15 December, 2012

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson (1973)

Few books had as profound an impact on me when I was growing up. This haunting tale of a lonely boy discovering an ancient stone Nargun, a creature straight from Aboriginal mythology, on his uncle's rural property had me spellbound. It still does. Wrightson, who died in 2010, was criticised for using indigenous beings out of context, but what she was emphatically saying was that European mythology doesn't belong here - Australia has its own dragons and elves. And ever since I have viewed the bush through a different and wondrous lens.

28 November, 2012

Pierrot by Raymond Queneau (1942)

This 1950 translation by the British novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross was a let down. You can't turn colloquial Parisian French into Cockney, complete with rhyming slang, without losing the essence of an author like Queneau. Beyond that, I found this to be a delightfully odd novel that is light, happy, even somewhat distracted at times. Pierrot is a young man hopelessly frustrated in work and love, and Queneau breezes his hero through some bizarre events that include fleeting elements of mystery and magic. A couple of coincidences toward the end are a bit hard to swallow though.

13 October, 2012

The Three Royal Monkeys by Walter de la Mare (1910)

What an absolute delight. This is a magical tale of three monkey brothers who go in search of their father, and have great adventure along the way. De la Mare wrote ghost stories and poetry, and viewed children with their extraordinary imaginations as sort of creative visionaries. You can almost feel him reaching back for this here. There's an unbridled playfulness with language in this novel that prefigures CS Lewis and Tolkien - in fact I'd be surprised if de la Mare wasn't an influence on them. What's more, this heartwarming celebration of brotherhood is now available free online.

06 October, 2012

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980)

I only knew Hoban by his children's stories, but this novel is nothing of the sort and, well, there's no other way to say it - Riddley Walker is a masterpiece. Set in SE England, many generations after a nuclear apocalypse, a remnant population grasps at fragments of language, technology and legend as they try to reconstruct the 'clevver' times. Courageously written in a crude, bastardised English that presents an immediate barrier to the reader, it is this striking language that ultimately feeds the rich, mysterious and desperate atmosphere of the novel and lifts it into something truly remarkable. Russell Hoban died last year.

18 September, 2012

Flatland by Edwin Abbott (1884)

Mathematical fiction. Who knew? Flatland is a short, simple novel with hand-drawn illustrations about a society of shapes living on a flat plane. And it is mind-blowing. This is a startling allegory of the Victorian class system and a stark portrayal of how society handles heretical ideas, namely that there may be dimensions that exist outside our known experience. My enthusiasm however, comes with one significant caveat: women are unashamedly treated as unintelligent second-class citizens in this book. After publication Abbott sought to explain this as a satire of sorts, but I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced.

25 August, 2012

A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamed Charhadi (1964)

This is a most unique book. Charhadi was an uneducated North African house servant encouraged to record a series of tapes on his life by the author Paul Bowles. The tapes were transcribed and published as A Life Full of Holes. The result is a remarkable story of the precarious hand-to-mouth existence led by untold numbers of people around the world. Through forced migrations, prison terms, betrayals and more, Charhadi comes across as charming, positive and yet somehow resigned to his lot in life. He is a compelling storyteller from a long oral tradition, and his observations on Christians – or Nazarenes as he calls them – are fascinating.

04 August, 2012

The Pages by Murray Bail (2008)

I'm sorry but this book just didn't cut it. OK, so Bail's prose is enigmatic and slippery, but the premise here is contrived at best: an academic is sent to a remote farm to read the writings of a little known hermit philosopher who has passed away. What follows unsurprisingly is a thinly veiled philosophical indulgence with some equally thin characters. Look, I did quite enjoy his earlier Canowindra book, even allowing for the unexpected Clare Quilty-like appearance of the suitor. But The Pages has made me reconsider the premise of that book in a different way now too.

13 July, 2012

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (1971)

This book should be a showcase for aspiring crime writers. Coyle is a small-time crook who has been painted into a corner by the law and has to make some very careful choices. Pretty standard stuff? Yeah, except the entire story is carried exclusively by fizzing, gritty dialogue that makes the whole grubby world of Boston lowlifes almost lift off the page. This was Higgins' first novel, and although he went on to write quite a few more, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Guess Cold War thrillers were the order of the day and he kinda fell through the cracks. Pity.

27 June, 2012

Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi (1994)

There is a gradual awakening as you read this fine novel that clues you in on how the story will end, but this only makes the main character, Dr Pereira, more endearing. Set in Salazar's Portugal in 1938, Dr Pereira is a lonely, affable widower working as an editor at a small Lisbon newspaper. Uninterested in politics, he is nonetheless drawn to a left wing resistance group, a dangerous move in a fascist-friendly state. Answering why he takes this risk is central to understanding this deceptively simple novel, something Pereira's actions ultimately illuminate in an unforgettable way.

