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Highlights of 2012: Notable reads for 2012

January 1, 2013

To complete my 2012 round-up triumvirate, which started with my blogging highlights and was followed by my Australian Women Writers challenge wrap-up, this post documents my notable reads of the year. If you are sick of me and my round-ups, I won’t be offended if you click away now!

Like last year, I’m not doing a top 10, because I find defining “top” reads such a movable feast. I would really like to list almost everything I read! So, again, I’m listing my notable reads under categories to give a flavour of this year’s reading life. Last year’s categories were based on review clichés and jargon, but this year I’m going to just make up my own, as whim takes me. Here goes, in no particular order:

Most disappointing read: PD James’ Death comes to Pemberley. It’s not that it was a bad book, exactly, but I’m not much of a crime reader and I don’t tend to read Jane Austen sequels/spin-offs, and I just felt this didn’t cut it, mainly because Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t ring true. They were flat, there was no chemistry. Without that, it was lost.

Most surprising read: Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab. What did I say about not reading crime? Well, that’s partly why this was my most surprising read, because it is a late nineteenth century Australian crime novel and I loved it. It provided such a great social history of Melbourne of the period – and was a rollicking good read as well. Quite coincidentally a new telemovie adaptation was broadcast late in the year, and I enjoyed that too.

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

Bite your tongue Bookcover (Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

Bravest book: Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue. I loved the creative way Rendle-Short went about telling her uncomfortable story via a fictional-memoir. This book is an example of what Rebecca Giggs meant when she talked about writers finding new modes of authority by which they can describe (and we can find valid) how the world “actually” is.

Most inspiring book: Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I shall not hate. What can I say? Abuelaish’s ability to rise above a pain that no parent should face, the death of his daughters in a targeted terrorist attack, and continue to argue for peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis should be a lesson to us all. I have never liked the idea of revenge, but also have never had my philosophy seriously tested. He has and shows that it is possible to see things a different way.

Favourite e-Book: Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I didn’t read many e-Books this year, but this e-notated version of an American classic was special. While I had some reservations about a couple of the features, overall the e-notation enhanced my reading and, anyhow, it’s a great novel. A re-read for me, and I’d read it again (if I had the time!)

Book scoring most “hits”: Julian Barnes’ The sense of an ending. This popularity was quite a surprise. I was fairly late – given its 2011 Man Booker Prize win – to read and review it, and yet my post seems to score high in Google searches. Why, I have no idea, but there you go! I’m happy to list it in my “notable reads” because, besides its being popular with the search engines, I liked it.

Favourite classic: Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower. I read a few “classics” this year – novels and short stories – and enjoyed them all. There’s something about reading good writers from the past – for learning about the world they were writing in, and for providing a different perspective on our own world (if that makes sense). Harrower’s novel is so of its time and place and yet is absolutely universal in its study of power and control in intimate relationships.

Favourite translated novel: Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village. This was one of the books I read for the Shadow Man Asian prize earlier in the year. I also liked the winning book Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother and several others but, as time has gone on, it’s Ding Village that most often comes back to me. A great study of power and greed, with personal and political implications.

Favourite recent Australian book: Gillian Mears’ Foals’ bread. What can I say? This is one of those books that hits you in the guts. It’s about character, passion (of all sorts), and the ambiguities in human relationships – and Mears nails it.

Favourite short story: Paddy O’Reilly’s “The salesman”. This was very hard, so much so that I nearly decided not to create a category for it. I read several great short stories in 2012 but I had not read O’Reilly before and I was impressed by her control of the form. It’s a powerful story about deprivation, racism and the violence that lies just, only just, below the surface. It’s both subtle and unsubtle at the same time.

That’s 10. I could go on with more categories but I won’t bore you any further. Before I go, though, I’ll just, because I can, give a special mention to those writers who are published by the little presses and who deserve wider notice: Nigel Featherstone (Blemish Books), Catherine McNamara (Indigo Dreams) who has a collection of literary short stories coming out in 2013 to follow her 2012 commercial novel, and Michael Sala (Affirm Press).

