What We're Reading 

Find out here what we are reading and what we think of it. Sure, we're in the business of selling books, so we are not going to dwell on the books we loathe, but we hope the opinions you'll find here are a touch more unfiltered and genuine than what you'll read on the back of the jacket.   

If that's not enough, don't forget we have regular columnists in David, Morgan, Janice, Louise and Sonia. Gleebooks - where our bedside tables do the hard yards to help preserve yours. 


August 2018

 - Tuesday, July 24, 2018
James: Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright
The most fascinating book I have read in a long time! The author illuminates extraordinary connections between science: evolutionary-psychology, and the historic, philosophical and practical aspects of Buddhism. Far from theoretical, every page is filled with strikingly applicable revelations. Highly recommended! 
 Keiko is a square peg in a round hole, happy in her small role as a convenience store worker but feeling the pressure from friends and family to conform. A quietly quirky little novel which speaks to us on what it means to be happy while challenging society's perception of what happiness should look like. (Tamarra). This deceptively simple novel is filled with humour, nuance and profound moments found in everyday “small things”. Kieko (the narrator) will appeal to anyone who loves the way an outsider, largely overlooked by society, can often illuminate the very people that don’t see them with intelligence, precision and insight. (James)

Viki: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier  You’ll have no arguments from me about turning off social media accounts - but computer scientist and sometime engineer of Internet2, Jaron Lanier puts forward ten fascinating and entirely non-judgemental arguments that could kick start a conversation you may want to have with your kids (or yourself) about time spent mindlessly in front of a screen.

James: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee—This is a debut memoir that charts Bri Lee’s journey through the Australian legal system. And what a journey! As a judges associate she must remain outwardly neutral—while we the readers are privy to not only the seemingly endless and devastating ways women experience ‘justice’, but also Lee’s deeply personal history that fuels the writing—which is breathtakingly good. This book will make you furious. And it should! It draws focus to an insidiously entrenched aspect of our society, confronting but essential to look at. The title refers to a legal doctrine that basically doesn’t allow the seriousness of a crime to be mitigated by a victim’s innate weakness. What if the victim is smart, angry and finds their own strength? With skill and courage Lee is able to invert this doctrine leaving us with a slither of hope!

Victoria: It’s a fact…I read more in the winter. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is set in post WWII London. Nathaniel and his sister are abandoned by their parents and put into the care of some interesting and sometimes dodgy characters. Years later Nathaniel wants to know why his parents did this…and who were they really…and what were they doing all that time? Think Le Carré and you might get a clue. 

Steph: A new Pat Barker, due in September: The Silence of the Girls is a powerful re-imagining of ancient times and battles fought It’s told through the life of Briseis whose city, Lynessus, falls to Achilles and his army. Briseis and the women of Lyrnessus are herded onto battleships and taken to their enemies’ encampment, where she is given to Achilles as part of the spoils in the sack of her city. Now slaves to the Greeks the women must endure a life of hardship, at the same time mourning the terrible loss of their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their homes burnt to the ground, their wealth stolen. Though set in ancient times, this is a powerful and timely story—a reminder of those caught up in the wake of war, the silent casualties who’s lives, homes and freedoms are taken from them. I cried as I turned the last page.

July 2018

 - Tuesday, July 03, 2018
Andrew: Never Mind and Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn.  (Gathered together in The Patrick Melrose Novels Volume 1)
I remember  trying to ready At Last by Edward St Aubyn several years ago, not aware that it was the very last in a sequence of five novels. I found Patrick Melrose such a vile, black star of acerbic disdain for what seemed like everything and everyone coming into his purview, that I chucked it away after a chapter or two. Thankfully I have finally returned to the series in (most crucially) the correct order, with the first and second novels—and am now an evangelical convert. These are indeed dark dark novels, of abuse, addiction and predation, but imbued with a terrible pathos, written with a tightrope walker’s precision, and a corrosive wit. One moment we are privy to a childhood summer in Provence; figs dropping and spoiling in the sun; ants marching in the sun along  ancient stone walls; lounging dinner guests with too-clever conversation  avoiding the whiff of anything déclassé — this collides in the second novel with a desparate dash by our hero through the lower eastside in Manhattan twenty years later, in a quest for smack and cocaine of a decent enough purity to hit up, and the comedic, exhaustingly forensic account of the  binge that ensues, taking in its stride a funeral parlour, swanky restaurants, grubby diners and the Mudd Club. Dark dark humour with a terrible core understanding of human frailty. An acclaimed television adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch has just hit our screens, but I implore you to read the books first. A  secret of Patrick's childhood, as revealed in the first novel, is so astoundingly revelatory and written of with such a terrible beauty that for a moment or two the whole world lurches off it axis.

