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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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--

Char­lotte Wood

Mar­lon James

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