Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Reading Review 2017

Books Read in 2017:

Although I found Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus a little too whimsical for my own personal liking, I've enjoyed all of the 27 books I've read this year.  Here's the list (the couple in bold were first published in 2017): 

Where Song Began Tim Low (expository)                                                            

The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene 

Such a Long Journey Rohinton Mistry                                                                      

The Heroes Joe Abercrombie                                                                                     

The Long Valley John Steinbeck (collection)                                                                    

Sharp Ends Joe Abercrombie (collection)                                                             

War Dances Sherman Alexie (collection)                                                              

The Red Pony John Steinbeck (novella)                                                                            

Last Man in Tower Aravind Adiga                                                                           

Vintage PKD Philip K.  Dick   (collection)                                                            

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen Gabriel Garcia Marquez (collection)

The Goblin Emperor Katherine Addison       

Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy 
                                                                                        
The Girl in the Glass Jeffrey Ford                                                                             

The Good People Hannah Kent                                                                        

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss                                                                

By Blood We Live Glen Duncan                                                                      

Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami                                                                                 

The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss                                                                     

Red Country Joe Abercrombie                                                                                   

How to be Both Ali Smith                                                                                            

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-this-World Novels and Short Stories Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, Jay Lake & the Editors of Readers Digest (expository)                                                                                                        

The Giver Lois Lowry (YA)                                                                                         

Gilgamesh Joan London                                                                                    

House of Names Colm Toibin                                                                                               

Crackpot Palace Jeffrey Ford (collection)                                                      

The Soul of an Octopus Sy Montogomery (expository)                                                 


READING HIGHLIGHTS

As per usual I could add many more from the year's reading list. 

NATURAL HISTORY


Where Song Began by Tim Low 

While not all the geographical and botanical details interested me, Where Song Began is an impressive book about Australian birds. I'd recommend it for not only lovers of nature but: 
  • for those interested in Australian history (did you know wattle birds were prized food sold in poultry stores due to their sweet nectar-infused meat? Or that mutton birds were the source of our beach tanning oils?) 
  • for those interested in why Australian birds are flying Einsteins (did you know that our blossoming Eucalyptus trees played a major role in the evolution of our birds' brains?)
  • for those interested in why our birds are so long-lived and evolved (did you know that not only do cockatoos live 50 - 70 years, they continue to learn throughout their lives? They also don't learn from imprinting, but from socialisation and being taught. Did you also know that magpies  socially vary in different parts of Australia? It's only in the South-West, for instance, that they live in family gangs.)
The work is an incredible achievement. 


COLLECTIONS

I thought the anthology The  Year's Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2015 fab too, but bias prevents me from waxing lyrical.



 The Long Valley John Steinbeck 

I've grown to love Steinbeck's work in recent years. I read East of Eden last year and it's easily one of the best works I've read, so it came as no surprise that The Long Valley delivered a vault of rich tales. I'd already read and loved the story 'Johnny Bear' in the anthology Points of View. The story, my personal favourite in the collection, is a courageous and marvellous dark fantasy. I hope the spec-fic world starts using 'Johnny Bear' in more anthologies as it's one of the best urban fantasy stories around. The novella The Red Pony is also strong, as are most stories in the collection. Look out especially for 'The Chrysanthemums', 'The Murder', 'Saint Katy the Virgin' and 'The Harness'. In fact, only one story ('Flight'), disappointed.



Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie 

This is a great companion for Abercrombie's novel The Heroes. It won't suit everyone's taste, but that's part of the enjoyment of Abercrombie. These grimdark stories are rollicking and feisty, gusty and humorous. Abercrombie's tales have the key ingredient of any good heroic adventure story: the ability to entertain. His bold elaborate style is also refreshing.



   War Dances Sherman Alexie     

A wonderful blend of stories, both fiction and personal, along with poetry and vignettes. I love Alexie's ability to connect –with an honest, observant, gently comical and tender insight– with what it is to be human. These touching stories are a delight, and if you haven't yet read Alexie, I encourage you to to take a dip. In War Dances, I especially enjoyed 'The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless', 'The Senator's Son', 'Salt', and ''War Dances', but Alexie's compassionate, grounded narrative voice means that there's something to like in every piece. 