John: I’ve been slow in getting to Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie—which was one of our most popular literary fiction books last year. We learn of three siblings—British with a Pakistani heritage, orphans whose father, a jihadi, died in custody. The young twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are bought up by their older sister Isma, who has taken up a scholarship at an American university, so the 19 year old twins are on their own. Aneeka is academic and studies law while her brother, Parvais, is a bit of a dreamer who is radicalised and recruited by ISIS. Aneeka begins a relationship with the Home Secretary’s son, but is it love? Home Fire is a novel about the nature of love and power. It works on both a personal and national scale while maintaining a taut plot that leads to an unexpected climax. If, like I, you’re late to Home Fire, I highly recommend you pick it up.

June 2018

 - Monday, May 28, 2018
Stef: Educated by Tara Westover:   I read this story in shock and awe. What a story,  what a life.  And what a transformation.  Tara Westover was the youngest child borne into a large Morman family,  raised in Idaho,  with limited opportunities to be part of a wider community.  She was born at home, she has no birth certificate, no medical records, no school records, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government she does not exist. She along with three of her siblings, she is one of seven, was home schooled by her mother and believed what her over zealous father preached. Her father was preparing for the end of days, fearing the outside world’s influence would lead to corruption and the rejection of his beliefs. They stockpiled food, water, ammunition and fuel. An all controlling and at times an incredibly dangerous man, he drip fed them fear and paranoia for the world. Despite this, through her own incredible determination Westover managed to school herself to a level that she wins a place at Brigham Young University in Utah and it is here that her education begins. Not just academic (she gets a BA, is awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship & was a visiting fellow at Harvard University)—but she has to learn how to live in a world that is unfamiliar to her— how to behave, how to dress, how to make friends, how to interact within a community and belong. This would be perfect book for a book club.

John: The Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 looms large in our collective memory even for those of us too young to have our own memories of the momentous events of that year. As a young person in the late 70s and early 80s I was sure that world would end with a nuclear holocaust, and that it would probably be soon. After the invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979 Doug Mulray doing his best Malcolm Fraser impersonation declared war on the Soviet Union, for a few moments I imagined Russian submarines launching missiles on Pine Gap and Sydney. In his book 1983: The World at the Brink Taylor Downing describes just how close to armageddon we came in that year. Setting the year against the personalities of the new American President, Reagan, and Soviet leader and former head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. It was the year Korean Airlines KAL007 was shot down by a Russian fighter. All on board were killed including a US Congressman. Arms controls talks were suspended and NATO exercises were almost interpreted by the Soviets as the ‘real thing’ It was the year a very brave Russian Lieutenant Colonel held his nerve after multiple false alarms of US ballistic launches. I had a notion of some of the events of 1983 but Taylor Dowling manages to place them in time and context. A fascinating read, that left me wondering how many other near misses there have been.  

Jack:  "If you follow their rules, they make more rules. You have to fight people or you end up with nothing." 

The Mars Rooms is the saddest song I have heard all year. It shares with other songs of desolation (novels such as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad) an unflinching ambition and anger that dares you to hold it in your hands and marvel at how the light gets in.   

Louise: Youth may be wasted on the young, but Sally Rooney's protagonist Frances, in Conversations with Friends, is experiencing most of its highlights, as well as several low moments. She's broken up with her girlfriend - but still performs spoken word with her; she's fallen in love with a handsome man, and goes to the south of France with him and his wife. Humour, yearning, and gender politics abound in this surprising and gritty first novel. I loved it!

May 2018

 - Tuesday, May 15, 2018
A Gentleman in Moscow,  Amor Towles. Set in Moscow from the early 1900’s the story spans decades drawing the reader through the political upheavals of Russia. Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt is an unrepentant aristocrat who has just been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. His crime—to be born into a family of independent means and a life of leisure. As the Count adjusts to his new life in the hotel Metropol, no longer in his comfortable, elegant and spacious suite on the third floor, his new home is now a small attic room with just one small window, barely high enough for the Count to stand upright. But instead of his world shrinking and diminishing it becomes rich and expansive—as the years tick by the Count  forms deep and lasting friendships within the Hotel Metropol, accepting his changing circumstances, rising to the daily challenges and never losing hope or his optimism for mankind and the good of the world. This is truly an extraordinary novel—a pure joy to read - Stef 

 I picked up King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich after a chat one of our customers who had ordered the book after reading a glowing review in the New York Review. I was just about to have a week off, and King Zeno sounded like a good book to take with me. Nathaniel Rich weaves a story around New Orleans in 1918—about music, corruption, soldiers returning from the war in Europe, what the war has done to them and the Spanish Flu that has come to New Orleans with them. It is also story about murder, but its not a crime novel. Some of Rich’s best writing is in his description of the digging of a new canal, and his writing about the emergence of Jazz makes you feel like you’re there. King Zeno is multi-layered with each layer adding to a turbulent tale that’s about many things—but in which New Orleans as a character looms large. Highly recommended.  - John 

