A profound and unsettling novel about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we’re able to justify brutality.
⚑ “It’s like Lloyd Jones got in my head and seeing my worst fears was then inspired to write the most torturous novel possible. Yup I’m sure there are much worse out there, but after the first chapter I quietly put down the book and vowed not to read one more word.
“However this is the Ockhams, Rach is relying on me for a review, and curiosity eventually got the better of me. What is the cage, where is the cage from, would they ever get the hell out of the goddamn cage? These are just my specific cage-related thoughts. I worried about a lot of other things while reading this book and was obsessed with it. Was that particularly healthy? Definitely not. Am I haunted by some the images? Of course! Would I recommend this book highly? Absolutely.
“Side note – this was definitely my favourite cover of the 4 Ockham shortlisters.” – Suzy
⚑ “Strangers walk into town, stunned by some event which they cannot explain. The locals hold them in cages, fearful of the unknown and desperate for more information on the cataclysmic event. This is The Cage. It is gripping from the first page and it just gets better, ie more horrific.
“Clearly the concept is highly metaphoric. The strangers could be refugees, immigrants, children, a nation’s people; the cage could be prison, borders, psychological or class barriers, or any number of obstacles that we and the world put in our way; the “carers” could represent everyday people, parents, or government.
“Or, the book as a whole could be an exploration of our current world where everyone seems to think they have the right to control how everyone else acts and thinks. Whatever the case, there is so much to get out of this, a cautionary and highly relevant tale which should be read by everyone!” – Rachel
The re-creation of one of the last executions in New Zealand leading to the abolition of capital punishment.
⚑ “Poor Albert Black. I appreciated the way this novel explored the impact on everyone involved in his trial and sentencing – from the prison staff and the jurors to his friends and family. People responded to this entirely grim situation so differently based on their own morals and beliefs, and it is clear what the author’s own opinion of Albert’s situation was.
“I felt nauseous as we moved closer and closer to his death. Unfortunately upon reading the blurb on the back of the book we know that Albert’s fate is sealed. A clever marketing person or editor would have logically decided this information needed to be conveyed to the reader right from the start but I would have enjoyed the book more and become more invested in the characters had I not known this until it was revealed during the story. RIP Albert.” – Suzy
⚑ “Dame Fiona Kidman has investigated a part of New Zealand history with which most would not be familiar: events leading up to the abolition of capital executions in New Zealand. It follows the life and death of one man, Albert Black, an Irish immigrant, and his involvement in our past. Black’s personal story of angst is told, combined with in-depth courtroom drama.
“However, it reads more like non-fiction. It’s a step-by-step recall of a moment in time, with history’s – and the book’s – outcome clearly stated on the back cover blurb. I was interested to learn about this event and its consequences but the story does not have the roller coaster tension, nor the beauty, you expect from fiction.” – Rachel
Penguin Random House
A portrait of a world hidden from view: North Korea, rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.
⚑ “The Orphan Master’s Son reminded me of Nineteen Eighty Four, but is clearly more shockingly real. Set in the author’s imagined North Korea, the Dear Leader makes an orphan of all his people through a programme of propaganda, poverty and regimented control. ”
“The main character is a man of many identities, at first an orphan master’s son, named for a martyr Jun Doh (John Doe), he is a tunneller, a spy, a kidnapper, a man who bears the tattoo of another man’s wife before finally assuming a high ranking official’s identity to challenge the state that has always challenged him.
“It has a far-fetched storyline that includes oddities like the building of a Texas ranch in the North Korean desert for the pleasure of visiting officials and naked female rowers circumnavigating the globe, but Johnston makes the depths of his mind so believable. For amongst the hilarity and satirical obscurities is a fictional world painted against a background of fact. The laugh-out-loud vs somber contemplation ratio is perfect.
“This is a book unlike anything I’d read before and I immediately fell in love with its unique perspective and began encouraging everyone I knew to read it!” – Rachel
⚑ “The Orphan Master’s Son? Oh my, what a book! For a whole bunch of tangible and intangible reasons it hit me in my gut and my heart! It also made me laugh – a curious combination of humour, horror. romance, suffering, social-cultural commentary and wit!
