Reading highlights for 2022

Regular readers of my blog will know two things about my end of year reading highlights post, but I’ll reiterate them here: I always do my list right at the end of the year when I have read (even if not reviewed) all the books I’m going to; and I do not do a list of “best” or even, really, “favourite” books. Instead, I do a sort of overview of the year through highlights which I think reflect my reading year. I also like to include literary highlights, that is, reading related activities which enhance my reading interests and knowledge. All being well, tomorrow I will share my blogging highlights.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, saw a return to more live events this year, though the pandemic has taught us that there are opportunities to be had by also continuing online experiences – so this year like last I enjoyed a bit of both

Reading highlights

I don’t have specific reading goals, just some “rules of thumb” which include reducing the TBR pile, increasing my reading of First Nations authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. While I didn’t make great inroads into these, I did make some, and, regardless, I had many reading highlights. Last year, I framed this post around my reading preferences, but this year I’m returning to my practice of pulling out random observations that epitomise my year’s reading.

  • Re-find of the year: Elizabeth von Arnim was an author I loved back in the 1990s, and I managed to finally revisit her again this year, via not one but two novels – Vera and Expiation – which reminded me why I enjoy her so much. She is sharply observant about men and women but also witty. I also read this year one of the three biographies recently published about her, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here.
  • Retelling of the year: Retellings can be hit or miss for me but I was greatly moved by Tom Gauld’s graphic novel, Goliath.
  • Topic of the year (1): Mothers and daughters featured heavily in this year’s reading, through Jane Sinclair’s memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, Jessica Au’s Cold enough for snow not to mention that absolute classic, and a reread for me, Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility.
  • Topic of the year (2): Colonialism and racism are issues that many of us read about in order to educate ourselves, and this year I read some magnificent explorations, from Damon Galgut’s The promise and Audrey Magee’s The colony to several works by people of colour, including Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel Passing, Julie Koh’s astonishing Portable curiosities, Evelyn Araluen’s Stella winner Dropbear, and Anita Heiss’s historical novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray.
  • New nationality (for me): I love to add new nationalities to my reading diet, and this year it was Uruguayan, via Ida Vitale’s intriguing Byobu.
  • New genre: Bibliomemoirs are not new, but the term for them is relatively so! Besides Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (mentioned above), I read Carmel Bird’s thoughtful and engaging Telltale.
  • Totemic critters: Every year something interesting pops out from my reading. An odd narrator, perhaps – like a skeleton. This year, it was totemic critters with a few books featuring a lurking critter, such as Nigel Featherstone’s quoll (My heart is a little wild thing) and Lucy Neave’s fox (Believe in me).
  • The locals have it: I like to support local authors, and this year I have read more than usual – Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, Shelley Burr’s debut rural noir Wake, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, and (then resident) Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain, plus two nonfiction works, Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru and Biff Ward’s memoir-of-sorts, The third chopstick. I also read, but didn’t review several books by local picture book creators. For a little region, we achieve a lot!

These are just some of 2022’s highlights…

Some stats …

I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences which I like to track to keep me honest to myself! This year I was closer to my preferred ratios in most of the categories than I have been for years – without specifically trying. It just happened:

My preferences are …

  • to read mostly fiction: 74% of my reading was fiction (meaning, everything not non-fiction, so novels, short stories, and poetry). This is close to my plucked-out-of-the-air 75% rule of thumb, and I’m pleased with that.
  • to give precedence to women: 64% of this year’s reading was by women writers, which is similar to last year’s 65%, and around my preferred two-thirds proportion.
  • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 32% of this year’s reading was by non-Australian writers, which is close to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
  • to read older books: 34% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than in recent years. I did say last year that I wanted to increase this, because I love checking out older works.
  • to support new releases: 19% of this year’s reads were published in 2022, which is rather less than last year’s 25% for that year’s releases, but I’m fine with that – even if my to-be-reviewed pile isn’t.
  • to tackle the TBR, which for me means books I’ve had for over 12 months: This year I read just 5, which is similar to the last few years. I’d really love to lift this number because I have so many good (older) books there waiting to be read!

Overall, it was a perfectly fine reading year but I didn’t read as much as I was hoping, mainly because Mr Gums and I are travelling more often to Melbourne to visit family. This is a good thing so I’m not complaining, but still, I’d like to have read more. 2023 is going to be a challenging year with a downsizing move in the offing, as well as our trips to Melbourne. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

I wish you all an excellent 2023, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

What were your 2022 reading or literary highlights?

Jessica Au, Cold enough for snow (#BookReview)

What did I say about mothers and daughters recently? Just when I thought I’d done with them for the year, along came another, Jessica Au’s gorgeous novella, Cold enough for snow. However, before I get to that, let me describe the award it won, The Novel Prize.

Cold enough for snow was the inaugural winner of this plainly named, but ambitious prize which was established by three independent publishers, Australia’s Giramondo Publishing, the UK and Ireland’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, and North America’s New Directions. It is “a biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world”, and looks for “works which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style”. The winner receives US$10,000 and simultaneous publication of their novel in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and North America.

Jessica Au’s novel was selected from over 1500 entries worldwide, and was published in the above-named territories this year, but is to be published in many more. It has made quite a splash, and was one of the most favourited Australian books in my recent 2022 Favourite Picks post. Those who nominated it used words like “meditative”, “mesmerising”, “elegance”, “exquisite” and “quietly brilliant”. I would agree with those.