April 2018

 - Tuesday, April 03, 2018
Louise: When I read highly revealing memoirs about people’s childhoods I normally have a twinge of sympathy for their parents—after all, most of us are not consistently fabulous at parenting. However it’s really hard to feel even a bat’s squeak of empathy for Tara Westover’s parents, they are truly extraordinary! As one of the younger siblings in a large Mormon family, brought up in the wilds of Idaho, Tara’s very existence was defined by the incredible credo of her survivalist parents—particularly her zealous father. The children were home-schooled up to a point, a very low point, and expected to work in the family scrap yard—as well as preparing for the Reckoning, by preserving peaches and hoarding fuel, in bulk. The scrap yard was a dangerous place, and many serious injuries befell nearly the whole family who were then treated by their mother, a self-taught herbalist. A child’s leg caught on fire, they were often impaled by metal objects and the family had several really bad car accidents, but nothing was ever bad enough to seek mainstream medical attention. The father, Gene, described herbs as ‘God’s Pharmacy’, an optimistically poetic description, and indeed when he was almost burned alive by an exploding vehicle, his wife treated him at home, with said pharmacy.
Unlikely as parts of Educated may seem, it resonates with a chilling ring of truth, and ultimately Tara really is a survivalist, or a survivor at least. She manages against all odds to pass entrance tests, go to college, and eventually win scholarships to far flung places. Her complete unpreparedness to live with other girls at college makes excruciating reading, and her lack of general knowledge is startling—after all this is not a story about a girl born in the 19th century, but in 1986! However, despite all odds—the isolation and the family she was born into—Tara becomes educated, and has written a really compelling book, with a clear and unwavering voice. There are scenes of extreme domestic violence described in the book, so be warned.

Andrew: I admit to ignoring The Sparsholt Affair by Andrew Hollinghurst when it was published last year. The novel is set (initially) in Oxford during the forties, and I had a knee-jerk response that it was going to be all a bit too too much. Too many terribly effete, terribly intellectual, terribly homosexual Oxbridge types, in a too dry comedy of class and manners. What I failed to remember is what a superlative prose stylist Hollinghurst is. Sentence after sentence impeccably phrased; and so staggeringly well-observed that for the first time since my undergraduate days I felt the constant urge to circle or highlight phrases for their gob smacking aptness. The writing has the almost giddy effect of wearing prescription glasses for the first time, it is so consummate in its descriptions. At its heart it is many things, but for me becomes almost an elegy for the lost relationship between a father and his son; a book of pathos rather than of social satire. A couple of the central characters are painters, and Hollinghurst’s descriptions of their talent and its role in their lives, is also brilliant.

John: In a continuation of the holiday reading theme from last month, I have just finished  The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Two sisters’—both lawyers—lives have taken very different paths after their mother was murdered and they were both brutally assaulted. One of the sisters has moved far away emotionally and geographically while the other has stayed in their home town and close to her defence attorney father, Rusty. He will take on the cases that the other lawyers in town won’t touch, and the town doesn’t understand why Rusty would defend a shooter who is so obviously guilty. He is attacked and hospitalised which brings the sisters together to defend the shooter and their family. Bloody and a bit graphic in parts, but a rollicking read with enough twists to keep it interesting.

March 2018

 - Thursday, March 08, 2018
Andrew: At the moment,  I’m charging my way through Circe by Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles. Miller is a classical scholar with an absolutely wonderful contemporary eye for story and character, and ear for dialogue. Song of Achilles was a surprise bestseller and prize winner for the debut novelist, and she is just as confident and beguiling here, with her retelling of the life of Circe—the goddess and sorceress probably most famous for punishing the crew of Odysseus by turning them into swine. Her Circe could easily have been an Angela Carter heroine with a zinging strength of character, and cracking feminist sensibility. Miller has an uncanny knack in forging a proper narrative peopled with fully rounded characters out of the shards of source material.

John: I have just had a couple of weeks off and have read a very diverse bunch of books. Perhaps the most surprising for some people will be The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape. This is a really practical guide to money and investing that’s written for normal people who want to take charge of their finances. Pape has written for newspapers and on TV but I only knew him because we have been selling lots of copies of the book—and I wondered why. He doesn’t talk down to the less financially literate. He doesn’t preach. He doesn’t think that budgets work! He talks about strategies to reduce debt, how negotiate with your ban, what to look for with super, how to save and invest for the long term. You might wish you had had this advice, and followed it, when you were 20 but he says its never too late to improve your circumstances. On a more literary note I reread David Malouf’s Great World which reminded me why David is one of out living national treasures, and one of the greatest Australian writers. I also read the latest Burnie Gunther book from Philip Kerr—Greeks Bearing Gifts which sees Bernie working for an insurance company—it’s due for release in early April—Highly recommended.

