent.
Much of this book felt like I was viewing the Twitter stream of a daily self-help account. Reading the thoughts of reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere it appears that Kaur's verse is polarising, with some people buying into it wholly, and others asking if it is actually poetry.  I lean more towards the detractor side, and it was only the few meaningful poems contained in this collection and the lovely illustrations that prevented me from throwing this book across the room.

For a contemporary poetic voice, check out the poetry of Kate Tempest.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Everyone is a Suspect

It has been many years since I last read an Agatha Christie novel. I had a minor obsession with Christie as a teenager in the 1980s, back when Peter Ustinov played detective Hercule Poirot in films like Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. I read those key novels and Murder on the Orient Express as well as And Then There Were None. Then I moved on from Agatha and sort of forgot about her.

Last week I was rushing out the door to work and, having finished one book and uncertain what to tackle next, I grabbed Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) on a whim. This delightful novel became my commute companion and a warm nostalgia swept over me as I read this first story featuring Hercule Poirot.

The novel begins with Arthur Hastings, a soldier who goes to convalesce at his old friend John Cavendish's family manor Styles. John's stepmother Emily Inglethorpe has recently remarried a younger man, who is much loathed by the Cavendish family. There are concerns that he is a gold digger out to steal the fortune and property away from John and his brother Lawrence.

One morning the house awakes to a racket, as Mrs Inglethorpe is dying from being poisoned. But who could have done such a thing? Enter Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a friend of Hastings who is staying nearby to wait out the war. Over the coming days Poirot makes many deductions and discovers a great deal of evidence. Poirot warns his friend that evidence can be too conclusive and that 'real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory.'

Christie is a masterful storyteller and a queen of the whodunit genre. She throws in enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing, and brings everything together in a room full of suspects where Poirot outs the true villain.

It was great to go back to the start and see how Christie introduces Poirot, who 'might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life'. And now that I have begun again, I am keen to read more and see how the characters evolve.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Once Upon a Time

I first heard about British novelist and short story writer Angela Carter two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate student. I took an English course called 'Major Women Writers' so I could explore Austen, Woolf, Eliot, Murdoch, Sand, Gaskell, Plath, Hurston, Morrison, Rich, Gordimer, Wharton and a bunch of Brontes.

The year before I had taken a year-long course titled 'Major British Writers' which included NO women writers. When I protested to my professor he told me there were no female authors he would consider 'major' and that maybe I should go do 'women's studies or something' if I wanted to read these lesser storytellers. My rage lead me directly to the women's studies department and my subsequent Master in Gender Studies. But I digress...

Angela Carter came up on the syllabus of my 'Major Women Writers' course and I have a vague recollection of reading her stories back in the early 1990s. I recently became reacquainted with her work and have just finished The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). This collection of short stories is based on well known fairy tales but with a modern twist.

The macabre title story is based on the fairytale Bluebeard in which a wealthy older man marries a young girl and takes her to his castle, where she discovers the fate of his previous wives in a secret chamber. In Carter's version a teenage girls marries a twice-widowed French Marquis and heads off to an isolated castle. She discovers her new husband has a keen interested in pornography and S&M. He leaves her with a key to a room that must not be opened, but the temptation gets the better of her... 

I quite enjoyed this opening story as in addition to the Bluebird familiarity, there were shades of Du Maurier's Rebecca, Bronte's Jane Eyre, Hill's Woman in Black and other tales. What I loved most was Carter's descriptive writing style creating a rich atmosphere. 

The next two stories are variations on Beauty and the Beast, and I preferred 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' to 'The Tiger's Bride'. I found it strange that they put these two stories back to back in the collection, and perhaps I would have enjoyed the second version more if I had put some space between the stories. Similarly, there are three werewolf stories at the end of the collection based on Little Red Riding Hood which must have been deliberately put together but the effect of which made me rather bored.

Highlights include Carter's 'Puss-in-Boots' - a funny story of a cat who lives with a promiscuous man, and helps him woo a young married woman - and 'The Lady in The House of Love' about a lonely vampire and a virginal English soldier. Her 'Company of Wolves' was made into a film by Neil Jordan in 1984.

Carter is undoubtably an excellent writer with her crisp, evocative prose and sharp wit. The feminist perspective is definitely present and when first published these tales may have been shocking, with the overt sensuality of the heroines, and the reinvention of gothic conventions. Over time, some of this boldness may have been lost. But what remains is a masterful, imaginative storyteller with a true gift for gothic literature.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Listening and Learning (12/08/17)

My daily commute to and from work takes about 30-40 minutes each way, with a ten minute train ride and the remainder on foot. This relaxing journey allows me the opportunity to reflect on the day ahead, or the day that has passed, and to learn.

Most of my travel time in recent weeks has been taken up with various podcasts, many of which I have stumbled across from my Random Reads. Many of these podcasts have also inspired me to further reading.

So here (hear!) are some of the podcasts I have been listening to lately.

I loved the first season of Serial, and I occasionally listen to This American Life, so I was intrigued by their latest podcast, S-Town.

John B McLemore is an erudite restorer of antique clocks living in 'Shit-town Alabama', his name for Woodstock in Bibb Country. He lives with his elderly mother on a property out of town, and is full of despair about the plight of modern America and the impending doom of climate change. John contacts journalist Brian Reed to tell him there is an unsolved murder in his hometown and he is worried about police corruption and a cover up. Reed corresponds with McLemore, talks with him and eventually visits S-Town to investigate this crime. While McLemore was wrong about the murder, he provides Reed with an entirely different story which is absolutely fascinating.

