10 books, Book lists

10 favourite Australian novels of the 21st century

Earlier today — thanks to @wtb_Michael and @frippet — I discovered that the Australian Book Review is conducting a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Australian novel published in the 21st century. (You can find out more, and nominate your favourite, here.)

Taking Michael’s lead, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my top 10 favourite Australian novels published since 2000. I published that list on Twitter, but because I know not everyone who follows this blog follows me on social media, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here.

So here is my list. The books have been arranged in chronological order, from the most recent book published. As ever, hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Cleverly constructed tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show how humans have impacted the environment over four centuries.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr (2015)
Charming, funny and deeply moving story about three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
Thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which women are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanors.

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013)
Booker Prize-winning novel about an Australian surgeon, haunted by a clandestine love affair, who becomes a  Japanese POW on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

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 holiday by the sea one hot Australian summer — but everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (2011)
Set in the 1920s and 30s, this historical novel traces the fortunes (and misfortunes) of two generations of a legendary showjumping family in rural NSW.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2010)
Ambitious novel comprised of several interwoven narrative threads, focussed on four individual characters as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day.

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang (2009)
Deliciously entertaining award-winning debut novel based on the true-life story of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)
Middle-class angst fest following the fall out when a man slaps a child, who is not his, for misbehaving at a family barbecue.

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2003)
A beautiful, melancholy tale about a lonely, timid nine-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share your own list of favourite Australian novels from the 21st century? 

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.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

AWW2016

35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 badgeWhen I challenged myself to spend the year reading Australian literature, it seemed logical to also sign up to the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge — to kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

I thought I should give myself a serious target and aimed to read 30 books by Australian women.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I’m happy to report I exceeded that self-imposed target: I read 35 books by women — and I loved (almost, but not quite) every one of them.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist, I read a wonderful mix of newly released books and old ones that had been lingering in my TBR for years. These included non-fiction and fiction — mainly literary fiction, with a side order of short stories (I read four collections) and a couple of crime novels.

I really loved taking part in this challenge. It introduced me to some wonderful writers — hello Romy Ash, Jen Craig and Lucy Treloar — and reacquainted me with “old familiars” such as Thea Astley, Marion Halligan and Charlotte Wood.

Here is my comprehensive list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

Floundering by Romy Ash

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash
Heartbreaking novel about two brothers “kidnapped” by their cash-strapped mother one hot summer.

Drylands by Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley
This Miles Franklin winner looks at the humdrum nature of small town life and what happens when its inhabitants stop reading.

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley
A no holds-barred fictional story of one Australian family from the 1860s to the 1980s.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

 ‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Collection of short stories about teenage girls growing up in the 1980s.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop
A deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood set in Perth, Australia in the early 1960s.

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig
A bold experimental novel set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin
Gripping historical novel about a Scottish fisherwoman who escapes her circumstances to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton
An outrageously funny memoir about Dalton’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald
A confronting revenge thriller about sexual shaming online.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew
Fictional tale of a 13-year-old girl and her single mother living in a hippy commune in the 1980s.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner
Collection of essays spanning 15 years of Garner’s journalistic career.

What came before by Anna George

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George
Disturbing psychological thriller about a woman murdered by her husband.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan
Unexpectedly charming tale about one man’s untimely death and the effect it has on his loved ones.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
Compelling crime story set in rural Australia during the height of the worst drought in living memory.

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower
Collection of exquisitely written short stories mostly about women trying to find their place in the world.

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings
Deeply affecting portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia.

The Landing

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson
Delightfully funny and poignant story about a newly divorced man trying to recalibrate his life.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Unusual tale about six Vladimir Nabokov fans from around the world who gather in Berlin to share stories about themselves.

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnson and Rosie Jones
An eye-opening work of investigative journalism looking at a cult led by a woman who believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones
A story about grief, marriage and parkour set in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

 ‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau
Beautifully constructed novel about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in rural NSW.

The Golden Age by Joan London

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Story set in a children’s convalescent home during a polio outbreak in the mid-1950s.

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears
Award-winning novel about a young woman trapped in a small town with a husband she no longer loves.

The Latte Years by Phil Moore

‘The Latte Years’ by Philippa Moore
Frank and engaging memoir about Moore’s struggle to lose weight, build self-confidence and live what she calls an “authentic life”.

When the night comes

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett
Two intertwined stories about grief, kindness and life on an Antarctic supply ship.