Told first person, Cold enough for snow revolves around a holiday in Japan organised by a daughter for herself and her mother. They walk, and travel by train; they visit shops, cafes, galleries, churches and temples, the things you do in Japan. Very few places are identified, keeping the focus on the characters and the ideas being explored, rather than on travel. As someone who has visited Japan several times, I was initially frustrated by this. I wanted to compare my experiences with theirs, but I soon realised that this was not that sort of book. Once I accepted that, I also realised that it was, in fact, the sort of book I enjoy.

By this I mean that it is one of those quiet, reflective books, ones without a lot of plot – albeit I like plots too – but with lots to say about life and relationships, and with much to make you think. The novel has an overall chronological trajectory following the daughter and her mother’s journey but, along the way, the daughter – our first-person narrator – digresses frequently to consider other people and relationships in her life, particularly with her sister and partner. It is in these digressions, in particular, that we get a sense of what this trip is about.

Ostensibly, the book is about the daughter and her mother, who live in different Australian cities, reconnecting. In the opening paragraph, the daughter describes their walking to the train station:

All the while my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was the current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart.

However, it soon becomes clear that it is the daughter who is more concerned about drifting further apart. A couple of pages in she mentions that on a previous trip to Japan with her partner Laurie – one of the few named people in the novel – she “remembered thinking” that she wanted to share some of the fun she’d had with him with her mother. On the next page, she refers to a bonsai plant that her mother had had, and “remembered disliking it”, perhaps because it looked “unnatural, lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest”. Subtly, Au has conveyed in the opening pages that the seemingly sure and in-control young woman we thought we had met is not that at all. Gradually this becomes more explicit. Nearly halfway through the novel, in one of her many digressions, she describes house-sitting for a lecturer and comments that “somehow it felt like I was living my life from outside in”.

There is a melancholic tone to this novel, which is not to say it is unhappy. It is simply that our narrator is uncertain about her life, while her mother, for whom she feels responsible, is quietly self-contained. Her relationships – with her partner, Laurie, with her sister, and with her mother – seem positive enough. It’s a ruminative book, in which the daughter’s thoughts roam between history, art, and life past and present, seemingly at will, but of course all carefully structured by Au to lead us to a deeper understanding. It’s a short book but I took time to read it because the thoughts and ideas, so quietly and delicately expressed, would constantly pull me up – because I am used to looking for meaning and answers in my reading. For example, early in the novel, she recounts looking at some pots in a museum. They were “roughly formed but spirited”, their handmade utility “undifferentiated from art”. I could grasp these ideas. So, it’s about art and life I thought, but then later, discussing Laurie’s father’s art, the daughter remembers feeling she didn’t “even know enough to ask the right questions”. And I realised that, perhaps, neither did I – and that this book, in which time and memory move fluidly rather than exactly, is about something very different.

The Japanese setting is perfect for this novel, because Japan too is paradoxical. In the cities, particularly, where our two spend most of their time, Japan is a bustling place but it also, sometimes in the smallest ways, manages to simultaneously exude stillness and quietness. Similarly telling is that the trip takes place in autumn – the mother and daughter’s favourite season – which is surely the season most conducive to reflection, and to the idea of change over which we have no control.

Early in the novel, one of the issues confronting our narrator becomes clear, that concerning whether to have children. She and Laurie have been discussing it exhaustively – between themselves, with their friends, and, it seems, also with her mother. She’s aware that, unlike her own generation, her mother very likely never had the opportunity to choose, and she comes to wonder

if it was okay either way, not to know, not to be sure. That I could let life happen to me in a sense, and that perhaps this was a deeper truth all along, that we control nothing and no one, though really I didn’t know that either.

Cold enough for snow is not easy to write about because its very essence is the mutability of life. How do you pin down something that seems to be about being unpinnable? And yet, Au manages to pin down this very fact, or, at least, to convey the idea that, as the daughter glimpses near the end, “perhaps it was alright not to understand all things, but simply to see and hold them”. A good book, methinks, to end the year on!

Lisa also reviewed this novel.

Jessica Au
Cold enough for snow
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022
98pp.
ISBN: 9781925818925

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2022

For around 10 years I devoted my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which most of you will remember was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. As I explained last year, it would be changing tack in 2022 to focus on past and often under-recognised or overlooked women writers, from the 19th- and 20th-centuries. By the end of the last year, we felt that much of what we had aimed for in the original challenge had been achieved, with women writers seeming to be well-established on Australia’s literary scene, at least by observable measures. We hope that holds, as there have been regressions in the past. Just compare the impressive visibility of Aussie women writers in the 1920s and 30s with a couple of decades later. For now, though, things are looking positive.

So, 2022 started with a new team overseeing this new phase, Elizabeth, Bill, and me. Our plan was to publish articles and reviews about earlier writers, and publish their actual writings – in full or excerpt form, as appropriate – in order to promote what we knew to be Australia’s rich heritage of Australian women’s writing. I’m not going to do a full rundown of the year’s achievements because Elizabeth will be doing an end-of-year round up on the site in January, but I do want to share a little about what we’ve achieved …

What happened in 2022

We have managed to post twice a week: articles and reviews on Wednesdays, and actual writings, related where possible to the previous Wednesday’s post, on Fridays. Bill took on the job of commissioning editor and has done a wonderful job of finding guest posters to fill the spare weekly slots. Elizabeth, who was keen from the start to bring actual writings to the fore, has scheduled all the Friday posts and worked on enhancing the Stories from Online Archives pages. In addition to writing my monthly Wednesday post, as all three of us have done, I have taken a quieter role in the background, including contributing to discussions about guest posts, and our policies and practices, and helping with various behind-the-scenes tasks like Trove editing to support postings.

