Galey’s Best Books 2015 – Pt II

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January 6, 2016 by brettdgale

The Girl with all the Gifts – M.R. Carey

This is definitely not your parent’s zombie book – actually truth be told I’m not really sure if it can be called a zombie book or not.  Sure, all the zombie tropes we’ve grown accustomed to over the last few years of zombie mania are there, but so is much much more – including one of the coolest endings to a book I’ve read in years.

The novel begins with the story of a little girl taking her school lessons with her friends until suddenly you realise she’s in a cage and often muzzled – turns out our soon-to-be heroine is a new type of zombie – one who can think and learn.

And therein lies the cleverness of this original and compelling read. Not only are the effects of the zombie infection in Carey’s novel somewhat different to those in your standard zombie flick so too is the story line.  Blood, guts, battles and eating brains? Yep all there.  But so too are questions of nature versus nurture and science versus morality.

To top it all off, Carey’s characters are exceptionally well drawn, even sympathetic – no mean feat when we are talking zombies.

True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Every Australian knows the story of Ned Kelly, or at least they vaguely believe they know something about it even if it is just the armour at Glenrowan.  Peter Carey believes he can fill in the gaps in our knowledge.   And he’s done it by attempting to write a story in “Ned Kelly’s authentic voice”.  That is, Carey has studied Kelly’s famous Jerilderie letter and uses similar syntax, phraseology and lack of grammar to create a wholly believable first-person account of Kelly’s life – not believable in the sense we actually think Carey stumbled on some long lost Kelly relics, but believable in the sense we can actually imagine Kelly writing it.

By doing so Carey has created a very intriguing portrait of Australia’s most famous criminal (or folk-hero if you prefer).  The Kelly story has always been Australia’s great “western”, with this book Kelly makes it even more so. It is a superbly plotted novel with a rich and glorious use of language that is unbelievably evocative of the Australian bush and its inhabitants.

The Professionals – Stephen Mills

With this book, Stephen Mills has written a history of Australian politics that has never been attempted before.  This is the history of post war Australian politics as seen through the eyes of those responsible for winning and losing elections – the party secretaries of Australia’s two main political parties.

In putting together this book Mills interviewed every living Federal election campaign director for the Labor and Liberal parties. As Mills charts the “professionalisation’ of this career from rank amateurs who were basically one-man bands through to the money pit of modern electoral politics one is struck by just how integral that professionalisation process was to electoral success.  As each side became more professional than the other so came its electoral victories.  There seems to me to be a clear inference from Mills’ analysis (although not completely explored) that there is a direct linkage between the professionalism of the organisational wing and the state of the parliamentary party.  When the parliamentary party is weak or on the slide so too the organisational and administrative party is weak or on the slide – the clearest example that comes to my mind is Keating’s loss to Howard where the Liberal’s organisational wing was clearly superior to Labor’s.

This book is a stark reminder that policies and personalities on the front lines of politics will only get you so far, campaign techniques by the backroom boys and girls is what will get you over the line.

On one level this is the history of a job – “national campaign director” on another it is a thoroughly engrossing history of Australian politics since World War Two.

The Whites – Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

Billy Graves is a New York cop.  Back in the day he and his comprades were known as the “Wild Geese” a group of high flyers who skated close to the edge but always got the job done – except for “the Whites”, the ones who literally got away with murder (the concept of the Whites is a lovely allusion to Moby Dick by the author).  Years later they still meet up to remember the good old days and share news about their Whites. That is until someone starts killing off the Whites one by one. As the only member of the Wild Geese left on the beat Billy feels it’s his duty to investigate.  At the same time someone seems intent on causing harm to Billy’s family.  Thus Billy has two jobs to do and never has the NYC Police motto of to protect and serve seemed so apposite.  Billy must protect his family and serve justice at the same time.

More than just a crime novel this is a psychological thriller with a narrative constantly shifting between the past and the present, careening along so fast the reader almost gets whiplash.

Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee

This is not what one would call a great book, however, if you care about literature and the literary process this is an essential read, which is really the reason I’ve put it here.    Putting aside the conflicting versions of why and how this book came to be published in 2015 (unscrupulous literary agent hoodwinking a befuddled old woman once her sister and protector dies or age old manuscript miraculously found in a safe deposit box), the question is should it have been published at all?

For mine, from a purely literary perspective it probably should have lain exactly where it was for the last 55 years.  From an historical perspective the answer is undoubtedly yes.  Despite definitely showing signs of a first work in need of a good editor, as an integral part of the creative process Harper Lee used to create one of the most beloved books of all time this is a truly fascinating artefact.

But more than this, it casts an intriguing historical perspective on the time and place in which it was written.  One picks up an autobiographical strain in this novel, Harper Lee as Scout returning home from New York City (where Lee was living) to a small country town whose very method of being is sharply at odds with everything she now believes in.  If TKAM was a coming of age story this is a book that proves you can never really “come home”.

It also is a social history of the south at a time of great turmoil and strife and the characters are at one with how their real life counterparts were acting in the late fifties.  This makes the book jarring and unnerving (particularly to the modern eye) – and yes that means the sainted Atticus Finch is in fact a racist.