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds
A compelling true crime story that follows the coronial inquest into the death of a mentally unstable man shot dead by police on a remote farm.

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John
A domestic black comedy about middle-class life in 1990s London.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski
Extraordinary memoir about Szubanksi’s life lived in the shadows of her father’s war-time activities in Poland.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor
Heartfelt and brutally frank memoir by a leading Australian author diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Salt Creek

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar
Superb historical novel about one family’s attempt to settle a remote area on the South Australian coast and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope
Deliciously suspense-filled tale about two women sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Hot Little Hands

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman
Effortlessly readable collection of short stories about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard
A hard-hitting look at the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Award-winning dystopian novel set in a remote prison for women who have been sexually shamed.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright
Surprisingly gripping collection of 10 essays about the author’s struggle with an eating disorder.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

By the way, I plan on signing up for the 2017 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to join me, you can sign up via the official website.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Gillian Mears, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 2011; 420 pages.

What is it that propels us to read an author’s work as soon as we hear of their deaths? Not long after I discovered the sad news that Gillian Mears had died (she was just 51 years old and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 17 years earlier), I extracted her debut novel, The Mint Lawn, from my pile of Australian books, where it had been languishing since 2011.

I remember the date, because I acquired the book not long after I finished reading Mears’ award-winning Foal’s Bread, which was newly published at the time. That book was astonishing – written in beautiful, sometimes difficult, language, littered with intriguing leitmotifs, and filled with such emotion that it has lived on in my memory ever since.

I rather suspect that The Mint Lawn, first published in 1991, will also live on in my memory.  It earned Mears the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, a prize given to an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35. It’s a quite extraordinary debut novel — on all kinds of levels. It’s ambitious, creative, powerful, authentic. And it has the feel of having been written by someone who is mature beyond their years (Mears was just 26 when she wrote it). But it’s the story-telling, multi-generational and quintessentially rural Australian, that makes it such a rewarding read.

A marriage gone wrong

The Mint Lawn is essentially one woman’s tale — of her disappointing marriage to an older man, and her complicated but loving relationship with her mother, killed before her time in a car accident, over whom she is continuing to grieve. Clementine is 25 and has never left the town on the northern NSW coast where she was born, raised and educated. She’s trapped in a marriage with quirky old Hugh, the man who was once her music teacher, and is desperate to escape — to live a more adventurous and passionate life — but something is holding her back, and she’s not quite sure what.

The story flits between Clementine’s increasingly desperate current situation (told in the first person) and her happy but complicated childhood growing up with her auctioneer father, social-climbing, party-loving mother and two horse-crazy sisters (told in the third person). The latter storyline helps inform the former, so that the reader comes to understand Clementine’s place in the family and the ways in which her outlook and attitudes have been shaped by her mother, a woman who tried to make small-town life much more exciting and glamorous than it really was.

It’s only when Clementine comes to terms with her past (and her reasons for staying in the town) that she finds the courage to follow a different path.

A truly immersive read

Admittedly, it took me a quite a long time to read this book, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I had a lot of other stuff going on at the time. However, whenever I picked it up I was immediately transported into the topsy-turvy, sometimes funny, sometimes sad story of Clementine and her crazy but loving family.

It’s a truly immersive read, perhaps because it’s so richly detailed and multi-layered — nothing feels tacked on. You simply get thrown into the maelstrom of Clementine’s life, and because it’s mainly told from her perspective in a frank, forthright and sometimes crude manner (there’s quite a lot of graphic observations about sex and  sexuality in this book, it has to be said) you get to share a rare intimacy with all the characters in this rather remarkable story. In many ways it’s like a literary soap opera — there’s drama at every turn, but it’s not over done, and even the landscape and the wide cast of subsidiary characters lend an authenticity that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever endured small town life.

Unfortunately, The Mint Lawn has only been published in Australia. If you live elsewhere, do check bookfinder.com for second-hand copies, as it’s definitely worth tracking down — but be warned, it’s probably cheaper to buy a brand new edition direct from Oz.

This is my 31st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 22nd for #AWW2016.

 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gillian Mears, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears

Foal's-Bread

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2011.

A book about horses would not normally be my cup of tea (a startling admission for anyone who knows my professional background, shhhh, please don’t tell), but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread — her first novel in 16 years — is more than just a story about equines.

