What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Staff Favourites 2014

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Jonathon—Meat is for Pussies by John Joseph
An excellent book for macho guys. Buy it for any guy in your life that needs a diet and exercise wake up call. John Joseph has a very strong, masculine, rough voice and gives it to you straight: eat like you give a shit and exercise! Bound in a beautifully designed hardcover.

Andrew—The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
I was completely blindsided by this brilliant novel: luminous and poetic, and yet  frequently horrific and chilling. Set in contemporary North Korea, it is almost operatic in its style,  and best of all it is a consummate, old-fashioned page-turner from the outset. Published last year, Johnson was a guest at this year's Writers Festival.

Tony— Life or Death by Michael Robotham
I reckon this will be the book of the year. A brilliant thriller that makes it easy to turn the pages and finish the story. One that really makes you think of why there are so many crimes committed, that are not correctly researched by the police and lawyers to ensure that the correct sentence is passed. Life or Death is a real eye opener, I predict it to be the number one thriller this year by Christmas in Australia.

Tamarra—She Rises by Kate Worsley
If historical fiction with a dash of fantasy thrown in is your thing, I can highly recommend She Rises. With wonderfully descriptive writing, two stories are told side by side. This is a bit confusing at first but it all comes together faultlessly, with a very unexpected twist towards the end. Fans of Sarah Waters will be quite pleased with this new author I suspect.

Jack—The daily rituals of handling books—the brief encounters and intricacies of trade—are echoed in two books I enjoyed this year. Rick Whitaker's An Honest Ghost is composed of sentences found in other books: 'I would steal fewer than 300 words per book (in accordance with my understanding of Fair Use law), would not take two sentences together, would make no changes, even to punctuation (and quotation marks), and would attribute every sentence to its source'.  A playful affirmation of Oulipo’s workshop of potential literature, with an unreliable narrator desperate to prove his reliability (a list of sources resembles an index of first lines in a book of poems).  Vivian Maier's book of Self-Portraits is also constructed from found objects. In 2009, after her death, thousands of undeveloped film rolls were discovered in filing cabinets in Chicago. Maier, an American nanny, had led a secret life as a photographer. Now, here she is, framed/reflected in mirrors, doorways and shop windows. A favourite image (from 1978) of her shadow cast across a faded movie poster for Heaven Can Wait, inhabiting precisely the divine pose of its star, Warren Beatty, captures her boldness and sly wit.

Sally—The Golden Age by Joan London
This is a deeply-moving novel about a little-known and remembered period of mid 20th century Australia when outbreaks of polio struck fear into, and transformed for ever, the lives of those afflicted. It is also a lovely, tender love story, played out in the most unlikely circumstances.

David—The Bush by Don Watson
Don Watson is a beautiful, elegant and insightful writer, and in The Bush he has found a subject worthy of his gifts. There is an enormous range of material, of profound  historical, environmental and moral consideration, that you will find something to delight or despair about on every page. It's a must-read.

Judy—It's been a good year for my reading pleasure so it's hard to choose a favourite, but really, Don Watson's The Bush stands out. The style is easy, but the content is provocative and erudite and wide-ranging; and it's about where we live right here and now. Among my also-loved: Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, and A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water both by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Kay—I really enjoyed TransAtlantic by Colum McCann It starts with three separate stories that eventually become interwoven as characters from one story pop up in another despite them being set over three distinct time periods. It starts with the drama of the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, then moves to a black slave and his fight for freedom and then to the Irish peace process in the 90s. A very clever plot line with beautiful language and characters you really get involved with. I loved Let The Great World Spin, but I loved this even more.

Liz—I have been so busy this year that I have only had time to read two books, or maybe it is just that I only remember two of them: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and This House of Grief by Helen Garner. They have both made me think a lot about pain and the strange places that the human mind (and our actions) can take us. I can't pick which one was my favourite—it is like asking a mother to pick between her two hyper-intelligent, confessional, diary-writing, iconic daughters. Both are excellent.

Scott D—More Pricks than Kicks by Samuel Beckett
No, not a book about Federal politics but the hilarious first novel by the Master of Gloom has lost none of its sparkle in the 80 years since it was first published. With intriguing chapter headings such as Dante & the Lobster, Ding-Dong, and Love & Lethe, Beckett's tale of Belacqua Shuah—student, philanderer, failure—is an entertaining romp through the grey streets of 1930s Dublin.

Harry—Civil War: History of England Vol. 3 by Peter Ackroyd. Peter Ackroyd's third volume (in a planned six) chronicles 17th century Britain from the accession of James I in 1603 to the overthrow of his grandson James II in 1688. This book offers an accessible analysis of British history that gives balanced attention to both the big and small events written in an intimate and humorous style.

Sonia Lee (gleeclubber)—One book that stands out? The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, of course. But I was also impressed by Stoner by John Williams. I tend to gobble books but Stoner I read slowly and savoured. Can I say the others? The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Third Horseman by William Rosen well worth a mention. Justinian's Flea too, Dreams of the Good Life by Richard Mabey about Flora Thompson and Lark Rise to Candleford, The Lost Carving by David Esterley about the Grinling Gibbons carvings at Hampton Court, The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and Where Song Began by Tim Low.  David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is outstanding.

