Monday musings on Australian literature: RN presenters’ pick reads of the year

I was going to write my Case for post this week, but I think now that I’ll leave it to January. Life is a bit too busy right now to put proper thought into presenting my case (though I’ve pretty much decided which book it will be!) So, instead, since various media outlets are starting to publish “best” or “favourite” books of the year, I thought I’d share those from the presenters of the radio station that I most listen to, ABC Radio National.

Many did not choose Australian books, but given the theme of this post, I’m only going to share those who did. However, you can see the whole list online at Radio National. Here goes:

  • Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

    Courtesy: Text Publishing

    Damian Carrick – presenter of the Law Report – chose Helen Garner’s This house of grief. Not surprising, I suppose, that a presenter on law would choose this book about a murder trial. He was concerned, he said, that he might find it too bleak, but “from the opening page I was hooked. It’s a page turner, and as it should be it’s an aching lament to the loss of three lives”. I hate the use of the word “aching” in reviews but regular readers here will know that I liked it too.

  • Jonathan Green – presenter of Sunday Extra – chose Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. I’m glad someone did! He felt that, given it had won the Booker Prize, “anything I say isn’t much more than licking the spoon that somebody else used to put the icing on the cake. Even so, gosh this is a good book”. I agree.
  • Lynne Malcolm – presenter of All in the Mind – chose comedian Tim Ferguson’s Carry a big stick. Again, it’s not a surprising choice for the presenter of a program about the mind and the brain, as this book is a memoir focusing particularly on Ferguson’s being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Malcolm refers to Ferguson’s progress from denial to eventual admission when he could hide the condition no longer.
  • Rhianna Patrick – presenter of AWAYE – chose Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light. This is a book I have on my TBR. Here’s what Patrick says “Van Neerven is part of what I see as the next wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, who are university graduates in creative writing. What’s clear early on is van Neerven’s exploration of indigeneity and sexuality, and whether the two can coexist”. That intrigues me. Why can’t they coexist? Clearly, I’ll have to read it to find out.
  • Robyn Williams – presenter of the long-running Science Show – chose Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing. He says that “It may be about blokes with beers and rugged times on the land, but the voice is always clear and convincing”. Hmm, blokes with beers do appear but I wouldn’t quite say that’s what it was “about”. However, I like the fact that he appreciates Wyld’s voice. (You can check out my review if you like. I expect it will feature high in my top books – when I do my list in January).

Other choices included Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries, and Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, both of which I’ve reviewed this year. The most interesting choice, from my point of view anyhow, was from Ann Jones, presenter of Off the Track. She chose Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole which she described as “fantastically surreal and brutally real”.

For each of the choices, there is a sound grab (at the link I provided above) that you can listen to which gives you a little more about their reasons. I don’t find them all enlightening, but I do find it interesting at this time of year to hear people’s choices and why they chose them.

Have you chosen your favourite book of the year, or are you, like me, waiting until the year is over? (Even then, I suspect, I won’t be able to choose ONE book to top all the others but I will have some favourites.)

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: RN presenters’ pick reads of the year

  1. All these best of lists are loading up my TBR pile to Mount Everest heights! I can never decide on one favorite book for the year, I usually do five fiction and five nonfiction. Haven’t made those lists yet because there there are still a couple more weeks of reading to go and you just never know!

    • Yes, I’m with you Stefanie … Can’t do just one and can’t do it until the year’s reading is finished. I’m guessing these lists are done earlier to help market books for Christmas?

  2. I also can’t just choose one favourite read for the year. So far, I have read 83 novels and non fiction reads. I am glad to say 34 were Australian. I had three good surprises, Lola Bensky by Lily Brett, Stone by John Williams, and Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville.

    • Thanks Meg … you are a wonderful reader. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t yet read Lily Brett though she’s on my radar. I agree that Lilian’s story is a wonderful read. You don’t post your reads on GoodReads or some site – or you just prefer to lie low and comment on blogs (which of course I love you to do!)

  3. WG

    Just returned from two weeks in western Japan – my other country for over 16 years. Scarcely time to sleep let alone read – while there – but en route to Narita via plane from Ube and limousine bus from Haneda – I finished the McBride book. Fantastic, I thought. Betrayal of innocence and that deep sense of shame – the ugly spiritual elements – the deadened senses only brought alive by a kind of masochistic desire for pain! The victim – the universal pain of the abused. And the death of the brother! And the writing – stunning and poetic – a flow of consciousness! Thanks to you WG – for your review a couple of months back now – I think it was! Richard FLANAGAN’s the Australian book of the year for me – obviously / given my connection to and love of both Australia and Japan. Note a note wrong! Shirley Hazzard had a significant novel published some years ago: The Great World (??) much set in Japan. I had many pages of that hard copy book turned down – perspectives or aspects with which I wanted to argue were unrealistic in that setting -that didn’t ring true – much as I otherwise enjoyed that novel – and – like other reviewers before – think her book: The Transit of Venus – an almost perfect novel!

