If there was one thing that remained a constant throughout this second pandemic year - apart from an underlying sense of fear, uncertainty and doom, that is - it's books. We had a constant stream of new books - local, national and international - in what was a stellar year for reading.
Here, our intrepid reviewers sum up their top picks for 2021.
My best books for 2021 include three non-fiction works with a climate crisis environmental theme: Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World by Lisa Wells; Beyond Climate Grief by Jonica Newby; and Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future by Danielle Celermajer. These books share a sense of grief over lack of action on climate change, tempered beautifully by reflections on personal experience and human resilience. I also admired Rick Morton's journey of self-discovery and healing in his memoir, My Year of Living Vulnerably. The single work of fiction on my list is Larissa Behrendt's novel, After Story. It's a First-Nations mother/daughter rite of passage, involving love, literature, and redemption that is simply a joy to read.
For me, the crime novel of the year is John Banville's April in Spain (Faber) in which Banville finally emerged from the shadow of his alter ego, Benjamin Black. It is an elegant novel, eloquent in language and vivid in imagery, combining satire and horror in equal measure.
Equally impressive is Pat Barker's bleak but compelling The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton), in which she moves away from Homer and turns to Euripides' The Trojan Women for inspiration.
Multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Denise Mina has turned her talent to historical crime, in Rizzio (Polygon), a modern retelling of one of the most infamous episodes in Scottish history, the murder of David Rizzio, private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots.
And the best of Australian crime was definitely Garry Disher's The Way It Is Now (Text), cleverly combining a tragic cold case with social commentary.
Many fine works resonated with me, so, of course, it is near impossible to choose, but in the hope that great books will find great readers, here are today's thoughts.
In terms of my first love, fiction: Nardi Simpson's multi-award-winning Song of the Crocodile is the gut-punch Australia must have; in 71/2, Christos Tsiolkas writes in a similarly powerful way but about beauty and the meaning of art in tumultuous times; and in Diana Reid's Love & Virtue those who wish to do good are up against those who just want to look like they are doing good. Other novels that are alive with bravery are Lucy Neave's Believe in Me and The Breaking by Irma Gold. In nonfiction, we are lucky to have some extraordinary essay collections this year, including Charlotte Wood's The Luminous Solution (the ins and outs of the creative life), Delia Falconer's Signs and Wonders (living - and writing - in an age when everything is falling apart), and Shu-Ling Chua's Echoes, which was the co-winner of the 2021 Small Press Network Book of the Year.
In poetry, there is Jerzy Beaumont's Errant Night - who can go past a verse novella primarily set in space? - and Jericho Brown's The Tradition, which magically balances accessibility with philosophical depth and emotional power. Finally, if you ever have the chance to see on stage Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg, don't let it pass you by. Vive les artistes!
The ANU/Canberra Times meet the author events featured two memorable books. Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe's Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (MUP) is an authoritative analysis of pre-colonial Australia that dismantled and reframed popular narratives of First Nations land management and food production. Julia Banks's Power Play. Breaking Through Bias, Barriers and Boys' Clubs (Hardie Grant) is a revealing exposé of the hurdles faced by women who aspire to leadership in the workplace, notably in Parliament House.
In other nonfiction, the unexpurgated The Diaries. 1938 -1943 (Hutchinson) of Henry "Chips" Channon, has more than 1000 pages of revealing eyewitness insights into the inner circles of the British government from the 1938 Munich appeasement to the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. The Library: A Fragile History (Profile), by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, trace the history of libraries from papyrus to digital formats, emphasising the key role of libraries through the centuries in supporting democracy and culture.
In fiction, Canberra's Sam Hawke in Hollow Empire (Bantam) cleverly merges real-world issues such as fake news, religious fanaticism and misogyny into an engrossing fantasy, while Kazuo Ishiguro in Klara and the Sun (Faber) imaginatively links AI issues and what it is to be human.
For immersion escapism, I recommend Lamorna Ash's Dark, Salt, Clear. Ash submerges the reader in the proud, funny, failing world of Cornish fishers. She neither exaggerates her own insights nor romanticises her subjects. Her narrative is not padded with historical digressions, quaint characters or self-absorption.
George Packer's Our Man tinkers with standard biographical procedures, interleaving excerpts from his subject's letters and diaries with his own analysis. In the process the flamboyant American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, is allowed posthumously to speak for himself while also being crisply and deftly dissected by Packer.
For readers seeking to pre-empt news of a new COVID variant with an adventure story, Flynn Berry's Northern Spy offers something special. Two systems are entrapped and enmeshed in Ulster's Troubles, betrayed by all sides, scrabbling for a hold on human feeling and moral principle alike.
To say that it's been an especially good year for anyone is a stretch, but it feels as if it's been a productive year for Canberra writers.
Irma Gold's The Breaking (Midnight Sun, 2021) is about an Australian woman who goes to Thailand on the pretext of backpacking and ends up working for NGOs rehabilitating elephants used for trekking and tourism, and falling in love. As well as being an engrossing read, Gold's novel is a thoughtful dramatisation of the issues involved in intervening in a culture about which you are ignorant.
Merlinda Bobis's incredibly moving collection of connected short stories, The Kindness of Birds (Spinifex) is similarly transporting, with stories set in locations from Broome to Manila, and in its evocation of what it's like to experience loss of family, and of the environment-as well as recovery and restitution. This is a book about kindness and friendship across linguistic, cultural and religious barriers.