A story about love, sex, joy, sadness…

It’s a story about love, sex, joy, sadness, jealousy and ambition. It’s about complicated families and the ways in which history often repeats itself within those families. It’s about the hardship of living on the land in the years between the wars, of milking cows and breeding horses, despite floods, drought and raging bush fires. But above all it’s about aspiring to better things — and chasing dreams.

When the book opens we meet 14-year-old Noah, a tomboy, and her father, Cecil, as the pair are coming to the end of a two-week job — driving a mob of pigs to market via horseback. It’s 1926 and the setting is rural New South Wales.

We soon learn that Noah has a love of horses and, specifically, of jumping them over high jumps — what we now tend to call “puissance” — on the equestrian showjumping circuit. And once the pigs have been loaded onto the boat that will take them to market in Sydney, Noah will be free to compete in the ladies’ highjump at Port Lake Show; her dad will compete in the men’s equivalent.

A shameful secret

But first the reader is let in on a shameful and sordid secret: Noah is pregnant and her Uncle Nipper, who has just died, aged 80, is the father. While her dad is off boozing in town for the evening, Noah gives birth alone in their camp by a creek with only the “pigs watching what was coming out from between her own legs”.

As an opening to a novel, this is quite a confronting — and shocking — scene. Even more so, when Noah just gets on with it, wraps the “rag doll” in a shirt, plants a kiss on its face, puts it in a butter box and sends it down river, never to be seen again.

A kind of triumphant relief was sweeping through her that it was done, the baby gone. She couldn’t realise that for the rest of her life she’d be watching Flaggy Creek spinning away from her, the fast waters making it disappear like a little bend-and-flag pony that’s forgotten to take the final turn.

All is not lost, however, because a week later Noah meets the man who becomes the love of her life: Rowley — known as Roley — Nancarrow, an Australian showjumping champion. He presents her with a foal’s bread, a bread-shaped piece of placenta that some foals have in their mouths when they are born, which is dried out as a good luck charm.

“In a high-jump foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights’ for a galloper, fast,” explains Roley.

The charm works — for a little while, anyway. The pair marry, have children, set up home on the Nancarrow family farm and make plans to start their own showjumping team.

Grand sweeping drama

But in the tradition of grand sweeping dramas, life does not play out the way both Noah and gentle, kind-hearted Roley plan. Curve balls come in the form of a fiercely jealous and bullying mother-in-law, who does her best to drive a wedge between her son and Noah. One of their children is born disabled. And Roley, who survives a lightning strike, develops a numbness in his feet and legs which puts an end to his showjumping career.

There comes a point when Noah must run the farm unaided and this is when her emotional problems, so long repressed, manifest themselves in violent outbursts — usually directed at her horses, whom she treats cruelly — and alcoholic binges.

This probably sounds like a soap opera, but Mears refrains from emotionally manipulating the reader. Indeed, the novel is completely free of sentiment, but somehow, in giving her narrative such a strong sense of time and place, you get so caught up in the mood of Foal’s Bread that it’s hard not to care for the people she writes about. Yes, it’s a sad story (Lisa, from ANZLitLovers, says Foal’s Bread is not a book to ‘enjoy’”) — but there’s something about it that makes it a compelling read.

No neat solutions

What I admire most about Mears’ skill as a writer is that she never succumbs to offering her characters neat solutions. They are left to flounder, to muddle along; they feel flesh-and-blood real. The Nancarrow family are not great communicators. No one ever explains how they are feeling. But the way the characters talk — in a stilted, old-fashioned vernacular — seems to fit the mood of the story.

As much as I enjoyed following the trials and tribulations of this complicated, strange family, I was occasionally disoriented by the time shifts — for instance, one minute Noah is 14, the next she is 22 and happily married. And some of the prose feels slightly clunky — normally when Mears’ is filling in backstory for her characters or explaining some of the finer points of showjumping history.

The prose, in general, appears to be written in a deliberately old-fashioned style that takes some getting used to — for instance, “the”, as a definite article, is largely absent so that characters go to “main house” instead of “the main house”. (According to Helen Elliot’s review in The Age, “Foal’s Bread is written in the vernacular of the times”.) But once you get into the flow of it, the language works its charm.

I especially loved the way the narrative is tied to the land, and there are reoccurring motifs — the floodwaters, an always-blooming Jacaranda tree, heart-shaped items found in nature — that make it a particularly visual read.

A powerful book

Foal’s Bread is a powerful book and rightly garnered much critical acclaim. You can listen to a fascinating interview with the author on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.