I was alerted to the Reading Bingo Challenge by a blog post from the fabulous FictionFan and figured this would make a fun alternative to the usual ‘best of’ lists to broadcast some reading highlights of 2016. So here goes…
A forgotten classic
Turtle Beach by Blanche D’Alpuget is a multi-award winning novel that proved remarkably difficult to source, even at the library, which makes me think it qualifies as ‘forgotten classic’ (I have Jo at Blarney Books to thank for my copy). The novel is set in Malaysia in 1979 and deals with the international refugee crisis following the Vietnam War. I’m a few chapters in and it’s an intriguing read.
Became a movie
I had the great fun of interviewing Osamah Sami at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, which alerted me to his astonishing memoir, Good Muslim Boy. Osamah is an Iraqi, born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, ‘so I’ve always been at war with myself’, he writes in the opening chapter. Good Muslim Boy is a moving, alternately tragic and hilarious account of Osamah’s struggles to reconcile the demands and desires in a life lived across borders and cultures. An episode in his memoir inspired the film Ali’s Wedding (on general release in March 2017), billed as Australia’s first Muslim rom-com. Osamah stars in the film and won an AWGIE award with Andrew Knight for most outstanding script for an Original Feature Film. A prodigious talent.
Published this year
I read 16 books published in 2016, but the one I’m going to highlight here is The Permanent Resident, a collection of short stories by Roanna Gonsalves. I was fortunate to be at the Canberra launch of the collection and hearing Ro read from the collection was enough to make me buy it on the spot. These bittersweet, at times breath-taking stories are beautifully written, especially at their most confronting.
Number in the title
Scarlet Stiletto: The Eighth Cut is the latest in a series of anthologies published by Clan Destine Press, featuring the short stories that have won the Sisters in Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto Awards. I had the pleasure of launching Cuts 3-8 at the SheKilda one-day crime spree in November. The Eighth Cut contains the 2016 prize winning stories, including Ruth Wykes’s first prize winner ‘Stone Cold’, and Jacqui Horwood’s ‘Diving for Pearls’, which won a special Silver Stiletto award to mark 25 years of the Sisters in Crime.
Written by someone under 30
The Vogel Prize is an Australian literary award for unpublished manuscripts by writers under the age of 35. I know for a fact that this year’s winner is under 30 because it was won by my friend and PhD study buddy Katherine (Kate) Brabon for her stunning novel, The Memory Artist. Also making ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club’s Top 10 Books for 2016, The Memory Artist is a sad and beautiful meditation on memory, trauma and the place of art in Soviet Russia.
Thank heavens for Pow-Wow the Power Saving Panda in Briohny’s Doyle’s debut The Island Will Sink or I wouldn’t have been able to tick this bingo box. An apocalyptic novel bursting with questions about climate change, cultural homogeneity and how we define real-life in a screen-saturated culture, The Island Will Sink is the first novel to be published by The Lifted Brow.
Robert Gott’s Will Power series features a character whom Shane Maloney once described as ‘Australia’s first dickhead detective’. I was sharing a hotel room with my mother in Hobart while reading the latest installment, The Serpent’s Sting, and had to put it aside because I was laughing so much, I was keeping her awake. Recommended as the perfect read for a happy festive season.
How is this even a bingo category?! Sixty-eight per cent of the books I read this year were by female authors, including most of the academic ones. The book I’m highlighting here is When Michael Met Mina by Sydney author Randa Abdel-Fattah. Pitched at a YA audience, it’s a terrific story Romeo and Juliet story for our times. Michael’s father is a founding member of anti-immigration group ‘Aussie Values’. Mina’s family came to Australia as refugees from Afghanistan. In lesser hands, this could have been a ‘heavy’, didactic read. Instead, it’s a vibrant and engaging story, peopled with credible teenage characters.
With a mystery
I read fewer crime novels than usual this year (11 out of 50 books, 15 if you count short story anthologies), although a number of the literary novels I read used crime as a plot device, including Miles Franklin winner, AS Patric’s beautiful and brutal Black Rock, White City; Stella Prize winner, Charlotte Wood’s unsettling, The Natural Way of Things; and one of my favourite literary reads of 2016, Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm. But my bingo pick is Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. The novel opens with Darren Keefe in the boot of a car, tied up and shot through the knee, watching the white lines of the Geelong Road through a hole in the tail-light. He can feel a shovel and a bag of lime next to him. How the hell did he get there? What the hell happens next? Shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, this is one to keep you awake at night.
I read more memoirs than usual in 2016 (8 out of 50 books), one of which was Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, about her experience of IVF and her decision to stop treatment. Leigh writes beautifully about the liminality of infertility and the grief of letting go. Deeply personal and also generous, this small book was one of my favourite reads of 2016.
I’ve become evangelical about Cracking the Spine, one of six short story books I read this year. Published in 2012 by Spineless Wonders and edited by Julie Chevalier and Browyn Mehan, the anthology features ten stories by outstanding Australian writers — including Ryan O’Neill, Maria Takolander and Tony Birch — each accompanied by an essay on how the story was written. Compelling and illuminating, Cracking the Spine is an invaluable resource for anyone writing short stories and/or teaching short story writing.
