Five Favourite Reads (and writing lessons from each...)

5:14 PM

I had the most incredible reading year in 2018 (you can see the whole whopping 47 book list here) I read new books, old books, mostly fiction, a little non-fiction, some YA and I binged on every Maggie O'Farrell novel in existence.

However, I'm only allowed to choose five books for the Writer's Dozen Top 5 Reads Blog Hop so here we go . . .

I don't just read for pleasure (although reading is most definitely that for me) - I also read hoping to glean all the author's magical writing secrets, constantly asking "How or why did they do that?" And by that I mean how did they use that flashback device, why did they choose that voice, how did they make that dual timeline work, and so on. So the books I've chosen all gave me pleasure AND a little something on the craft side.

Don't forget to scroll down and read the reviews of the other Writer's Dozen members' Top 5 Reads.

1. Boy Swallows Universe - Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton's coming of age novel is a delightful, frightening but ultimately uplifting story of two exceptional boys who turn their fairly dark childhood as the sons of drug dealers into something special. It's a crazy ride of a novel full of characters who may, at first, seem larger-than-life but whose hearts and fears and dreams are the same of everyone you've ever known.

The voice of young protagonist Eli Bell is what elevates this novel to the stratosphere for me. I love the way Trent Dalton uses simple language and everyday slang to convey the most vivid images and emotions. Boy Swallows Universe teaches the importance of finding a unique voice and running with it.

Check out Eli's description of his childhood suburb . . .

Darra is a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise, a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup filled with prawns, domes of plastic crab meat, pig ears and pig knuckles and pig belly. Darra is a girl washed down a drainpipe, a boy with snot slipping from his nose so ripe it glows on Easter night, a teenage girl stretched across a train track waiting for the express to Central and beyond, a South African man smoking Sudanese weed, a Filipino man injecting Afghani dope next door to a girl from Cambodia sipping milk from Queensland's Darling Downs. Darra is my quiet sigh, my reflection on war, my dumb pre-teen longing, my home.

2. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell


This is a novel about one of those women who was locked away in an institution for over sixty years for reasons which would baffle us today. If a wife or daughter did something of which her family didn't approve (dressing up in her mother's clothes, falling in love with the wrong man, refusing an arranged marriage) her father or husband could simply have her locked away in an asylum. Horrific! This story follows one such woman, Esme, and the great-niece whose becomes responsible for her when she's finally released. It's just a perfect, beautifully written, evocative novel. I loved it.

Maggie O'Farrell is the queen of the flashback and the empress of 'show don't tell'. In this novel, she slips seamlessly between past and present. There are no chapters, no dates, no obvious markers and yet you always know exactly who is talking and in what time frame. So clever. Maggie asks the reader to trust her and when you do, you're rewarded with a subtle unfolding of plot, a nuanced revealing of character. When writing teachers tell you to let the reader figure out some things for themselves, this is what they mean.

As for Maggie O'Farrell's expertise in 'show don't tell', I love this small interaction between Iris and her sister-in-law. Can you figure out what this says about their relationship? 

Fran and Iris look at each other for a moment. Fran blinks. 'I don't mean that your family's bizarre, Iris, I just ---'
'You don't know my family.'
Fran laughs. 'Well I know Alex.' She reaches out to touch his sleeve but he is standing just a little too far away so that her hand falls into the space between them.
Iris says nothing.

3. Standard Deviation - Katherine Heiny

This is a hilarious yet touching novel about marriage, infidelity and parenthood that I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured in two nights. Think of a male Liane Moriarty character and you'll come close in terms of voice, although this novel doesn't have the sort of mysterious underlying plot of Liane's novels.

What I loved, and learned, most from this novel is the use of deep third person point of view. We are 'in' Graham's head for the whole novel and it's a droll, self-deprecating, insightful place to be. Heiny uses Graham's observations to paint a complete picture of his wife Audra in all her flawed, bossy, charming, exhausting glory. She also uses dialogue to brilliant effect in terms of portraying the different characters.

They saw their appliance repairman, Brady Shannon, in the ice cream aisle, and Graham knew that Audra would have an extra-long talk with Brady because she believed that if you were very, very nice to repairmen, they responded very, very quickly the next time you needed something repaired. The fact that this theory had proved very, very untrue had not shaken her belief in the practice.
'I was thinking of you just this morning,' Audra said. 'In fact, I think of you every morning when I get in the shower!' Brady had recently fixed their shower head. 'I think, this feels heavenly and I owe it all to Brady Shannon!'
Brady smirked at Audra and rocked a little on the balls of his feet.
Not for the first time, Graham wondered if there was some sort of processing unit - some sort of filter - missing from Audra's brain. She said things like this all the time without realizing how they sounded, and now here was poor Brady Shannon, getting turned on in Frozen Foods.

4. A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

Oh how I loved this beautiful little novel about a grumpy old man and the gradual unveiling of his bittersweet past. I spent much of the novel laughing and the last part of the novel sobbing. A big call - it's hard to make me cry!

This novel teaches the writer the importance of using specific details to make a story universal and credible. This is something Gabriel García Márquez recommended in writing - use specific, telling details, like journalistic facts, to lend credibility. Markus Zusak also uses this technique to great effect. The trick, however, is not to overdo it to the point of boring the reader. The details, the specifics, must further the reader's understanding of the character.

Ove had, as usual, got up ten minutes earlier. He could not make head nor tail of people who overslept and blamed it on the alarm clock not ringing. Ove had never owned an alarm clock in his entire life. He woke up at quarter to six and that was when he got up. Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as any other morning, and then drunk a cup with his wife. One measure for each cup, and one extra for the jug – no more, no less. People didn’t know how to do that any more, brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a bit of coffee?

5. Bird by Bird - Ann Lamott

Boy was this the book I needed to read as I boarded the slow ol' train to New Novelsville. Ann Lamott serves up a whole lot of great practical writing advice interwoven with her own honest, sometimes irreverant, often funny experiences as a writer. She tackles all the big monsters - self-doubt, jealousy, writer's block and procrastination - balanced by wonder for the beautiful, wild journey that writing can take you on.

Writers might be able to relate (just a little!) to this piece of advice . . .

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.

And I love her take on shitty first drafts . . .

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. 

And this, captured so beautifully . . .

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. 

Definitely a book for your writing resource shelf.

Well that's it from me. Don't forget to check out the Top 5 Reads recommendations from the other well-read members of The Writer's Dozen.

Pamela Cook

Rae Cairns

Angella Whitton

Laura Boon

  • Share:

You Might Also Like