This was a remarkable podcast, the equivalent of a page-turning thriller, as I continually wanted to know more about John, Bibb County and where the story would lead. In parts it made me uncomfortable, thinking about privacy, ethics and journalism, as Reed digs deeper into the life of John B McLemore. Sad, poignant, funny, and intelligent, this podcast is literary and compelling. The way the story was told reminded me of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) and also JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016).

Be prepared to binge on the seven episodes, as you will be hooked. Learn more about on the S-Town  website.

Another Serial-esque podcast is ABC's Trace. In June 1980 Maria James was brutally stabbed to death in the bookshop she owned in Melbourne. Journalist Rachael Brown investigates this unsolved murder with the help of James' sons, detectives that worked on the case, and others.

To date only four episodes have aired, but they have been intriguing. Along the way, listeners have been aiding in the investigation, coming forward to tell what they know of the events that took place almost forty years ago. There are many theories of the case, and several possible suspects.

The good news is that Victoria Police have now reopened the investigation, and there are real possibilities that this murder may be solved (whether justice is done is another matter!). I have really enjoyed this podcast but I admit to being totally frustrated that Trace is currently on hold while it awaits actions by the Police and to see whether there will be a Coronial Inquest. I want to know who killed Maria James and to see her family get the closure they deserve. For more on Trace, see the website.

Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History
I have always enjoyed the writing of my fellow Trinity alumni Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (2000) Outliers (2008), Blink (2005) and What the Dog Saw (2009). He is a curious man who finds new and interesting ways of looking at things. His podcast began in 2016 and he describes it as a way of looking at the past and exploring 'something overlooked or misunderstood'. 
I started listening to it 2016 as the first episode focussed on a little known painter names Elizabeth Thompson, who Gladwell compared to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in the way they both broke through the glass ceiling only to be greeted with hostility and contempt. Thompson's painting 'The Roll Call' caused a stir in 1874 when it was exhibited in London to hype. Gladwell's theory is that when one lone individual cracks the status quo, the response is often to perpetuate the status quo rather than change it.

Other interesting episodes explore satire and social protest, civil rights, terrorism, genius, music and more. I recently listened to a two-parter on Civil Rights lawyers Donald Hollowell and Vernon Jordon and their attempts to find justice in the segregated American south. Another episode I loved was about golf - yes golf! - and how there are very few public parks in Los Angeles, but lots of private (often exclusive) golf courses and the tax concessions that allow them to thrive. 

Gladwell is a fascinating storyteller. Learn more by visiting the Revisionist History website.

Slate Political Gabfest
Every Friday I listen to David Plotz (Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (New York Times Magazine) and John Dickerson (Face the Nation) discuss US politics on the Slate Political Gabfest. This podcast was essential during the election, and even more so now as I try and get my head around the madness in Washington: what is happening on Capitol Hill, inside the Supreme Court and its impact on the wider world.
It is humourous and intelligent and I love the way the panelists play off each other. This podcast has also introduced me to some interesting articles as they discuss what is making news. One recent article that I read as a spin off from this podcast is Bazelon's story about Noura Jackson, a teenager convicted of her mother's murder, and how prosecutors withheld evidence that would have exonerated her. 

I also appreciate that the Gabfest website contains references to what they have been talking about and ideas for further reading.

Chat 10 Looks 3
I have previously written about my fondness for Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and their podcast on what they are reading, watching and eating. They say this podcast is 'time well -wasted' and I heartily agree. For me it is like sitting down with old friends across the kitchen table and having a good natter about tv, books and movies.

This podcast has lead me to discover many books, articles and tv shows. As a regular listener to this irregular podcast, I know the in-jokes, expect the sometimes dodgy audio, and don't get annoyed when they occasionally talk about something they mentioned many months ago.

The perfect antidote to a stressful day, the only downside of this podcast for me is I have bought far too many books as a result of hearing about them here. So if you like banter, books, and baked goods, check out Chat 10 Looks 3.

Rest assured, I have not given up books for podcasts. I have actually been reading a lot lately and have several blog posts in the works. So stay tuned....

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sea, The Sea

'Behold the man. He shuffles out of Clappison's courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air - turpentine, fish-meal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss-stink of just emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money's worth."

And so begins Ian McGuire's The North Water (2016). The man referred to is Henry Drax, a vile, murderous monster of a man without a moral compass. It is 1859 and Drax is about to board the Volunteer, a whaling ship headed to the Arctic Circle in search of blubber.

Another man about to set sail is Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon who joins the crew as a means of escaping his past. A former military man, he made a regrettable choice during the Siege of Delhi in 1857 which saw him ousted and disgraced. His nightly consumption of laudanum eases his conscience.

As the ship sets sail on a fateful voyage, the hey-day of whaling has almost past, with overfishing and a shift to whale oil substitutes like kerosene. The whalers know how dangerous their work is: as they battle against the elements, in small wooden boats against massive sea creatures. There is a lot that can kill you in the North water.

The two men at the heart of this novel are bound to come into conflict. When a boy is found brutally violated and murdered, Sumner discovers just how dangerous Drax is. It becomes a fight for survival on the ice.

This novel is not for the faint-hearted. The language is foul and visceral. There are graphic descriptions of rape, murder, illness, animal cruelty, primitive medical procedures, and the like - which cause the reader to wince or retch. (Indeed I found myself rushing past the clubbing of seals). I have never experienced a book like this before - where I could feel the cold in my bones from McGuire's descriptions, and literally smell the sick, stale air.

As a landlubber, I have no idea why I am drawn to nautical books. But I love tales of adventure set on the high seas - Patrick O'Brian, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, CS Forester, Herman Melville - and I regularly reread Hemingway's Old Man and The Sea. 

The North Water is a gripping novel and one that I would highly recommend. It was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016.