    • Thanks Jim. So glad you liked the McBride book too. Wonderful writing, isn’t it. Hazard – is that The great fire? I read it and enjoyed it – but that was long before I’d been to Japan so maybe I’d think differently on a second read. Like you I love Transit of Venus.

      Where in western Japan did you spend most of your time? Around Ube I guess? I haven’t been that far west (well have been to Nagasaki) but did spend time around the Seto Inland Sea on our last trip.

  4. I seem to be out of sync with the majority of readers this year, as two of the books that have been both critically acclaimed and beloved of readers have left me pretty cold – All the Birds, Singing was clever, but it didn’t engage me, and I thought Narrow Road was full of holes. My favourite Australian book of the year was Emily Bitto’s The Strays

    • It’s good to be different Annabel – and I think you writers do look at books from quite different perspectives, or so I feel I’ve noticed. I haven’t heard of Emily Bitto or The strays. Will keep it in mind.

  5. I just discovered your blog and will have to sit down over Christmas and read back through the years, it looks wonderful! And how perfect that this post was the first that I saw – I was listening to RN yesterday and when this list was mentioned I made a mental note to remember to have a look. And then completely forgot about it. So thank you!

  6. I’ve found a lot of the books I read this year to be somewhat ho hum, nothing to write home about. However, the novels that really impressed me were published in the latter half of the year, ie David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” and “The Peripheral” by William Gibson, two of my very favourite authors, who both delivered really interesting and enjoyable novels.

    The book that blew me away and stands out in my mind as remarkable is Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” a wonderfully written memoir that describes how she coped with the sudden death of her beloved father by training a goshawk. It won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction.

    • Thanks Anne. I haven’t read any of those, though I have heard of course of David Mitchell’s. I like Mitchell but am not sure I’ll get to this given what’s on my plate. I remember that you like Gibson but hadn’t heard of this book. Helen McDonald’s book sounds like one I’d be interested in – and will keep an eye out for it.

      • I read a lot of good books this year but difficult to single one out. Non fiction choice would be a book called Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins – Travels In Roman Britain which is a wonderful mixture of travel, archeology/history and cultural history and I was only dissapointed that it wasn’t longer! I read quite a lot of crime fiction and was very struck by Dorothy B Hughes 1947 In A Lonely Place (great Bogart film of it) which is pulp noir written by a poet.

    • Ah, I have a few favourites actually. Like everybody else, I don’t know how I’m going to narrow it down to one. My favourite book that was -published- in 2014 though, is definitely Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. It’s his first novel, and I only picked it up after a raving review on a podcast. Otherwise I’m sure it would’ve passed me by.

      My other favourites have been Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I don’t even know how to narrow that list down, they’re all completely different books.. the only thing they really have in common is that they’re female authors, and they’re brilliant. And the year isn’t even over yet. I’m terrible at picking things like this!

      Also, sorry about the two comments above – I didn’t think the first one posted!

      • Oh, and look at that. I’ve missed the point, none of those are even Australian. I’m terrible, I haven’t read many Australian books at all this year. Many female writers and non-English/American, though..

      • Yes, I wondered about that. I’ve now deleted one of them – the one not linked to you blog. I know many of those books, though haven’t read them. I do have Americanah on my TBR pile though, and and have greatly enjoyed the Sarah Waters novels I’ve read.

  7. The best book I read this year was easily Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but if I think back on the Australian books exclusively then I’m grateful for Bertram Stevens’ 1906 Anthology of Australian Verse, a collection of mostly-lost poets.

    If in the summer of thy bright regard
    For one brief season these poor Rhymes shall live
    I ask no more, nor think my fate too hard
    If other eyes but wintry looks should give

    — writes prophetic William Gay, forever ignored thereafter.

      • As big a mystery as formerly popular poets who seem so bland now. Why did anybody ever want to read them? you think, reading them.

        Clarissa, because the dramatic intensity in this book is indissoluble from its moral and philosophical intensity, and the author keeps it going at a fierce pitch for nine volumes. One volume would have been a feat but nine is monumental.

        • Thanks DKS … Great answer. I’ve read his Pamela but not Clarissa.

          Formerly popular poets who seem so bland now … I suppose they were read because they fit their own times without having anything mire, hmm, “universal” to offer, or perhaps it’s simply the success of promotion and word-of mouth as happens now with bestseller novels. More Aussies have probably read 50 shades of grey than ny of David Malouf’s books but I can guess which is more likely to be read in 50 years time?

  8. I didn’t read Pamela until I’d already finished Clarissa, and doing them the other way around would have been a significantly different experience because Clarissa is also Richardson’s extension and rebuttal of his own plot-points. The oppression of Clarissa is more multifarious, bewildering, intelligent and excruciating than the oppression of Pamela, and her resistance is more implacable. One book looks back at the other and says, “You didn’t go far enough. Let’s try this again.”

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