Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.33: Lucy Sussex

Best of 2012
by Lucy Sussex

The following represents a selection of the book reviewing this year. As my editors know, I have weird tastes, but I generally find something I like.

As for films, I recall with pleasure MARGIN CALL (quel script!) and Herzog’s THE CAVE OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS.


Chris Brickell, Genre

Robert Gant was the town chemist in Masterton, rural New Zealand, in the late 1800s-early 1900s. He was the life of amateur theatricals, and worked tirelessly for charity. That he performed in drag and had a large circle of young male friends went unnoticed—until his photographs emerged from the obscurity of history. Gant was a gifted amateur photographer, and in his recording of his leisure hours shows men tactile, relaxed and affectionate in each others’ company. The erotic charge is felt, even beneath layers of Victorian clothing. The book is a reminder that the ancestors were both not so different from us, and also stranger (as with the photos of shoes and mock-beheadings). Unlike Wilde, Gant avoided censure, and led a long and happy life with various male companions.


ME BEFORE YOU Jo Jo Moyes, Michael Joseph

Novels about heavy issues do not have to be heavy. Matter: a disabled man wanting to die. Style: light and wry. Narrative mode: the odd couple of romantic comedy. Heroine Lou is aimless but friendly, working as carer for quadriplegic Will. Their physical proximity sets hormones going. Moyes being English, class figures large: Will is Posh, Lou not. It could be a book that is truly sickening, but instead engages, even pleases. Memo to the readerspace: never underestimate chicklit. [Afterthoughts: a too-pushy PR-person almost put me off this book, but I was glad I read it]


We all need some levity in our lives, to keep the darkness away. Irish novelist Keyes bakes (her cookbook Saved by Cake) and writes brilliant comedy. This novel, written after a bad bout of black dog, juggles economic and personal depression—with great wit and observation. Through post-GFC Ireland stalks Helen, a private eye a few pills short of a breakdown. She has the task of finding an errant member of a 1990s boy band, gone awol from a reunion concert. All things Irish are duly sent up, including Bono. It made me giggle.

[Apart from a too-long break-in sequence, a perfect blend of comedy and darkness]

THE CONVENT Maureen McCarthy, A&U

Sometimes a writer changes gear, and their work takes off at speed. McCarthy is best known as a writer for teens, but this book is for women of all ages. It tells the story of the Abbotsford convent, via the lives of four generations. Sadie is an unmarried mother, who loses her daughter Ellen to the convent orphanage. Ellen’s daughter Cecilia is lost by becoming a nun. And Cecilia’s daughter Peach is quite unaware of her family history. Their stories are told in interlinked chapters, a rich tapestry. The Church changes, and so do the roles of women. Recommended.



Certain writers remain utterly reliable, utterly enchanting. Penny’s beat is Quebec, though here with the unusual setting of a Catholic monastery. Its reclusive order has recently had a world-wide hit with a recording of Gregorian chant. With the money has come murder, the suspect somewhere in the enclosed community. Inspector Gamache investigates, in a taut, deftly organized whodunit. Peaceful though the monks may seem, they have their secrets and tensions. The music is part of the plot, and in the chant lies the crime’s solution. For once, the title of the book describes it perfectly.

BLACK SKIES Arnaldur Indridason, trans. Victoria Cribb, Harvill

Indridason is perhaps the best crime writer alive. His beat is Iceland, and for the last two books he has banished his detective, the gloomy Erlendur. The subordinates take centre stage: here Sigurdur Óli. His coworkers find him annoying, but centre stage he is calmly efficient. Erlendur has interiority, Óli has none, being a young fogey, devoted to US pop culture. A favour to a schoolfriend results in a murder case; at the same time a parallel plot, of child abuse, unfolds. It ends with foreboding, Iceland heading for the GFC. Masterful as ever.

[My two favourite crime writers, in form. Bliss!]



American Krause was a folk musician, rock sessioneer to the likes of The Doors, and latterly an expert in natural sounds. Here he has sought the origins of music. For forty years he has recorded aural soundscapes specializing in ecosystems. Biophony is animal noise, which he shows to be a complex aural interaction. A frog chorus signals mating, territory, but also protects against predators. Hunter-gather societies read their soundscape like a book; but sadly this ability is vanishing with the natural habitats. 50% of Krause’s recordings are of lost environments. A wonderful read, and a plea for conservation.


