When I started making this list, I had more than 40 books scrawled on a piece of paper. Getting it down to 20 books was difficult. Whittling it down to 10 was excruciating. I could actually feel it in my gut each time I crossed one out. Fact is, this list would probably be slightly different depending on the day you asked me to make it. On any other day, Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, and R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys — not to mention a whole host of others — might’ve made it. But ultimately I think my Top 10 fairly and evenly represents the books that I think stand above the rest this year.
Compelling and unnerving in equal measure, A Ladder to the Sky probes the toxicity inherent in naked ambition and the depravity one man will embrace in order to achieve literary acclaim. Disturbing yet seductive, John Boyne has crafted one of the best books of 2018.
John Boyne’s new novel begins with successful novelist Erich Ackermann describing his beguiling relationship with the handsome (but enigmatic) young would-be writer named Maurice Swift, who over the course of many months, teases information from Ackermann about his early life in Nazi Germany, and the awful secret he has kept hidden for his entire life. These revelations are fictionalised — though just barely — in Swift’s debut novel, Two Germans, which receives critical acclaim, and much publicity when he willingly exposes the basis for his book, which effectively destroy’s Ackermann’s career, making him a pariah, and sends him into hiding until the day he dies.
A Ladder to the Sky then flashes forward, various periods of time narrated by different voices (including Swift’s wife Edith, and in the final section of the book, Maurice himself). We quickly learn that, although Swift is a gifted writer — a concocter of great sentences — he has no imagination for fiction. His prose lacks heart, and quite simply, he is unable to conjure a single original idea. This shortcoming infuriates Swift, who is determined to win the Prize, and become a literary legend, no matter what it takes. And Swift is willing to do anything to accomplish his goal, including two particularly heinous acts, which will chill readers to the bone. Indeed, as the novel continues, Boyne excruciatingly dangles the possibility that Swift will never get his comeuppance; that this man, warped and demented by toxic ambition, will achieve everything he has ever hoped for while those he uses as mere stepping stones to his path of greatness are left so suffer. Some fade to obscurity; others suffer far worse fates. And the ending, when it comes, is absolutely perfect.
A Ladder to the Sky haunted me for days after I’d finished it. As much as I loathed the amoral Maurice Swift, a part of me couldn’t help but admire his sheer cunning and determination to succeed regardless of his failings. There were moments — fleeting as they were — when I understood (but never respected or agreed with, just to be clear!) his arguments for appropriating other people’s stories; and Boyne’s insights into literary life make for enthralling reading, peppering an otherwise dark tale with moments of genuine levity.
In a year of some tremendous fiction — Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, to name just three of the greats — John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky deserves a place among the very best books of 2018. It might even be my favourite.
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 9-Aug-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
Well, here we are, the last day of the year, which means it’s time to tinker with my super-cool and in no way nerdy Excel spreadsheet and reveal my Year In Reading.
We’ve reached that point of the year when the tower of 2018 proofs on my bedside table (and on my floor, behind the door, so visitors can’t see the madness) wobbles precariously with even the gentlest footfall. Which means it’s time to pull the plug on 2017 and start diving into next year’s titles. But before that, there’s the small matter of declaring The Best Books of 2017… otherwise known as my favourites. There are so many books I haven’t mentioned here that I adored, but what follows are the ones that my brain simply refused to forget.
In Michael Robotham’s sure and practised hands, domestic noir has achieved new heights. With its perfect blend of sharp plotting, great characterisation and a powerful narrative, The Secrets She Keeps might well be the spiritual successor to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train we’ve all been waiting for.
The Secrets She Keeps revolves around two central themes: the attainment of a (perceived) perfect life, and the extremes we are capable of going to in order to keep our darkest secrets safe. Our narrators — Agatha Fyfle and Meghan Shaughnessy. — come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united by two unconnected and deeply personal secrets, both of which have the potential to unravel their lives. Agatha thinks Meghan has it all — two perfect children, a handsome and successful husband, a happy marriage — while all she has is an absent boyfriend (and father of her unborn child) who won’t return her calls. If only Agatha could see the inner-workings of Meghan and Jack’s marriage; see past the sheen and the smiles plastered on their faces in public. Is a third child really the antidote to their woes? And if it is, suppose that antidote was maliciously removed… the consequences would be devastating.
In this standalone psychological thriller, Robotham explores the lengths we’ll go to bury the truth beneath a flood of lies. He never writes a dull page, ratcheting up the tension, pressing his foot against the accelerator, until the pages start turning themselves. The Secrets She Keeps is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. You will doubt everything and everyone, because ultimately, the characters at the novel’s centre simply can’t be trusted. They are liars, cheats and scoundrels. And they are so utterly compelling, you might breeze through this one in a single sitting. It’s ‘forget your job, meals, friends and family’ kind of good.
