I would read anything you wrote…

FullSizeRenderUsually, when I’m looking for a new novel to read, I go by topic, setting and storyline. I might read some reviews from trusted sources, though they don’t necessarily sway me.

But there are just a few authors whose work I will read regardless of its plot. Just the byline is enough to get me in.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favourite authors right now, who have me at the mention of their name, and why I love their work:

Geraldine Brooks

This US-based Australian journalist-turned novelist and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize writes extraordinarily beautiful prose, meticulously researched but never slow or boring in its detail. She’s one of those writers who makes me sigh to myself and mutter, ‘Why would I ever bother to write’?

I can recommend March (2005), her story of the US Civil War experience of Mr March from the classic American children’s novel Little Women; and Year of Wonders (2001) set in the UK in 1666 during the bubonic plague.

Keith Donohue

When I read Donohue’s riveting novel The Stolen Child (2006), a modern take on the ancient tale of the changeling, I was astounded. For me, it was one of the most imaginative novels I had ever read. The story transports you to a parallel world where two realities can exist side by side.

His follow-up novel, Angels of Destruction (2009) is also intriguing, concerning the case of a child who turns up at a woman’s door claiming to be her daughter who went missing nine years before.

Angela Savage

OK, here’s a disclaimer: Savage is a friend of mine. But that’s not why I read her books. She and I got to know each other only after I started reading her novels and determined that I would read everything she wrote.

I’ve read and can recommend all three in her crime series featuring Jayne Keeny, PI, Behind the Night Bizarre (2006), The Half-Child (2010), and The Dying Beach (2013). If you like gritty crime thrillers with integrity, set in the fascinating culture of Thailand, these novels are for you.

Savage lived in South-East Asia herself for many years before returning to Australia, and this shows in her authentic descriptions. Her books are set in the near past, around the same time I was living in Thailand, so they’re of interest beyond their engaging plots, as well.

Paddy Richardson

I’ve discovered Richardson’s books this year, thanks to my blogosphere friend Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Richardson comes from the same part of New Zealand’s South Island as I do (Dunedin), which is what first peaked my interest. Once you start one of her crime novels, I assure you that it is very difficult to put it down or to think of much else.

I can recommend her fabulous series with TV journalist Rebecca Thorne as the protagonist, the latest of which is Cross Fingers (2013). While set in the present, the book has Thorne researching a cold case during the tumultuous events in NZ during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. This writer has an uncanny ability to put pace into her narrative, and to take the reader to the scene.

Incidentally, you won’t find a picture of Richardson’s book cover above, because I’ve read her books on my Kindle. But such is her skill, the medium on which you are reading is immaterial, because you are soon immersed in the story.

Mitch Albom

I resisted reading Albom’s books for ages, because everyone was reading them and raving about them. But they were right. When I finally took the plunge, I found them to be real page-turners. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (1997) didn’t even sound like my sort of book, being a sort-of modern day twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s fabulous, believe me—just read it.

What I like also about Albom’s books is that they’re short and easy to read. You can finish one within a few nights of bedtime reading. Tuesdays with Morrie (2003), about a young man who has the opportunity to glean the wisdom of his former professor as he is dying, is extraordinarily wonderful, too.

Kate Morton

The big, meaty, atmospheric historical novels by this Australian novelist are set in the UK among the castles, ruins and family secrets of bygone eras. She manages to get me in from the very first page of each of her novels.

The Shifting Fog (2006) is set in two time zones, 1999 and 1924, which is a plot device that always intrigues me. The story concerns a film director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at a manor house in 1924, and who discovers that a housemaid from the time is still alive. So the film maker travels from the US to the UK to interview the 98-year-old. The plot involves a perfect Edwardian summer, a shocking secret and its revelation.

Equally riveting is The Forgotten Garden (2008), concerning a young woman who inherits a cottage with a secret garden on the Cornish coast, and discovers a mystery concerning a missing girl from nearly a century before.

Alexander McCall Smith

One of the world’s most prolific authors, I first came across McCall Smith when I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), set in Gabarone, Botswana. There are now at least 15 in the series, of which I’ve read 12, and they are all delightful, particularly for their wonderful titles, including The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (a bit of an in-joke for readers). The series concerns the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, who sets up a PI agency with a small inheritance from her father.

The stories have been called ‘gentle’ and ‘delightful’, and that they are. However, I think they are deceptively simple: McCall Smith deals with some of the harshest and most difficult problems affecting the world today, and his novels always make me think. I’ve also read and loved several of his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie, Professor Dr von Igelfeld and 44 Scotland St series (of which The Importance of Being Seven, pictured, is one), and have enjoyed them all. But No. 1 is his best.

How thrilled I was to discover that Ursula Bischoff, the writer who translated my own novel The Occidentals into German, was also McCall Smith’s translator for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

 

I have to read a lot for work, so for recreational reading, I have time for only about 20 books a year (sometimes more, depending on my workload). So, everything I read has to engage me, because reading time is so precious.

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“I’m late! I’m late!”

IMG_2072It seems we’re constantly rushing in our stressful world. There’s never enough time: we’re always “running out” of it or it is “getting away” from us or “catching up” with us.

I had a friend in the 1990s who was constantly late for everything. When I asked him why this was, and asked if he didn’t think it was rude, he said he found it very strange to see people rushing everywhere constantly. “Because, you rush rush, rush to get somewhere, only to sit down for hours when you get there,” he said.

He had a point, and I’ve never forgotten it. You rush, rush, rush to get to a restaurant, then sit down for a leisurely meal; you rush, rush, rush to catch the train, then sit down for the journey just filling in time;  you rush, rush, rush to get to a social engagement, then when you get there, you just sit down or stand and chat to people over a drink or a cup of tea. It goes on and on.

While I still think it’s rude to be late to an appointment, in pursuit of a peaceful life it’s worth thinking about how our perceptions of time intrude to heighten our stress levels. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BCE) said the recipe (no pun intended) for a peaceful life included freedom from fear of death. But when we’re constantly measuring time, freedom from this fear doesn’t seem likely for many people today.

In his novella The Time Keeper (2012), Mitch Albom notes that humans are the only beings who mark the passing of time and thereby dread mortality. Here is one of my favourite quotations from the book, one that so clearly expresses the angst at the centre of almost everyone in western society today:

“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.

“You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.

“Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.

“Man alone measures time.

“Man alone chimes the hour.

“And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralysing fear that no other creature endures.

“A fear of time running out.”

We humans are so obsessed with counting seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, and running our lives by the boundaries they impose, that sometimes we forget to stop along the way. Life seems tumultuous and anything but peaceful, because we’re constantly looking at our watches and hurrying along to get to the next place “on time”.

Lewis Carroll  used this idea in the character of the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” he cries as he runs down the rabbit hole. In the Disney film, this becomes a song with the lyrics “I’m late! “I’m late! For a very important date!”

So what’s the best way to a peaceful life? I think we need to do less time-keeping and more living.

Another thing to think of is that we’re not the centre of the universe. In fact, we’re rather insignificant, as Sir David Attenborough so cleverly put it in Life on Earth, I think: if you imagine an entire beach, the earth is equivalent to just one grain of sand on it.

In the blogosphere, Goldfish has put life on earth in perspective with her post on finding peace through this insignificant position we hold, in which our petty ticking seconds with which we time our days mean absolutely nothing in the vastness of space. You can read her post here.

Funnily enough, this post is the result of being almost late—for this month’s Bloggers for Peace challenge to write about quotations that bring peace to the world. I’m in today in the nick of time. Whew!