I’ve been working my way through Larry McMurtry’s biographical writings on his experiences in movie land, Film Flam and Hollywood: A Third Memoir—both very entertaining. The down-to-earth McMurtry writes with great charm about the egocentricities of Lalaland, and about the art of writing in general. I have a friend who is Larry McMurtry’s number one fan (in a non-Stephen King way) planning a trip to McMurtry’s Texas panhandle town of Archer—home of his rare and secondhand bookshop, Booked Up—his fandom has me considering a read and reread of McMurtry’s novels. From this month’s Gleanings I’m also reading Jonathan Lerner’s Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary—hiss memoir of the boomer generation terrorist organsiation the Weatherman. An iconoclastic telling, further complicated by Lerner’s closeted homosexuality, of a cultish juvenile macho society that offers a different perspective into the so-called newness of ‘radicalisation’ in today’s alientated western teen world, and gives food for thought in terms of action against the juggernaut of capitalist militarism that continues to threaten earth and its inhabitants.

November 2017 - Favourites of 2017

 - Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Jonathon: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle—A mental health nurse who became one of the USA’s most revered songwriters wrote this book. John Darnielle’s second novel deals with family, loss and the temptation of Evangelism on the frayed ends of rural USA. A video store clerk strives to reveal an opaque local horror when he stumbles upon scenes of torture randomly dubbed onto VHS tapes. This subtly written and expertly plotted book urges us to pursue our truths in the gaps in local memories. I read it in two shots.

Sally: My choice for Book of the Year is Anything is Possible  by Elizabeth Strout. These beautifully modulated stories explore relationships and memory in a small community in ways that are both surprising and profound.

John: It comes as no surprise to my colleagues that my pick of the year is John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies. Set between the Cold War of the 60s and today, le Carré revisits the world of George Smiley and a past when the Cold War was hot, spies were on the front line, and mistakes fatal. That world looks rather different today and the death of Alec Leamas, fifty years ago is under investigation. A riveting read that blends the politics of today with the actions of half a century ago. I would also like to highly recommend Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man—a political thriller set in Australia in 1972 with the background of social change and the first Labour government for 23 years—a skilful blend fact and fiction. And for a change of pace Tony Birch’s collection Common People—wonderful vignettes of lives largely unnoticed told.

Liz: My favourite novel this year was The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser. Like a series of interconnected short stories or novellas that circle back on characters lives from different perspectives and time periods this book is hilarious and moving with deep poetic pockets. Among other things it feels out horrible loneliness and fragile connection in a world of frantic social media. I don’t think I will be alone as a reader in finding this book’s biting satire pitch perfect and deliciously unsettling as it feels so close to home. Anyone who has been to a writers’ festival, met a book publicist, studied or taught creative writing, tried to be a ‘writer’ or prided themselves on being ethical, creative, vegetarian or Australian will be by turns highly amused and exposed by de Kretser’s quick wit. Such a clever and beautiful novel!

Andrew: My two favourites topped and tailed the year. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders with its dazzling inventiveness, black humour, and humanity started the year, and in Manhattan Beach Jennifer Egan charges a traditional historical novel with her phosphorescent precision prose just in time for Christmas. Oh, and honourable mention to Colm Tóibín—he never ever disappoints, and his House of Names was a high wire daredevil triumph.

Tamarra: Crosstalk by Connie Willis: This is a sci-fi romantic comedy of sorts with a nod and twist to all the social media we now use. In the near future couples can experience connectivity on a higher level by means of a new medical procedure which allows them to experience mutual empathy.

Tatjana: Soviet Bus Stops Volume 2: When you think of the Soviet Union, you might think Lenin, Stalin, the Iron Curtain, KGB, communism but it turns outs it was also the nation of bus stops. At a time when car owners were few, a vast transportation system was needed and so buses became essential. In the more remote areas, the bus shelter became even more important as it was a convenient place for people to gather and socialise. The shelters are the experimental legacies of mostly unknown architects who might have otherwise been stymied by central planning—but here they were allowed freedom to create these small impressive, sometimes bizarre, eccentric and often just weird bus shelters. Their styles vary from 1920s modernist, to strict Brutalist, to folksy outsider and Gaudi inspired mosaic structures. Photographer Christopher Herwig travelled across the former USSR over 12 years to document these small bursts of creativity that dot the landscape, especially in remote rural areas. If they are now in ruin it only enhances how wonderfully weird & whimsical they are.

Hannah: When we are called upon to nominate our end-of-year favourite I usually vacillate between three or four novels, but this year there was one book that was head and shoulders above the rest, and, unusually, a non-fiction title. Priestdaddy by poet Patricia Lockwood is a unique account of when she and her husband moved back in with her completely insane, gun-loving, semi-nudist Catholic priest father. Autobiographies are rarely this funny, well-written, honest, and, dare I say, brilliant. Lockwood has what’s been described as ‘lexical synesthesia’—her original way of looking at the world makes her a great poet and a memoirist par excellence. Please, please read this book.