NOVELS




Such a Long Journey Rohinton Mistry

As a Greek-Australian, I really related to this novel due to socio-cultural reasons. In Perth, the original Greek community, chiefly from Asia Minor, Egypt and the island of Castellorizo, settled prior to WW2 and many before WW1. I've even got a few grandparents of Greek background born in Australia whose parents migrated before WW1. Many of these Greeks desired to maintain traditions of language, religion and Easter customs, some of which are no longer existent in contemporary Greece. I remember sitting on my Yaya's (Mary Pitsikas') lap as a child and, even though she was born in Australia, she'd speak to me in Greek, she also sang Greek songs on the piano with all the family (including the Katavatis clan). I endured Greek school, or Greek school endured me (I was a bit of a rascal) and we were brought up in a fairly 'Greek' style. 

I do value this cultural heritage (which is slowly vanishing). My wife is Indian Malaysian, so I don't value the culture in any exclusive way - the Greek community was less integrated in the past.

I also feel a sense nostalgia for what was. And Such a Long Journey explores this sense of cultural loss, its riches, and the general nostalgia, but in a far more magnified manner. 

It's not nearly as dramatic, or as thrilling, as Mistry's excellent A Fine Balance, but I see Such a Long Journey as every bit its equal. On the surface, the story is about Gustad Noble and his array of family problems. Gustad, a bank clerk, has a daughter with an unknown illness, and his son has been awarded a prestigious scholarship, but to the disappointment of his parents, he has dreams of a more artistic nature. One of the Noble's former neighbours, Major Balmoria, is involved in some political intrigue and Gustad is caught up in the net. The novel is set in a time of political turmoil, that of Indira Ghandi; the backdrop is of India readying for war against Pakistan over Bangladesh.

But what I connected with most is the novel's insight into the rapidly dwindling –and once hugely influential– Parsi community of India. These people of Persian ancestry, who originally fled Islamic persecution (the Zoroastrians weren't one of the three religious groups that adhered to the 'old book') and settled in India, follow the world's oldest religion. The novel explores the challenges of preserving an ancient culture in the modern world: prayers in an ancient, and often misunderstood, language; keeping faith through marrying another Parsi; the many cultural barriers and changing traditions too. A classic example is that the 3000 year old tradition of Zoroastrians leaving their deceased on towers to be consumed by carrion birds is being modified.

Mistry conveys this sense of nostalgia, along with his realistic acceptance of change, in this wonderful novel. It might be relatively slow moving, but it's an exceptional exploration of a minority group battling to maintain their own identity; of whether it's possible to preserve the ancient religion and its customs in a modern world, or whether it is just a fading dream held on to by the older generations.

Mistry's style is honest, loving, detailed, and he brings levity to his narrative by blending drama with humour. As such, Mistry is one of the leading novelists of our era.   



The Heroes Joe Abercrombie

Once again, this novel won't suit everyone. It's a unique read as it's entirely centred around a war between The Union and the North. The Heroes is a warrior's world, and this novel cleverly details all the stages of a war, from the initial early skirmishes, right through to full blown battles and the aftermath. Abercrombie manages to keep a focus on relationships as his mad characters engage in their sharp dialogue alongside their sharp blood wetting. The Heroes explores the grey futilities of war along with its political and class machinations, all the while keeping the reader intrigued with its hilarious, larger-than-life, and often seriously flawed, characters. Many of which return to the 'mud'.

I do, however, find that Abercrombie's late character plot twists, aren't always successful. They're too purposeful and deliberate, but that's a minor quibble, and as stated, this is a great read.

Abercrombie upturns the scales of archetypal heroes and villains and cowards, in a cynical and entertaining look at humanity. The Heroes allows the reader varying perspectives from a gallery of colourful characters, and ultimately, there are no 'true heroes' at all.

Best Movies of 2017

Although vastly different films, my two picks for this year are Thor: Ragnarok and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  I might post a couple of reviews down the track.

Best for 2018. Hope it's a loving and meaningful year. 


2 comments:

  1. Oh, dear! I haven't read any of these, though I see you have recommended me The Goblin Emperor on Goodreads.

    My library technician, who is Greek, tells me that her little grandson, who speaks fluent Mandarin due to a Chinese mother, has asked to learn Greek as well. He's about three, if that! She is collecting some simple Greek books for him, and is thrilled to bits. So it seems that this particular Yaya is making sure the culture continues!

    Thanks for calling me today. The noise was huge in that shop, but it was nice to catch up, even if I had to yell!

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    1. Nice anecdote that sums up contemporary Australia. Jonitha knows Mandarin too...Think you'd enjoy The Goblin Emperor.

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