We made it to the end of the year, with a decent following in tow. Our stats have dropped significantly from the old challenge days, but we expected that with our narrower focus. While it is always encouraging to have readers, we see the main value of what we are doing to be long-term. In bringing past and lesser-known writers into the light, we not only ensure that they are visible and more easily found by people who are looking for them, but we’d like to think that this visibility will inspire, encourage and facilitate further research into Australia’s literary heritage. We have had at least one academic express gratitude for the help the site has provided her in her research. Music to our ears.

Our Wednesday posts have been an eclectic mix. Rather than impose structure – thematic, chronological, whatever – on our posting schedule, we decided to let the posters choose their topic. This made it easier for Bill to lock in guest posters, because he could give them free rein depending on their relevant interests, and resulted in a variety of posts which (hopefully) appealed to our readers. To see what we posted, just head over to the site – with only two postings a week, there are not too many to scroll through.

For now, I’ll briefly summarise what we three have done in particular.

Elizabeth has focused particularly on lost writers, on those women who have all but disappeared from view. She has not only brought them into the light, but has solved a few mysteries along the way. For example, who was R McKay Tully? Male or female? Elizabeth worked it out. Or Netta Walker? A woman yes, but what’s in a name? Again, sleuth Elizabeth was on the case. The thing is that Elizabeth’s posts provide useful insights into the research process as well as into the writers she unearths.

Bill, on the other hand has tended to write reviews – with a little biography thrown in – of authors he’s been keen to explore more, besides his beloved Miles Franklin, like Kylie Tennant (Ma Jones and the little white cannibals), Rosa Praed (The bond of wedlock), and Ada Cambridge (A mere chance). All are authors I’ve read but wish to read more.

I started the year by posting on selected primary and secondary sources for research into Australian women writers, and then moved into posts on specific writers, many of them edited or enhanced versions of posts I’ve written here. These included posts on juvenilia, the poet Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, and journalist-botanist-author Louisa Atkinson.

We have also had some wonderfully generous guest posters who accepted Bill’s call to delve into history for us – bloggers Jonathan Shaw and Brona from Australia, Emma from France and Marcie McCauley from Canada; published authors Jessica White, Michelle Scott Tucker, Debbie Robson and Nathan Hobby; and academics and historians Stacey Roberts and Linda Emery. We are hugely grateful to them.

And so, 2023

Although the blog is not generating a lot of traffic, Elizabeth, Bill and I believe it is serving the purpose we identified, and so have decided to continue in 2023. We would love, though, to hear if you have ideas for posts, or would like to offer a post yourself, or have any other suggestions.

Meanwhile, I have enjoyed the year, because of our subject-matter and because Bill and Elizabeth have been so easy to work with. There’s something special about working with others on a shared goal … so roll on 2023. We are ready.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2022, Part 2: Nonfiction and Poetry

Last week, as most of you will know, I shared the favourite Aussie fiction books named by writers in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Reads of the Year 2022, Readings Bookshop’s Best Fiction, and the ABC RN’s Bookshelf Panel’s Books of the Year 2022. This week, as promised, I’m sharing their nonfiction and poetry favourites drawing from the same links for the first and third, and the Best Nonfiction of 2022 link for Readings. Again, I’m only including Australian titles (for this Monday Musings post).

Nonfiction

I made the point last year that nonfiction picks tend to speak to the professional interests of their nominators – historians, for example, tend to choose histories. This year though, most of the contributors are writers, journalists and booksellers, resulting in less of this focused sort of choosing.

One, however, was historian Clare Wright. She nominated several books, mostly histories, but rather than give individual reasons she rounded up her list with “fearless, fascinating accounts of rule breakers, rule makers and rule enforcers.”

A few books were picked multiple times, including one that was also nominated a few times last year – Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Gillian Mears, Leaping into waterfalls. Others that were named more than once are Shannon Burns’ Childhood, Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime story, Janine Mikosza’s Homesickness, Oliver Mol’s Train lord, Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s The uncaged sky, Karlie Noon & Krystal De Napoli’s Astronomy: Sky country, Sian Prior’s Childless and Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony

The form of nonfiction most favourited this year was the same as last year – memoirs.

