In which AustLit staff recommend some of their personal favourites among the works that have come across our desks this year. We roam quite widely across Australian literature during our working days, and not all the works chosen here were published or released in 2014. But they're what came to mind when we sat down to pick our recommendations for a leisurely, exciting, or even harrowing summer textual experience.
Joanne Sawyers (current indexing) says of this book that 'This novel of interconnected poems gave me a greater understanding of the lives of Indigenous peoples during the colonisation of Australia. It evoked feelings of sorrow and loneliness, joy and companionship. Once read, never forgotten.'
Joanne's second pick was this collection: 'This collection of autobiographical short stories is great for summertime reading. Drewe’s stories of his life on the far north coast of New South Wales are amusing and perceptive. They capture a sentiment of community that leaves this suburbanite with a yearning for life in a country town.'
Irene Howe (BlackWords researcher and indexer) first chose Marie Munkara's David Unaipon Award-winning collection, saying, 'Every Secret Thing is one of the most funniest books I have ever read. It never loses momentum from the cover to cover. A must read!!'
Irene's second choice was Jennifer Kent's film The Babadook: 'For the not-so-faint hearted, the Australia horror movie The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. Beware: do not watch this on your own, or you will never look at a children’s picture book the same again.'
Catriona Mills (senior researcher and indexer), an unashamed devotee of YA fantasy and science fiction, first picks volume one of Jaclyn Moriarty's Colours of Madeleine trilogy: 'These books are rich, immersive fantasy, set between our world and The Kingdom (a riot of sentient colours, magic, and chaotic seasons), a world with which we used to be in frequent contact. But contact has been lost for centuries–until Madeleine sees a corner of white poking out from under an Oxford parking meter. Just be warned: book three hasn't been published yet, and waiting might prove frustrating.'
Catriona's second selection is this YA dystopia: 'From the opening pages, when Wren sets out for us the limits of all creation, this novel is genuinely creepy, fascinating, and occasionally devastating. State of Grace has unmistakeable shades of Lord of the Flies, but also evokes the rich and brutal fantasies of my childhood, novels like Bridge to Terebithia and Susan Cooper's novels.'
Clay Djubal (senior researcher and indexer) goes for some classic speculative fiction: 'This summer I plan to read volumes 4 and 5 of the Bertram Chandler omnibus series – Ride the Star Winds (Vol 4) and Upon a Sea of Stars (Vol 5). They are published by Baen. A few years ago I was involved in a quite lengthy project to update and correct Chandler’s presence in AustLit. I’d never read anything by him so after a while I decided to familiarise myself with his John Grimes/Rimworlds series. I’m now a fan. Chandler is quite hard to find in bookshops these days, so I’ve had to purchase the anthologies online. Nevertheless there is still a considerable fanbase existing throughout the world. Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (To the Galactic Rims, First Command and Galactic Courier) were published in 2011, with Volumes and 4 and 5 being released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Each book is available in various digital and print formats. I’ll be reading them the old-fashioned way.'
Carmen Leigh Keates (researcher) recommends Andy Jackson's Whitmore Prize-winning poetry chapbook The Thin Bridge: 'Although it continues with the themes of radical physical difference that Jackson explored in his first collection Among The Regulars, the poetry itself has evolved and the voice is at once assured and gentle. Rather than the subject matter getting tired, it's like Jackson is really claiming his territory. I felt like I was reading something excitingly secret.'
Carmen's second selection was Michelle Dicinoski's memoir Ghost Wife: 'Michelle Dicinoski's memoir Ghost Wife tells the story of how she married Heather in Canada, yet when they returned to Australia, their marriage was not recognised. Alongside this main narrative, Dicinoski also delves into the secret and hidden life (and love) stories of many people, researching complete strangers, and also uncovering some of her own ancestors' incredible life details. This book is a great read with really wide appeal. And Penny Wong even tweeted that she liked it, so there you go.'
At first, Jonathan Hadwen (programmer) was annoyed that we wouldn't let him select The Thin Bridge, on the grounds that someone else had got there first. But after insisting that he be allowed to second The Thin Bridge, he picked this David Malouf collection: 'This year saw David Malouf mark up his eightieth year on planet earth, and he celebrated it by releasing three separate volumes, a collection of essays, a collection of criticism, and a poetry collection entitled Earth Hour.'