28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2013 02:10

    I’m looking forward to reading Foal’s Bread, it’s on my list for next year. I particularly enjoyed rereading Voss as I’m sure I’ve told you and Gilgamesh. The short pieces that have stayed in my mind from your links are the one written by an African-American pilot (brilliant and touching) and two of Barbara Baynton’s short stories. So much more to read!
    Thanks for the mention too!

    • January 2, 2013 08:52

      Thanks Catherine … I love that you’ve read some of the ones I’ve written about, and enjoyed them. I look forward to more bookish talk this year!

  2. January 2, 2013 03:07

    What a fun list. I could be twenty long and I would not be bored! Death Comes to Pemberley was on the bottom of my reading this year too. Definitely a big disappointment!

    • January 2, 2013 08:54

      Oh thanks Stefanie … That’s very kind. The PD James was a shame … I had hopes, but oh well … You win some, and you lose some.

  3. January 2, 2013 03:16

    I love the way you’ve broken down your recap of 2012. As always, plenty of gems to get my purchasing finger twitching. I still have Patrick White staring at me from the shelf, so probably I should get to him before buying anything more. But the To-Be-Bought list has now grown. (As has the To-Find-Time-To-Read list, which is the more difficult list to manage at the moment.)

    Isn’t My Antonia simply fabulous? I really liked The Sense of an Ending too.

    It helps to have books I have already read on lists like this. Thank you for that. Now there are only eight (seven if I throw out the “disappointing”, six if I just read O’Reilly’s one short story and resist the temptation to buy one of her novels) new books vying for my time. I agree with Catherine that Foal’s Bread is calling the loudest at the moment.

    Happy New Year!

    • January 2, 2013 08:57

      Thanks Kerry … I know you are busy so I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to reply AND I’m glad you are able to whittle down my list of 10 to something more manageable! The O’Reilly is available online as I recollect … A link at the bottom of my review, and is pretty short. But I know, pretty short still takes time to read!

      Oh yes, I do love My Antonia. It was great reading it again. I’ve read a few of hers but still have to read a couple of those pioneer ones.

      • January 2, 2013 11:58

        I did click right through to O’Reilly. It was a very enjoyable short story. I am reading several collections at once (cycling through Gogol, Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories by Brett Hart) and O’Reilly’s holds up with all of them (which are each quite enjoyable). So one down and six to go! But thanks for pointing me to O’Reilly.

        Of course, the fact that I enjoyed the story means it will become necessary to seek out his longer work too.

        • January 2, 2013 14:27

          Oh thanks Kerry for letting me know. glad you enjoyed it … It overs quite. Few bases in a few pages doesn’t it. BTW, Paddy is a woman … Great gender neutral name for a writer.

  4. Alex in Leeds permalink
    January 2, 2013 03:43

    I still haven’t got to Death Comes To Pemberley, I think I want to like it far more than I shall. The more I think about James’ detached, clinical style and an Austen backdrop the less keen I am to pick it up. 😦

    • January 2, 2013 08:58

      Thanks Alex … I think if your time is short, read other things! But if you do read the James, I’ll read your review!

  5. January 2, 2013 04:53

    foals bread on my wishlist ,the Hume is one I had on my old ereader after ABC mentioned it but then it broke when I get a new one I will download it again ,all the best stu

    • January 2, 2013 09:00

      They are two good books, Stu … And you’ll probably have to do some internal translations to get through the Australianisms!

  6. January 2, 2013 08:39

    I also was delighted to discover “Mystery of a hansom cab” last year and also loved “Sense of an ending” and probably contributed to your hits. Don’t think I’ll bother with Pemberley – there’s only one Jane Austen. Thanks for your interesting blog.

    • January 2, 2013 09:01

      Thanks Bushmaid … I certainly remember your enthusiasm for The sense of an ending! And I agree, there is only one Jane Austen!