  • Tim Baker’s Patting the shark (memoir): “vital” (Jock Serong)
  • Bernadette Brennan’s Leaping into waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears (biography): “enthralled” (Anna Funder); (Jennifer Down) (Brona’s review) (on my TBR)
  • Shannon Burns’ Childhood: A memoir (memoir): “unsparing self-depiction, coolly detached and brilliantly analytical” (Helen Garner); “powerful … terrific” (Robbie Arnott)
  • Anna Clark’s Making Australian history (history): (Cassie McCullagh)
  • Jessie Cole’s Desire: A reckoning (memoir): “beautifully told” (Sofie Laguna)
  • Sharon Connolly’s My giddy aunt and her sister comedians (history): (Clare Wright)
  • Deborah Dank’s We came with this place (First Nations memoir): “a heart-stopping story into bush Aboriginal life, philosophy and history” (Melissa Lucashenko)
  • Brigid Delaney’s Reason not to worry (philosophy/selfhelp): “fascinating, hilarious and highly practical guide to using the philosophy of Stoicism to help you deal with the vicissitudes of everyday life” (Readings)
  • Peter Doyle’s Suburban noir: Crime and mishap in 1950s and 1960s Sydney (history): “must for crime buffs” (Tony Birch)
  • Meg Foster’s Boundary crossers: The hidden history of Australia’s other bushrangers (history): (Clare Wright)
  • Rachel Franks’ An uncommon hangman: The life and deaths of Robert ‘Nosey Bob’ Howard (history): (Clare Wright)
  • Hannah Gadsby’s Two steps to Nanette (memoir): “deeply moving and extremely funny” (Readings)
  • Mawunyo Gbogbo’s Hip hop and hymns (memoir): “earnest and lyrical missive about growing up in a Black migrant family” (Maxine Beneba Clarke)
  • Joëlle Gergis’ Humanity’s moment: A climate scientist’s case for hope (climate science): “clear-eyed, wounded, humane and above all, honest” (Tim Winton) (Janine’s review)
  • Julia Gillard’s Not now, not ever: Ten years on from the misogyny speech (essays): “good reasons to keep speaking up” (Pip Williams)
  • Julie Gough’s Tense past (art/culture): “vital work” (Tony Birch)
  • Eloise Grills’ Big beautiful female theory (memoir/cultural analysis): “confrontational, honest and everything great nonfiction should be” (Readings)
  • Edna Gunaydin’s Root and branch: Essays on inheritance (essays): “clever, unstintingly self-aware” (Jennifer Down)
  • Linda Jaivin’s The shortest history of China (history): “deep context” (Jock Serong)
  • Kath Kenny’s Staging a revolution: When Betty rocked the Pram (history): (Clare Wright)
  • Lee Kofman’s The writer laid bare: Emotional honesty in a writer’s art, craft and life (part memoir): “intimate look at the process” (Graeme Simsion)
  • Jess Ho’s Raised by wolves (memoir): “straight-talking, sharp-shooting memoir” of the Melbourne hospo scene (Readings)
  • Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime story (memoir): “shows the power of words and literature to comfort us during the darkest moments of our lives” (Readings); “beautifully written and illustrated” (Kylie Moore-Gilbert); “exquisite” (Sarah Krasnostein) (Lisa’s review)
  • Danielle Laidley’s Don’t look away: A memoir of identity & acceptance (memoir): “inspiring, disarming, and deeply moving” (Craig Silvey)
  • Chris Macheras’ Old vintage Melbourne 1960-1990 (history): “pure joy” (Readings) (Lisa’s review)
  • Paddy Manning’s The successor: The high stakes life of Lachlan Murdoch (biography): “unflinching book … about power, apprenticeship, and succession” (Readings)
  • Janine Mikosza’s Homesickness (memoir): “brilliant and original” (Lucy Treloar); (Emily Bitto)
  • Oliver Mol’s Train lord: The astonishing true story of one man’s journey to getting his life back on track (memoir): “compelling combination … harrowing, funny, enigmatic” (Sofie Laguna); “shaggy, imperfect, raw and glorious” (Robbie Anrott)
  • Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s The uncaged sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison (memoir): “powerful story … incapable of hatred … incapable of simplifying” (Alex Miller); “timely … timeless” (Diana Reid) (Lisa’s review)
  • Karlie Noon & Krystal De Napoli’s Astronomy: Sky country (First Nations science): “fascinating and highly engaging” (Readings); (Sarah Krasnostein)
  • Sean O’Beirne’s On Helen Garner: Writers on writers (essay): “a beautifully crafted essay full of great respect for a great writer” (Readings) (Kimbofo’s review)
  • Brigitta Olubas’ Shirley Hazzard: A writing life (biography): “illuminating biography” (Michelle de Kretser)
  • Anne-Marie Priest’s My tongue is my own: A life of Gwen Harwood (biography): (Clare Wright)
  • Sian Prior’s Childless (memoir): “charts the author’s journey to self-acceptance” (Kylie Moore-Gilbert); “exploring the grief and consolations of childlessness” (Lucy Treloar); “gut-wrenched … its honesty a brutal gift” (Michael Winkler)
  • Bronwyn Rennex’s Life with birds (history/memoir): “formal freshness and sweetly bent wit” (Helen Garner)
  • Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements’ Tongerlongeter: First Nations leader and Tasmanian war hero (history/biography): “astonishing … compelling” (Amanda Lohrey)
  • Heather Rose’s Nothing bad ever happens here (memoir): “loved … the profundity” (Hannah Kent); (Jason Steger) (my post on a conversation)
  • Natasha Sholl’s Found, wanting (memoir): “darkly funny” (Kylie Moore-Gilbert)
  • Julianne Schultz’s The idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation: (Cassie McCullagh) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jonathan Seidler’s It’s a shame about Ray (memoir): (Cassie McCullagh)
  • Anna Spargo-Ryan’s A kind of magic (memoir): “reframing redemption” (Sarah Krasnostein)
  • Simon Tedeschi’s Fugitive (memoir/history): “shimmering meditation on performance, identity and music” (Michael Winkler)
  • Jayne Tuttle’s Paris or die and My sweet guillotine (memoirs): “joltingly alive, beautiful and terrifying” (Helen Garner)
  • Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony (essays/memoir): “insights … are personal and profound” (Lucy Treloar); “vital collection” (Laura Jean McKay) (on my TBR) (Bill’s review)
  • Don Watson’s The passing of Private White (biography): (Anna Funder)
  • Nadia Wheatley’s Sneaky little revolutions: The selected essays of Chairman Clift (essays): (Kate Evans)

Poetry

Last year, there was a string of poetry, but this year we have just two. Interesting – and probably partly due to who was asked to contribute.