Permafrost (UQP) is another brilliant collection of stories, by artist and writer S.J. Norman (a Sydneysider and New Yorker). It takes the reader on journeys to Japan, Germany and Britain. Norman's precise prose inspires envy: the choice of words and images is so apt, so elegant, and the stories themselves are steeped in longing, but also have an engrossing momentum.
If you have an urge to spend time in the grittier, more realistic lives of people trying to make it in a major metropolis (with a little Las Vegas thrown in), a favourite of mine was Christine Smallwood's The Life of the Mind. This darkly funny novel is about a PhD graduate trying to gain a foothold in the English department of an American university.
Michelle de Kretser's masterful Scary Monsters, comprising two novellas (the book has two different beginnings, one set in the past and one in the future) immerses the reader in two different worlds: one in France, in which the protagonist is teaching in a French lycee, and the other in Sydney, working in a unnamed and unnerving "Department". You can read one novella followed by the other, or you can begin one, then dip into the other as it suits.
If a book should be of its time, John Boyne's The Echo Chamber is one of the books of the year, a savage satire of the customs and mores of the day. The other outstanding tomes of the year are all by women writers. In Larrimah, Darwin journalists Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham provided us with a brave and fair-minded account of the mystery of Paddy Moriarty. In Rememberings, singer Sinead O'Connor was as unapologetic in print as she was in her controversial singing career. For elegance and a reminder of what can be done with the English language, there was Nicki Gemmel's beautiful The Ripping Tree. But perhaps the book of the year is a little 111-page classic titled Unsettled by Rosaleen McDonagh. A member of the Traveller community, the fourth of 20 children, a victim of cerebral palsy, she now works as a lecturer in her old university. With calm ease, she writes about ableism, feminism and inequality without ever appearing to raise her voice above a whisper.
Perhaps it was to escape the anxieties of COVID-19 that I decided this year to read the entire works of Charles Dickens. But I also loved Anita Heiss's latest novel, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray - River of Dreams, set along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in the mid-19th century. A heartfelt story of colonisation and its negative effects on those whose land was taken, the novel tells a powerful and affecting tale of a young Wiradyuri woman's need to keep her identity, her sense of community and her deep connection to country.
Stephen Gapp's important history Gudyarra: The First Wiradyuri War of Resistance - The Bathurst War, 1822-1824 follows his earlier prize-winning history of the Sydney wars. It is a well-documented and authoritative story of the colonists' mistakes and of the conflicts engendered by the land grabs of the fertile land beyond the Blue Mountains: the first Wiradjuri war of resistance.
Anthony Doerr's latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is a brilliant and extraordinarily imaginative tale with characters for whom the reader feels great compassion. This is my favourite book of 2021. A master of intersecting narratives and beautiful writing, Doerr cleverly constructs his novel around three time periods - the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, 20th century Idaho, and a future time when the earth has become uninhabitable.
Canberran Irma Gold's The Breaking was a standout novel published this year. It combines an examination of the cruelty inflicted on animals (elephants in Thailand) with the portrayal of a developing relationship between two young women. The novel raises many ethical questions. How far should one go in pursuing one's beliefs? What are the unintended impacts of our actions, particularly in a culture different from our own? This novel is discomfiting, moving, and timely.
Stephen King's Billy Summers tells the story of a hitman who only kills people he can classify as "bad". He deliberately presents himself as of limited intelligence, although the reader knows from the outset that that this is far from the truth. Summers acts against his own interests to help a young woman, and this is a pivotal moment in this enthralling read.
This has been a vintage and exciting year for Australian history. A Brilliant Boy by Gideon Haigh, Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements, and William Cooper by Bain Attwood - all reviewed in The Canberra Times - were my three top books, in no particular order. I learned so much from each and was excited to see new directions in Australian historical writing and broader horizons. I thought The Long Shadow by Peter Yule was a game-changer in terms of veterans' health and responding to veterans. The 16th Maisy Dobbs crime novel, The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear, is one of her very best. I'm addicted.
Don't read Stanley Tucci's Taste if you're not prepared to either get in the kitchen or book a table somewhere. Tucci looks back over his interesting life, from his pasta-sauce-soaked youth in upstate New York to his first trip to Italy and beyond. In among the recipes and recollections, there are generous helpings of charm, name-dropping and wit.
I'm a sucker for Edward St Aubyn and while Double Blind doesn't quite match up to the author's Patrick Melrose novels, it's good fun and largely well done.
Karen Brooks's The Good Wife of Bath was a surprise. I'm not normally one for alternative history-type tales but Brooks' retelling of one of Chaucer's best-known Canterbury Tales is engaging and deftly crafted.
Top of the list for escape to another land was Robyn Mundy's book Cold Coast, about the first female trapper to work in Svalbard in the 1930s. The Performance by Claire Thomas was a clever novel set within a performance of a Samuel Beckett play while bushfires raged in the nearby mountains. Believe in Me, by Canberra's Lucy Neave, was a beautiful book with great insight into mother-daughter relationships. The Breaking by Irma Gold, another Canberra writer, carried me into a young activist's fight to save elephants in Thailand. Kathryn Heyman's memoir Fury offered raw and honest insight into sexual abuse and the power of self-transformation. And Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles explored the concept of mothering and the overwhelming difficulties faced by those wanting to adopt a child from foster care in the US.
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