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Reading highlights for 2015

January 2, 2016

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 …

Literary highlights

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.

Reading highlights

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

  • ScarfeHungerWakefieldHistorical 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.
  • Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book cover

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

    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.
  • Mark Henshaw, The snow kimonoSpecial 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!

28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2016 4:29 am

    Happy New Year!

    Oh that darn autocorrect 😉 so the Griffin Utopia concert was your favorite? For some reason that surprised me. I’d like to read more clifi novels this year too. I have started a list at the library and I actually started a book too! The Water Knife by Paolo Bacagolupi. Drought and water wars in the southwest US and Texas is pretty much uninhabitable and the Colorado River is literally a war zone. Good stuff!

    • January 2, 2016 8:45 am

      Oh no, Stefanie, I wouldn’t say that. It’s just that that concert had a more literary aspect to it. I’m not sure I could choose, so your surprise is partly right.

      I love the sound of your water wars book – it is a fascinating part of southwest history isn’ it?

      • January 3, 2016 5:25 am

        Ah, I see! That makes sense now 🙂

        The water wars are indeed a fascinating part of southwest history and with the drought it is getting even more interesting. The scary thing is that the book is all to plausible in so many ways!

        • January 3, 2016 8:44 am

          I bet it is … I guess there are still resentments in the areas that lost water and it would be coming home to roost now.

  2. January 2, 2016 12:49 pm

    Am very jealous of your literary experiences, my living in the bush does have some disadvantages. This year is starting as it means to go on I think and a glance at my phone this morning shows my TBR has grown by 9 posts from the just 6 or 7 bloggers I follow. Looking forward to another fruitful year!

    • January 2, 2016 1:02 pm

      Thanks Bill – reading blogs is a dangerous thing I’ve found. It takes a strong constitution! I look forward to seeing the results of your fruitful year.

  3. January 2, 2016 5:11 pm

    What a useful list, thanks WG. You’ve added to my TBR pile too. I’m particularly tempted by The Snow Kimono, although I wasn’t when you first blogged about it. Funny how different books call to us at different times.

    • January 2, 2016 5:29 pm

      Thanks Michelle. It sure is. Timing can be all with some books I think. What do you think has changed with this one?

      • January 3, 2016 12:45 pm

        Oh, it’s a mystery to me too! I binged on Peter Temple over the Christmas period, so perhpas that’s made me more open to reading stories involving men and crime.

        • January 3, 2016 4:14 pm

          I assume you enjoyed them. I’ve read two of his and enjoyed them. They didn’t make me WANT to read a lot about men and crime, but as you say, probably made me more open to the occasional read.

  4. sharkell permalink
    January 2, 2016 8:43 pm

    My top ten reads for 2015 included 3 Aussie authors – Joan London for The Golden Age, Ruth Park for The Harp in the South trilogy and Ion Idriess for The Red Chief. I haven’t read any of the books mentioned in your post but I do have a couple on my wish list or shelves. Thanks for your blog and all the best for the new year.

    • January 2, 2016 9:00 pm

      Nice to hear from you Sharkell. I always love hearing people’s picks. I really need to read the London. I agree with you re the Harp in the South Trilogy. I reviewed Missus early on my blog, but the others I read way too long ago to be able to review. They stick in my mind though. I’ve never read Idriess, though my parents had (still have I expect) some of his books. What was it about The red chief that you loved.

  5. sharkell permalink
    January 2, 2016 9:12 pm

    The book is about Red Kangaroo, an aboriginal leader who lived in the mid 18th century. He was part of the Gunn-e-darr tribe of NSW. Apparently the manuscript was transcribed from conversations with the last member of the Gunn-e-darr people. I felt like I gained a good understanding of Aboriginal culture prior to white settlement and it was a damn good story as well – full of action and adventure.

    • January 2, 2016 9:26 pm

      Oh that’s fascinating Sharkell – my great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in Gulargambone, which is not far I think, from Gunnedah, around the turn of the 20th century. He was known for his interest in indigenous people and the family have some objects given to him by them. They are precious. One day I’d like to research that part of his story more.