  • Sarah Holland-Batt’s The jaguar: (Emily Bitto); “deep compassion … flawless command of image and line” (Michelle de Kretser); “her artistry … is exhilarating” (Amanda Lohrey)
  • David Stavanger, Mohammad Awad, and Radhiah Chowdhury’s (ed) Admissions anthology: “stunning curation … on mental health” (Maxine Beneba Clarke)

The lists continue to come thick and fast, but I’m interested in any thoughts you have on these, particularly if you like nonfiction and poetry.

Nell Pierce, A place near Eden (#BookReview)

Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.

Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.

My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.

As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.

The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:

The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.

Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.

“it could play either way” (Tilly)

So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.

Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.

Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.

The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.

However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.

Lisa also found this an intriguing book.

Nell Pierce
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022
296pp.
ISBN: 9781761066177

My reading group’s favourites for 2022

As I’ve done for a few years now, I am sharing my reading group’s top picks of 2022. This is, after all, the season of lists, but also, I know that some people, besides me, enjoy hearing about other reading groups.

I’ll start, though, by sharing what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

  • Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop: novel, Australian author
  • Ida Vitale, Byobu: novel, Uruguayan author
  • Elizabeth von Arnim. Vera: classic, British author
  • Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Damon Galgut, The promise: novel, South African author
  • Marion Frith, Here in the after: novel, Australian author (I was in Melbourne, with COVID, and didn’t manage to read this)
  • Larissa Behrendt, After story: novel, Australian First Nations author
  • Audrey Magee, The colony: novel, Irish author
  • Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch: novel, British author
  • Biff Ward, The third chopstick: nonfiction/part-memoir, Australian author
  • Nell Pierce, A place near Eden: novel, Australian debut author (review coming)

This year’s schedule was reasonably diverse. Our overriding interest is Australian women writers but not exclusively. We also like to challenge and broaden our tastes. So, this year’s list included a classic (or two, if you include Amy Witting’s 1999 novel); a translated novel from Uruguay; a First Nations novel; five non-Australian books; two works of nonfiction; and three by male authors. Politics and social justice featured strongly in both the fiction and nonfiction, looking at such issues as coercive control, racism and dispossession, colonialism, war and PTSD.

The winners …

This year only 10 of our twelve active members managed to vote – one was travelling and one moving house, so their excuses were accepted! The rules were the same. We had to name our three favourite works, and all were given equal weighting. It’s interesting how the years vary. In 2020, we had a runaway winner, while last year our favourites were more bunched, with the winning book receiving 8 votes, the second 7 votes, the third 6 and so on down to fifth with 4 votes. This year, however, we returned to the runaway winner mode, with 5 more books, a few votes behind, vying for 2nd and 3rd spots.

  1. The promise by Damon Galgut (8 votes)
  2. Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim and Return to Uluru by Mark McKenna (4 votes each)
  3. Here in the after by Marion Frith, The colony by Audrey Magee and The third chopstick by Biff Ward (3 votes each)

Interestingly, two years ago, all three of the nonfiction titles on our list featured among our favourites, while last year, neither of our two nonfiction works received any votes at all. This year, both nonfiction works appeared among the favourites. I’m not sure this tells you (or us) anything.

Anyhow, if you want to know my three picks, they were Damon Galgut’s The promise, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera and Audrey Magee’s The colony. But, it was a great year and I found it truly hard to choose. In the end, although I greatly enjoyed the two nonfiction works, I stuck with my main love, fiction, for my choices. I really wanted to include Byobu, but something had to give!

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

Not everyone included comments with their votes, and not all books received comments, but here is a selection of what members said about the most liked:

  • The promise: Commenters used descriptions like “insightful”, “compelling”, and “enlightening”.
  • Vera: Comments included “a truly chilling tale”, with a few noting how relevant this 1921 book still is.
  • Return to Uluru: Commenters saw it as a “timely and interesting attempt to balance the record of a sad episode in Australian history”, “a terrific uncovering of history and treatment of First Nations Australians”.
  • Here in the after: One called it “insightful”, while another noted its “many social comments”.
  • The colony: Commenters used terms like “multilayered”, and “subversive, acerbic”. Its sense of place was also mentioned.
  • The third chopstick: One called it “a moving journey” while another focused on the author’s “talent for delving” into a painful time in Australian history.

