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

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Johnston, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Rosie Jones, Scribe, Setting, true crime

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“She is skeletal and pale, 95 years old and living in a nursing home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There are dense layers of secrecy surrounding her, as there have always been. Her followers have been told since the beginning to protect her, and never betray her. To these followers, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is a reincarnation of Jesus, a living god.”

So begins The Family, a powerful work of investigative journalism, by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston and documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones, which looks at the cult Anne formed in the 1960s. Known simply as “The Family”, this cult hit the headlines in 1987 when police raided its property in the hills outside of Melbourne and rescued dozens of children who lived there.

The children, who had all been adopted by Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, reported serious crimes of physical and psychological abuse. They had been raised to believe they were all siblings (they weren’t) and that Anne was their real mother. Their hair was dyed blond and they wore old-fashioned clothes — think frilly dresses and buckled shoes — hugely reminiscent of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.

When it came to answering her accusers, Anne was nowhere to be found. It took police on three continents more than five years to track her and Bill down. The couple was then extradited to Melbourne (from their home in the Catskills in New York State) and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. They were fined $AU5,000 each after they both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of making a false declaration.

Their lives barely changed, while “their” children’s lives were left in tatters, none of them entirely sure who their birth mothers were or why they had been subjected to so much cruel and unusual punishment throughout their childhoods.

Painstaking police investigation

The book is essentially a police procedural. It follows Operation Forest, which was set up by Victoria Police to locate the Hamilton-Byrnes and to seek justice for the children.

It also traces the roots of the cult — how it came into being, the major players and the crimes they perpetuated to enable The Family to function — as well as Anne’s rise from obscurity to notoriety. As one of very few female cult leaders in history, she managed to wield a mysterious hold on all her followers, even when she was living thousands of miles away in the UK and the US.

Somehow she hoodwinked fine upstanding citizens to join her “spiritual group” and built a network of “insiders” — doctors, midwives, social workers and lawyers — to help her steal newborn babies and register them in her name (adoption in Australia in the early 1970s wasn’t highly regulated). A similar network of scientists and psychiatrists also helped her “treat” cult members, including her children, with LSD in a bid to make them believe she was Jesus reincarnated as a woman.

And on top of this she recruited a series of “Aunties” who lived with the children, looked after them and educated them. But they also mistreated them and doled out punishment — hitting the children, locking them up and starving them.

No justice

When I read this book — which has been pieced together in exacting detail and based on interviews with the children, Aunties, current cult members, journalists and police, and drags on slightly too long — the first question that sprang to mind was “why did the children not get the justice they deserved?” The Aunties who were brought before the courts got fined more than the Hamilton-Brynes, but no one did jail time for child abuse. Essentially, Anne got away with it.

“There was no justice. There was no acknowledgement that the children had been mistreated. The children saw the Aunties go to jail for fiddling the social security ‘but they didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us for three days at a time,’ says Sarah [one of the children]. ‘No one got in trouble for that.'”

Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of Operation Forest, says the police deliberately did not charge the Hamilton-Brynes with child abuse because it would be too difficult to make the charges stick — there was no evidence, just reports by the children which couldn’t be legally verified — and he was wary of making fragile, psychologically damaged children testify in a court of law. It was safer to take a more oblique approach: to get Anne on fraud and perjury charges, which they were able to achieve thanks to Anne’s own solicitor turning whistle bower.

Lex claims his investigation, which took years of painstaking work and struggled to get the resources it required, was able to debunk the mysticism around Anne to show that she “was no one special”.

“She was basically a very cunning crook. […] She is the most evil person with the most evil set of crimes that I have ever investigated in my 18-year career with Victoria Police. If you want to know the definition of evil, you look at Anne Hamilton-Byrne.”

A one-hour documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, has been made to accompany the book. You can find out more about it on the BBC4 Storyville website and the official documentary website. It’s definitely worth watching if you get the chance.

This is my 52nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 35th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Canongate, Cory Taylor, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.

Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)

Skin cancer diagnosis

In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.

She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.

Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.

In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor, US edition
US Edition, by Tin House Books

A memoir in three parts

Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.

At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:

Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.

She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.

Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor. Australian edition
Australian edition, by Text Publishing

Moments of joy

Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.

And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.

Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.

This is my 51st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 34th for #AWW2016.

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

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson

The Landing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2015.

“If a separated man — about to be divorced — is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?”

So begins Susan Johnson‘s The Landing, which tells the story of a well-to-do, good-looking 55-year-old man trying to recalibrate his life after his wife leaves him for a woman.

Jonathan Lott is scared of being alone, but he can’t quite believe that his marriage is over. Seeking solitude  — and a place to lick his wounds — he spends as much time as he can at the couple’s holiday home at The Landing, 150km north of Brisbane.

But in this quiet lakeside community  — with just a few streetlights, a couple of bitumen roads, no reticulated water or sewage and patchy mobile phone coverage — Jonathan’s comings and goings are witnessed (and commented upon) by the locals who live there.

What results is a relatively lighthearted story that is essentially a comedy of manners — when is it socially acceptable to start dating again after you’ve separated, for instance — that focuses not just on Jonathan’s lacklustre love life but the lives and loves of pretty much everyone living in this rural backwater, including: Penny Collins, her demanding and elderly French mother Marie and her shallow and narcissistic daughter Scarlet; Sylv, who runs the only shop in town; Paul Raymond, who leaves his wife to shack up with the much younger Scarlet; Gordie, the Glaswegian doctor, and his pretty daughter Anna; and Giselle, a seven-year-old girl from an impoverished background who roams The Landing in search of company.

The complex nature of love 

The narrative comprises multiple, interleaved layers that to unpick it would be like peeling an onion. But the real strength of this novel lies in Johnson’s ability to capture the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, the often complicated relationships and tensions between different generations of the one family, and the complex nature of love in all its many forms — romantic, sexual and familial.

The frailties of the human heart are captured with insight and delicacy, lifting this story from the bog standard romance the cover might suggest, to one that is full of nuance and humour and moments of pitch-perfect clarity. And all the characters, so richly drawn, feel intensely human.

Combined with such eloquent writing — Johnson’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife that abounds in The Landing are particularly evocative and lyrical — makes for a superb, effortless read.

I really enjoyed The Landing, but in the spirit of transparency should point out I know the author. Indeed, we had lunch together when she was en route to Paris to begin working on the edits of this novel. I ended up buying my copy when I went to Australia last year — and couldn’t wait to read it.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Unfortunately The Landing hasn’t been published in the UK, but you can order a copy via the Book Depository.

This is my 50th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 33rd for #AWW2016.