This year my mission has been to read widely, outside the range of books I’d normally be drawn to. And to read more work by Australian women. Rather than listing my favourite books of 2017, I have listed five books which changed my opinion about something this year. Some would definitely make my list of favourites, while others most certainly would not. All of them, however, have had an impact on me in 2017. All have been though provoking, which is the whole point of art and creativity, isn’t it?
An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen (Text Publishing, 2017)
Although I love Margaret Atwood, I’ve never embraced dystopian fiction as a genre, so it was surprising to be drawn to this exquisite piece of provocative dystopian erotica. The cover is truly mesmerising, but what lies within is the opportunity to submerge yourself in Kneen’s world, so precisely drawn, beautiful and disturbing. This novel rewarded with gorgeous prose and reminded me that excellent writing should be cherished, regardless of genre. And that erotica, done well, can be satisfying in more than one way.
Me and Mr Booker, Cory Taylor (Text Publishing, 2017)
I missed this one when it was first published 5 years ago. It was thankfully re-released in 2017 as a ‘Text Classic’, after the death of the Author in 2016, and features a foreword by Benjamin Law, who knew Taylor well. This small, debut novel is a coming-of-age story about a relationship between a teenager and a much older man. The protagonist is a child, but the story is at times shocking, and definitely not written for children. Cory Taylor’s first novel was published when she was in her fifties. Her writing is spare and fearless, and her characterisation and voice are flawless. This one taught me that even when a novel can’t be neatly categorised, good writing will win out in the end, voice is all important and age is no barrier to publication.
The Choke, Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin, 2017)
Miles Franklin winner, ‘The Eye of the Sheep’, was always going to be a hard act to follow, but ‘The Choke’ doesn’t disappoint. Justine is a girl growing up with her grandfather, who suffers from PTSD. Her unreliable, criminal father visits infrequently, as do her half-brothers and outcast aunt. Her life is one of poverty and struggle, yet because of the strength of her voice, the story manages to examine issues of child neglect, male power and domestic violence with a deft hand. Like Cory Taylor’s ‘Mr Booker and Me’, the strength of this novel is in the richly drawn protagonist, and the confident prose. The lesson here? Even the darkest stories can be captivating and uplifting with the right voice. Don’t shy away from darkness.
Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness, Kate Cole-Adams (Text Publishing, 2017)
As an anaesthetist who has always been fascinated by what constitutes consciousness, I had more than a passing interest in reading this literary non-fiction take on anaesthesia when it was released this year. My main interest was in seeing the profession I’ve spent the last twenty years immersed in, through the eyes of an educated, articulate lay person. I admired Kate Cole-Adams’ ability to wrangle such an unwieldy topic into a digestible package, and enjoyed her elegant prose, but it was the story of one woman’s experience of awareness under anaesthetic, and Cole-Adams’ examination of how my profession can improve the experience of anaesthesia for all patients, which really struck a chord with me. A powerful, if at times meandering, look at an interesting subject. The lesson? The importance of listening to my patients’ concerns, and insight into how anxious many are about general anaesthesia.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)
I’m always keen to read at least one prize winner per year, so when this Man Booker Prize winner was recommended by a friend I dove in. For the three of you who are yet to hear about this novel, it is an ‘experimental’ work by master short story writer, George Saunders, exploring Lincoln’s difficulty coping with the death of his young son. It features a cast of hundreds of bizarre characters stalled between death and whatever lies ahead for them. Quotes from real sources are interspersed with fictional quotes, to create a novel the likes of which have never been seen before. For good reason, I would argue. I didn’t enjoy this at all, finding it unsatisfying and self-indulgent, but in the face of so much praise from those far wiser than me I found myself questioning my judgement. The lesson learnt from this one: that one person’s revelation is another’s disappointment, and no work can hope to appeal to all. And that my humble words are never destined for the Man Booker prize, and I’m okay with that.
Of course, these are just a few of the wonderful books I’ve read this year. What were your memorable reads for 2017?
Thanks for these succinct and honest book reviews. I want to read all of these on your list except for Lincoln in the Bardo, which I found myself feeling curiously resistant to reading (having read the premise of it) – now I know it wasn’t completely without reason. (I love George Saunders short fiction so I thought I was duty bound to try the novel).
If you haven’t yet read ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose I would really recommend that one. It’s my standout book for the year.
Hope you’re having some time off soon/now and have a lovely Christmas!
Thanks for your kind words, Fiona. I haven’t read ‘The Museum of Modern Love’, but will be advancing it in the TBR queue after your recommendation. I hope you’re having a lovely Christmas too.