And, a bonus again

As in 2019 and 2021, a good friend (from my library school days over 45 years ago and who lives on the outskirts of Canberra) sent me her reading group’s schedule for the year:

  • Jock Serong, Preservation (on my TBR)
  • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow
  • Xinran, Buy me the sky
  • Bri Lee, Eggshell skull
  • Don Watson, The bush (on my TBR)
  • Joshua Hammer, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu (never heard of this one)
  • John Grogan, Marley and me
  • John Clanchy, Vincenzo’s garden (love John Clanchy but haven’t read this)
  • Amanda Lohrey, The labyrinth (on my TBR)
  • Jane Harper, Force of nature
  • Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
  • Geraldine Brooks, Horse

Links are to my reviews where I’ve read the book too. The two I’ve read are, coincidentally, ones I read with my reading group in previous years. In fact, Shuggie Bain was our top pick last year.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you were in a reading group this year. What did your group read and love?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2022, Part 1: Fiction

Over recent years, I’ve shared favourite Aussie reads of the year from various sources, with the specific sources varying a little from time to time. This year, my main sources are The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Reads of the Year chosen by writers, Readings bookshop’s Best Australian fiction, and ABC RN’s Bookshelf panel. As last year, the picks ranged far and wide, but in this post I am focusing on their Aussie fiction choices. All being well, I’ll do the Aussie nonfiction and poetry picks next week.

For what it’s worth, last year, I noted that five of the “favourite” novels were on my TBR. I can report that I did manage to read two of them, Larissa Behrendt’s After story (my review) and Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (my review). I’m pleased with that!

Novels

  • Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost: “a lovely assiduous book, which explores language and narrative with an old-fashioned joy” (Tom Keneally); “dignified and surprisingly conventional … gem” (Michael Winkler); “calling it (hopefully not cursing it) for next year’s Miles Franklin shortlist” (Jennifer Down); “further underlines his mastery of nature writing” (Jock Serong); “another gem” (Readings); (Cassie McCullagh); (Jason Steger) (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jessica Au’s Cold enough for snow: “a meditative, mesmerising novel” (Anna Funder); “all composure … the elegance of its composition … its meditative contemplation of a mother-daughter relationship” (Hannah Kent) ; “loved the voice and pace (and, well, everything)” (Victoria Hannan); “stayed with me for weeks after I finished it … quietly brilliant” (Robbie Arnott); “more like mists … atmospheres you move through” (Miles Allinson); “exquisite prose and hypnotic pace” (Readings); (Jason Steger) (Lisa’s review; mine coming soon)
  • Isobel Beech’s Sunbathing: “sensitive and lyrical work” (Readings)
  • Gabriel Bergmoser’s The hitchhiker: (Dani Vee)
  • Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon: “such lyricism and dead on the money imagery” (Tom Keneally)
  • Brendan Colley’s The signal line: “speculative gothic fiction … nails it” (Bram Presser)
  • Sophie Cunningham’s This devastating fever: (Emily Bitto); “triumph of tone and lightness” (Miles Allinson); (Jason Steger) (Brona’s review)
  • Paul Daley’s Jesustown: “just loved” (Anna Funder); “scarifying tale of missionary colonialism” (Jock Serong)
  • Rhett Davis’ Hovering: “original and blackly funny story” (Toni Jordan)
  • Robert Drewe’s Nimblefoot: “a bag of picaresque fun” (Tim Winton) (on my TBR)
  • Kate Forsyth’s The crimson thread: (Dani Vee)
  • Peggy Frew’s Wildflowers: “confronting, generous, infectious, acutely observed” (Craig Silvey)
  • Sulari Gentill’s The woman in the library: (Felix Shannon)
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish: (Kate Evans)
  • Chris Hammer’s The tilt: (Dani Vee); (Kate Evans)
  • Jane Harper’s Exiles: “captivating read” (Readings)
  • Jack Heath’s Kill your brother: (Dani Vee)
  • Adriane Howell’s Hydra: “genre-busting” (Bram Presser)
  • Pirooz Jafari’s Forty nights: (Emily Bitto)
  • Gail Jones’ Salonika burning: “Dazzles again” (Readings); (Kate Evans) (Lisa’s review)
  • Yumna Kassab’s Australiana: (Emily Bitto); “lyrical, intimate” (Readings)
  • Hannah Kent’s Devotion: “aching and illuminating” (Trent Dalton)
  • Tracey Lien’s All that’s left unsaid: “gripping drama with unforgettable characters” (Readings)
  • Kate McCaffrey’s Double lives: “a really interesting hybrid-transcript format” (Felix Shannon)
  • Scott McCulloch’s Basin: “brutal, apocalyptic” (Miles Allinson)
  • Fiona McFarlane’s The sun walks down: (Emily Bitto); “mesmerising … inclusive … electrifying” (Michelle de Kretser); “best novel I’ve ever read about 19th-century Australia” (Geraldine Brooks); (Jason Steger); (Kate Evans)
  • Fiona Kelly McGregor’s Iris: “The most extraordinary evocation of 1930s Sydney” (Hannah Kent); “vivid and compelling” (Lucy Treloar); “a luscious read” (Readings)
  • Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss: “unique and improbable: a witty novel about depression” (Geraldine Brooks) (Kimbofo’s review)
  • Gillian Mears’ Fineflour: “revisit” (Jennifer Down)
  • Paddy O’Reilly’s Other houses: “powerful and captivating depiction of class” (Lucy Treloar); “as gripping as a thriller and yet so tender” (Toni Jordan) (on my TBR) (Lisa’s review)
  • Adam Ouston’s Waypoints: “a literary spectacle” (Bram Presser); “ambitious, Lissajous-curved” (Michale Winkler); “hypnotic and intricately layered … very funny” (Robbie Arnott)
  • Caroline Petit’s The natural history of love: “historical pick” (Toni Jordan)
  • Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Creek: “a brilliant take on its varied perspectives” (Felix Shannon); (Kate Evans)
  • Jock Serong’s The settlement: “powerful evocation of colonialism with a reverberant message” (Michael Winkler)
  • Holden Sheppard’s The brink: (Dani Vee)
  • Inga Simpson’s Willowman: “will almost certainly become a new Australian classic” (Readings); (Kate Evans)
  • Steve Toltz’s Here goes nothing: (Cassie McCullagh); (Kate Evans)
  • Emma Viskic’s Those who perish: “writing as immaculate as ever” (Lucy Treloar)
  • Chris Womersley’s The diplomat: “fabulous” (Miles Allinson)