The sequencing of the human genome in 2001 cost billions. Now the price has dropped, and the discoveries are legion. Disease genes have been identified, and Lamarck’s theories revived. The immense complexities revealed are the focus of this book, which takes in HIV, plant genes, and species-hopping DNA. A new world of medicine and crop breeding awaits, and the social implications are the stuff of either utopia or dystopia. A fascinating book.

FLOATING GOLD Christopher Kemp, 4th Estate

Ambergris is a contradictory substance: dung into perfume. It forms in the guts of sperm whales, is refined in the ocean, and finally becomes a fixative for the most expensive scents. Science cannot replicate it, and its rarity value is huge. This book of popular science is both highly specific—everything you never thought you needed to know about ambergris--and yet very readable. Kemp is a scientist, who can write natural history and delight in nature with ease. He obsessively searched for ambergris himself, on the beaches of New Zealand. He was unsuccessful, but his prize and ours was this splendid book.

[How to make an interesting book out of whale poo]



A proud point of difference between Australians and New Zealanders is their lack of convict ancestry. As this book shows, it is quite untrue. Given the short distance between the countries, several thousand felons, ex or not, simply hopped over the ditch. They found there jobs in sealing, or trading with the canny Maori. Some even became Pakeha-Maori, with tattoes. The treaty of Waitangi would obscure these disreputable early settlers, and their lack of literacy meant few of their stories survived. Excellent stuff—not least for the true story of the good ship Venus.

THE KING’S REVENGE Don Jordan & Michael Walsh, Little, Brown

Charles II is called the merry monarch, but he could also be coldly vengeful. This book details the fates of the 59 men who signed the death warrant for Charles I. Regicide was an offence against God, and bitterly personal for the King. Over thirty years, he either tortured and executed his foes publicly, or sent assassination squads across the known globe. It reads like a real-life spy thriller, with a cast including the Cromwells, Milton and Aphra Behn. But the authors also note the regicides’ reforms, their foundation of modern Britain. An informative, good read.

AGENT GARBO Stephen Talty, Scribe

Some characters are simply too outrageous for fiction. Consider Juan Pujol, one of World War II’s greatest spies. He was Spanish, undistinguished in career, but with a burning hatred of the Nazis. So he became a double agent. First he approached the Germans, convincing them he ran a team of spies in fortress England. Then he told the British what he was doing. This incredibly dangerous game worked because of Pujol’s ability to tell convincing whoppers. His greatest coup was to con the Nazis over D-Day, feeding them the wrong location for the attack. Fascinating stuff, well-told.


ALIF THE UNSEEN G. Willow Wilson, A&U

Wilson is an American woman living in the Middle East, a convert to Islam. She is also a journalist, and a worker in pop culture, writing comics. Her interests merge in this strikingly original debut. It takes the matter of the Arabian Nights, and updates it: hackers encounter djinns, and revolution. Islam thus enriches the modern fantasy genre. Like Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, the novel has intelligence, and a social conscience. Yet while Wilson agitates for change, she respects Islamic tradition. Although only just released, the book was completed before the Arab spring, in fact eerily predicts it. Recommended.

PYROTECHNICON Adam Browne, Coueur de Lion

Pyrotechnicon might be the most imaginative novel published in Australia for some years. The subtitle is: the further adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac. The source matter is Bergerac’s own scientific romances. Browne extends these fancies in his own wild ride around the solar system, with the writer/swordsman as hero. Thus we get a flower-powered ship, Orangutans with magic lantern heads, and Louis XIV’s cats. The name of this literary game is transmogrification. The style and setting draw upon the baroque, creating a word feast. It fits neatly into no literary category. Illustrated by the author’s drawings, weirdly and well.

RAILSEA China Miéville, Macmillan

Miéville is endlessly variable. He might operate within the speculative fiction genre, but can move from horror to metaphysics to space opera with ease. His work is always intelligent, and political. Railsea encompasses teen and adult audiences. What if steampunk met Moby Dick, with a female Captain Ahab? He also nods to Edith Nesbit. In an alien world, hunters on trains pursue moldywarpes, giant moles. Young Sham is an apprentice to the chase, watching with wonder and horror. Railsea is a coming of age tale, written with great zest and derring-do. The imagination is breathtaking, as is also the sense of sheer fun. Recommended.