11 June, 2012

Chéri by Colette (1920)

I’ve had a bad run with French literature of late, but Chéri has put an end to that. This story of an aging courtesan and her young, rich boy toy was scandalous in its day but now comes across as well, quite charming really. Colette's wry and sharp observations of pre-war high society Parisian petulance and vanity, along with its apparently carefree pleasures, are a delight. Of course all this was soon to be obliterated forever by WW1, and it is change and loss that sit emphatically at the heart of this wonderful novel. 

31 May, 2012

The Bog People by P.V. Glob (1969)

Across northern Europe, ancient bodies have turned up perfectly preserved in peat bogs for centuries. The Bog People is a fascinating investigation into who these iron age people were and why they were interred in the ritualistic way they were. Glob, a Danish archaeologist, found some of the best preserved examples of bog people in the 1950s and 60s, and his anecdotes on the discovery and uncovering of these bodies are a highlight. So are the amazing photographs of the exhumed bodies and the items found with them. The Bog People labours a bit toward the end but that's only a minor quibble.

09 May, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

There is a lurking, unspoken malevolence in this book that I just love. There is a simplicity of language that lifts Mary Katherine Blackwood above most other fictional characters I have encountered. There is a mystery that isn't really a mystery at all. There are themes of small-town ostracism, violence and atonement. And there is an ending that should be sad and disturbing but isn't. But most of all there is a wish to read more of Jackson's work – a desire I rarely have with any author.

22 April, 2012

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1976)

I just smile and shake my head every time I think of this extraordinary book. The plot? A woman in her nineties is bundled into a rather bizarre nursing home and manages to trigger something like the apocalypse. Carrington, who died just last year, was a surrealist artist who lived much of her life in Mexico and The Hearing Trumpet is packed with symbolism where nothing is quite as it seems. But that doesn't get in the way of a rollicking read that builds to a crescendo unlike anything else I've ever read. Absurd, fantastic and very much recommended.

03 April, 2012

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (2005)

Well now he's gone platinum with the Miles Franklin he's hardly overlooked, but this book simply deserves a wider audience. The Broken Shore is most often described as a crime novel, but it's not really. Yes, Detective Joe Cashin is the flawed heir to Upfield's Bony, but it is in the depth and craft of Temple's characters, his deft dealing with politics and race, his sense of place and just the quality of his spare turn of phrase that make this one of the must-read novels of Australia today.

11 March, 2012

The Sands of Windee by Arthur Upfield (1930)

I didn't expect this crime novel to be as good as it was. A dead body on a sheep station somewhere the other side of Broken Hill. Enter Bony, part-Aboriginal maverick detective, as self-assured as Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it's of its time and Upfield can seem patronising toward Aboriginals, but at other times his unabashed admiration of them shines through. In fact, it's such a good whodunnit, the murder method in The Sands of Windee was borrowed by an acquaintance of Upfield's in a real life murder spree. 

25 February, 2012

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1912)

Perhaps because Alain-Fournier died in action in WWI this, his only novel, is lauded in France. I might have enjoyed it more as a 12 year old. Perhaps then I could have put up with the absurd coincidences, obsessions, unrequited passions and self-defeating decisions surrounding Augustin Meaulnes. I get that this book speaks of the lost idealism of youth and that in post WWI France this would certainly have struck a chord, but there was just too much else besides in this convoluted plot. One for the young and yearning, not the old and cynical.

11 February, 2012

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (1914)

I suspect you need to be Japanese to really understand the nuances of this novel. Narrated by a young university student, Kokoro tells the story of an older man who feels compelled to face the wrongs he thinks he has committed in his life. The inter-generational conflict between old and new values is at play throughout this work, mirroring the emergence of Japan from isolationism during the Meiji Restoration. Now I like to think of myself as one who can handle a slow, deep novel, but this really is ponderous. Honestly, it's like a never-ending tea ceremony.

29 January, 2012

Living by Henry Green (1929)

Creating literature is very much a middle class pursuit and Henry Green, son of a wealthy industrialist, is no exception. But what is different about Living is that here he gives voice to the industrial workers of Birmingham of the 1920s. I don't know of any other novel set in an iron foundry and Green’s use of regional working class dialogue is central to this work’s authenticity. There is more than a hint of self-loathing here too in his vapid, nose-picking portrayal of the foundry owners' son. And yet, despite the bleak existence of the working men and women (in particular), I found Living an uplifting experience. 

08 January, 2012

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner (1979)

Quite why Garner is pigeonholed as a children’s author puzzles me and this work is an example of why. The Stone Book Quartet contains four simple but beautifully crafted episodes tracing Garner’s family in rural Cheshire from the mid 1800s. Deeply felt without ever lapsing into the sentimental, this work shines a rare light on the interconnectedness of a rural village, the subtleties of working with iron and stone, and how the seasons and landscape governed life. You realise how much has changed, how quickly things can fade away.