  7. January 2, 2013 21:59

    I read Hansom Cab too this year and really enjoyed it, and was especially amused by how geographically well its setting still matched today’s Melbourne. I started to watch the TV adaptation but found it a bit hammy and gave up. I hope it encouraged those who saw it to read the book tho’!

    • January 2, 2013 22:27

      Thanks for commenting Vicki … I did enjoy the book more than the TV show but don’t recollect feeling it was too hammy. I might have been in a semi-comatose state at the time! What I did feel though was that it missed – as these things usually do – the wonderful details and minor characters. Didn’t you love the descriptions of that cricket-like landlady rustling about the place? She barely appeared in the TV show and, anyhow, it was his description that made her such fun to read wasn’t it.

      I don’t know today’s Melbourne well enough but I did visit the Museum of Victoria in November and loved the model slum lanes they have set up in there. I immediately thought of Mrs Guttersnipe et al!

  8. January 3, 2013 02:39

    Foals’ Bread! That’s one of the ones I wanted to read. I wonder if it will be in the library system here…

    • January 3, 2013 08:17

      You can but try … I hope so. You have your card now?

      • January 5, 2013 12:30

        Nope. Two weeks now and the postcard still hasn’t arrived from five minutes away.

        • January 5, 2013 12:44

          That’s pretty disappointing! I hope you’re not suffering from nothing to read …

  9. Bryce permalink
    January 3, 2013 13:27

    As a keen crime reader I loved all of PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray novels, but haven’t read DCTP for reasons similar to those of Adam in Leeds. It does seem a mismatch.
    Whispering Gums is a great blog with a friendly and welcoming feel. I enjoyed the 2012 posts and conversations and look forward to more in 2013.

    • January 3, 2013 18:17

      Thank you Bryce … I greatly enjoy the conversations with people like you who come here. As for PD James, going by other big fans who also read this, I’d say you’ve made the right decision. All the best for 2013 to you.

  10. acommonreaderuk permalink
    January 4, 2013 19:37

    Very interesting. The reviews of PD Jame’s Pemberley book were so poor that I didn’t bother with it although I’ve previously read everything she’s produced. The Julian Barnes book was very enjoyable.

    Thanks for pointing out that my email notification list isn’t working. I think I’ve tracked it down and hopefully the next review will produce the goods – I may ask you if you’ve received an email sometime next week.

    Have a great reading New Year.

    • January 4, 2013 19:54

      Oh please do Tom, as I’m truly sorry to have been missing your return to blogging. I’ll look out for, hopefully, a review AND a checking email from you next week!

  11. January 14, 2013 17:22

    I still have The Sense of an Ending sitting on the bedside table, where it has been for over a year waiting for it’s turn. It was a Christmas present too, I always feel bad not reading books that I’ve been given. I have Death Comes to Pemberley lurking in the TBR too, and Foal’s Bread, surely I must be the last Australian to read that one.

    • January 14, 2013 18:55

      Oh, yes, I have books I’ve been given too that I haven’t read and feel really badly about that. However, I am right now reading one of this year’s Xmas gifts so I’m hoping that will salve my conscience a little!

  12. kimbofo permalink
    January 19, 2013 07:06

    I’m a bit late to this… I’m still trying to catch up on my RSS reader that I didn’t view for 2 weeks over Christmas & New Year.

    I’ve got a couple of those books in my reading queue — namely Dream of Ding Village (which I bought on Kindle very cheaply a few weeks ago, think it was less than £1), A Sense of an Ending (which I’ve been meaning to read BEFORE it won the Booker) and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (which I ordered from the Text website before they started selling their books on

    Pleased to see Foal’s Bread listed… it was definitely my favourite new-release Aussie novel of 2012.

    • January 19, 2013 09:50

      All great reads Kimbofo … But then I would say that wouldn’t I? I look forward to your reviews one day!

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