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 11-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia
The Animators is such an accomplished and polished debut. I loved it for two reasons: it’s an honest examination of the genesis and cost of living a creative life — of making art — and its elegant portrayal of love and friendship. Kayla Rae Whitaker winds together the moments that define who we are, and weaves an incredible tapestry of life and death. It’s a novel that dares to explore the full spectrum of emotions: at moments it cheered me, at others it broke my heart. It is the first absolute must-read of 2017.
When we meet Sharon Kisses at a private East Coast college, she is a young, talented but insecure artist. Very quietly, she has big dreams — achievable aspirations — but one feels her self-doubt will prohibit any major successes. Then she meets fellow student Mel Vaught, which turns out to be the defining moment of both their lives. Though both women have incredibly divisive personalities — Mel is wild and outspoken — they form a seemingly unbreakable bond, and indeed, smash-cut to a decade later, become an award-winning animation duo. But just as they seem destined for greatness, tragedy strikes, revealing cracks in their relationship. The healing process begins when they return to Sharon’s home in rural Kentucky, facing up to the horrors of her childhood.
Both women are affected by the tragedies of their childhood. They are both wounded, and stimulated by these moments; their art thrives because of their past, but their personal lives stutter and crumble because of them. Together they have the fortitude to stave off their demons — just — but Sharon’s attempt to confront her issues — with Mel as her strongest advocate — threatens to destroy their unified strength.
The Animators is a remarkable and emotionally gripping read. The friendship between Sharon and Mel feels authentic — Whitaker exposes the highs and lows of a genuine long-lasting partnership — and the impact of their successes and failures, personal and professional, impact hard, and will resonate long after the final page. Kayla Rae Whitaker has crafted an irresistible story of friendship and creativity. The last time I was immersed in a novel as rich and rewarding was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.
Imprint: Scribe Publications
Publisher: Scribe Publications
Publish Date: 27-Feb-2017
Country of Publication: Australia
This year I tracked the books I read by a variety of categories in an attempt to ascertain my reading habits. I didn’t participate in any sort of reading challenge; just read what I wanted, which was a lot (maybe not for any voracious book bloggers reading this, but for the normal person on the street, a considerable amount, I think): 142 books in total.
I always start the year with a target of approximately 75-100 books, knowing this could fluctuate depending on the number of graphic novels / collected comic editions I read. I’m also totally cognisant of the fact — though not apologetic of it — that I read predominantly commercial fiction, which I can generally breeze through in a couple of days, or one long reading session if I’m gripped. That’s why I don’t really think there’s any point in comparing my total number of books read with other people. Besides which, it’s not about the number of books you consumed, just that you read and enjoyed something. And this year had some great reads: check out my Top 5 Books of 2016.
So, here’s what I learned about my reading habits this year:
Yikes, right? I knew my reading was dominated by men — every year I read the latest offerings by Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, etc — but I never knew my reading was quite this skewed. I was actually a little surprised, given that 3 of the books on my Top 5 Books of 2016 were written by women. It shows that I need to make a conscious effort to read more books by female authors. So that’ll be one of my mission statements for 2017, which shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish if I flit equally between both genders. It’s not asking much of myself.
No real surprises, here. Again, most of the long-running series I read are by Americans. I’d like to make more of an effort to read local authors next year, though. I thought I had done so this year, but it’s not really reflected in the stats. Another goal for next year…
No real surprises that my reading is dominated by thrillers and crime fiction. I read far less YA and children’s books this year because I spent far less time in the children’s shop, and am less naturally inclined to pick up the new Tom Gates or Wimpy Kid. One weakness I need to rectify is my overall lack of non-fiction reading. And I absolutely do need to read more literary fiction.
2016 was the year of the audiobook. I’ve started listening to them at the gym and when I go running (unless it has been a particularly exhausting day, in which case I need some beats to get me through the 10km). I generally listen to thrillers or crime novels; nothing too character-focused or nuanced, in case I’m momentarily distracted and lose track.
As a bookseller, I’m lucky enough to receive tons of review copies and proofs, but there’s plenty I don’t get, and as such, I read more books I’ve purchased than books I got for free this year. I’m always annoyed when bloggers groan about how they didn’t receive a copy of a book they wanted to review from a publisher; as though they’re obliged a free copy, and because they haven’t, can’t possibly drop the $32.99 for a copy. Happens to me all the time, and I’m supposedly on the frontline, interfacing with customers. When I’m forced to buy a book, I try not to complain about it: I think of the positives. The money’s going back into the bookshop, and at some finite level, the author of the work is benefiting from my dollars. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to publishers providing more review copies…!
Let’s see what 2017 brings!