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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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M TRAIN

Patti Smith     Recommended by Matilda Chaney    

For those of us who consumed Just Kids with the enthusiasm that we usually reserve for a bowl of spaghetti, I can promise that you will not be disappointed by Smith’s latest memoir. M Train is a powerful book that documents an undeniably isolated period in the life of one of the most remarkable multi-platform artists at work today. The timeline shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, and across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations. We are taken on a journey to Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico; to a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York’s Far Rockaway; and to the graves of the great Plath, Rimbaud and Mishima. M Train braids despair with hope and consolation with the memories of Smith’s later life in Michigan and the irremediable loss of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith. The episode where Smith arrives at her local coffee shop to find another customer in her regular seat and states that “if this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage” is just one reason why I highly recommend this book.

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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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