The Christmas-New Year break is my favourite time of the year – my “do nothing but read lots” time. The Christmas left-overs provide days’ worth of meals; there’s nothing compelling on TV; only kids’ movies on at theatres; friends are away; and who wants to fight over Boxing Day bargains? Perfect!
Happily, our end-of-year book club event at the Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, with Living Book-Advice Treasure Fiona Stager as our host and reading guide, offered plenty of suggestions to add to the waiting-to-be-read pile. They range from heartfelt novels, to historical fiction, memoir, fact-and-fiction mixes, biographies, short stories and science history. As with last year’s nominations many authors are Australian, a timely nod to the health of our literary creativity. Among Fiona’s personal recommendations are:
Music and Freedom, by Zoe Morrison, winner of the 2017 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. The first-time novelist and music prodigy draws on her love of music and social issues in a gripping novel that examines how long-term domestic abuse can stifle the life chances of women.
The Restorer, by Michael Sala. A couple attempt a marriage reconciliation while embarking on the restoration of a terrace house in Newcastle. Fiona praises Sala’s writing saying he has “thought about every word on the page”. His first novel, The Last Thread, won the NSW Premier’s Award for new writing and was regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize.
First Person, by Richard Flanagan. Fiona found this novel interesting: part fact, part fiction. The protagonist, a struggling young writer, faces a moral dilemma when offered a commission to ghostwrite the memoir of a celebrated conman who is about to be jailed. She said First Person received some negative reviews. “Some men I know didn’t like it, but all the women did”, she said. First Person is Flanagan’s first novel since winning the Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
City of Crows, by Chris Womersley, has an historical base, and is set in 17th century France, a time when life was hard and magic and witchcraft were commonplace. Fiona describes it a “page-turner with a slightly sinister edge”. As a Sydney Morning Herald review noted, a really good writer like Womerlsey “can engage readers in things they didn’t know they’d be interested in.”
Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn. This is one of publisher Hogarth’s series of Shakespeare classics reimagined in contemporary settings by selected writers. St Aubyn’s Henry Dunbar is a modern-day King Lear envisioned as the all-powerful head of an international media company with the capacity to ruin lives and reputations on a whim. Sound familiar? For literary history buffs, Hogarth Press is a British publishing house started in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
A New England Affair, by Stephen Carroll, the 2008 Miles Franklin Award winner. It’s the third of his novels about T. S. Eliot, using elements of Eliot’s poems and life as the basis. Each presents Eliot as he is known by others. In this a 74-year-old New England woman, with whom Eliot was said to have had a romantic connection, is the centre of the novel which deals with the concept of the lasting desolation caused by lost opportunities.
Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, and the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner. The plot revolves around a story of Frederick Lothian, an concrete engineering specialist, who has moved into a retirement village after his wife’s death. He has a difficult relationship with their adopted Indigenous daughter, Caroline, living in London and curating an exhibition about extinction; and little close contact with his son Callum, who is in care after suffering a serious brain injury in a car accident. Fiona said the “hook” for the story relates to what happened to both son and daughter.
Terra Nullius, by Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman. Fiona describes the work as “speculative fiction”. At the time of our book club evening it was her current read. She said the puzzle of the book was: “is it set now, or in the future. Or is it a dystopian novel?”
Common People by Tony Birch. This is a book of short stories about individuals who have missed out on the great Australian Dream. “Birch’s themes are love, loss, poverty and pain,” said Fiona.
The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretzer. The work consists of five sections that have an interconnection without being a continuous narrative. Only one character appears throughout. Writer Pippa Reynolds, who grew up as Narelle in North Sydney, changes her name on her 18th birthday because “no-one called Narelle’s ever going to win the Booker”. This plays into the book’s dark humour theme of throwing a spotlight on Australian narcissism. As in her other books de Kretzer weaves in a reference to her native Sri Lanka.
Saga Land, by Richard Fidler. This exploration of both the new must-see tourist destination of Iceland and the mysterious Sagas, the true stories of the first Vikings to settle the remote and unforgiving Arctic island in the Middle Ages, follows closely on the respected ABC interviewer’s earlier tome Ghost Empire. Fidler and Kári Gíslason connected during an interview and bonded over a mutual love of the Sagas. The book is the story of their research in Iceland which included a quest by Gíslason to solve a long-standing family mystery connecting them to the most famous Saga author. There could be no greater praise for Saga Land than for Hannah Kent, author of award-winning Iceland-based historical novel, Burial Rites, than her declaration she “adored” Saga Land.
Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by Richard Attenborough. The text was first published in 1956 but has been out of print for some time. Apparently a young publisher found a copy in a second-hand bookshop and here it is in print again for nature lovers and Attenborough-philes to enjoy anew.
The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott. Fiona describes McDermott is a “writers’ writer”. She nominates this story of the poverty and struggles of Irish Catholic Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and the ever-presence of nuns in everyday life, as her favourite for the year.
The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein. This biography looks at the subject of trauma, from the work of Sandra Pankhurst, who not only cleans up after the most gruesome of incidents frequently offering a sympathetic ear to victims, and asks questions about the impacts of trauma. Fiona said the writer shines a particular light on hoarders and what leads people to hoard. But there’s plenty more too.
Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams. This Australian journalist worked for Melbourne’s Age newspaper and brings her inquisitive and explanatory skills to a subject little-understood, even by the anaesthetists themselves. It looks at the development of anaesthetics, the bizarre experiments, the maverick professionals, and that most widespread of fears, waking up during surgery. The author did much of her research in anticipation of her own encounter with the mystery gases for spinal surgery.