Summer reads Your literary guide for the holidays
Literary editor Stephen Romei surveys what has been a great year for good books, and tries to unearth a few hidden gems along the way
For reasons I can’t nail down, compiling this year’s summer reading / Christmas gift guide was a more daunting task than usual. It has something to do with a general feeling I have that an above-average number of good books were published in the past 12 months. Add to that the certain knowledge that I haven’t read all or even most of them, and I’m all too conscious of the confines of any list I offer.
Having said that, the following recommendations, as always, are based not solely on books I have read, but also on reviews of books I haven’t read, literary prizes, sales, the thoughts of friends, publishing industry chatter and so on. Even so, this year I have striven to highlight books you may not have heard of. Let’s face it, everyone knows Jonathan Franzen published a new novel this year ( Purity) and my opinion (I liked it) probably won’t sway people very far one way or the other, as the author is one people tend to love or hate.
I will still mention well-known books and authors in the following list — Peter FitzSimons (see!) — but I do hope to unearth some rarer nuggets that will surprise and I hope delight you. But I will start as usual with the area that dominates my own reading.
Before mentioning specific books, I want to recommend, as I do every year, Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories (edited by Amanda Lohrey), Essays (edited by Geordie Williamson) and Poems (edited by Geoff Page). These three anthologies, reviewed this week by Gregory Day on page 24, are a great one-stop shop to catch up on world-class Australian writing. And a bit like my overall impression of the year, I feel this year’s Bests are extremely strong.
Now, to individual books, and this is what I’m talking about: there were so many first-rate local works of fiction this year that I worry I will leave some out. My top pick, however, is Charlotte Wood’s confronting, confounding novel of mysteriously kidnapped and imprisoned women, The Natural Way of Things. Next week we will run our annual Books of the Year, in which writers and critics choose their favourite reads of 2015, and the early signs are that Wood’s book will be the most mentioned.
Climate change novels are all the rage, and we produced two brilliant ones this year in James Bradley’s Clade and Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us. If like me you consider “old-fashioned novel” to be a compliment, you will luxuriate in Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World. Stephen Daisley’s follow-up to the stunning Traitor (2011, read it if you haven’t) is Coming Rain, and it’s a book that has lingered in my mind all year, not least because one of the main characters is a dingo. I like everything Mark Dapin writes, and his novel of military police in Vietnam, R&R, is no exception. Gregory Day’s Archipelago of Souls is another strong story of war and postwar. Geraldine Brooks’s retelling of the King David story, The Secret Chord, appeals as an ideal holiday read. I’m yet to read Tom Keneally’s new novel, Napoleon’s Last Island, but critic Peter Pierce says it’s one of his best, and that’s good enough for me. Keneally turned 80 this year and the occasion was marked by the publication of Stephany Evans Steggall’s biography Interestingly Enough …
When it comes to short stories, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s collection Six Bedrooms confirms her as one of our most promising writers, Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country continues her remarkable literary rejuvenation, and Murray Middleton’s When There is Nowhere Else to Run, which won The Australian / Vogel’s Literary Award, is one of the most assured local debuts of recent times.
All of the aforementioned books received a bit of publicity on their release, but here are a couple of those nuggets I mentioned: AS Patric’s debut novel Black Rock White City and The Life of Houses, the first novel by poet Lisa Gorton. Seek them out.
I am sure Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet will dominate the best books lists this year, but I haven’t read any of the novels, the most recent of which is The Story of a Lost Child. It’s not that I don’t want to — I’d love to — but I want to read them back-toback when I have proper time, so perhaps over the Christmas break. Ditto for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical six-novel series My Struggle. I did read the first two a while back — but what I really want to do is start again and read all six in one burst, which will happen soon after I win Lotto and take up permanent residence in a five-star hotel.
The best international novel I read this year was one of the first, The Illuminations, a contemporary story of family and war by the brilliant Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan. Next best was Submission, Michel Houellebecq’s often hilarious satire of a near-future France in which a Muslim political party comes to power. In a similar vein, Salman Rushdie’s comic vision of the contemporary West and its relationship with Islam, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, is great fun and full of insight. I thought highly of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel of sorts to To Kill a Mockingbird. David Vann is one of my favourite writers and in Aquarium, with its mother-and-daughter story, he shows another side to himself, one that underscores both his great technical skill and his emotional intelligence. Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is a big, serious summer read, a novel of pre 9/11 America that recalls Graham Greene, Norman Mailer and Malcolm Lowry. Three foreign novels are very near the top of my to-read list: Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, a reimagining of Albert Camus’s The Outsider from an Arab perspective, and Beauty is a Wound by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan. I’ve noticed the last popping up on a few best books lists in the international press, with comparisons being made with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I confess to the American writer Anne Tyler being one of the many gaps in my reading, but the persistent praise for her latest, Booker-shortlisted novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, makes me think I should make a start.
Every year I say I’m going to read my own and not rely on colleague Graeme Blundell, and this year … I did! As flagged last year, I made a start on the Sean Duffy novels of Melbourne-based Irishman Adrian McKinty. I read the first, In the Cold, Cold Ground, and immediately acquired the others for rainy-day reading. I read The Killing Lessons in a sitting. It’s the debut crime fiction of English literary novelist Glen Duncan, writing as Saul Black. It’s a terrific story and, as you might expect, the characterisations are superb. Two American writers also produced powerful debuts: Smith Henderson with Fourth of July Creek, which is a sort of Walden with guns, and William Giralda’s chilling Alaska-set Hold the Dark, which starts with reports of wolves eating children and gets worse, much worse, from there. Of course I am not going to leave you hanging re Mr Blundell. His top three crime novels of 2015 are: McKinty’s latest, Gun Street Girl, Michael Robotham’s Close Your Eyes and Peter Doyle’s The Big Whatever.
I’ll cover political biography separately, as there have been so many, due to our chop-and-change democracy. The year brought two of the greatest spy novelists into the light: Frederick Forsyth loosens the lid on his work for Britain’s intelligence services in The Outsider: My Life of Intrigue and George Smiley’s creator receives the full biographical treatment in Adam Sisman’s John Le Carre, a work that Max Hastings, no less, has described as “by miles the best biography I have read this year”. It’s not a biography, but this seems the right place to include the enormously enjoyable The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s Bond Letters, edited by the author’s nephew Fergus Fleming. This collection of letters to and by Fleming, mainly about the James Bond books, is perfect summer evening reading. You can imagine yourself into Fleming’s Jamaica, sipping a rum perhaps.
While I’m sure it’s not a brisk read, I have seen so many positive reports on Richard Davenport-Hines’s Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes that the laws of supply demand I mention it. As it happens I was watching the Eddie McGuire television game show Millionaire Hot Seat recently and was surprised, to say the least, when a contestant was unable to identify Keynes’s profession (she went for ar--