Since taking on the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge means keeping a tally of books I’ve read by Australian women, I figured I would expand the scope of my bibliographic accountancy and count up everything else as well. The results from January are below. I am counting completed books (physical and electronic), fiction and non-fiction. I am not counting graphic novels – partly because I forgot to and partly because somewhere in the deep recesses I place comics in a separate (not lesser) category to books. I’ll get to them in some later post.
One thing I expect this tally to show is that my reading of Australian women will continue to be a disproportionately small fraction of my overall fiction consumption. I am working my way up from a low – well, pretty much nonexistent – base. If nothing else I do expect this experiment to sharpen my awareness of the options. Before a couple of months ago I had barely heard of Kaaron Warren, for example. Since then I’ve read two of her novels and today I found out that she is closely related to someone I work with. (Small town).
Another reason to track what I’m reading is to see what patterns emerge from using the kindle to consume fiction in particular. Already it is becoming obvious that it has affected the volume of consumption. The convenience of only having to carry one physical object – which is considerably less bulky than many of the books I typically read – goes without saying. Instead of my usual habit of having three or four books on the go at once – which I must then either carry with me or deploy to scatttered reading locations like the bedside table or the bathroom – I can compress at least some of them into a single location. (I have noticed that I tend to only read one title at a time on the kindle as well, but having multiple books in simultaneous progress is an option).
The other curious effect is that I am reading a fair amount of material outside my usual genres of science fiction and fantasy. Crime and horror in particular have re-entered my reading lists. I’m pretty happy about that. I think (without having this sort of detailed accounting to back up my notoriously faulty memory) that up until the middle of last year or so my reading habits had become somewhat moribund. I was reading less and less and what little I read was pretty strictly within those walls. Having easy access through Amazon to a ridiculously broad range of authors, genres and styles can only do me good, I think. I would bet that over the year my tastes will continue to broaden. I predict too that there will be more short fiction in my future. That’s good too. It’s an area with which I would very much like to reacquaint myself.
So here is how January shaped up, with some quick increasingly elaborate comments on each:
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (own copy, paperback). I read this years ago on the recommendation of Dr Clam. It’s pretty unlikely that I appreciated it then as I do now. I haven’t read Calvino deeply (Invisible Cities might be the only other one of his, actually) but on the evidence of If~ he was a mad genius. This is basically a love letter to the act of reading and something of a satire of the adjacent disciplines of writing and publishing. A looping, recursive lunatic narrative in the second person interspersed with a series of intriguing and frustratingly unrelated first chapters of different novels, If rewards rereading as much as it defies comprehension. I don’t hesitate to declare it a timeless classic, even though it’s nuts.
Slights by Kaaron Warren (library copy, paperback, an Australian Women Writers challenge contender). Mildly supernatural (or supernatural-seeming) psychological thriller told in first person from the perspective of a serial killing psychopath. Stevie starts pretty much bonkers (whether or not she’s really seeing the afterlife as she thinks she is) but Slights does a very effective job of showing the development of her derangement over several decades. I reviewed it on Amazon. Long story short – it’s a slow, creepy, often sad, occasionally hilarious and usually uncomfortably close examination of the unravelling of a deeply damaged person.
Cazsandra by Andrea K. Host (own copy, Kindle ebook, technically qualified for the Australian Women Writers challenge but removed from consideration because I was going to read it anyway). The final volume of Andrea’s excellent Touchstone trilogy, the diarised account of a young Australian woman swept away by wormhole to…look, the cosmology of this series is so outside my usual frame of reference that I am not sure I understand it fully. That doesn’t matter because it also has a small army of psychic teenage space ninjas (I pictured them as G-Force with superpowers), a ghost cat and kaiju-scale interdimensional monsters. There’s romance, weird mental powers and dodgy television reenactments of our hero’s adventures. In amidst that mayhem, there’s a brief but serious exploration of the alienation and helplessness of the refugee caught up by instituionalised bureaucracy, but then there are also snowball fights, so it balances out. Sooner or later I will get to a proper review of the series but the tl;dr is that while I don’t think it is *quite* as polished or moving as Andrea’s Medair duology, this is an excellent conclusion to a deeply satisfying series.