Ingrid: Charlotte is a compelling verse novel by David Foenkinos about short, tragic life of German artist Charlotte Salomon. It is sad, and beautiful and you will find yourself searching for her paintings. I read it in almost one sitting at the start of the year, and hope more people will read this, as it will lead them to discover her work. At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York is Adam Gopnik’s account of his move to New York as a newly-married postgraduate in the early 1980s. Some of the stories may be familiar from reading the New Yorker or listening to Moth, but it is wonderful to have these not so much collected but forming a narrative. It encompasses life in New York, studying, starting work, the changing art world, his friendship with Richard Avedon, amongst others, and, of course, writing and criticism. Gopnik is humorous and thoughtful. This is a book that can be dipped into again and again or read from cover to cover.

Ben: Polly and Buster: The Wayward Witch and the Feeling Monster by Sally Rippin— The first book in Rippin’s magical new series! Polly isn’t a very good student witch, but with the help of her monster friend Buster, she learns there is more important things than being good at spells. A story about acceptance, tolerance and friendship. Easy to read and suitable for young readers not ready for Harry Potter.

Mandy: The Shop at Hoopers Bend by Emily Rodda—A string of coincidences and uncharacteristically rash decisions bring 11 year old orphan Quil and recently-retired Bailey together at the shop at Hoopers Bend in the Blue Mountains. While Bailey recovers from a minor injury, they fall easily into a companionable routine, hatching plans to revive the old shop. As the layers of the past are peeled back, Quil understands why she feels so at home here. This warm, magical, atmospheric novel is a charming read by one of Australia’s best storytellers for children—I loved it! Also, I’m only a little way into the thrilling fantasy Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, about an 11 year old cursed child who’s been given a chance to change her destiny. This is a fabulous debut by Queenslander Jessica Townsend, and I’m absolutely hooked!

Victoria: A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman—A book about Israel; about people and societies and their sometimes horrible malfunctions and written at the pace of a stand-up comedian. The reader doesn’t have a clue where the narrative is going until it hits you in the face. Wonderfully written and exceptionally translated from Hebrew. Couldn’t put it down!

Jan: I just loved The Choke by Sophie Laguna—and when I turned the final page I cried and cried. It is a beautifully written, tragic tale; heartachingly told through the naive voice of a young protagonist.

Louise: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie has died, and has been temporarily  interred in a cemetery in Washington DC. He has also been caught in the Bardo—the crepuscular zone  between life and rebirth, according to Tibetan teachings. The narrative resonates with voices of ghosts and their stories, and despite its grim setting—a graveyard over one night—it’s a book of great beauty and humour, with a surprisingly reassuring perspective of life and death. I loved it.

Tim: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—A surreal, funny, and very moving novel.

David G: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North deserved its plaudits, but the new one, First Person, is his best novel yet. At once raw and sophisticated in its exploration of what creative writing really is, this is a book drawn from Flanagan’s life experience. What he does with this extended reflection on truth in writing is remarkable and impressive

Janice: My favourite book of the year I think has to be Insomniac City by Bill Hayes. It’s wonderfully evocative of Manhattan. I love Oliver Sacks, and Bill Hayes, and their relationship shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

Judy: Two favourites out of many reading adventures this year: Charlotte by David Foenkinos concerning the passionate life of artist Charlotte Salomon. The beautiful poetic form of this short work makes it a joy to read. Charlotte springs from the page much like her art work—full of life, even though her beginnings and her ending are sad as sad can be. Highly recommended. Manhattan Beach is the brand new novel by Jennifer Egan, author of the fabulous A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s set in Manhattan and Brooklyn over The Depression and war years—the docks, the apartments, the street corners, come to feel as familiar as a stage set. The characters are so essentially interesting and also so loveable it makes you glad to spend time with them. A great choice for a Christmas present for a lover of fine writing.

Scott V: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow—One of the founding fathers of the United States and such a fascinating character. Born in humble circumstances in the Caribbean, Hamilton was General Washington’s right hand man during the revolutionary war and then through Washington’s Presidency. Hamilton saw the United States as one nation rather than a set of loosely aligned states and, for better or worse, helped to found many of the federal institutions we know today:  including the army, navy and the nation’s economic system. He engaged in bitter rivalries with his political opponents and was involved in a sordid sex scandal. His tragic death (and what a death it was!) proved an apt match for his extraordinary life. (Broadway even turned his life into a hit musical.) A great read.

Jack: ‘Books (to quote Samuel Beckett) that caused the same old tears in the same old places’: Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts. ‚ÄčThe Return by Hisham Matar. Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist  by Paul Kingsnorth. Confabulations by John Berger. This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Morgan: For me, nothing surpasses The Life to Come, a recent release by Michelle de Kretser. I can do no better than quote from a review in The Saturday Paper ‘...by turns wise and abrasive, witty and poignant....an extraordinary evocation of how joy and melancholy mingle in the wakeful anguish of the soul’. I am calling it—de Kretser is the very best fiction writer working in Australia today.

