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

Review – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

9780340921586My obsession with David Mitchell continues and is getting more intense. There are books you devour. There are books you savour and never want to end. And then there are David Mitchell books which are both.

I went with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet because there was a reference and crossover with The Bone Clocks. It is the most linear chronologically of David Mitchell that I have read so far but in no means does this curb his imaginative scope. It is a love story, a historical novel of the highest class, it is a Japanese story of intrigue, honour and betrayal. It is quietly simply one of the most beautifully books I have ever read.

Set at the turn of the 19th century in Nagasaki the book focuses on a Dutch East Indies trading outpost, Dejima. Foreigners are not allowed on Japanese soil so the Dutch instead have created an artificial island from which they are allowed to trade. Jacob De Zoet is a new arrival tasked with the inevitable job of cleaning up the outpost’s highly corrupted books. De Zoet becomes not only enchanted and intrigued by the tightly closed and controlled feudal Japanese society but also a young midwife who is determined to learn the best of Dutch and European medical practices.

David Mitchell plots his story magnificently. Slowly placing all his pieces on his rich board before scattering things in ways only his imagination could conjuror. Rich in historical detail, deep in cultural complexities and with the perfect mix of tragedy and intrigue. David Mitchell is an absolute genius and I have to read everything he has written.

Buy the book here…

How The Booker Was Won

Imagine me, swaggering out of the saloon doors into the dusty cross-section of town, whisky firing my gut. The unwelcome sun beats and blinds me for a moment – then I see in the middle of the dirt-lined street, a little way down the road: a gunslinger stands at ease, fingers playing invisible piano keys by each slim hip, its shadow a stretched twin, right down to the same arrogant ‘tude.

This ‘cowboy’ goes by the name of Man Booker, and he hasn’t been welcome in this part of town for years.

I don’t when me and this Booker’s feud started exactly. Chock it up to a number of run-ins on opposite sides of the law: The Line of Beauty too pretentious; The Gatheringdeathly boring. The White Tiger and The God of Small Things? Well. You know what mother says. Keep your meanest thoughts to yourself.

And now its time to blast this rattlesnake for good.


As we take 3 paces, backs to each other and ready to swivel for our lives, I remember that pretty little sweetheart Possession. You know the type: big blue eyes, characters in love, writin’ you could grow old with. And then rememberin’ all of a sudden, like old friends, Life of Pi, with his crazy eye-deers, and The Blind Assassin. What a beyootiful book.

And I gets to-thinkin: Hey, maybe this fella aint too bad after all.

The long list is out for the 2010 Booker, and he has a chance to make things right with me; just about square. There’s only room for one horse in this town. Goes by the name of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. And what’s more? According to The Guardian, ol’ man Mitchell has a fightin’ chance. I ain’t a bettin’ man, but…

[A tumbleweed skips, stumbles and stutters away through the middle of our stand-off…]

So here, right now, me and Booker – we’re at an uneasy truce. And so, pistols untouched, we suddenly find ourselves more in the mood for a hearty saloon-served meal than a bloody battle and a death, possibly a double, in a dead-end town.

A final spit in the dirt serves as his warning and we make our fragile peace.

***

The sun drops like a drunken head finding a pillow. Our star-spurred boots scuff lazily under the swinging saloon doors, Man Booker keepin’ his distance behind me, of course.

A little later: a saucy wench on each lap, and we have a real man’s fight, via a well-played four-hand poker. But not before I let my feelings be known: this town’s a one-horse type of town, cowboy. You better live up to your promise this year. Or else.

Why David Mitchell Makes My Head Hurt (In the Best Way Possible)

Guys, just finished David Mitchell’s newest: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and just had to share my thoughts on it. It is ah-mazing. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his work, but last year was my first taste of his genius, when I finally worked up the courage to plough my way through Cloud Atlas (it had been sitting on my shelves gathering dust for at least a year previous). So, what did I think of that one? Pretty damn crazy, and also pretty damn good.
Cloud Atlas, if you haven’t had the chance (or the bravery) to read it yet, I warn you now – it gets a little muddy. There are six narrators in all, cursing their way through history with the echoes of each other’s voices at their backs. Your first reaction may be to hit your head against a wall, and that’s ok. You wouldn’t be the first, or the last. But stick with it, and this philosophical map of human power; the way we lust after it, and the way we fall victim to it, makes itself known across the 544 pages. Like I say with all my chunksters, the sense of accomplishment is there, but David Mitchell has this added extra of ‘enlightenment’ for the reader:

“Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks war? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will… The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be.”

Pg 462, Cloud Atlas.


It appears from fan reviews that he likes a fat splash of sci-fi in his novels: I would liken one of the stories in Cloud Atlas to the Eastern movie 2046 (also highly recommended), or maybe a condensed and not entirely westernised version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There’s another story in Cloud Atlas that speaks of colonialism and this is perhaps where we first see Mitchell’s talent at writing ‘colonial historical fiction’ , later brought to the fore in his first ever one-man story, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

Think feudal Japan on the brink of revolution (westernisation). The island of Dejima, an island just off the coast of Japan set up for the pure purpose of trade. An island that is open only to a select few foreigners, and Jacob De Zoet – a 20-something Dutchman – is one of them. Like Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns is also about the will to power, the subjugation and replacement of a minority culture by a majority culture. And besides the message it conveys about humanity’s greed, there’s also a rollicking good adventure to be had in reading this book.

Every so often, a book comes along that – through some holy fusion of chance – has a wonderfully stylised viewpoint, a hidden message, a set of brilliantly realised and fatally flawed characters, and an historical storyline that is more fascinating than any fantasy. I’m thinking this is one of them!
I did a bit more of an indepth review on my lifestyle blog, if you’re interested in a few further thoughts on the book. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is released at the end of this month with that stunning cover art (it’s sparkly in the flesh!), and while it may be a bit more exxy than your usual weekly read – believe me, it’s worth it, particularly if you’re already a Mitchell fan. And if you’re not, well, chances are you will be.

What do you think of David Mitchell? Does he deserve the critical praise he receives for his works? Do you have a favourite David Mitchell book? Let me know, so I can make a decision about which to read next!