A LADY CYCLIST’S GUIDE TO KASHGAR Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury

This novel dances between eras and narrators, with much charm. In 1923, Eva accompanies her missionary sister to central Asia, to write a cycling guidebook. In the modern day, refugee Tayeb has fled Yemen for London. He encounters Frieda, another traveler, adrift in an unsatisfactory relationship. She has inherited a flatful of personal history, including Eva’s diary. What follows is a tale of East meets West, of the unexpected kindness of strangers. Frieda discovers much about her family, and that the distances between blood relatives are greater than any geography. A delightful book.

LITERARY, WITH GUTS HHhH, trans. Sam Taylor Laurent Binet, Harvill Secker

Few books have an unpronounceable title. HHhH is also an acronym, referring to SS Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. He was brainy, efficient and brutal—until his assassination in Prague, 1942. The story of the killing is famous, oft-told. Binet’s innovation is to place the author within the narrative. How can he write history faithfully, while also doing justice to this supreme act of resistance? So he grounds himself in old, unchanging Prague, researches, and imagines. The notion is as risky as the assassination itself, yet Binet lays out his choices, his agonies—and succeeds triumphantly.

[About the only book on this list which figures in mainstream best-ofs for 2012. That, and the Earls]


MARJORIE BLIGH’S HOME Ed. Danielle Wood, Text

Bligh is a Tasmanian institution. She is a housewife superstar, but without Edna’s malice. Beginning in the 1960s, she self-published books of home hints. This book collects extracts, with endorsements from Bob Brown, or Matthew Evans. It is a mixture of great good sense, kitsch, and the gobsmacking. Cold porridge scones; how to cook wattlebirds; beetroot rouge. Her natural thrift made her a recyclista well before environmentalism. She knitted old stockings, and made rolled newspapers into logs. America has its Martha Stewart; Australia has Marjorie Bligh. No contest: Marjorie wins.

[Took this book to a Kris Kringle, and the recipient was overjoyed.]


I REMEMBER YOU Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Hodder

Icelandic crime writing leaves the other Scandinavians for dead. It depicts isolation, but also interiority. Here the GFC leads to a holiday home renovation—with horror results. The bones of a child are found. In a parallel story, a psychologist mourns his lost son while investigating a case of what could be a poltergeist. The two cases will link, in an ever increasing chain of human frailty. What seems like ordinary, mundane lives can suddenly become very strange: Nature here turns lethal unexpectedly, and so do the people. Superbly creepy—and not to be read when alone at night.


THE FEMALE DETECTIVE Andrew Forrester Jr, British Library
Crime Victoriana buffs know Doyle, Collins and Mary Braddon. Less available is this text, featuring the first female police detective. In 1864, such was impossible in reality, with no women police for another 50 years. Nonetheless two books with this subject appeared, of which Forrester’s showed a rare and genuine ability. Mrs Gladden features as the heroine, not romantically, but of a series of adept detective stories. She is the complete professional, deadlier than the male. The reprint here is introduced by Alexander McCall Smith. It deserved better than a scanned typeface, but the sheer quality shines through.

[I am not convinced that the same author wrote the Forrester stories, as they vary in quality. A shared or house pseudonym, maybe. But these are the best Forrester—up to Wilkie Collins standard]


MODIGLIANI Meryl Secrest, Scribe

Artist Amadeo Modigliani lived wildly, died young—and left a good-looking oeuvre. He began rich in Sephardic Italy, and ended poor in boho Paris. In his life he sold little, but his works now earn millions. Biographer Secrest argues against the myth of the self-destructive genius: Modigliani worked like a fury, and TB, not drugs, killed him. Saddest was his young lover, artist Jeanne Hébuterne—although eight months pregnant, she suicided shortly afterwards.

THE BARONESS Hannah Rothschild, Virago

Nica Rothschild was born to wealth, and a troubled family history. She was intended to be a good Jewish wife, but then she fell in love with jazz music. Its siren call enticed her from her children and titled husband. She moved to New York, becoming a patroness of the music, and also friend of its players. She gained infamy when Charlie Parker died in her company, but her major influence was on Thelonious Monk. She would even take the rap for his narcotics bust. Rothschild, a documentary maker, documents her bohemian great-aunt meticulously and with love. A splendid biography.