Steve: The Prince and the Assassin by Steve Harris—Clontarf, Sydney, 12 March 1868: Henry James O’Farrell, an Irish-born, Catholic nationalist shot and wounded Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria—’to revenge the wrongs of Ireland’. The louche 23 year old Prince was making the first ever Royal visit to Australia. O’Farrell—stricken by business failures and alcoholism—was clearly mentally unbalanced but that did not spare him from the gallows ten days later. In the interim, the anguished Colonies indulged in frenzied displays of Imperial devotion; NSW Premier Henry Parkes passed the punitive Treason Felony Act; Victoria was derided by NSW for harbouring ‘Fenian terrorists’—O’Farrell had lived in Ballarat—and the sectarian divisions of the nation became ever more entrenched. This is a compelling account of a forgotten political crime and its repercussions.

David M: Well, it could have been Lincoln in the Bardo, but I think it has to be the author who should have won that other prize and didn't. I first read Murakami about ten years ago, and was transfixed in turn (and in that order) by Kafka On the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. His new collection of stories, Men Without Women, for the most part makes no use of magical realism, and in certain respects reminds me of the melancholy grace which characterises some mid-20th Century European short fiction. But the whole set is uniquely informed and enriched by two stories which separately invoke the Scheherazade and Metamorphosis (Kafka) tropes, each with its attendant associations, mythical depth, and literary self-consciousness. I have a few reservations about the translations, although I understand that they have generally been applauded. These stories continue to reverberate and grow in my mind. Here is quiet mastery.

September 2017

 - Wednesday, September 06, 2017
Andrew: I’ve just finished an advance copy of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, due out very late this month. Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of my all time favourite books. It was published in 2010, the year Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was supposedly saying everything that wanted to be said about modern life. I waded through the Franzen with a certain engagement and admiration, but it was Goon Squad that compelled me, and left me with the sense I had read a book that I wanted to clasp to my bosom, and to badger other people to read. And I still do.  The Guardian review called it a book of  ‘memory and kinship, continuity and disconnection, in which relationships shift and recombine kaleidoscopically’. It is a delight to read; a set of interrelated stories, in which a handful of characters appear and reappear. Egan’s prose is a thing of sublime beauty, as she bundles up the fractured and disconnected lives of her characters, and somehow, ineffably, effortlessly, makes them seem part of something whole. It is a quirky, dare I say it, postmodern book (one of the chapters takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation), and I suppose I was expecting something similarly oddball from  Manhattan Beach. But no. Manhattan Beach is a straight as a die historical novel. With a beguiling opening set in a bleak of winter of the Great Depression on the Atlantic beachfront property of the very wealthy, morally opaque, Dexter Styles. The book is set mainly during the Second World War in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It follows the intersecting lives of Dexter, one of his employees, Eddie Kerrigan, and Eddie’s daughter Anna, a diver for the US Navy who repairs warships. It is most fulsomely, and convincingly, Anna’s story. Egan’s prose style is as phosphorescent as ever; and the plot (one of underworld violence, intrigue, sexual tension and social change) is handled with page-turning panache. Set pieces in forties nightclubs, wealthy estates and naval shipyards all zing with a heady veracity. It plumbs similar depths to Goon Squad in an exploration of the disconnections that we all endure in our lives and relationships. The fractured, unlikely, lives of the three main characters snake and intertwine, contorting with a bewitching subtlety, and ultimately fuse together as they each try to forge a sense of meaning in their respective worlds. I will admit the ‘final reel’ of the novel fell away for me somewhat. Its loose ends are bundled up a tad unconvincingly; and there are other plot elements that probably don’t bear too close an inspection, but it remains a resounding winner of a book for me. One of the very best of the year.

Judy: Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner & Her Work has sent me back to re-read early Helen—The Children’s Bach and Postcards from Surfers (currently out of print). I found Bernadette’s book completely engaging. Because Helen Garner’s work springs directly and deeply from her own experiences, there can be no dry critical work that can do it justice. What I felt reading A Writing Life was that I was being shown both sides of a finely finished tapestry—the reverse showing all the fabulous threads, the weaving, the chaos and the strategy that produced the work itself. The Children’s Bach and Postcards from Surfers are still great. They are so full of dry wit, intelligence, intimacy and passion—and they are so very much our stories. They are a snapshot of their time, and they hold true well into the future. I recommend a read or a re-read.  

Louise: Edward Bawden Scrapbooks are an absolute pleasure to behold. This great English artist, along with his colleague Eric Ravilious, captured the first part of the 20th century with marvellous paintings, designs and illustrations—book covers, posters, murals, landscape paintings—their work was always in demand. Sadly, Ravilious died in WW2, but Edward Bawden pressed on, working until his death in 1989. This volume contains five of his scrapbooks, and includes sketches, roughs, collages and lots of ephemera. A fascinating insight into the artist’s body of work.