Does it in anyway diminish to To Kill A Mockingbird? – No not really.  Despite echoes of TKAM in this book (or should I say echoes of Watchman in TKAM) they are two very distinct books and should be judged so – this is not a sequel.  However, we should be grateful that on receiving this original manuscript, Lee’s publisher told her to go write a children’s book – which she did!

Possession – A.S. Byatt

This was a very long book with a very small type (which I think took me into new glasses territory all on its own).  That’s sometimes reason enough to want to throw in the towel, but at no stage did I not want to finish this great big colourful romp of a romance novel.  That’s because I was having too much fun.  The novel follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between two famous fictional poets – as such its set both in the present day and in the Victorian era.

The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including straight narrative for the present day scenes and a combination of fictional diary entries, letters and poetry as markers of the Victorian poets.   At its heart it is a sort of grand Victorian satire with great sweeping digressions and rich observations on the small things in life that make up the big.

Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob – Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill

When you often buy more books in a year than you are able to read it doesn’t come as a surprise that certain books languish on the bookshelves unread until some event prompts you to pick them up and say “hey, was this here all the time?”.  Such is the case with Black Mass – it was huge when I was living in Boston because The Boston Globe had only recently exposed the dirty dealings between the FBI and South Boston’s criminal networks.  This year’s release of the movie based on the book (with an amazing portrayal of Whitey Bulger by Johnny Depp – Academy Award material) suddenly made me remember this deep green covered masterpiece that had been sitting on my shelf the whole time.

This story is so incredible it can only be true.  Here’s what the team from The Globe (Lehr and O’Neill were Globe reporters who wrote the original articles) uncovered:

  • One of Boston’s most famous criminals was a snitch for the FBI.
  • In order to protect him as a source the FBI (and in particular lead agent John Connolly) wilfully, and at times maliciously, aided and abetted his criminal career.
  • Throughout most of Whitey Bulger’s reign of criminality his brother was one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts as President of the State Senate. The nearest approximation in Australia would be if Carl Williams brother had been the Deputy Premier of Victoria – that’s how extraordinary this story is.

Lehr and O’Neill painstakingly detail Whitey and his associates’ crimes whilst illustrating the web that Bulger spins dragging Connolly and the FBI deeper and deeper into protecting him and covering up for his sins.  Whilst a lot of detail is covered in a short time (with a vast cast of characters) Lehr and O’Neill never let the story get bogged down, the narrative tension builds almost like a good crime novel (Bulger’s victims might well say “if only it were just a novel”).

The true story of Whitey Bulger and the FBI should raise uncomfortable moral questions about the role of informants not only in policing but also in the so-called war on terror.  Where should the line be drawn in letting someone pursue their criminal activities whilst supposedly helping law enforcement?

Even those of you not faint of heart will be truly shocked by this story.  A story of how the FBI let someone who was not much more than a charming serial killer get away with murder.

The Leftovers – Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta is the brilliant chronicler of the dark side of American life.  His novels hold a clarifying mirror up to the realities of everyday existence.  His gift lies in exposing what lies beneath and behind the idealised view of the world that most Americans (indeed most people) would have about their own country. The Leftovers is no exception, examining as it does the easy fall from grace of society following a major traumatic event.

And in the novel the traumatic event is huge.  Around the world millions of people suddenly and inexplicably disappear in a rapture like event.  The question at the heart of Perrota’s novel is what happens to those left behind.  How do people cope with sudden irreversible loss?  Not very well of course is the answer.

The novel follows the fortunes of those in the small New Jersey town of Mapleton.  They have lost a large number of their residents but not nearly enough to stop life as normal from going on (or is it?)

Three years after the event the world has split into various sub-factions with different takes on the “disappearance” – from those that loudly proclaim “it’s not the real Rapture” through to those who decide to smoke themselves to death with all the usual hippy type cults popping up as well.  Although the town contains what might be called the optimists faction one gets the feeling that Perrotta believes that in time of strife fanaticism will win out over reason every time.

This is not so much satire as prophetic commentary.

Despite the so-called Rapture being a religious event this is not really a book about religion (although religiosity does come in for a searching examination) – Perrotta is really examining the splintering of society in the wake of a major shake to the existing settled order, be it a terrorist strike a tsunami or a pandemic.

Stephen King, in a review of the novel for the Times, wrote that it was “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw.”  Of course since its publication the book has been turned into an equally disquieting TV show (now extending into two seasons).    Placed against each other however, I’d take this scarily creepy, smart, compelling novel over the visual version.

 Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power – Joel Deane

My general rule in life is a riff on the old cliché that children should be seen and not heard, and it is, that good political staffers should be neither seen nor heard.  You are there to serve not make yourself the story.  Thus, it is with some foreboding that I’ve viewed the glut of political books out in recent years written by ex-political staffers – there lies danger and it takes a skillful navigator to avoid it.

In Joel Deane we have such a navigator.   Deane has written, not a book about himself, but a thoroughly engrossing history of the Victorian Labor Government under Bracks and Brumby.  Even those with only a passing interest in the machinations of the Victorian ALP and the miniature of policy development will find much of interest in this book.

Deane brings all his skills as a poet, journalist, speechwriter and press sec to task in the process makes not just a thoroughly readable account but a compelling case for why the Victorian Government of 1999-2010 was the most successfully reforming Australian government of the past two decades.

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