Favourite books of 2017

As I was one of the judges for the Ned Kelly Awards this year, I read a lot of wonderful Australian crime fiction and some of this has made it onto the list below.

Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness

I reviewed this last week so it’s very fresh in my memory. This posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, some previously published in the New York Review of Books, displays the amazing breadth of his knowledge and interests, as well as his charming, lucid and poetic writing. From the mental life of earthworms to Freud as a neurologist and Darwin as a botanist, with many fascinating diversions along the way, all of these essays completely captivated my attention and, as always with Sacks, enriched my perceptions of the world and other people.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

This is the sixth book in the Sean Duffy series, and possibly the best of them, though they are all terrific. It won the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction this year – the second time in a row for McKinty – and sees Duffy in all sorts of his usual trouble, but this time with a partner and a baby to worry about as well. The set-up behind this series provides lots of texture: Duffy is a Catholic in the Protestant police force of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, with both sides of the law often gunning for him. He’s also a maverick with a chip on his shoulder, not surprisingly, who checks his car automatically for bombs every morning.

The historical setting is fascinating; the writing is a dream, with great characterisation and plenty of dour humour; the plot, as always, is convoluted and convincing. (You can read Karen Chisholm’s excellent round-up of the series and full review of Police at the Station here.)

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

A devastating book about the repercussions of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in a country town, the loss and grief of those left behind, and the appropriation of that loss and grief by others. Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s sister, Chris, whose voice is completely distinctive and convincing, and the setting vividly lifts off the page.

It’s a terrific crime novel, beautifully written, but it is also an examination of the devastation of people affected by a brutal murder, and of the way women can be subjugated and abused. (Read Linda’s full review here.)

Wendy James The Golden Child

This is a fascinating novel with an absolutely original take on the online world of blogs and cyber-bullying (as well as bullying face-to-face). It is beautifully written and cleverly constructed, with smooth segues among several voices, both adult and adolescent, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn (and it takes a lot to win me over with adolescent characters), the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the subtle setting up of the plot through the various points of view, mostly of mothers and daughters, leads to a genuinely surprising resolution. ‘… domestic noir at its most intelligent and sharp.’ – Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald

Emma Ångström The Man in the Wall

Only one Nordic Noir made it onto the list, though I’ve read what seems like dozens this year. A lot of not-so-good stuff is being translated and published, unfortunately, trying to cash in on the recent popularity of the genre and some usually fabulous series writers have produced disappointing books – I suspect being urged into publishing the magical ‘book a year’.

Anyway, the discovery of a terrific new Nordic writer is a wonderful thing. The Man in the Wallis a Swedish psychological thriller with a difference. It has a genuinely original plot and characters and is not so much a whodunit as a creepy exploration of isolation and its consequences. One of the two main characters is an unhappy child, Alva, whose father is in prison, and who has moved with her mother and her two older (actively hostile) sisters to a new apartment building, where a bizarre murder occurs. Other disturbing things start to happen and we get both Alva’s point of view and that of the killer, who can come and go throughout the building unseen. She gets drawn into the killer’s games and we know it can’t end well. Just how badly it does end is an unexpected shock.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.