My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.

Advertisements

35 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2016

  1. I’ve only read The Natural Way of Things from your list (and it was one of my favourite books of the year too) but you’ve made me want to read a lot of your other picks too. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.

    Like

    • Presumably you’re in the US, because you’d know about Charlotte Wood if you lived in Australia (or the UK, where she’s had a little bit of publicity). The book is published in the US by Europa Editions. It’s got a rusty chain on the cover, if memory serves me correctly. Hope you get to read it …

      Like

        • Apologies, hope I didn’t come across as condescending — not my intention at all. Charlotte got only a little bit of publicity in the UK (thanks mainly to bloggers), but she’s a kind of literary rockstar in Australia. This book has won many awards. It’s published here in the U.K. by Allen & Unwin and the paperback edition will be available in 5 January, so not long to wait 😄

          Like

  2. Wishing you all the best for a happy, healthy and harmonious Hogmanay and New Year. May 2017 bring peace and reconciliation for all of us. Now it is all your fault that I was up till 2.50 this morning Finishing The Dry! Just loved it and so when I received your post This morning, thought I would reply, and thank you (sort of) for Recommending it. Absolutely, a classic can’t put it down novel but Intelligently and cleverly written. Just a meaningless by the way but I Was in Australia for six weeks some long time ago and visited a farm three Hours west from the Blue Mountains and as we drove farther into the bush, I had panic attacks at the the wide open spaces, and the knowledge that all this Just went on and on so I could relate to the writer’s excellent description of place. I am off now to order up a few other suggestions.my friend lived in Sydney for some time and I think she would love Aunts up the Cross so that, if I can get hold of it, would make a nice New Year gift for her. I think I will go for True Country, The Hands and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. I really do enjoy your blog and appreciate the time and effort it takes to keep Something like this up. Sending your thoughts out there into the void takes courage and Self-belief. Well done. Will go and give you a thumbs up on Facebook now. All the best, Linda Aberdeen, Scotland

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    • Thanks for such a lovely comment, Linda. This blog has been a labour of love for 12+ years now and it’s always wonderful to hear from first time commenters who appreciate my efforts. And chuffed to hear you loved The Dry, isn’t it such a great book?

      Like

    • True Country is superb; I think you’ll like it. Interesting to hear you’ve not been turned in by reviews of The Hands. I read it completely “blind”, not knowing a thing about it (I bought it when it was long listed for the Miles Franklin) and was, to quote a horribly over-used American term, knocked out of the ballpark by it. It builds up such a wonderful portrait of a family living on the land those people will forever live with me …

      Like

  3. I really must try to get my hands on a copy of The Hands – it sounds wonderful. The only one from your list I’ve read is the Charlotte Wood and *ducks for cover* I wasn’t a fan – I thought it had a lot of important things to say but I didn’t like the sledgehammer approach at all (and I appreciate it was intentional).

    I’ve been so busy this year that I seem to have read hardly anything (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were my first days off since last Christmas Day) so haven’t even bothered coming up with a top ten. Stan Barstow’s “A Kind of Loving” and Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday” were probably my favourite novels read in 2016. I did still read a lot of short story collections, some of them wonderful (Anthony Marra’s “The Tsar of Love and Techno”, Patrick Ryan’s “The Dream Life of Astronauts”, David Park’s “Gods and Angels”, Adam Thorpe’s “Is This the Way You Said?”, Elizabeth Berridge’s “Tell it to a Stranger” and Maile Meloy’s “Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It” were the standouts), but for me 2016 will be defined – reading-wise – by Hercule Poirot (I discovered I like listening to audiobooks whilst working) and Michael Morpurgo, twenty of whose books I had to read for a job, in the process becoming a bit of a fan (“War Horse” is superb if you can get past the multilingual horse; but lesser-known gems include “Mr Nobody’s Eyes”, “Kensuke’s Kingdom”, “Twist of Gold” and “King of the Cloud Forests”), even if he can also write the occasional patience-testing dud (avoid “My Friend Walter” and it’s carbon copy rehash “The Ghost of Grania O’Malley” unless you particularly enjoyed Rentaghost).

