Today the lovely Kim of Reading Matters posted a list of ten books written by Australian authors she loves in honour of Australia Day. So I asked if I could copy her. Here I have to say, before I share my list with you, that Kim’s is bound to be much better so you must check it out. Kim is also only reading Australian books this year which I am going to be following with much interest. My knowledge and Australian reading might not be as good as Kim’s however I have loved many a book by an Australian author and so here are twelve books I would highly, highly recommend you give a whirl. You can find the full review, bar one, by clicking on the books title if you want to find out more.
Burial Rites was one of those books, based on a true story, that blew me way. It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. What I thought was particularly great about this novel was that first we ask ourselves if we think Agnes is a killer and then suddenly start to ponder why on earth this family have been chosen to house someone who could be incredibly dangerous. Stunningly written, utterly compelling.
As many of you will well know I love fairytales and my very favourite above all the others is that of Rapunzel. In Kate Forsyth’s brilliant Bitter Greens we are sent into the lives of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape. Yes, you have guessed it all three of these women have the story of Rapunzel in their life somewhere be they the one who retells the tale, mirrors the tale or indeed is part of the tale. Through these three women we learn the magic of storytelling, the hardship of women through the years and how they have had to struggle (in good and bad ways) in order to survive. It is utterly marvellous.
Those of you who have followed this blog for sometime will know that I am something of a Marieke Hardy fanboy. I think she is ace and love her thoughts, even when I don’t agree with them, whatever they are when she discussed books on my favourite book TV show here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is a collection of frank, funny and filthy memoir essays about various points in Marieke’s life so far. It is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke, she is quite open to showing some of her worst/most cringe worthy and I love her all the more for it, in a non stalker kind of way.
I have just noticed that the cover of this book is very like my new wallpaper, anyway… On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside. I loved this, it has the earthy countryside wilds elements which I love, it has a deep sense of unease at times and is a book which just holds you from start to finish. It is hard to say more than that.
When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove. What follows is an emotionally gut wrenching and heartbreaking account of friendship at its most potent and at its most tested. Having been a carer once before I read this the honesty of the novel was both shocking yet also deeply consoling.
“Another sheep, mangled and bled our, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” And so starts ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and so we find our heroine Jake as she takes in the sight before her, another of her sheep has been mutilated, killed by some ‘thing’. Yet what is the ‘thing’ that could be killing her flock one by one? Could it be the local kids who think she is some out of town witch? Could it be the neighbours’ crazy son? Could it be a monster, be it real, imagined or from Jake’s hidden past? Could it be linked to the sudden appearance of a new ‘incomer’ in the area? Evie Wyld keeps us guessing as the story goes back in time whilst also going forward, we glimpse moments in Jake’s past not from the point where something awful happened that she fled but slowly back to that moment, which is a treat to read whilst being both highly accomplished and very original. It is another of those wonderful books that keeps you guessing without you (quite) tearing your hair out.
I am a huge fan of The Slap, I am a huge fan of Barracuda yet it is Christos’ earlier and slighter novel Loaded that I think has stayed with me the longest after I have read it and I think it is because of the voice. he narrator of ‘Loaded’ is quite a fascinating one. Nineteen year old Ari lives in the city of Melbourne in Australia, he is Greek, he has no job, he is gay but secretly, he loves nothing more than going on massive drink and drug fuelled binges preferably with lots of random anonymous sex along the way. In fact from the first page where the novel opens with Ari masturbating with a massive hangover you pretty much know the story that you are getting here, well you think you do at least, as we follow him for the next twenty four hours. As we read on between all the drug taking, drinking, etc there is a lot that this book is looking at and saying. One of the main senses you get is a sense of needing to belong, to be a part of something and yet rejecting that very thing at the same time. The other is just what it means to be an Australian man.
5. Under The Skin – Michel Faber
There is no link to this book because as I have discovered several times now Michel Faber is an author who I simply cannot write reviews of the books of. I can devour the books happily, I can sit and interview him fine and dandy yet when I come to write a review of his work it’s like a block. In Under the Skin Isserley, an unusual-looking woman with strangely scarred skin, drives through the Scottish Highlands both day and night, looking for just the right male hitchhikers. She picks them up, makes enough small talk to determine she’s made a safe choice, then hits a toggle switch on her car, releasing a drug that knocks her victims out. But why? Well you will have to read the book to find out and it is so worth doing.
I only read this last year however I know it is a book that will stay with me for quite some time as it has a force of nature about it. When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet. We follow them as the shocking truth is revealed and these two women’s lives are changed forever. A dystopian thriller, a feminist text and a love story to nature.
In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t. It is one of the most emotionally draining, terrifying and yet life affirming novels I have read set at the potential end of the world.
One of Australian’s contemporary classics, which also caused much controversy when it came out, is The Secret River which initially looks like a tale about one of the first convicts to Australia trying to make a life for themselves, yet soon reveals itself to be superbly brutal and shocking novel about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history. As men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold. I don’t want to say anymore than that for fear of ruining the impact this book will have on you if you are yet to read it.
This book left me speechless and almost unable to review it because of how moving and brilliant it is. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans, based somewhat on Flanagan’s own father, is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. We follow his life before, during and after it and look at the man before and the man forever changed afterwards. The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece. I think it is one of my books of all time.
There is my list. Going of and trying to scout if I had missed any authors (and yes I know some of my list are anglo-Australian) I found a whole selection of authors I must read; Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Shirley Hazzard, Gail Jones, David Malouf, Christina Stead, Patrick White, etc. I must also read some more of the authors above and more form authors such as Tim Winton. Oh and get to some more of the classics too. I really want to read Picnic at Hanging Rock quite badly. Anyway, I would love to know which books you have read on the list and also which are your favourite books by Australian authors, I am always ready for more recommendations. Happy Australia Day everyone, though if you are in Australia it is probably the day after – oops. Now over to you…