Best reads for 2018, so far….

I’ve been fortunate enough to read some memorable books this year, so my annual review is coming early. Hopefully this streak of great books continues.

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

This is a story about Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant escaping to the US to avoid the Great Famine back home in Ireland. He befriends fellow Irishman John Cole and the novel, narrated in the first person, follows their adventures in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War.

I have heard of novels being “achingly beautiful” but I have never experienced it until this work. Beautifully written with numerous memorable descriptions of the horrors of war and the glories of love. Take this example of McNulty reflecting on his life. How many of us can saythe same.

“I look back over 50 years of life, and I wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much.

A man’s memory might have only 100 clear days in it and he has lived 1000s. Can’t do much about that. We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards. I ain’t got no argument with it. Just saying it is so.

Napoleon’s Last Island by Thomas Keneally.

How many of you know of the connection between Melbourne and Napoleon Bonaparte? There is a strong connection and you will find it outside Mornington at the Briars.

This connection inspired this work by Keneally.

After Napoleon escaped from Elba and was recaptured after Waterloo, the British authorities exiled him to the island of St Helena, 4000 km east of Rio de Janeiro and about 2000 km west of Namibia.

On the island, Napoleon befriended the Balcombe family, in particular their precocious daughter Betsy.

The novel is a fictionalised account of their friendship on the island.

I have read many of Keneally’s works but the writing in this novel is Keneally at his masterful best.

Returning to the Melbourne connection. After the Balcombe family returned to England (in disgrace) Mr Balcombe accepted a post in NSW. One of the Balcombe sons bought a settlement and house outside present day Mornington. The Briars, as it was named, today is a museum filled with Napoleonic artefacts that were gifted by the Emperor to the family. In the early 1900s a Balcombe descendant Mabel Brookes, wife of Sir Norman Brookes travelled to Europe and returned with even more Napoleonic items for the Briars.

The Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Turning now to non-fiction.

If you grew up thinking that our indigenous people were nomadic wanderers with no fixed abode, no government and no rule of law…. then you have been misled.

Pascoe examines the records, diaries, journals and reports left behind by settlers, squatters and government officials. He casts a different light on these contemporaneous writings and reveals the reality of Aboriginal occupation.

I was gobsmacked to learn that the First Australians were farmers that stored their produce and grain, they baked and sewed and built homes that housed up to 40 people. They built dams and fisheries. They maintained the land by careful agriculture and burning.

They had government by elders that appeared to maintain peace and order for 65,000 years! There is no evidence of wars or land raids or raping and pillaging by the First Australians. Their isolation from the Continent saw this stream of humanity organise its society along different (dare I say, more peaceful and co-operative) lines.

A real eye opener and highly recommend read.

Spoils by Brian Van Reet

I’ve read many works about war and battles both fiction and non fiction. However, this novel is among the best. Set in Iraq in 2003 it covers a two month period from the perspective of three protagonists. The first Cassandra Wigheard, a US soldier in her first tour of duty, Abu Ali’s-Hool a jihadist who has devoted most of his adult life to the Muhajardeen brotherhood and “Sleed” a tank crewman.

The writer takes you into each of their minds and hearts as they confront the challenges, danger and ghastliness if modern warfare.

I could not put this book down and finished it in one long weekend. Such is the maturity of the writing that I was surprised to learn it is a debut novel for Van Reet. Highly recommended.

Just look at the opening page

She is the most dangerous thing around. The best soldiers are like her just on the far side of childhood. Their exact reasons for fighting don’t matter much. They can carry deep resentments or have been blessed with an easy going temperament. Fear and shame are the army’s two great teaching tools and they work equally well on most personality types. The main thing, what makes Cassandra good at soldiering is simply her age. The training won’t transform anyone much over 30. No amount of drilling and shouting and rote repetition through pain and humiliation and hardship can erase the kind of wariness that comes through the accumulated calamity of years. The adult fear of death that makes taking the kind of risks you must take to personally win a ground war, too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a latent suicide or a teenager.”

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

This powerful work traces the extraordinary life of Sandra Pankhurst. Krasnostein spent 3–4 years with Pankhurst, following her to work, tracing her origins, her spouse and children to produce this remarkable debut work.

Pankhurst, as the title suggests is a trauma cleaner with a business in Frankston, Melbourne. She and her team of workers clean up crime scenes, homes that have been ravaged by floods, pests and toxic substances. The book takes us to the homes of hoarders. High functioning individuals holding down responsible positions outside their homes, but at home their lives are a mess. Pankhurst holds their hand and navigates the twisted reality of a hoarder as her team clear their homes of the detritus and (precious) remnants of a bygone era.

But “mess” is also an apposite description of Pankhurst’s life. Born a male and adopted to an uncaring and neglectful family, she married and had two children before leaving her wife and later undergoing gender reassignment.

This occurred during the 70s and 80s when transsexuals had no status under the law, they faced constant police brutality and their career choices were limited prostitution or show girls. Pankhurst tried everything and Krasnostein chronicles her life in sympathetic detail.

But Pankhurst remarried, became a respectable business woman and local Councillor, before falling into trauma cleaning. One can’t help thinking that in restoring order to other people’s lives, Pankhurst is also seeking to make sense of her own history.

This is another work I could not put down. Krasnostein certainly challenges Helen Garner in this quasi-journalistic genre.

Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong

I’m proud to finish this review with another Australian work. An author I will certainly seek out now that I have read this novel.

Set in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, Serong tells the story of the Keith brothers, Wally and Darren. Both of them cricket prodigies learning their craft under the watchful eye of their single mum.

Wally the elder is the angel child (or so we think) Darren is the demon/larrikin.

Both rise to great heights although through different paths.

In the chapter aptly named “Redemption” Darren needs to make amends after a night of heavy drinking and drug taking creates a scandal. Under the direction of a PR adviser, Alan, he sits through a staged television interview. Below are the instructions he receives before the interview. Reminded me of cricket greats that have recently fallen from grave.

You know she’ll flirt”. Says Alan

Ok

You’ll flirt back right. … and cry. The minute she gives you an opening fucking go for it, you understand. You’re not live, they can cut it while you recover. Snot, makeup everywhere. I don’t care just get the fucking waterworks going, okay?”

Another page turner.

Happy reading.

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