“Set in North Korea it follows the life of the an orphaned boy Pak Jun Do and a character he later assumes, Commander Ga, in North Korea. It gives us a fictional, yet based on some truth, account of life in the Country under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il.
“What struck me most was how bleak and terrible North Korea is painted, which if only 50% true is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Torture, prison camps, extreme social control, propaganda, hunger and loss of the self. Within all of this, a love story with a moving yet brilliant ending, a highly recommended read.” – Sonya
⚑ “Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is a compelling story set in North Korea which is as beautiful as much as it’s harrowing. I was instantly intrigued and captivated as it opened a window into the frightening and mysterious world of North Korea.
Penguin Random House
Amongst a backdrop of dystopian violence is a story about good and evil and the right to human freedom.
⚑ “I was left a wee bit traumatised after reading A Clockwork Orange in 6th Form English and so was nervous about a re-read. However, it was certainly not as baddiwad as I recalled, and in fact, this time I found it both hilarious, in a perverse satirical way, and philosophical. The violence may have been the shocking memory of my teenage read, but as a more widely read person, I now appreciate the juxtaposition of violence vs farcicality and the social themes of free-thought vs state control. Plus I now viddy how the dystopian Nadsat language helped offset the horror of the violence.
“For example Alex and his droogs may have been attempting to drat and have the old in-out with a soomka in her own domy but the comical moment where the koshka attack and he ends up punching one of them in the litso made me guff. And when the Ludivco brainwashing technique begins, this is where the real raskazz begins and where philosophical arguments are piqued: what are the rights of citizens both decent and immoral, and when is it okay for the state to interfere with the individuality of its citizens for the greater good?
“This expression of individualism, written in the 60s when such a topic was hot, ensured this shocking story was to become a timeless and forever relevant read that makes no appypolly loggy for its content. I now understand why this horrorshow book was once considered required College reading.” – Rachel
⚑ “Oh my, what a book! I would describe reading it as ‘a crazy, unsettling ride’. As so much has been written of it and about it, I’m confining my thoughts to the two most striking things about it for me, the impressions, the ‘learning’, if you like …
“Firstly, the lingo, the youth slang. So clever, helping elevate the book to a level it might not otherwise have done. Yes, difficult to read, but like learning a foreign language I found I quickly began to get the hang of it, even though I didn’t necessarily understand every single word. I think it helped to build depth into the narrator and give the story an otherworldly quality.
“The second thing I find most memorable, was the ending. Oh how I felt let down by the ending! Such fizzer to what otherwise would be a powerful piece! That said, perhaps it is from this that I go back for a second read, perhaps to better understand what the author was trying to say beyond entertainment and impact?” – Sonya
In 2019 it appears we have selected books that map unchartered topics: dystopian themes, satirical commentaries and plenty of US fiction, the latter of which we all confess to being less versed in.
But we are prepared to take the journey. Into the less understood, and the unparalleled. We’re along for the ride, as passive observers. Are we in need of escape, or searching for understanding in the corners of possibility? By the end of the year will we be as outspoken as the characters we’ve who filled our 12 months?
Whatever the case, we recognise that these books will provide insight into mindsets that not only abound now, but which have built the foundations on which modern day morals have come to see as the truth or at least the way forward.
Yes, forward. The only way to start a journey.
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnston
Disgrace – J M Coetzee
Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
La Rose – Louise Erdrich
Dogside Story – Patricia Grace
Our reading this year was characterised by a string of strong personalities. Though unintentional and though the books were written and published over many different decades, it was curious that we should chose such a line-up, at a time when personality hype abounds.
The international world was certainly influenced by powerful and strong willed personalities this year – both socially and politically. Is it the way of the future or is it more the social media hype that surrounds them that highlights their supposed unyielding tenacity?
Whatever the case, our reading list tended to replicate this reality.
From abusive and neglectful husbands (When I Hit You, Five Sons) to the egotistical traveling companions in On The Road, through to the power hungry in Oryx & Crake, there were many types of domination on display.
Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, Frances Wray in The Paying Guests and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys all also had ultimate control in mind as they manipulated those around them. Even the settings in these books were strong and character-like in their influences.
