Well, dear readers, we have turned the calendar to 2016 so I can now reveal my highlights for 2015. As usual, I won’t be naming top picks. I find that too hard to do. Instead, I’ll discuss highlights which combines best reads with those that were interesting for other reasons. I’d love to mention every book I read, as every one had something to commend it. I have too little time for reading to read books that have no value! (Seriously. I know I’m retired, but …)
First, though, this year’s …
By literary highlights I tend to mean literary events, and I went to a few this year (though no writer’s festivals. One day!) What I did attend, though, gave me such pleasure, not to mention new things to think about:
- Carmel Bird’s launch of Marion Halligan’s latest novel, Goodbye sweetheart, at one of Canberra’s best independent bookshops, Paperchain. This was particularly a thrill because, out of the blue, Carmel Bird emailed me asking me if I’d like to post her launch speech on my blog. I would and I did. I’m embarrassed to say though that the book is still on my TBR. This has been a bad reading year. Bird and Halligan are two of Australia’s literary treasures. Unfortunately, I was travelling in Tasmania when Bird returned to Canberra later in the year for an In Conversation event with Halligan. (And here, I’ll sneak a reference to Carmel Bird’s clever, delightful essay Fair Game which I did read and review!)
- Jane Austen Society of Australia’s biennial weekend conference titled this year, Emma: 200 years of perfection. I wrote three posts on this wonderful weekend, here, here, and here. No matter how often I read Austen, or how many academics write about her, there’s always to something new to learn.
- Robert Drewe’s talk titled Who, me? for the National Library of Australia’s Seymour Biography Lecture. Halligan* needn’t feel too badly about her book still being on my TBR pile, because Drewe’s second memoir, Montebello, that I bought at this event, is there too.
- Author talk with Kate Llewellyn, Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus, focusing on Hill and Bacchus’ edition of selected letters written by Llewellyn (my review).
- Griffyn Ensemble’s Utopia Experiment concert was a musical event, but its focus on poet Dame Mary Gilmore made it, for me, a literary musical event – and a most enjoyable one at that.
As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to discuss this year’s reading under categories which reflect this year’s experience.
Literary trends … in my reading, anyhow
- Historical fiction: I don’t see myself as a reader of historical fiction, and yet it seems to feature significantly in my reading fare. I guess it’s a case of interesting stories will out, no matter when they are set. Not surprisingly, most of these stories deal with the poor, or disadvantaged, such as Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay about a young woman gaoled for manslaughter in early 1900s Sydney, Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger town set on the Port Adelaide docks in the 1920s-30s, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden about a woman losing her home through construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in early 1930s Sydney. Emily Bitto’s The strays is not about disadvantaged people, but her Bohemian arts community of 1930s Melbourne comprises people on the edge of society in another way. I’d happily recommend all these books for the way they evoke their respective eras – and for the variety of their subject matter.
- Farm stories: Although Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised nations, we do have farmers! Given climate change, concerns about food security, not to mention, here in Australia, the dispossession of indigenous people from their land, it’s good to see “literary” authors tackling these issues, such as Jessica White in Entitlement and Alice Robinson in Anchor point. Coincidentally, my first review for 2016 will probably be a farm story …
- Climate change: Speaking of climate change, I’m keen to continue reading novelists who tackle this issue, and have created a cli fi tag to identify them. This year, in addition to the above mentioned Anchor point, I loved Jane Rawson’s inventive A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.
Is it a novel?: I love it when writers play with form, and two Australian books I read this year thrilled me with their use of the short story/long short story/novella forms to produce fascinating works: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light and Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm. And then there was Julian Davies’ Crow Mellow, with its exhortation on the back page that “This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page”. It is a novel – but the drawings add another dimension to the reading experience.
- Short stories rule: I read some excellent short stories this year, and particularly enjoyed John Clanchy’s Six and Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral vision. Angela Meyer’s collection of flash fiction, Captives, also captivated me!
- From over the seas: Contrary to how it might look, I did read some books that weren’t Australian. The three standout novels were Vincenzo Cerami’s A very normal man, Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, and Neel Mukherjee’s The lives of others.
- It wasn’t all fiction: While fiction is my main fare, I do enjoy non-fiction too. Standouts this year were Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, Richard Lloyd Parry’s true crime work People who eat darkness, and Biff Ward’s memoir In my mother’s hands.
- Special mentions: I can’t complete this list without mentioning two books that don’t fit the above categories but must be mentioned: Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. Both take their readers on a merry (or not so merry really, but you know what I mean) dance, and are very satisfying reads.
Serendipitous Reading Stats
Just because I like them (these percentages are for this year of course):
- 67% of the authors I read were women.
- 27% of the works I read were not by Australian writers.
- 73% of my reading was fiction (short, long or in-between!)
- 20% of the works I read were published before 2000
- 30% of the works I read were published in 2015
- I reviewed multiple (2) works by two authors – Jane Austen, and Ellen van Neerven
I did not achieve my one real goal for the year, which was to read more from my TBR, and, for reasons which regular readers here know, I did not manage to read more books. But, I had a great reading year, nonetheless, and I want to thank you all for joining me in my journey – for reading my posts, engaging in discussion, recommending more books to read and, generally, being all-round great people to know (cyberly, anyhow). I wish you all a wonderful 2016, and hope to see you here whenever the spirit moves you.
What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?
* I nearly missed the autocorrect of Halligan to Halogen!