Christmas for Literature Lovers

AmnesiaThere are so many great books published each year. Here are my favourite 2014 literary novels. They’re the best I’ve read, with the exception of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – which I’ll write about soon. You will have other selections (and we’d love to hear them) but these are my Christmas picks.

(I’ve mentioned some picture books and novels for children in previous posts

http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/christmas-collectibles/2014/11;

http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/gothic-tales-for-christmas/2014/11)

Peter Carey is in scintillating form with Amnesia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin). Amnesia breaks into brilliant new directions, ingenious and daring like Carey’s exceptional, My Life as a FakeJournalist Felix Moore is writing a book about Gaby Baillieux, who graduated from hacking to cyber-activism and possible terrorism against America. Carey takes us between Melbourne, Sydney, the Hawkesbury River and the 1942 Battle of Brisbane – where Australians fought the Americans in the streets.  His knowledge and insight penetrates and interprets recent Australian history around the White Australia Policy, Pine Gap, politicians Jim Cairns and Gough Whitlam and The Dismissal, as well as America’s ‘murder’ of Australian democracy. Carey crafts this into a fascinating work and even throws in asides about steampunk and artist Sidney Nolan.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre) is structured in the adventurous style that Mitchell used in Cloud Atlas, a roam Bone Clocksthrough a wide period of time, including into the future. The fantastical elements are seeded brilliantly throughout the early chapters of The Bone Clocks. The character of Holly Sykes links the parts, although they may not be told in her voice and she is quite a peripheral character in some sections. There are some Australian characters and some parts are set here: Rottnest Light is compared with the reappearing hill in Through the Looking Glass, for example.

One of my favourite sections profiles the fading writer, Crispin Hershey, a famous and respected literary writer, whose world is imploding because his writing quality and output has dropped. He takes revenge on a critic who pans his latest book with dire results. In one scene someone tells him about his plan to set Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North to music. Holly is feted as an author in this part of the book.

I love novels about writers.

Blazing WorldI also love novels about art and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre) is the best I’ve read this year. Under-recognised artist, New Yorker, Harriet Burden decides to test whether art created by males is valued more highly than art by women so she undertakes an audacious experiment. Over time, she collaborates with three male artists but the resulting works are shown in the males’ names. Recognition seems to be far greater for these works than for her own, even though her artistic stamp is visible. The characterisation, ideas about identity and descriptions of the artworks are phenomenal.

Other ‘types’ of novels that I love are about Japan. David Mitchell wrote a stunner several years ago, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and I reviewed Mark Henshaw’s  2014 The Snow Kimono (Text) here http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/the-snow-kimono/2014/09

Snow Kimono

I was a little ambivalent about reading The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape) because the marketing and reviews rightly focused on the plot of High Court judge Fiona Maye’s case about ‘almost-man’ (Adam is almost eighteen) from a Jehovah’s Witness background who refuses a blood transfusion to stabilise his rare leukaemia. This certainly is the hub of the novel and McEwan skilfully brings it to life without sentiment but the novel’s elegant writing and insight into Fiona’s life is the exquisite packaging around this important issue, which makes it a fine literary work. It also revolves around music – the other type of novel I love.

Children Act

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The StraysWho are the strays in Emily Bitto’s literary novel, The Strays (Affirm Press)?

The new Melbourne Modern Art Group tries to set up a bohemian utopia paralleling Sunday and John Reed’s Heide group, or Norman Lindsay’s enclave, on affluent Evan and Helena Trentham’s property during the Depression. Patrick is a stalwart and Ugo, Maria and Jerome are artists who seem to relish the opportunity to receive the patronage, protection and stimulation of famous Evan.

It may be the three Trentham daughters who are most affected by these living arrangements, although the temporary residents take some of the burden off the eldest daughter, Bea, in raising the younger girls. Painter, Evan, and miniaturist, Helena, are neglectfully preoccupied.

A fourth girl, Lily, meets middle daughter, Eva, when she moves to the local primary school. Lily is an only child and revels in the verdant exotica of Eva’s family, home and garden and, especially, of the art. Her own family seems dull and conventional beside the excesses of the Trentham lifestyle and Lily becomes a surrogate daughter, perhaps displacing youngest girl, Heloise. Lily’s relationship with Eva is close, in that first chaste trial marriage between girls. They are bound by bonds of imagination and, in Lily’s case, of some envy. As an observer of this sought-after life, Lily possibly becomes benignly manipulative.Shelley

Artist prodigy, Jerome, loves the work of poet Percy Shelley, husband of Frankenstein author, Mary Shelley, and is creating a series of art inspired by Shelley’s work. Like Jerome’s artist community, the Shelleys were part of an intimate circle that included Lord Byron, and Bitto casts allusive ties between these two groups. Jerome shares the poems with Lily but it is Eva who agrees to pose topless for him.Frankenstein

Descriptions of the garden and, particularly, the art are provocative. It is not surprising that politician Robert Menzies and the established arts community of the day viewed these avant-garde artists with suspicion. They were the antithesis of the adored late nineteenth century Heidelberg School of Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton.

Lily relates her story as a girl growing into a teenager but the narrative is encircled by an account of her life as an older woman. Her reluctance to accept an ordinary life remains.

The Strays was shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and is recommended for fans of Siri Hustvedt’s exceptional The Blazing World (Septre) and Alex Miller’s, Autumn Laing (Allen & Unwin).Blazing World