    Anyway, all the best for the new year. I may not have commented as much this year, but I still look forward to the appearance of a new blog post in my inbox 🙂

    Like

    • Nice to hear from you, David, sounds like you’ve been busy. Thanks for your recommendations… will investigate further now that my Reading Australia year is over.

      Like

  4. I’ve purchased so many books this year based on your recommendations, Kim. The Dry, The Hands, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, and The Natural Way of Things are among my purchases so I’m excited to give them a go in 2017. (FYI, for your American readers, The Dry comes out in the USA on Jan. 10, and I was able to pick up The Hands on Kindle for $0.99 over the holidays.)

    I will have to go back and reread your posts on the memoirs you have listed here as I’m surprised to see so many made the Top 10 list. Talking to My Country caught my eye immediately; sadly, not available in US or on Kindle so I’ll need to find an alternative source.

    All the best in 2017, Kim. Hope you enjoy your holiday away, as well!

    Like

    • Thanks, Christina. So pleased to hear you’ve made a few purchases based in my reviews: let’s hope they live up to my hype! 😉

      You might have trouble finding My Country; I’m not even sure it’s readily available in Oz. I bought my copy from an indie bookshop in Perth in 2015 which had impressive supply of books by small presses etc. If I find a potential source I’ll let you know. If all else fails try bookfinder.com

      Like

  5. And a Happy New Year to you too Kim, looking forward to seeing what you discover for us in 2017. Wish it was possible to get Australian titles more cheaply here in UK! Yours is the second blog i’ve read today which puts The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith in the top 10 reads, so guess I had better put that on my wishlist.

    Like

    • You’re not the only one who wishes it was cheaper/easier to get Australian books in the U.K. I hope that by bringing those books to the attention of a wider audience (most of my readership is based in the northern hemisphere) it might increase demand (in whatever small way) and show publishers that there are other readers outside of Australia. These stories might be written in / set in Australia but they’re often about universal themes. Hope you get to read Sara de Vos: it will be out in paperback in April, if you can wait that long.

      Like

  6. Wonderful list, Kim! I want to read The Hands by Stephen Orr and True Country by Kim Scott! They look so fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing your favourites list!

    Like

  7. Well done sticking to the challenge to read Australian, I managed to read The Dry this month, crime not usually on my radar, but I enjoyed it and found it very evocative of place and those small communities, and those who escape and how they feel on coming back, the bittersweet return.

    Look forward to your reading in 2017, Happy New Year!

    Like

    • Thanks, Claire. The challenge wasn’t really a challenge when it was so enjoyable. I never once wanted to throw in the towel and, to be honest, I’d happily continue it indefinitely… but I’ll write more about that later in my post wrapping up the experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can imagine it would have been great to really immerse in the richness that Australian literature has become, I’ve followed the Australian Woman’s Writers website over the years that focuses predominantly on women writers in Australia who weren’t getting much in the way of mainstream publicity and there’s certainly a rich and full collection of work being published, all of whom are well aided by such initiatives. I look forward to your follow up post!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I took part in the Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge and found myself reading 35 books by women. I discovered some wonderful new writers this way. I’m going to sign up for the 2017 challenge as well.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: 10 books to look forward to | BookerTalk

  9. You know I share your view on The Hands. Excellent, really.

    I tried to read Kim Scot once but it was too difficult for me. (The English was too difficult because of all the Australian things I didn’t know about)

    Like

    • I’m not surprised about the difficulties you had with Scott; he’s not an easy writer to follow — and I say that as an English speaker who’s Australian! He plays with language a lot… he not only uses “white” vernacular, he also uses the speech patterns of Aboriginal Australians. (It helps if you have heard the way Aboriginals speak, I think.)

      Like

I'd love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s