AFTER THE DARKNESS Honey Brown, Penguin

Brown’s last novel was longlisted for the Miles Franklin—and should have made the shortlist. This latest is more in the psychothriller genre, and an excellent read. A middleaged Australian couple take a beach holiday without the kids. What happens next upends popular thriller clichés of villains and victims. Wife and husband fight off a horrific attack together. Then they return to their lives as small business owners, ordinary people. But the violence has left its mark. They are scarred, and increasingly paranoid that the threat will follow them home. Are they going to become horrors themselves? Should make an excellent film.

FISH-HAIR WOMAN Merlinda Bobis, Spinifex

Bobis is a writer living in Australia, but vitally concerned with her birthplace, the Philippines. She also can do easily what very few authors here dare, mix the magical realism with the political. In this novel, a dirty war is being fought against Phillippine insurgents. Bodies are dumped in the river; and retrieved by a woman whose hair is a net for the dead. Parallel to this story is a young Australian, seeking his missing journalist father. The force of the writing does not allow disbelief; Bobis takes risks and no prisoners. The result is dark, angry, powerful. For the Stella prize, at least.

[Dear reader, I judged a literary award this year. Neither of these books appeared in the shortlist, but they were my Aussie faves]



In the history of censorship, Australia figures as an enthusiastic banner of books. Some of these works were pulp, but many had serious intent. In the process, a huge library of the prohibited was created, and hidden in the National Archives. Moore rediscovered it—and thus had a unique window into the wowser mentality. Sex was bad, also sedition: and some truly strange decisions were made. Huxley, Salinger and Vidal were banned, along with porn and science fiction comics. The decisions were secretive, with Australians never knowing what the censors were protecting them from. Moore provides a powerful and informative story of a changing Australia.


THE ALEPPO CODEX Matti Friedman, Scribe

This book is a mystery story about a sacred text, a tenth-century annotated Hebrew Bible. It is believed to be the definitive version, but 200 pages are missing. Supposedly the damage came from Muslim rioters in 1947. They set fire to the Syrian synagogue which housed the Codex. It was believed destroyed, yet re-surfaced in Israel ten years later. Friedman’s investigative journalism follows the Codex on its journeys, a tale of smugglers, spies, and finally human greed. What he unearths says much about the formation of Israel. It is also a bibliographic scandal. A fascinating read, for those intrigued by religion and the history of books.

[Not perhaps flawlessly written, but still engrossing]



‘Any revolution that doesn’t create equality for women will be incomplete’. Amen. This collection takes a global perspective on gender, examining unfinished women’s business. Part 2 is devoted to the Arab Spring, and its potential for regression in women’s rights. Afghanistan remains heartbreaking, but there are many other areas of concern. In California, thousands of evidence samples in rape cases remain untested. The book is sobering, but also a testament to courage, small and big victories: Somali Dr Hawa Abdi vs militias, a fatwa against FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sobering and enlightening.


WELCOME TO NORMAL Nick Earls, Vintage

Many essay the short fiction, but fewer actually succeed with the form. Earls is one of the shining exceptions. This collection is linked by the theme of travel, particularly people out of their comfort zone. Character and narrative are both important here: things happen, and resonate deep in the psyche. In “Range”, a US soldier drives home, with horror increasingly on his mind. Other stories show tourists: a feuding gay couple in Spain, or Australian wine-makers in Taiwan. Pick of bunch is probably “Merlo Girls”, about two ill-assorted males, and an act of kindness. Good stuff!

[I review quite a lot of short stories on principle, as they are neglected otherwise. Earls is one of the few authors I saw who knew what to do with the form]



Two murders of women twenty years apart, in Italy and England. Had one been properly investigated, the second would not have occurred. Reporter Jones was drawn into the case, and provides a masterful picture. At the heart of this book is a great love for provincial Italy, but also awareness of its faults. The first crime went unavenged through inertia, and the fear of upsetting the powerful. A major factor was the Catholic Church, who hindered the investigation. Justice was finally done, but at the cost of possibly three more lives. A powerful book.

[True crime shades into voyeurism far too easily. That this book also dealt with serial killing should have meant I tossed it aside. Instead, I read to conclusion, as Jones neatly soared above the competition like a Powerful Owl].

Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, `My Lady Tongue' won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost. Aqueduct Press published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty, in 2006.

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