However, there was plenty of balance and so while sometimes overwhelming and disconcerting there was often a strong sense of reason; the personalities suited the plots and gave us strong sentiment to share at bookclub meets.
Our end of year get-together was held at sushi bar Wafu, where we shared in our love of raw fish and good books!
There were some commonalties in our thoughts: The Paying Guests had the most disappointing outcome and The Bridge of San Luis Rey had the best one liner: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below”.
But suffice to say the least liked character list was complex and fraught with discussion!
Here are a few more of our thoughts from the past 12 months:
Most memorable setting:
Sonya: The apartment in Breakfast at Tiffanys
Jodie: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Jo: The house in The Paying Guests
Rachel: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Becks: The bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Sonya: Sunja in Pachinko
Jodie: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Jo: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Rachel: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Becks: Unnamed narrator in The Nine Chambered Heart
Runner up best book:
Sonya: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jodie: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jo: Oryx & Crake
Rachel: When I Hit You
Becks: When I Hit You
Book of the year:
Jodie: I Capture The Castle
Jo: I Capture The Castle
Rachel: I Capture The Castle
Becks: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The story of life for Koreans in Japan, told through four generations and eight decades.
➽ “I found Pachinko a deeply engrossing story about the burdens of a Korean family living as immigrants in Japan during the 20th century. The research Lee conducted to pull the story together was thorough and took her many years. I enjoyed learning about a part of history that was new to me; I gained a huge appreciation for the complex historical relationship between Korea and Japan. Lee has managed to write this historical novel in a beautiful and easy style with lots of plot and events occurring; the writing is calm so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the action. It’s a beautifully constructed novel with characters who feel quite real and vivid. I really enjoyed it!” – Jodie
➽ “Pachinko is a multi generational narrative of family bonds and struggles, detailing the complex lives of immigrants in a foreign land. That the story began post WWII and the immigrants were unable to return to their homeland made the story more poignant. I had not understood the Korean-Japanese relationship of this time so appreciated the education as well as the entertainment the book provided. Sacrifice is a common theme, often underpinned by each character’s place as a second class citizen in a foreign land. The female characters are strong but not cliched and work tirelessly to keep their families alive. A really enjoyable read.” – Rachel
➽ “An education on Korean and Japanese social relationship history is given throughout this book which I found fascinating and deeply saddening. It’s a long saga of a story with some very distressing events which the writer skilfully expresses with subtlety. It’s clever and interesting with characters that gradually sharpen into being as their story unfolds. I loved it and feel enriched for having learnt about a topic I had no idea about – the plight of Koreans in Japan.” – Jo
Grand Central Publishing
After five Peruvians perish in a bridge collapse, a friar attempts to determine why it was those individuals who should die.
➽ “The Bridge of San Luis Rey appealed to me for its philosophical exploration, asking, but never answering: are fates part of some pre-ordained course or do we live our lives by chance? Five people are ‘precipitated’ into a gulf after a hand built bridge collapses in Peru. Brother Juniper examines the lives of the dead, in order find some reason, Godly or otherwise, for their demise. That the question over fate/chance is never answered was the distinctive appeal of the book for me. I do not want all the answers in literature, but rather ideas to stretch my thinking, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey certainly offered this.
“Its central theme of how we give and receive love is timeless, and was examined via a number of different types of relationships, a refreshing take on the love story. With the ability to be read on a number of levels, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is accessible to all and I’m so pleased to have read it.” – Rachel
➽ “The Bridge of San Luis Rey captivated me from the start with the opening sentence: ‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.’
“Brother Juniper witnesses this tradegy and is left pondering the theory: were these people victims of chance or deliberately targeted as part of Gods plan?
