NRB reviewers pick their best books of 2016
This year, we’ve asked some of our regular reviewers to nominate the best book they have read in 2016. The result is a diverse and fascinating round-up.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt
David Hunt’s Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, Volume 1: From Megafauna to Macquarie is a standout for its ability to blend historical detail and humour. After coining ‘girtitude’ and ‘girtuosity’ to define the essence of the nation, Hunt points out that Captain Cook ‘arrived between 60 000 and 164 years too late to discover Australia’. From there, he recounts the founding of the colony through to ‘I think I’ll call it Macquarie’, the book’s final chapter but certainly not the end for Australian history or Hunt. His latest volume, True Girt, was published in October. In both volumes, Hunt’s ingenuity with both facts and turns of phrase makes delightful reading.
Of all the excellent crime books released in 2016 there are two that stand out. Each employs different current-day themes and locations to explore similar human foibles and failings, and how they impact on relationships within families, communities and the wider world.
Set in rural Australia, The Dry by Jane Harper is a pitch-perfect telling of farming life affected by drought and isolation, infected by suspicion and the damage that leaping to convenient conclusions can inflict. On the other hand, Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, set in Europe and the UK, uses politics and the fear of terrorism to look at similar themes of suspicion and simplistic conclusions.
(Karen Chisholm blogs on crime writing from http://www.austcrimefiction.org)
My chosen book for 2016 is a 2014 anthology: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgman (edited by Darryl Jones). The collection, from Oxford University Press, has scholarly notes and an insightful introduction, but the reason I selected it as ‘best’ is because of the conversations it sparked with my temporary housemate, my nephew Sam. He is a mid-20s science graduate, and we share a fascination with the intertwining of art and science in Victorian literature. So, cued by the book’s introduction, we discussed the difference between terror and horror, and the colonial dimensions of horror writing. Individual stories prompted conversations on anatomy, surgery, body snatching, and Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Bram Stoker’s ‘The Squaw’ generated a conversation about literary creations of tension; Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ led us to ponder literary depictions of the disintegrating mind. We settled on two favourites: the nightmarish Civil War tale ‘Chickamauga’ (Ambrose Bierce) and ‘The Wendigo’ (Algernon Blackwood), involving a strange creature in the snowy wilds of Canada.
And, because one good book tends to connect to others, we followed up with complicated, compelling non-fiction: The Lady and Her Monsters: A tale of dissections, real-life Dr Frankensteins, and the creation of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo.
(Jeannette Delamoir is a former academic, who also blogs about food.)
Doris Lessing’s Walking in the Shade: Volume two of my autobiography has captured me this year. It’s a powerful mix of emotional and political insights and a forensic look at the 1950s and 60s. What a powerful and formidable woman she was. She gives a view of the times that shows the extraordinary excitement of living in London in those frightening Cold War years, hovering on the edge of the explosion of creativity of Carnaby Street, etc. She also details aspects of the various left-leaning and communist-supporting groups and the horrors of the regimes they espoused. This look at the ferocious and stupid infighting and lying group behaviour of the times can possibly explain some of the longeurs of the reports of meetings in her Canopus in Argos: Archives science fantasy series.
Her table often had 30 people around it; she loved to cook; she had a couple of intense love affairs and some very strange encounters, and she gives a real flavour of the intellectual life of the times. She tells tales against herself which are very funny. However, while she demonstrates an encompassing emotional clarity, a look at Jenny Diski’s experience of being taken on by Doris, recounted in her memoir In Gratitude, reveals a certain lack of empathetic understanding on Lessing’s part, which makes me wonder whether reason alone can give one such extraordinary insight as evinced by the autobiography, or whether Jenny was altogether unknowable.
For me it was a fascinating look at the past with some resonance for my own life.
(Folly Gleeson is a former lecturer in Communication Studies.)
I loved the sly wit and the architecture of Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird. Matriarch Margaret O’Day watches her family, gathered in her Toorak garden. Her guests include a prying distant relative who is writing a family history. Margaret decides to write a journal. This sweet and darkly comic tale is narrated by the skeleton in the closet. There are other voices, including Margaret’s, and not all are reliable. It is wise to take note when Bird herself intervenes and sets the clues for the Greenaway-esque, compelling mystery that lies at the heart of this novel. Be careful reading this well-crafted and structured story; the denouement is unexpected and brutally quick.