Short stories

  • Kevin Brophy’s The lion in love: (Emily Bitto) (Lisa’s review) (on my TBR)
  • Bryan Brown’s Sweet Jimmy: “frequently hilarious collection of crime yarns” (Trent Dalton)
  • Else Fitzgerald’s Everything feels like the end of the world: (Emily Bitto); “standout post-human climate fiction” (Laura Jean McKay); “inventive and humane” (Craig Silvey)
  • Chris Flynn’s Here be Leviathans: “keeps giving with stories that entertain and make you think” (Pip Williams) (on my TBR)
  • Katerina Gibson’s Women I know: “sardonic, surprising” (Miles Allinson)
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Burnished sun: a realist beauty that decentres dominant narratives” (Laura Jean McKay)
  • Ben Walter’s What fear was: “a hymn of place, a bravura display of sentence-smithing…” (Michael Winkler)

Finally …

It’s interesting to see what books feature most. Popularity doesn’t equal quality, but it does provides a guide to the books that attracted the most attention in the year. One of last year’s most frequent mentions was this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Jennifer Down’s Bodies of light. Will the same happen to one of this year’s most frequently mentioned books?

Several books were mentioned twice, but these received three or more mentions:

  • Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost; Jessica Au’s Cold enough for snow (7 each)
  • Fiona McFarlane’s The sun walks down (5)
  • Sophie Cunninghma’s This devastating fever; Else Fizgerald’s Everything feels like the end of the world; Fiona Kelly McGregor’s Iris; Adam Ouston’s Waypoints (3 each)

Another interesting thing about lists is discovering new books. There are several in the above lists that I’ve never heard of, because they are genre books. That’s the serendipity that can happen in lists like this. However, there are some here that I hadn’t heard of but that grabbed my attention, like Pirooz Jafari’s Forty nights, Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, and Else Fitzgerald’s Everything feels like the end of the world. You?

Thoughts, anyone – on this or lists from your neck of theod

Lucy Neave, Believe in me (#BookReview)

Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.

Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.

However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.

She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.

Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.

While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:

Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.

This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:

Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.

Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.

The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.

I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.

So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).

Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.

And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.

Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Lucy Neave
Believe in me
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
312pp.
ISBN: 9780702263361

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Classics

Over the years I have written several posts on publishers who have made a commitment to publishing Australian classics, such as Text, Allen and Unwin and the Sydney University Press, to name a few. I was thrilled last week to come across another one, this time from UQP, the University of Queensland Press, which has announced a First Nations Classics series.

UQP is well-known for its longstanding support of First Nations writing – both through publishing and through its sponsoring the annual David Unaipon unpublished manuscript award for First Nations writers. Indeed it describes itself as the first mainstream publisher “to set up a list specifically for Indigenous authors, the Black Australian Writers series”. Now, with this Classics initiative, it is going the next step.

The first set in the series comprises EIGHT titles which will be published in 2023. They are award-winning or shortlisted titles, dating back to 1988, and are well-priced at $19.99 each. Here’s the list (from UQP’s own blog):

(Links on the introduction writers are to my posts on those writers.)

As you can see, like the Text Classics series, for example, this comes with new introductions from contemporary authors – a true value-add. UQP says on its blog that this first set of books includes memoir, novels, short stories and poetry. Some are Unaipon Award winners, including the inaugural 1988 winner, Graeme Dixon’s poetry collection Holocaust Island, which is currently out of print.

You will also notice that among the bloggers I know, we have reviewed five of the eight titles. The three we haven’t, Graham Dixon’s Holocaust Island, Archive Weller’s The window seat and Herb Wharton’s Unbranded aren’t known to me, though I have heard of Archie Weller. So, given you have no reviews for them to click on, here is a little more on them:

  • Dixon’s Holocaust Island (1990): “a dynamic collection of poetry” that speaks out “on contemporary and controversial issues, from Black deaths in custody to the struggles of single mothers. Contrasted with these are poems of spirited humour and sharp satire”. (from GoodReads)
  • Weller’s The window seat, and other stories (2009): “a collection of Weller’s best short fiction and a tribute to his contribution to Australian literature. The stories are honest, brutal and moving” (from UQP website).
  • Wharton’s Unbranded (2000): a novel which offers “an Aboriginal viewpoint on the pastoral industry and race relations … by a masterly yarn teller” (from the book cover on the UQP website)

Now, back to the series – UQP’s publisher Aviva Tuffield articulates, on the above-linked blog, their ambition for this project:

This series will generate renewed interest for these books and their authors – both individually and collectively – and ensure them the contemporary audience they deserve.

