Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dominic Smith, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, USA

‘The Last Painting of Sara de Vos’ by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I quite like stories about art, and for whatever reason Australian authors seem to like writing them: think Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love StoryAlex Miller’s Autumn Laing and Patrick White’s The Vivisector.

Into this canon of art-themed novels comes Australian expat Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a rather exquisite tale revolving 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, joining the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It spans three centuries, is set in three cities — New York, Amsterdam and Sydney — and begins as a crime story before morphing into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale.

It’s a page turner of the finest order and has already attracted favourable publicity in the US, where Smith resides, including this excellent review in the New York Times. Meanwhile, in Australia, it has topped the independent bookseller’s list (in June) and garnered great reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. Blogger Lisa Hill has sung its praises too.

An unnoticed crime

The book opens in rather dramatic style. It’s 1957, the setting is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wealthy patent attorney Marty de Groot and his wife are throwing an extravagant party in their three-storey penthouse to raise money for the city’s orphans, something they do every year.

During the party a crime is committed — although it takes them several months to realise. A painting from the Dutch Golden Age that has been in Marty’s family for more than three centuries — and which hangs over the marital bed like a bad omen — is stolen. A fake is put in its place.

The fake was unwittingly produced by a PhD art student, Ellie Shipley, an Australian now living in Brooklyn, who has reached an impasse in her dissertation on women painters of the Dutch Golden Age and spends most of her time doing art restoration work instead. (She had initially trained for a career in conservation at the Courtauld Institute in London but moved into art history when she realised the plum jobs would always “go to older, male graduates, to the men who sported cable-knit cardigans and Oxbridge accents”.)

As part of this line of work, she is often asked to authenticate and touch up old masterworks, so when she is commissioned by her usual contact to replicate At the Edge of the World, a rather sombre painting by a little known female artist, she is immediately taken by the project even if she is skeptical of the agenda behind it:

When he produced three high-resolution colour photographs of the painting in its frame she felt her breath catch — it was unlike anything else painted by a baroque woman. Here was a winter landscape with the glaucous atmosphere of an Avercamp, the delicate grays and blues and russets, the peasants skating through the ether of twilight above the ice, but with this stark and forlorn figure standing at the tree. She was the onlooker but also the focal point, the centre of gravity. This was no village frolic before the onrush of night — a common Avercamp motif — this was a moment of suspension, a girl trapped by the eternity of dusk. The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair. The painting’s atmosphere, even in the photographs, was incandescent, hushed. It somehow combined the devotional, religious light of a monastery portrait and the moodiness of an Italian allegory.

Ellie accepts the challenge of reproducing this painting with a kind of relish, but it’s a decision that haunts her for the rest of her life. It not only brings her into close contact with Marty, who woos her in an underhand way, hoping she’ll confess to the crime, but threatens to unravel her relatively controlled but lonely life — and, then, decades later puts her much-lauded career at risk.

A trio of storylines

This crime-based 1950s Manhattan storyline — in which Marty and Ellie eventually meet  — is intertwined with two others: that of Sara de Vos herself and the tragic circumstances leading up to her creating the painting in question; and a more contemporary narrative in which Ellie, now an internationally renowned art historian living in Sydney, fears she’s going to be exposed as a forger when both the original and the replica paintings arrive simultaneously at the Gallery of New South Wales for an exhibition she is staging — and Marty, now in his 80s, isn’t far behind.

These different narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, creating a complex, non-linear novel, but one which is highly entertaining.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos works as a cohesive whole because there’s an underlying fear holding the story together: will Ellie’s crime be discovered? As she and Marty conduct a cat-and-mouse game spanning almost 50 years, the reader is constantly wondering whether Ellie’s past will finally catch up with her.  This build up of suspense is aided by the intermittent switches in pace when the author takes us back to 17th century Holland to tell us the tragic story of Sara de Vos who never achieved proper recognition for her talents during her lifetime because women painters were never taken seriously.

Aside from the expert storytelling at its heart, the novel is incredibly well researched: the forger’s techniques and how to authenticate centuries-old artwork is expertly told, giving the reader a fascinating glimpse into an otherwise foreign world: that of the art historian and conservator. Even Sara de Vos is based upon an amalgamation of various real-life Dutch Golden Age painters, including Sarah van Baalbergen, who gained entry to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke in 1631, the first woman to do so. Sadly, none of her work survives.

And the characters are great — all slightly damaged but good-hearted, the kind of people you care about or empathise with for various different reasons. There are parallels between Sara and Ellie, two women struggling to be taken seriously in the art world more than three centuries apart, which infuse their stories with the spirit of the underdog. And while Marty comes from a different world entirely — privileged, white and male — he’s sympathetically drawn, because he knows he’s never quite lived up to his potential.

All up, this is a wonderfully realised tale that marries a contemporary storyline with two historical ones. It shines a light both on the hidden world of art forgery and women’s unrecognised contributions to the Dutch Golden Age. And its mix of crime, suspense, romance and tragedy makes it a clever and compelling read. You may never look at an old master the same way again.

This is my 32nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016