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Where the Trees Were

Inga Simpson     Recommended by Anne    

I finished Inga Simpson’s latest novel over the weekend in about three absorbed sittings. Evocative of childhood summers, Where the Trees Were is a beautifully written coming-of-age story. A friend suggested it may be the next Great Australian Novel, and he may be right.

Jay grows up on a farm, her world shaped by her landscape and her family. Languorous days spent swimming and climbing trees with her three close friends unwind on the river. When they find a grove of trees decorated with arborglyphs (pictures carved into the bark; I love a book which teaches me new words) the group decide it will be their secret, sacred place.

Years later, Jay works in the National Museum, and is unable to shake her preoccupation with her own past. The parallel narratives of Jay’s child and adulthood help to build the tension in the story, and the artful management of the main characters day to day activities with the reflections on the past is really well done. I loved Simpson’s descriptions of the birds and animals in Jay’s part of the world, and I loved seeing how her problems resolved.

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Mothering Sunday

Graham Swift     Recommended by Alan Sheardown    

Graham Swift’s new novella, Mothering Sunday, is narrated by elderly writer Jane, looking back to an event that occurred on one day in 1924 when she was just 22 and working as a house servant. We know much of what happens in the end very early in the story, but the pleasure of this novel is in Swift’s brilliant telling.

Mothering Sunday is a holiday given for servants to visit their mothers. However Jane, an orphan, uses her day off to meet with upper class neighbour Paul with whom she is having an affair. The detail with which Jane recounts this day, which will ultimately change the direction of her life, seems to slowly stretch out time and imbues the short novel with poignancy. Drenched in warm tones and late summer stillness, Swift unfurls the story with a sensual languor.

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The Days of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante     Recommended by Pema Monaghan    

The Days of Abandonment is a brilliant novel. It is quite short, and all the more gutting for it. As in a Muriel Spark novel, you might go completely mad along with the protagonist, as her despair gets into your own mind, and hammers on its walls. You will be trapped, like her, in an apartment (which grows smaller and smaller), and won’t be able to leave until the narrative has lived itself out. Unlike Spark, Ferrante’s writing is almost completely humourless. This is somehow not a failing for her; it only serves to demonstrate the true height and awfulness of the stakes. You may think that I have made this book sound horrible. It is, as in the subject matter, the communicated emotion, the little blows administered to this woman, are very horrible, in a banal way. But it is a work of perfection. It is a perfect short novel, and I really think you should read it immediately. Whatever it is you are currently reading, it is almost certainly not as good as The Days of Abandonment.

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Bowie

Simon Critchley     Recommended by    

Simon Critchley’s collection of personal essays on what David Bowie meant to him, is, as reviewed by Rick Moody at Salon, “a magnificent and deceptively slim book, in which no essay takes longer to read than it would take to listen to a David Bowie song, but in which there is a cumulative sense of revelation as regards what makes Bowie special, and why it is that his work seems to yield more, the more time you spend there. The book is delightful, highly readable, with bits of Nietzsche, Ruskin, Roland Barthes and Deleuze rising up like wisps of cloud in its funny, moving and passionate field of inquiry.”

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FATALE

Jean-Patrick Manchete     Recommended by Kirk    

A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS ORIGINAL

This noir-crime novel is a ‘sleeper’ awaiting your discovery. An unholy original, Jean-Patrick Manchette transformed the modern detective novel into a weapon of gleeful satire and anarchic fun. In Fatale he mixes equal measures of farce, mayhem, and madness to prepare a rare literary cocktail that packs a devastating punch.

Whether you call her a coldhearted grifter or the soul of modern capitalism, there’s no question that Aimée is a killer and a more than professional one. Now she’s set her eyes on a backwater burg—where, while posing as an innocent (albeit drop-dead gorgeous) newcomer to town, she means to sniff out old grudges and engineer new opportunities, deftly playing different people and different interests against each other the better, as always, to make a killing. But then something snaps: the master manipulator falls prey to a pure and wayward passion.

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Idaho

Emily Ruskovich     Recommended by Annie    

A genuinely compelling novel like Idaho is a rare beast. There is good storytelling and interesting writing and keenly observed characters, but when they’re all strengths of a good work of fiction it’s so enthralling. Idaho moves back and forth in time and is (mostly) through the eyes of Ann, a music teacher in the small town who becomes almost obsessed with knowing the family and their tragedy, and in a way, adopting the event and maintaining it. It reminded me of Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls. Both Idaho and The Girls feature a violent act and its repercussions, and both are fascinating insights into human character when it is subject to trauma. One of the most memorable novels I’ve read in months.

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Known and Strange Things

Teju Cole     Recommended by Alan    

Known and Strange Things is a collection of essays and articles that continue Teju Cole’s preoccupations with place and identity. The book looks broadly at three themes: literature, photography and travel. As with Cole’s previous novels,  Open City and Every Day is for the Thief, the writing here is perceptive and considered, sending the reader off to exploring other areas. In this case to writers such as Derek Walcott, or reassessing Virginia Woolf, to photographers such as Saul Leiter and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. In more autobiographical essays he recounts the night of Obama’s election, his life split between Lagos and the US, his various travels and his interest in photography. Known and Strange Things is excellent collection of thoughts and meditations.

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Westerly 61.1

Various authors     Recommended by Alan    

The latest issue of Westerly, guest edited by Steve Kinnane, reminds readers of the power and importance of stories in maintaining and renewing culture. A celebration of Indigenous writing, 61.1 includes new writing across all genres and from a variety of known and little-known writers. Proud in its cover art by Bella Kelly, Westerly 61.1 asserts its place in Western Australian literary culture.

Notable contributions include Tara June Winch’s story ‘The Yield’, Kim Scott’s non-fiction piece ‘Both Hands Full’ and the poem ‘Sap Clot’ by Alison Whittaker ( Tender! Horror! // Thrice upon the shore comes the violence ). The Katinka Smit’s debut story ‘Behind the Line’ is similarly impressive in its portrayal of cultural ambivalence.

But in a way it is the personal stories of less well-known writers that point up the strengths of Indigenous voices and the personal challenges that have been surmounted. Two joyous vignettes by young boys from Mulan in the Tanami desert, Bella Kelly’s daughters recounting their mother’s life and art, and Doris Eaton’s ‘Giveaway’ story are three such examples.

Now in its 60th year, this latest Westerly must be among its most notable. A collection of stories, reviews and essays that reminds all readers that the west of Australia has a long indigenous past, a continuing present, and a future.

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One

Patrick Holland     Recommended by Alan    

Patrick Holland is the critically acclaimed author of The Mary Smokes Boys and Riding Trains in Japan.

One is a cold, grim novel based on the true story of the Kenniff gang – Australia’s ‘last bushrangers’ – as they are pursued on horseback by trooper Sergeant Nixon. Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the novel also documents a point of change in the country’s psyche as it grapples with notions of nationhood and increasing modernisation.

Narrated largely through the perspective of Sergeant Nixon, the trooper’s moral compass begins to waver the longer the chase continues. Kenniff’s legendary decisiveness also begins to crumble as the novel moves toward its final throes. Often compared to Cormac McCarthy’s westerns, one of the pleasures of One is the muscularity and sparseness of Holland’s prose.

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