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’.  

Jean on the 2017 Ned Kelly Award shortlist for Best Fiction

The Ned Kelly Awards are run by the Australian Crime Writers Association and have been going since 1995. 

I was lucky enough to be one of three judges of the Best Fiction category of the Ned Kelly Awards for this year. As it’s been impossible to keep up with everything that has been published in the past 12 months, I was amazed at the quality and variety of the 63 books submitted – a couple by established writers I’d never read before, but who will now be on my must-read list, and a few by first-time authors.

The difficulty we had in finally whittling down the submissions to the required shortlist of six books shows the depth and strength of the Australian crime-writing scene. There were at least another six in contention that certainly would have made an Oscars-style expanded shortlist.

In alphabetical order by author, and including excerpts from judges’ comments, the 2017 shortlist is:

Candice Fox Crimson Lake

How do you defend yourself against the unproven charge of child-abduction? Especially if you’re police. Perhaps you try to hide yourself away in a remote, crocodile-infested Queensland town and adopt a goose with goslings – but word always gets out. Ted Conkaffey, the very damaged main narrator of Crimson Lake, is a truly different take on the disgraced cop – and his equally damaged offsider Amanda Pharell, an ex-con (imprisoned for murder) turned private investigator, is also an original. There’s plenty of action and some nice twists. The crisp writing, the lovely description and the ambiguous friendship of the protagonists make this an outstanding crime novel.

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, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn, the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the resolution is a genuine surprise.

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

A devastating book about the consequences of the murder of a young woman 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 of a type too rarely heard, and the setting is so real you can smell the air. There is profound humanity in this story and a perspective and emotional depth that is unusual and challenging, casting new light on old shadows. You can read Linda Funnell’s review here.

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

McKinty (last year’s winner) once again delivers an erudite and perfectly paced crime novel full of fascinating characters, by turns lyrical and tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and heart-stoppingly suspenseful, but always wholly engaging. Sean Duffy has to manage his own domestic turmoil and find his feet as a father while solving a crime that is much more than it seems, all within the charged environment of internecine strife in the RUC and the escalating war between the IRA and the Loyalists in 1980s Northern Ireland. You can read Karen Chisholm’s review and overview of the Sean Duffy series here.

Jock Serong The Rules of Backyard Cricket

This is a personal, Australian tale of two brothers who grew up playing back-yard cricket, often violently, against one another. Darren, the younger brother and the narrator, is incredibly gifted, but goes off the rails, while Wally achieves success. This is a very timely tale given the real world of match fixing, and criminal interest in sport. Serong keeps the real bad guy ambiguous until an ending that will leave readers speechless.

Ann Turner Out of the Ice

The Antarctic setting, remote and cold, makes this a beautiful and atmospheric story. Laura is an Australian scientist tasked with documenting an abandoned whaling station, but a sighting of a young boy in an ice cave sets off a dangerous train of events. The freezing beauty of Antarctica contrasts with the bleak, cruel nature of the people Laura encounters as she uncovers the mystery. You can read Karen Chisholm’s review here.

Other outstanding books included Zane Lovitt’s Black Teeth, L A Larkin’s Devour, Garry Disher’s Signal Loss,  our own Godfather’s Win, Lose or Draw, Christopher Donald Blake’s Macleay’s Swallowtail and Amanda Ortlepp’s Running Against the Tide.

As well as Best Fiction, there are awards for Best True Crime and Best First Fiction – you can find their 2017 shortlists here. The awards will be presented on September 1st at a free event as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

This article was first published in the Newtown Review of Books on 15 August 2017.