Maelle Farquhar (programmer) selected this venerable work as her pick of the year: 'Growing up in France, Australia was one of those far-away wild and exotic places that called to my adventurous spirit. Dangerous animals, red hot unforgiving desert, far far away... just awesome. Leichardt's story had all the right ingredients to capture my imagination back then, especially his mysterious disappearance in the middle of that great big red desert during his second expedition. So I was excited when I found out this year that his actual diary – the day by day account of his first successful expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, which took so long everyone thought he was dead – was freely available to read online. It's a fascinating account, both because of the insights the first-person voice gives into the mind of this Australian icon (including his era-typical but no less disturbing patronising views of Aboriginal people) and because of the vivid image that emerges from the detailed descriptions of both the landscape of the region in the mid-1800s and the many hardships and dramas faced by the party on a daily basis. This year the ANU has launched an interactive digital map showing the precise route taken by Leichardt, allowing users to read the journal entry corresponding to each campsite and to compare it with journal entries from Leichardt's other companions, making this summer the perfect time to read it if you haven't already.'
Oscar Jonsson (indexer) picks this Peter Carey novel: 'Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda is my summer read this year, partly because it begins with a Christmas pudding but mostly because I love it to bits. Touching, intelligent and deeply ironic, Oscar and Lucinda traces the lives of two misfits as they struggle against the conventions set out by an insular and judgmental society. Carey's novel is worth reading both for its unforgettable characters and for its rich depiction of nineteenth-century New South Wales. Give it a go if you haven't already.'
Robert Thomson (researcher and indexer) goes all the way back to 1882 for his recommendation: For some reason Marcus Clarke's classic His Natural Life has always had a strong resonance for me. The idea of someone being imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit, plus the brutality of their incarceration - well it's all highly metaphorical isn't it?
I've only read His Natural Life twice mind you, and on both occasions the 1961 Angus & Robertson edition, which I picked up second hand years ago, and has had a place on my bookshelf ever since. Over the years I've briefly skimmed thru some of the other versions, and have read many of the original installments whilst trawling thru the Australian Journal, where they appeared with T.S. Cousins' wonderful illustrations. To date (if I must confess my sins), I've only briefly skimmed thru Lurline Stuart's 2001 UQP scholarly edition, which amongst other things, compares the various editions. I managed to pick up a second hand copy of this edition during the year, but so far haven't got around to actually reading it - so it's right up there on my list of books to read this Christmas break.
Kent Fitch (programmer) chooses this Man Booker winner: 'The story of the Thai-Burma railway is rooted in our national consciousness, and at first it is hard not to be overcome by it as the defining influence on the lives of the characters in this novel, Australian, Japanese and Korean. But the main protagonist has already been shaped by love: that of his mother, of his wife-to-be, and of a women he meets before he leaves for the war. This novel is the stories of individuals of the first species evolution has thrown-up with the capability to devise terrible fantasies as goals and the means and the will to pursue them to the end. Despite the war-time horrors graphically described and the quiet, bewildered despair of the war-hero returning to the discordant presumptions and expectations of his society, this is an exquisite story told with understanding and love.'
Kerry Kilner, AustLit's director, picks J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus: Although published in 2013, J M Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is, without doubt, the Australian novel that has continued to echo in my mind since I read it earlier this year. A stunning work with many layers that raises questions about the dual experiences of belonging and making a new life in a strange world; about shedding the knowledge of the past and acquiring new knowledge, new languages and new ways of being in the world. A deeply allegorical work that has the reader thinking about what it means to be human and what it means to live in society and in communion with others, The Childhood of Jesus deserves all of the praise it has received. And even though there is no character named Jesus in the novel, in a session at the wonderful festschrift conference in Adelaide in November entitled ‘What does the childhood of Jesus have to do with The Childhood of Jesus', I learned that the precocious David, who is one of the central characters, just might be modelled on the childhood of the historical Jesus as described in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. Coetzee, however, has not commented upon this analysis of what might be one of his most enigmatic characters, so we are left wondering… and wondering… and reaching for another of this master’s works to think through and be enlightened by.