(Michael Jongen is a librarian who microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com)
Despite the drama and despair of 2016, at least we’ve had some great books to keep us company. Rather than choosing just one of my many favourites, I’m going to cheat and select five: the five novellas that make up Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree series. There’s an art installation that plays an important role in The Wisdom Tree; a family of creatures carefully tacked together from pipes and horse skulls and automotive paint – but still, undeniably, a family. The artist draws these disparate, inhuman elements together by the way they’re angled toward each other – a tilt of the head, a curve of the spine – and turns them into something greater than the sum of their parts. A family. It’s the same with the Wisdom Tree collection. These five books are all set in different places and feature different casts of characters, from rappers to child actors to an actual literary giant. But it’s the way that Earls has turned these novellas towards each other, creating subtle links and connections, that makes this quietly astute collection so rewarding.
(Michelle McLaren blogs on books at www.booktothefuture.com.au)
After reading an intriguing NRB review I scampered up to Berkelouw and bought David Mitchell’s Slade House. It has a tantalising narrative that slowly reveals a malevolent presence inside that old horror standard, an English mansion. It may be a classic ghost setting but it has a modern voice (or voices), imaginative concepts and evocatively drawn scenes. When I learned it was a quasi-sequel to The Bone Clocks, I grabbed that as well and enjoyed it for a slightly different reason. Both, like many of Mitchell’s books, are collections of related first-person narratives, but I preferred the beautifully flawed characters in The Bone Clocks, and their longer journeys provided a more fulfilling read. However, Slade House is a tighter book with a more satisfyingly complete structure. So I’d recommend both, and they needn’t be consumed in the correct order.
(Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist.)
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is my pick for 2016.
Kidnapped from her village in West Africa, Ajarry is shipped across the oceans to end up as a slave in Georgia. Years later, her granddaughter Cora, born into slavery, is talked into running away by fellow slave Caesar. The pair flee across southern USA, aided by well-meaning white people and an actual underground railway, with stations hidden beneath homes and barns, and pursued by the legendary and merciless slave catcher, Ridgeway. In The Underground Railroad, a brutal, evocative and shocking novel, Colson Whitehead explores the savagery humans can visit on each other and the persistence of hope in a malevolent world.
(Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com)
The most enchanting collection of magical tales to delight the senses, take you back in time – and scare you silly! – Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings as published by Tartarus Press is graced by Kathleen Jennings’s enigmatic illustrations in a tome as beautiful as it is addictive. Unique and startling in its clarity of vision, this is a book guaranteed to haunt and inspire.
(Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy)
My favourite read this year was World of Trouble, the final installment of Ben Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy, concerning the single-minded investigations of newly-minted, small-town police detective Hank Palace, resolutely sticking to his job while society disintegrates around him in the face of an impending and world-ending meteor strike. Winters does a tremendous job balancing light and dark throughout the series and he nails the ending, delivering something that manages to be both uplifting and consistent with the journey we’ve tagged along on. It’s a really clever and well-crafted piece of writing. I can’t recommend this series highly enough.
If I can have a runner-up it would be a reread of Sean Williams’s and Shane Dix’s classic space opera The Orphans Trilogy. First published in 2002, it’s still packed with mind-bending cosmic ideas.
Dennis Glover’s An Economy Is Not A Society, published in 2015, is at the top of my list of books this year. I first encountered Glover several years ago as the author of a newspaper article on ANZAC wherein he offered an alternative meaning of ‘Lest We Forget’. Instead, he suggested we should remember the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign and the overall horror of the First World War.
Glover has been a speech-writer for Federal Opposition leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham, so he knows what it’s like to be on the side of the losers. One of the strengths of this book, subtitled ‘Winners and Losers in the New Australia’, is his empathy for the citizens of the south-east Melbourne suburb of Doveton where he grew up. Contrasting 1970 with 2015, Glover reveals that whereas General Motors Holden, Heinz and International Harvester once employed 7500 people in full-time work, the number is just over 500 by 2015. The architects and apostles of economic reform – St Bob, St Paul, St John and St Peter – no doubt created benefits for many Australians but others have suffered (and continue to suffer) severe societal dislocation.
Two other superb books about remembering released during the year are Henry Reynolds’s Unnecessary Wars and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius.
(Bernard Whimpress is an Adelaide-based historian. His most recent book is The Official MCC Story of the Ashes, 2015)