John: In my continuing series reviewing books by ABC employees is the recently released The Twentieth Man, by Q&A’s Tony Jones. The Twentieth Man is a political thriller that, like many great stories in this genre, blends fact and fiction. Set in Australia in 1972 with the background of social change and the first Labor government for 23 years. The story opens with two bombings in Sydney. A cell of radical Croatians are thought to be responsible—but which of the many groups are guilty. Central to the plot are a young ABC journalist and her missing lover, they are surrounded by a well drawn cast of characters—some historical, like Lionel Murphy who has a pivotal role. With lots of detail, well plotted and some well draw characters, The Twentieth Man is a compelling thriller. Tony Jones should have a very successful second career as a novelist.

Hannah: Last year I swore I would be a good bookshop manager and actually read my way through the Man Booker longlist. I think I only read four before I was distracted by the competing interests of other new releases and comfort-reading old favourites. In spite of this I have made the same silly promise to myself this year. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time was her most mature and rewarding book yet, and the polyphonic perfection of Lincoln in the Bardo was a revelation. What to read next? Home Fire by Khamila Shamsie. This brilliant novel is a modern take on Sophocles’ Antigone. Using the lives of a Pakistani family in contemporary Britain Shamsie explores Antigone’s motifs of natural justice, morals and filial loyalty—and it seems incredibly relevant to return to these themes in our post 9/11, post-Brexit, paranoid world. Although I think Home Fire will be a hard act to follow, I have my sights set on Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves next. 3 down, 10 to go!

July 2017

 - Thursday, July 06, 2017
Andrew: What I am not reading is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. When various overviews of the anticipated year in fiction were published at the beginning of 2017, I was excited to see the third volume in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy touted as the highlight. Sadly it now looks like she doesn’t anticipate finishing the book until the end of this year, which pushes publication back to 2018. Bugger. Mantel is, however, currently delivering the Reith Lectures on BBC4—and I strongly recommend them. It is a breeze to stream them on your computer or phone, and Mantel is a wonderful and erudite speaker, tackling the role of history in literature. Anybody who followed the debate between novelist Kate Grenville and historian Inga Clendinnen (played out in the Quarterly Essay letters pages) concerning the respective roles and responsibilities of novelists and historians won’t want to miss Mantel’s take. For myself, I am biding my time reading (the sadly recently deceased) Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk, set in 1792 Bristol. Featuring a property developer and a housing boom, it is an apposite reminder that historical fiction can be at its best speaking to modern themes. 

Roger: I’m halfway through the new Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, Earthly Remains—gosh it’s good. She’s so relaxed with her characters and her setting, and her descriptions of the lagoon where Brunetti is holidaying solus are grippingly detailed and real. When I was in Venice with my friend in November last year we went past the buildings where she reckons Brunetti lives and imagined we could catch the odours of Paola’s lunch preparations for the family. Venice was marvellous. The only disappointment, apart from the gargantuan ocean liners dwarfing the city, was Acqua Alta—a bookshop that must be the worst in the world. I know it’s hard, but if you can imagine a level of disorder greater than Gould’s in its heyday. Then add damp from the adjacent canal to the premises, second-hand books that are not only strewn all over the place, but are also piled up inside rowing boats and in the featured gondola (the real thing)—and you have something of the atmosphere of the place. It has outside courtyards where books are piled up deteriorating in the rain—some used as stepping stones to a view of the canal. It’s awful, I had to quickly leave to suppress an urgent desire to start tidying it up. On the more serious side I have just finished Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides—a marvellous tour-de-force of the 20th century migrant experience in Detroit, full of incident, character and love. And I am also halfway through Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons—for the second time. I read it when I was twenty and thought it one of the best books. I’m not so sure this time, but we’ll see how it develops. The first time was so long ago that it’s all fresh to me again—and I’m certainly much more a father than a son now!

Stef: Beauty in Thorns
by Kate Forsyth is truly a delight.  Forsyth has brought to life the rich and colourful world of the Pre-Raphaelite artists—their day to day, their unconventional bohemian lifestyles and their ability to shock and delight their Victorian patrons and society at large. Having turned the last page I am feeling a little sad and lost—I won’t be able to quite shake off the ghosts of the people who populated this story for a while.

Mike: Get Poor Slow by David Free: A Sydney crime noir, set against the backdrop of the murky world of Australian publishing. Ray Saint is a book reviewer. A tough one. He thinks that all writing should be literature and is well known for his scathing rebukes of anything of lesser quality. That is when he meets Jade Howe, the beautiful publicity dame who drops a big, fat, cash-filled proposition right in his lap. How could he resist? Just pretend to like a book, write a glowing review and collect the notes. Easy, right? It is easy, until Jade turns up dead, and Ray is public enemy (and suspect) numero uno.... Saint is pretty sure he didn’t kill her, hell, he liked pretty much every part of her. It’s just that he can’t quite remember.....This is a face-paced thriller filled with books, booze, shifty characters, a hero who could turn out to be a killer and more dodgy one-liners than a Sydney New Titles sales meeting.

