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Posted on 23 Dec 2014 in Fiction, Non-Fiction | 2 comments

NRB Editors nominate their favourite books of 2014

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From crime to literature, through ASIO and memoir to the bush – our Editors failed to coincide on a single title. Not all of these books were published in 2014, but they were our stand-out reads of the year.

Jean’s picks:

elizabethismissingElizabeth is Missing Emma Healey. Although the title seems a bit bland, when you’ve finished the book you can read back into it and see that it’s actually rather good. Maud is elderly, in the early stages of dementia, and she knows a crime has been committed. The problem is, she can’t quite remember what it is. She knows, or thinks she knows, that her friend Elizabeth is missing. There’s also a possible crime from her past – parts of which are much clearer in her memory – when her sister also went missing. This is a charming novel, beautifully written, with all the mystery elements that a crime reader wants, as well as poignant and funny insights into the world of the partly-demented. To read the full review click here.

lifeordeathLife or Death Michael Robotham. Why would a man escape from prison the day before he was due to be released? Audie Palmer has served ten years for armed robbery, and the millions of dollars taken have never been found. But Audie isn’t looking to reclaim the money – he has a different agenda entirely that gradually becomes clear through this complex, multi-levelled narrative. The book is fast-paced and crisply written, leading the reader gradually to the heart of Audie’s motivation. Robotham is a wonderful crime writer – up there with the best. This book was reviewed, with an overview of Robotham’s fiction, by Karen Chisolm here, and Peter Corris also designated it one of his best books of 2014 here.

mckintyThe Cold, Cold Ground Adrian McKinty. In Detective Sean Duffy’s first appearance (later books, in order, are I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I’ll be Gone and Gun Street Girl – all great reads), he is investigating a severed hand placed on a corpse’s chest – unfortunately not a hand belonging to the corpse. There’s another body, and a missing woman. There seems to be a homophobic serial killer as well as a suicide. Duffy’s a Catholic in the protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary in the 1980s, and this adds tension, though not as much as you’d expect (it’s often the occasion for humour), to the novels.

The action takes place against the background of the Troubles – hunger strikes, riots and rackets, among other things. McKinty’s first-hand knowledge of place and his meticulous picture of the times add texture to what is already a fine crime series. His writing is humorous; Duffy is just smart-arsed enough; the plots are complex and the writing is often lyrical and always good. I could have named any of the four novels (I read them all this year), but the first one leads on to the others …

thebushThe Bush: Travels in the heart of Australia Don Watson. The Bush is astounding in its range. It uses the framework of personal memoir – Watson’s family’s history as settlers and farmers – as well as his own travels through Australia observing, and interviewing ‘bushies’ of various stripes, to investigate just about every aspect of our relationship with the Australian environment. It rambles through travelogue, memoir, history, literature and analysis, all held together by the author’s distinctive and precise voice and the intuitive narrative structure of the born story-teller as it moves easily among pre-history, Aboriginal massacres, wars, disasters and the politics around contemporary despoliation of the land. I predict it will carry off every prize for which it is eligible. To read the full review, click here.

dirtysecretsDirty Secrets: Our ASIO files Meredith Burgmann (Ed). I’m fascinated by ASIO (who isn’t?) and this collection of personal responses by people who accessed their files is by turns absurd, outrageous, poignant and banal, but always interesting. This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about our dissenting past or our potentially oppressive present. Its contributions are personal and honest; it lays bare the absurdity of many of ASIO’s actions over five decades and it raises important questions about what a secret national security organisation might really mean, and, if it is necessary, how it should be administered. To read the full review, click here.

Linda’s picks:

eviewyldEvie Wylde All the Birds, Singing. This tightly paced mystery is beautifully told as it ranges from small town Australia to a sheep farm on a remote English island. Above all it evokes the landscape of desperation and madness with sureness and compassion. Still not entirely sure I liked the ending, but it’s a great journey to get there and deserving its Miles Franklin Award. Paula Grunseit reviewed it here.

amisMartin Amis The Zone of Interest. In equal measures virtuosic and distressing, Amis depicts Auschwitz as a surreal hell, its air perpetually darkened by smoke and ash from the crematoria, its commandant a deranged clown sexually intimidated by his wife. In his Afterword, Amis discusses Primo Levi and the impossibility of any rational explanation for what the Nazis did. This absence of rationality is the novel’s most vivid trope. It is a profoundly disturbing work that confronts the question: how could human beings do this to one another?

stonerJohn Williams Stoner. First published in 1965, this novel about a farm boy who becomes an assistant professor of literature at a mid-west American university has come to be regarded as a classic, and it’s not hard to see why. Its hero, William Stoner, in many ways stoic and unremarkable, embodies a love of literature that sustains him through an unhappy marriage and professional bastardry. It is a novel that understands language, passion, and literature, and is a rich and compelling work because of it.

thetribeMichael Mohammed Ahmad The Tribe. To read this merely as an antidote to anti-Muslim prejudice would be to overlook the literary skill with which it is crafted. The Tribe is a large Lebanese Muslim family living in western Sydney whose loves, crises, feuds, bonds, eccentricities and celebrations are lovingly and sharply observed. Comprising three long short stories all told from the point of view of one of its youngest members, The Tribe is a powerful work and holds the promise of what Michael Mohammed might yet produce.

poet'swifeMandy Sayer The Poet’s Wife. Mandy Sayer’s latest memoir picks up where Dreamtime Alice left off and covers her marriage in the US to the poet Yusef Komunyakaa and the beginning of her own career as a writer (including winning the Australian/Vogel Award in 1989). From sleeping rough on a riverbank to busking on street corners, from editing her husband’s poetry to being inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston and finding her own voice as a writer, this is a clear-eyed account of the end of one great love as her marriage erodes and the finding of another in the power of words. You can read Kylie Mason’s review here.



  1. Great list – because I agree with you on most of the ones I have read – the ones I haven’t have just bumped up the priority list 🙂

  2. My favourite books this year were:

    A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
    Us by David Nicholls
    Family Secrets by Liz Byrski
    A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story by Qais Akbar Omar
    The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt
    The Vale Girl by by Nelika McDonald
    Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education? by Marion Maddox