Dead Money by Ray Banks (own copy, Kindle ebook). I can’t remember where the recommendation for this one came from. Probably someone or several someones that I follow on Twitter, I’d guess. Dead Money is stark and somewhat miserable, portraying the descent of a sharp, self-controlled Mancunian double glazing salesman who is brought to mayhem, violence and ruin by his best mate, who combines a gambling addiction with a short fuse and a vast overestimation of his intellectual powers. I enjoyed reading it, but the grinding sense of inevitability is wearing. Not, I conject, a story paid for with Manchester Tourist Board money.
Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow (free ebook version). Doctorow has released several of his early novels for free download. I read this one on the strength of his excellent Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Tribe is good fun, but it’s possible there’s a limit to the real narrative juice you can squeeze out of an intellectual property heist story. It’s witty and full of ideas, but I never completely engaged with the narrator’s problems. He was a bit of a smug git at times. EST is worth reading, but I would recommend Down and Out first.
Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith (own copy, Kindle ebook). Small-town crime drama that make an unexpected detour into airport thriller territory. The corrupt cop narrator Billy Lafitte is a selfish bastard with a gift for sweeping away any sympathy that builds up around him, only to unexpectedly claw it back once in a while. It starts slowly but accelerates towards violent series of climaxes. I can forgive its ending with a mildly underwhelming whimper because it sets up a sequel. I have the sequel Hotdoggin’ downloaded and I’m looking forward to seeing where Billy ends up.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (paperback courtesy of the inestimable Dr Clam). An absurd Irish comedy which was written in 1940 and shelved unpublished until after the author’s death nearly three decades later. Like probably 90% of its audience post-2005, I first heard of it through Lost. I will happily assert that the two works have few points in common, the most striking being a mysterious underground base which may or may not provide insights of great metaphysical signficance. That said, it’s a madly entertaining read. The narrator, a one-legged devotee of a misanthropic and probably inept natural philosopher, is convinced to commit murder to fund the publication of his definitive treatise on his hero. He encounters ghosts, a one-legged assassin, bicycle-obsessed policemen, a bizarre interpretation of atomic theory and his own soul (a sarcastic internal voice he calls Joe). Note that this synopsis leaves out many of the more surreal elements of the story. Need I add that this kind of methodically deranged weirdness ticks many of my boxes? And it has a great couple of opening lines: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded.” Makes me giddy ‘n gleeful.
Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren (library copy, paperback, an Australian Women Writers challenge contender). Even with a month that included Policeman and Winter’s Night, the award for the downright strangest thing I read all month goes hand-down to Walking the Tree. On an island which seems to constitute their entire world, the young women of small coastal communities lead groups of children on a years-long educational circumnavigation of the vast Tree at its centre. As they visit one community after another, the children learn about the various cultures of the island, Botanica, and the women seek a place to settle down. This is some exemplary worldbuilding – each new village has its own distinct culture: crafts, sciences, cooking, superstitions, sexual traditions, beliefs about how to treat the Tree, behaviour towards outsiders etc. It’s a thoughtful – though never preachy or obvious – examination of gender politics, cultural tolerance and the role of tradition and superstition in shaping communities. It’s also a tense, suspenseful drama – the longer that protagonist Lillah keeps her deadly secret, the fewer allies she can depend on for protection. I think that it might do this beautiful, melancholy journey an unfortunate disservice to classify it as an epic anthropological mystery, but I think that’s as close as I can get.
Conclusions: January was easily the busiest reading month I’ve had in the last couple of years. At least some of those finished this month were started last year, so it will be interesting to see whether I come even close to that level of voracity over the rest of the year. 4 ebooks, 2 library paperbacks, 2 owned paperbacks. Three works by Australian women writers, two by the same author. A bit of crime, a bit of sf, a bit of fantasy and a rare example of literary fiction (two example if you count Policeman, which I do, while conceding that my definition may stray from some accepted norm).
I don’t know if I can pick a favourite for the month, but it would be between Winter’s Night, Policeman and Walking the Tree. I’m not inclined to reread books often but I would happily reread any of those. Cazsandra had the best cover, which may be a superficial observation, but it really is a solid design over a gorgeous piece of artwork. Taken as a whole I think the Touchstone trilogy would have been among my favourites, but I read the previous two volumes last year.
On to February, and hopefully less indulgently long blog entries.