      • sharkell permalink
        January 2, 2016 10:42 pm

        Red Kangaroo’s body was dug up in the late 19th century by the local doctor. Perhaps your grandfather crossed paths with that doctor. Wouldn’t that be fascinating!

        • January 2, 2016 10:50 pm

          It sure would. He came to Australia in 1887, went to the Newcastle area first and then to Gulargambone. (I have the dates but not here with my laptop). You’d have to think, given the remoteness there’s be a chance wouldn’t you?

  6. January 2, 2016 9:54 pm

    There is a writers festival in March in Beaconsfield this March. A friend and I might go to it. It is only their second one but first one went off well. Some author’s coming down. It is called The Tamar Writers festival. If you come to Tassie for it let me know. Would love to meet you. Happy New Year.

    • January 2, 2016 10:07 pm

      That sounds great Pam. Beaconsfield is a pretty place. I don’t think I’ll get down down for it but I do want to get to Tasmania again soon. I’m so sorry I ran out of time on our last visit. We got back to Hobart and the three days went in a flash – and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t got back to you but it was too late. Then three days after we got back my aunt died and I forgot to email you to say sorry! I am sure we’ll be back. Love Tasmania.

  7. sharkell permalink
    January 3, 2016 7:11 am

    What kind of relics were given to your great grandfather?

    • January 3, 2016 8:49 am

      The one my father has is a big, “real” boomerang. No frills just a strong hand carved one. My cousin has some others, from his mum, but I can’t recollect what they are as I haven’t seen them.

  8. January 3, 2016 7:54 pm

    Regarding Climate Change fiction, the author that springs to my mind is Paolo Bacigalupi whose latest novel, titled The Water Knife, deals with such issues as water shortages. It’s a very violent novel, so is not for the faint hearted. His first novel The Windup Girl and his two YA novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Lands are set in a future drastically affected by Global Warming. I think he’s a really interesting writer, and though his novels, even the YA ones, are full of violence, they are also not without humour and pathos.

    My literary highlights were seeing David Mitchell, Jonathan Letham and Claire Tomalin live at Wheeler Centre events.

    • January 3, 2016 8:09 pm

      Ah, Anne, you may not have noticed, but the very first commenter on this post, Stefanie, mentioned the very same book. I’d be intrigued to read it, having travelled the parts of the US I believe he’s dealing with – but, I’m not sure I’ll find the time to get to it. I heard some interviews with Tomalin. She’s an interesting biographer isn’t she. I don’t think I’ve read Letham but I seem to recollect that my son read him. And of course, I know your love of Mitchell.

  9. January 3, 2016 8:52 pm

    Oops didn’t read Steph’s comment in detail. And yes, Claire Tomalin is a wonderful biographer. I recently read and enjoyed her biography of Samuel Pepys, and intend to read more soon.

    • January 3, 2016 9:22 pm

      That’s OK Anne, I’m glad you didn’t because your comment came fresh and I loved that. I’ve heard quite a bit about the Pepys bio. It does sound excellent.

      • ian darling permalink
        January 7, 2016 9:41 pm

        Your blog sure does show that Australian literature is thriving. Interesting comment about reading a lot of historical novels. Sometimes it seems that historical fiction has moved from being a genre to being the spine of literary fiction!

        • January 7, 2016 10:14 pm

          Thanks Ian, that’s exactly what I was wondering re historical fiction. I could do a more thorough analysis but certainly in my reading suggests there’s been a change.

        • ian darling permalink
          January 8, 2016 9:03 pm

          I suppose you could say that the 19th novel starts with historical fiction as its crown – with the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the novels of Balzac (novels of near contemporary history and historical process). By the end of the century historical fiction is a genre, one which was almost guaranteed to produce some good novels but no longer the mainstream. Over here it might be that so many Booker winners have been essentially historical fiction that has put the genre right into mainstream- you only have to see the huge success of the Wolf Hall series to recognise this. Are readers and writers becoming more historically minded/literate?

        • January 8, 2016 10:39 pm

          Yes, I was thinking Wolf Hall as part of the trend. And we’ve had a few Award winners and major contenders here too. Not all of course but enough. As for more literate, good question, but one I’m not confident about.

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