Book book, read it, read it


Bob reading “icky stuff” – photo LW

Two days into a five-week pilgrimage to far North Queensland and back, I ran out of suitable reading material. I’d rapidly consumed two of the three crime thrillers acquired for the journey and gave up on the Jonathan Kellerman when the body count reached four in the first dozen pages. She Who Reads Literature meanwhile snaffled the collection of short stories by Annie Proulx I borrowed from the library.

When I discover a new writer, I usually binge-read two or three, which in this case was John Sandford’s series about an unlikely detective, Virgil Flowers. I warmed to Flowers, as he is portrayed warts and all, which in his case is a serious viral outbreak. He lies, bullies suspects, intimidates witnesses, ignores his superiors and, as with all maverick cops, goes about his dodgy investigative business with seeming impunity.

He’s a lanky fellow with long hair and a habit of wearing surfer attire (jeans and rock music themed T-shirts). As with many private eye/rogue detective characters (created by male writers), Virgil thinks he is God’s gift to women. When you consider the outlandish plot of the first Flowers novel, Dark of the Moon, and an ever-rising body count, it’s a wonder Virgil can find time for a hamburger, never mind a woman. When he’s on the trail of drug dealers, psychos, murderers and dog nappers in the State of Minnesota, he sometimes goes days with little sleep. He is a dogged investigator with a dark sense of humour, but so often misses obvious clues you feel like yelling – “Nooo, Virgil – behind you!”

Crime thrillers and spy novels are my preferred genre, although I  delve into literary fiction if I can find a writer who knows how to craft a narrative and invent believable dialogue.

I have read a few books by Annie Proulx, whose recent book Bark Skins has been turned into an online TV series. Kaui Hart Hemmings (The Descendants, The Possibilities), was a revelation. SWRL and I both like Richard Flanagan (although agreeing that Gould’s Book of Fish was impenetrable).

I’ve read everything the superlative Canadian author Michael Crummey has written thus far. His historical fiction is usually set in Newfoundland, so to engage, one ought to have a passing familiarity with the Maritime Provinces. Crummey’s narrative flair, descriptive skills and occasional poetic flourishes keep the reader deeply engaged. Try River Thieves as an example of his fine writing.

In pursuit of a worthwhile holiday read (sans serial killers), I discovered a novel (long-listed for the Booker prize), by UK writer Max Porter, whose brilliant debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, won awards. The follow-up, Lanny, was available on Amazon for US$8.99. Armed with less than reliable WiFi in the coastal towns of Agnes Water/Seventeen Seventy, I managed to download it.

Now I can go from here to Cairns (probably via an inland detour), with an unorthodox book which is both intriguing and beautifully written.

SWRL sometimes asks why I read “violent, icky stuff”. I’m not alone. A survey commissioned by the Australia Council found that 49% of participants nominated crime novels as their favourite genre. Next came historical fiction (36%), contemporary literary fiction (33%) and science fiction/fantasy (32%).

The Australia Council partnered with Macquarie University on this  three-year research project: ‘The Australian Book Industry: Authors, Publishers and Readers in a Time of Change’.

The survey revealed that Australians read more than three books per month and spend five hours reading books each week. Frequent readers report reading six books per month and almost eleven hours reading books, with 80% of their reading time devoted to reading for pleasure. Does this sound like you?Another key finding that concurs with my experience is that readers are mixing new digital options with conventional ways of reading.

Australians value locally written books and the Australian book industry. Considering that the dominant genre is crime and mystery fiction, Australian authors stand out in this department. The late Peter Temple turned out nine well plotted thrillers that deservedly won major awards.He is best known for inventing Jack Irish, an accidental investigator, well portrayed in the TV series by Guy Pierce.

Temple has a worthy successor as Australia’s No 1 crime writer in Mornington Peninsula-based author Garry Disher, who has also written non-crime fiction and books for young people. He has a strong view about the crime novel (he has written 20).

He told The Age he believes the reading public is embracing good crime novels because they feed a hunger for engagement with social issues not being met by literary fiction. “Many literary novels are inward-looking or backward-looking,” he says. “They don’t engage with Australia as it is now.”

Interesting that Disher said this in 2008, because in the interim, there’s been an upsurge of interest in Australian ‘noir’. Former journalist Jane Harper’s novel The Dry was a best-seller and has already been adapted for the big screen starring Eric Bana and a cast of familiar faces.

Since today’s missive introduces you to authors you may not know,  66% of readers discover a new book/author by word of mouth recommendations. Browsing in bookstores is still popular, with second-hand outlets the third most popular source. These three methods far outweigh sources of information one might assume to be ranked higher. For example, writers’ festivals (6%) and book clubs (5%) are well down the list.

I took heart from the survey’s finding that just as many people borrow books from a public library as those who buy them. I was forced to delve into the e-reader when public libraries closed in 2020 due to Covid restrictions. Now that the worst has passed (or has it?), let’s quote the epidemiologist who said there is a low risk of contracting Covid when borrowing a library book. By all means wipe the cover, he said, but the virus can only live for a few hours on such a surface. And don’t listen to those who recommend putting library books in the microwave. It will make the pages curl and your microwave will smell funny.

Civica’s 2020 Libraries Index (based on 38 million books borrowed from 90 Australian and New Zealand libraries), revealed that 12 of the top 20 borrowed books were by Australian authors.  Lianne Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers was No 1. Two Jane Harper thrillers were in the top 20, as was Trent Dalton’s disarming Boy Swallows Universe.

Readers borrowed more audio books and e-books following forced closure of libraries. The lockdown also saw the advent of neighbourhood street libraries, just one of the ways in which Covid restrictions led to inclusive community activities.

The social etiquette for street libraries is the same as second-hand book exchanges in caravan parks – take a book and leave one in its place. The caravan park where we are staying for a few days before venturing a little further north has such a collection in the office (they are usually found in the laundry). It’s typical fare, including Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, four Jodi Picoult novels and (gasp) a hardback copy of Ian Molly A bio, ‘The never-ending story’.

Sigh, If only I’d had a book to swap.

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Frankie's Dad
April 23, 2021 10:14 pm

I’m a big fan of Le Carré & Deighton and the like. For something different in that vein, try Mick Herron’s “Slow Horses”. The body count is 2, both near the end of the book. A lot of humour and unexpected plot lines. It’s first in a series (Jason Lambe): I also read 2 and 3 which weren’t quite as captivating. On Le Carré: I read his last two novels last year and thought they were terrific: “A Delicate Truth” (2013) and “Agent Running in the Field” (2019). Remarkable, really.