She also explains that they’ve been assisted with funding from the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. I love the work that the latter does, in particular. Over the years of this blog I have referred to many varied programs and projects supported by the Copyright Agency.

The editor of the series is First Nations writer and editor Yasmin Smith who reiterates Tuffield’s ambition:

I hope this series will provide readers a renewed appetite, a greater awareness and a new thoughtfulness towards Indigenous stories and culture. The First Nations Classics are essential reading for all generations.

The blog implies UQP’s selection criteria for the books when it describes them as “some brilliant, timeless books – across all genres – that are as important, engaging and relevant today as they ever were on first publication”.

The blog also shares a little about the cover design for the series, by Jenna Lee, “a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman with mixed Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Filipino) and Anglo-Australian ancestry”. The aim of the design is “to highlight and showcase the vibrancy, diversity and nuance of First Nations authors, their voices, and the important stories they share”. The covers are intended “to make sure they are recognisable as a collective set but still allow for individuality to feature, with unique colour combinations and illustrative patterns giving the reader a window into the story within”. I’ve had a look at them, and think they are gorgeous and accessible. Click on the pic and see what you think.

Now, over to you. What – looking at UQP’s inventory – do you think should be in the 2024 set?

(If you are not Aussie, you are welcome to select a First Nations work from your own country if relevant. Of course, you can also name a non-UQP book, as an intellectual exercise, but I’d love to see how close we get to what is selected.)

Six degrees of separation, FROM The snow child TO …

Not the weather this month, except to say that Summer has started well. Instead, I’ll just say that I hope you all have a beautiful December, sharing meaningful, nurturing times with the people who matter most to you. It’s not always possible for us all, I know, with families and friends spread far and wide, but that is my wish for you dear readers. And now, I’ll get to our Six Degrees meme. As always, if you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In December it is another book I haven’t read, Eowyn Ivey’s The snow child, which is partly based on a Russian fairytale about a childless couple who build a little girl out of snow. Next day, the snow girl is gone, but they glimpse a little girl in the woods …

Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book cover

Many writers have taken fairytales and riffed on them to explore an issue they see as relevant or important. I tend not to gravitate to these sorts of books, but one I did and loved is Danielle Wood’s short story collection, Mothers Grimm (my review) which re-visions some Grimm Brothers’ fairytales – “Rapunzel”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Goose Girl” – to reflect on contemporary motherhood.

Book cover

It’s not hard to find links for novels about contemporary motherhood, but I’m going to link to a memoir, Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (my review) because it’s about a mother with a successful profession who had to make some very hard decisions about balancing mothering and career. It is great to see that with her children now grown up, she is picking up her career more actively – and, yes, successfully.

Book cover

You all know that while I read nonfiction, fiction is my first love, so for my next link I’m returning to fiction and an historical novel about the early years of filmmaking, Dominic Smith’s The electric hotel (my review). It chronicles the life and career of fictional silent filmmaker Claude Ballard. He is sent into bankruptcy through the actions of the nonfictional film inventor Thomas Edison who did his best to exert control over the early film industry.

Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Dominic Smith is Australian-born but now lives in Seattle, Washington, USA. Another Australian-born writer who has taken up residence in the USA – albeit on the opposite coast – is Peter Carey. I’ve reviewed a few of his books here but the one I’m linking to is another work of historical fiction, The chemistry of tears (my review).

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

The chemistry of tears is set in England and Europe at that time of great industrialisation, but it’s not form or content on which I am linking next. Peter Carey is one of six writers who have won the Booker Prize twice, and I have reviewed books by three of the other five here, JM Coetzee (now Aussie-based), Margaret Atwood, and the one I’m going to link to Hilary Mantel. She won it for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the bodies, but Wolf Hall (my review) is my chosen link, because …

EM Forster, Howards End

Wolf Hall is the name of a place, a building, a residence in fact, relevant to the novel. It conveys something about the protagonist’s wolfish actions and presages the novel’s sequel (being the home of Henry VIII’s next wife). EM Forster’s Howards End (my review) is also titled for the name of a place, a building, a residence. This place too has a political resonance in the novel, albeit not embedded in the name itself. It stands for traditional culture and values at a time of significant social change, and is where two opposing ideas come together.

This month, I have a rare 50:50 gender split in my selections. We’ve not travelled so far, sticking primarily to Australia, the USA and England – though Dominic Smith does have us scampering a bit around the world and Peter Carey takes us to Germany.

Vale Neil: This morning, Bill (The Australian Legend) emailed me to let me know that one of our commenters, Neil@Kallaroo, had died this week. This was desperately sad news for us. Mr Gums and I attended Neil’s wedding in 1978, and he and his wife ours that same year. Neil frequently commented on my Six Degrees posts in particular, offering his own links. Most recently, though, in late October, he engaged in a discussion about reading eBooks and note-taking on my Telltale post. Neil had been chronically ill for many years, and Mr Gums and I had long been keen to visit him. We finally managed to go to Perth and visit him in hospital in September this year. How great that we did. Neil was his same, lovely, engaged-in-life self. Frustrated by his weakness, he was just getting on with living the best life he could – reading, playing games (online with friends and family), doing puzzles. Vale Neil, you were a good person to know. We will miss your annual Gneillian News!

Now, the usual: Have you read The snow child? And, regardless, what would you link to?