Steve—Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism & Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
'I think I can make it'.  Michael Rockefeller's last words to his companion, Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing, as he announced his intention to swim to shore—some 20 kms distant—from the hull of their upturned homemade catamaran off the southwest coast of Dutch New Guinea on 19 November 1961. Twenty three year old Rockefeller, son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, made it to shore—to be killed, dismembered and eaten at the Jawor River by Asmat head hunters from the village of Otsjanep. Wassing was rescued the following day. This impressive book is several things: the solution to a fifty year mystery, a travel narrative retracing Michael Rockefeller's last journey, a detailed and nuanced description of the Asmat people themselves—their culture, cosmology and rituals of sacred, reciprocal violence—and a historical narrative describing the tragic interaction three years earlier between Dutch colonial officials and native inhabitants that foredoomed a young adventurer. Gripping reading.

Elissa—Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
Four little friends go into a dark forest to catch a wild animal. They have a plan and everything! This delightful picture book from Haughton drew me in first with its deeply contrasting illustrations, but in the end it is the humour and intelligence that makes it my book of the year.

Hannah—The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
This page-turning beauty is full of action, romance and mystery. It's the perfect conclusion to Harkness' brilliant All Souls trilogy.

Toby—After Naptime by Chris Edwards
This thin but dense labyrinth of collage poetry is 'profusely illustrated' like a Boys/Girls Own Annual or a children's encyclopedia, yet its fragmented text allows for multiple renderings because it can be read in various directions. Haunted and haunting, clever and accessible.

Suzi—I nominate two and mention one I have not yet read but I know will be a must-read. Christos Tsiolkas's collection of short stories Merciless Gods is going to be released in November. I have never yet been anything but blown away by his writing, always brutally honest, compelling, challenging, provocative & masterful and am sure this new work will not disappoint.
Now to the two I have read: Willy Vlautin's latest book, The Free, is as powerful & moving as his earlier novels, dealing truthfully with the underclass of US society—the working poor, the lost, the lonely, the losers. He always  gives them dignity, honour & the possibility of redemption. This book is sad but incredibly beautiful, and ultimately hopeful. As well as being one of the best contemporary US novelists he is also the singer/songwriter for the incredible band Richmond Fontaine so check out his music too!
New Yorker staff cartoonist, Roz Chast's memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? confronts the delicate and difficult topic of advanced old age. With humour, pathos and humility she records how she coped with her parents' aging and eventual deaths. Perhaps it's because I am currently dealing with the same issues that I found this book so wonderful, but I can't imagine it not having universal appeal. After all we all have to deal with The End in the end—for ourselves as well as for loved (or not so loved) ones—and what better way than with cartoons!

John—Once again our beloved Editor has asked for my book of the year and I am unable to narrow it down to one! My novel of the year is Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage. Lacking some of the surreal quirkiness of of Murakami's other work, this is the extraordinary story of a thirty something Tokyo railway station engineer coming to terms with his past, enabling him to open a new chapter in his life. My non-fiction pick is one of those books that stays with you—Michael Mori's In the Company of Cowards. Mori was David Hick's military defence lawyer, but this is very much Mori's story and his view of the Military Tribunals, and the politics of the war on terror. Finally an oldie and from left-field. Iain Banks, wrote a swag of Science Fiction as Iain M Banks most famously the 'Culture' Series. I reread Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels, early in the year. So many books are disappointing when revisited after a couple of decades but rereading Consider Phlebas has just confirmed to me what a talented writer Banks was.

David M—This Changes Everything:Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein.
Okay, this is not my favourite book, and probably not my best, let alone the best book of the year. But it is probably one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible of the many books which are now being written about the current neoliberal capitalist hegemony, climate change, and the relationship between the two. As such, I cannot prefer any other book over it at this moment. Our planet is actually in a desperate plight, and yet its most dominant ideology is pushing us ever more rapidly towards utter disaster. Read this book and begin to think about what you can do.

Louise—Nora Webster by Colm Toibin is my book of the year. Nora Webster is a middle-aged Irish woman, who has just been widowed at the beginning of the book. The author slowly but surely reminds the reader that no life is ordinary, and although Nora is just an 'average' woman living in a small country town in Ireland, she is a marvellous character. Closely written, without being claustrophobic, it never descends into the mundane, and although Nora isn't always likeable, she is fascinating as the layers of her personality are peeled back and her insights deepen. Her relationship with her young sons rings very true, and there is a surprising, and quite beautiful interlude when she has a ghostly visitation.

Scott V—Perfidia by James Ellroy
James Ellroy's new book is set in Los Angeles in 1941 on the eve of Pearl Harbour. After a Japanese family is found murdered, the corrupt LA Police Department, including Japanese forensic's expert Hideo Ashida, must find the killer—or an appropriate fall guy to take the rap. It's a compelling noir mystery and everyone involved has their own scheme on the side. The novel's strength is with the four (tragically) flawed main characters and Ellroy's sharp, jaunting narrative.

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