I’m allocating my free square to Gunshine State, the second novel by my partner in life and crime fiction, Andrew Nette. Queensland’s Gold Coast is just one of the settings vividly evoked in this classic heist novel, described by Jock Serong as ‘gruesome, visceral fun’ that ‘never lets up for a second’. The perfect summer holiday read.
Set on a different continent
This is another one of those ‘duh?’ bingo squares for me. In 2016, I read 17 novels set in Australia and 11 set elsewhere. One of the most compelling was Rajith Savanadasa’s debut Ruins, set in Sri Lanka. Ruins took me to places I could never imagine, an intimate portrayal of a troubled family and country, with a denouement that took my breath away.
I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Magda Szubanski as part of the Schools Program at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, about her extraordinary book Reckoning. Both a biography of her father, a member of the Polish resistance, and a memoir of Szubanski’s own life, Reckoning is an intriguing, often poetic exploration of how history and trauma in one generation impacts on the next.
First book by a favourite author
I discovered Malaysian novelist Tash Aw while in Thailand this time last year, stumbling upon his Map of the Invisible World in a secondhand bookshop on Koh Chang. I subsequently tracked down his multi-award winning first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory. The epic tale of Johnny Lim — ‘textile merchant, petty crook and inventor of the Amazing Toddy Machine’ — told through the eyes of his son, his wife Snow Soong, and expatriate Englishman Peter Wormwood, is also the story of Malaysia from the 1940s to the present. Simply stunning.
Heard about it online
When I started writing my PhD, a Google search for novels about surrogacy brought up the oddly titled Her Giant Octopus Moment by Kay Langdale. Set in the UK, the story centres on the relationship between eleven-year-old Scout and her mother Joanie, a surrogate mother who had a change of heart about relinquishing the baby she’d agreed to carry. As a result, Joanie and Scout had been living on the run. A mediation on what makes a parent, the novel turned out to be an unexpected delight, due largely to wonderful characterisations. The ‘giant octopus moment’, when it came, was genuinely moving.
My bingo pick for this category is New York Times bestseller, The Last Paining of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. A rare seventeenth century painting links three lives on three continents over three centuries in this absorbing and ingenious book. I was subsequently thrilled to learn that Smith, an Australian writer now based in the US, will be at guest at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference I’ll be attending in Phoenix, Arizona in February 2017.
Based on a true story
Fleur Ferris’s Risk was inspired by true stories of online predators and love gone wrong, derived from the author’s experiences as a former police officer and paramedic. As the mother of a ten-year-old girl, I found Risk genuinely frightening and something of a wake-up call. The thriller element is enhanced by the characters’ experiences of guilt and grief. A worthy winner of the Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards for Best Young Adult Novel 2016 and joint winner of Best Debut Book 2016.
Bottom of the TBR pile
Given our proximity to and engagement with Asia, there is comparatively scant fiction published in Australia that is set in Asia, even less Asian-Australian authored fiction, and Asian fiction published in Australia. Whenever I come across Australian novels set in Thailand in particular, I try to read them, and this year I finally got to Tiger in Eden by Chris Flynn, published in 2012. It’s hard to know how to describe this novel. The central character, Belfast-born Billy Montgomery, is a criminal, but it’s not a crime novel. Billy is unlikeable, but you can’t help liking him. The Thai setting is filtered through Billy’s voice, which is rough and sweary, alternating between hilarious and excruciating.
Your friend loves…
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah was recommended to me as a wonderful read by my PhD supervisor, academic and novelist Chandani Lokuge. It is not only a wonderful read, it is the first theoretic text I’ve read that makes sense of my experience. This one’s for life, not just for
Christmas the PhD.
In preparation for our panel together at SheKilda 3 on domestic noir, I got to read an advance copy of Wendy James’s new novel, The Golden Child. Not only was it a compulsive read, it was so scary, it gave me nightmares. It’s Mildred Pierce meets The Bad Seed in the digital age. They* don’t call James Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense for nothing.
* It may have actually been me who first called Wendy James Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense, but the title has certainly stuck.
More than 10 years old
In preparation for interviewing Rod Jones at the Newcastle Writers Festival (are you starting to see a pattern here?), I read not only his poignant latest novel, The Mothers, but his award-winning debut Julia Paradise, first published in 1986, and re-published as part of the Text Classics series. Set in Shanghai in 1927, Julia Paradise is like no other book I’ve ever read. Erotic, unsettling, and entirely transporting. A hell of a find.
Second book in a series
I had the great pleasure of launching Sue Williams’s Dead Men Don’t Order Flake, the second novel in her cosy crime fiction series featuring takeaway owner-operator cum private investigator Cass Tuplin. With its vivid small town setting, colourful cast of characters, cracking pace and laugh out loud humour, I had no hesitation recommending Dead Men Don’t Order Flake for the Sisters in Crime Hot Reads for Summer.
Book with a blue cover
Strangely, quite a few of the books I read in 2016 fit this description, making me think I must be subliminally attracted to blue covers. The one I’m allocating to this final bingo square is actually on the top of my summer reading pile for 2017: Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. I had the great pleasure of hearing Kate speak about the book at a symposium on ‘biofiction’ (fiction based on the lives of real people) and rushed straight out to buy it.
What were your reading highlights for 2016? And what’s on the top of your summer reading pile?