Viki: I had a phone call the other day from a customer wanting E. H Gombrich’s The Story of Art—unfortunately we didn’t have the pocket edition, which she needed for what I imagine was her soon to be Grand Tour of Europe, but once the unwanted larger edition Gleebooks did have was in my hands I was unable to say no. So now I’m reading a chapter a day, working my way through Gombrich’s evolution of art and having a great time. I’d highly recommend this to parents of children expressing an interest in art—it’s a great introduction, and I feel tempted to make attempts at recreating works and styles from every step along the way. Speaking of which, I’m also reading A Forger’s Tale by Shaun Greenhalgh. Written from prison Shaun details his legendary forger’s career, and the ‘forger’s ring’ (including co-conspirators, the ‘artful codgers’, his 80 year old parents) that operated out of a garden shed in Bolton, UK. As art critic (and dupe of one of Greenhalgh’s fakes) Waldemar Januszczak says in his introduction, ‘Shaun is funny, charming, self-deprecating, warm-hearted and, above all, instructive’. And he is all of those things—utterly obsessed with making things—he’s a fascinating character.

I imagine there must be a good deal of rivalry at the ABC. Not just for the plum high profile jobs at AM, 7.30, Lateline, Q&A etc, but about the sheer number of books that these high profile journalists find time to write. From Julia Baird’s Victoria and Mark Colvin’s wonderful memoir of his father to the political thrillers penned by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. Two-time Walkley Award winner Michael Brissenden takes time off 4 Corners to join their ranks this month with a tightly plotted thriller set mainly in Sydney. The List has a team of specialist officers struggling to prevent a large scale terrorist plot in Sydney. Brissenden’s experience as a journalist comes through and the book has less politics and more action than I had expected. With this entertaining read in the vein of Terry Hayes’ (another journo) I Am Pilgrim, Brissenden joins the long list of ABC journos who are also successful novelists. The List is a real page turner.

June 2017

 - Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Mike: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor—Having done my research into this author, and the hype about this debut collection, I was mustard (keen) to get my hands on a proof. Taught by both Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, with a fabulous blog rave by author Amitav Ghosh, there seemed no way this book could be a disappointment. And it wasn’t. It has stories about ancient times (including an Alexander the Great cycle), it has a post-modern look at the last speaker of a forgotten language, all the way to the last remnants of the United Nations watching on from an orbiting space station as the world tears itself apart. Some of the tales can be a bit ... open to interpretation, but the writing is immaculate. Challenging. Sublime.

Judy: Go Tell it on The Mountain by James Baldwin has got to be one of the most powerful testimonies to the African American experience ever written. Based on Baldwin’s own life—he was the son of a born-again preacher—this novel of a few days around John Grime’s fourteenth birthday sweeps along with the lifetimes of slaves in it’s train. The compression of it’s structure barely contains the passion and the energy, the rage and the complexity of it’s revelation. I wanted to read it in one sitting. John is pinned and writhing under the expectations of the Lord and of the Saints. All the members of this Harlem church—The Temple of the Fire Baptized—are called Saints. His hatred of his violent preacher father prevents his submission, and yet it is redemption he craves. Scattered throughout, the fragments of gospel, chants, hymns, the blues create this intensely sensual, deeply hopeful community for the reader. The ‘amen’ and the ‘thank you Jesus’ are part of everyday conversation. The weight of the Church, its necessity for these people envelopes the reader, it is so vivid.
The novel is set in 1935, but the stories of John’s father, Gabriel, his Aunt Florence and his Mother, Elizabeth, take us back to much earlier when being freed from slavery was still a living memory. The final chapter takes the reader into John’s complete breakdown at the altar. It is visceral. He is indeed, born again, but you are made to understand that this man is redeemed and freed in a different way—a way that brings his history and his galvanizing rage with him. This is the man who could write Go Tell it on The Mountain.

John: Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher whose new book Still Lucky makes for fascinating reading. This is not a book about how things are but how we collectively see ourselves our nation and the world. A book about perception rather than reality, it’s focused on the period since 2006 when Huntley started the Ipsos Mind & Mood report. With a nod to the past, not just Donald Horne, and a look to the future. Easy to read and comprehend, and occasionally seeming to state the obvious Huntley manages to place things in context locally, globally and through individual experience.

Andrew: Insomniac City by Bill Hayes—I’m reading the lovely memoir insomnia, of Manhattan, and life with Oliver Sacks (with whom the author had what seems to have been a really genuine and deeply supportive ‘late season’ relationship—one that springs to life on the page). I will admit I find some of the autobiographical writing a tad self-conscious, and some of the best bits are when he strays from the ‘memoir’ brief, and takes off on a tangent (one moment he is discussing the best subway route to somewhere or other, the next the mating and grieving habits of geese). Peppered with his own photographs, it is a very easy read, and a very sweet take on life from someone with a genuine knack for teasing out what is interesting in the people and city around him.