Some say…that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
“The novel delves into the lives of the five exotic characters, and it feels to me you are reading five short stories. The common theme running through their lives, and extending into the future, is love in many forms. Wilder purposely leaves the ending open for interpretation. The only certainty is that one way or another love brought those five people to the bridge at the exact same moment. It is a beautifully written novel that captures many emotions in such a small amount of pages. A very enjoyable read.” – Jodie
➽ “This book had a unique perspective with a commonly wondered theme: is there a plan or do we live by accident? I was drawn in by this question and enjoyed the beautifully way it was written with multiple stand out parts that are too numerous to mention. A clever, concise book involving multiple angles with religious and philosophical references most obvious. I feel as if I missed some of the underlying messages and surprisingly I’m looking forward to re-reading this book. (I never usually want to for some reason). I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It is definitely a book that should be savoured.” – Jo
➽ “I can give lots of reasons for why I loved “The Bridge of San Luis Rey“. It’s a book that I belive deserves its critical acclaim and timeless appeal. The book structure, being insights into the lives of five characters leading up to the point where they were killed with the collapse of a bridge, was clever and gave punchy accounts of life and love in the fashion of short, interconnected stories. I liked this a lot. As did I the philosophical premise: “Do we die according to God’s grand plan for us, is it somehow deserved, or is our fate random?” This book is a real gem, and even if at times I struggled with the language and my understanding of what was being said, it is something I shall remember and recommend to others.” – Sonya
Albert & Charles Boni
The 2018 Man Booker shortlist was a surprise, with many followers declaring it an unusual list with glaring omissions. We, too, were shocked at who wasn’t present: Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Warlight by Michael Ondajtee, Crudo by Olivia Lang, Normal People by Sarah Rooney. We could go on.
But reading the Man Booker shortlist is not an exercise in favouritism, it is a literary peregrination that gives us the chance to read six excellent books, and to proclaim their fabulousness or pick merciless holes in them!
This year we holed up in idyllic Akaora and considered the judges’ announcement that the list was chosen as such because of its contenders’ “miracles of stylistic invention”. Surprise list or not, what else was there to do but embark upon a journey to embrace newness.
And newness there was, experimental fiction for sure. Look at The Long Take, a poem in novel form, with its protagonist like a camera, wandering the streets recording the suffering of veterans trying to assimilate back into real life.
Washington Black subverted a story of marginalisation by putting a black gentleman in the centre of the story and the white men as support cast on the periphery. Then tied in adventure tales of the 19th century to a story that drags you from one side of your thematic understanding to the other.
Milkman has a dense, report style of narrative where no one has a name for fear of identification. The vernacular of over describing things is clever and effective.
Despite its lack of chapter headings, Everything Under has a simple story line, moulded by myths and fairy tales we know well. The use of second person narration adds another dimension to this uniquely told tale.
The Overstory combines in-depth character analysis and a strong moral focus with fascinating scientific studies in a 500-page tome that is never dull.
And The Mars Room is probably the most believable prison system story out there. There is no cushioning here but an extensively researched novel about lower socio-economic women who end up on the wrong side of life.
So yes, experimental fiction, miracles of stylistic invention, notable books worth recognising.
Do either of us think they are six best books of the year? No.
Are we glad we read them? Yes. For what kind of bookies would we be if we didn’t tackle the unexpected, and embrace newness and duly report back with our thoughts!
So, who took it out in our opinions?
For Suzy it was The Overstory. “This shortlist showcases a line up of gutsy publishers, producing literature we haven’t seen before and I applaud them for it. This is one year where I honestly wouldn’t mind if any of the six won, but Richard Powers changed my life, yes, changed my life. I feel like I understand climate change properly and am more ecologically aware from reading his book – so The Overstory is my pick.”
And, Rachel chose The Long Take. “What I admired most about The Long Take was its brevity:effect ratio. I know that basically describes poetry, but it takes on new meaning in Robertson’s middling take on both the novelistic and poetry form. He created a novel with rhythm yet sharpness. Five or six words could shock me. It was like nothing I’ve ever read, and I was deeply impressed with the style and deeply moved by the story. I actually read it twice in the same week, and I’m already planning on reading it a third time.”
Suzy’s favourites 1st-6th
The Overstory – Richard Powers
The Long Take – Robin Robertson
Everything Under – Daisy Johnston
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Milkman – Anna Burns
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan
Rachel’s favourites 1st-6th
The Long Take – Robin Robertson
Everything Under – Daisy Johnston
Milkman – Anna Burns
The Overstory – Richard Powers
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan