2018’s best summer reads – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Whether you’re enjoying the Australian fantasy of a book on the beach this summer, catching up on the couch after Christmas, or stealing moments on public transport, this list of favourites from ABC RN’s book experts has got you covered.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber and Faber)
Anna Burns was the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker Prize.
(Supplied: Faber and Faber)
Anna Burns’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel starts its tale part-way through — and just hopes you keep up, thank you very much.
It’s told from the perspective of Middle Sister. And there are also the Wee Sisters, and the young man our narrator refers to as Maybe-Boyfriend (because he’s not quite the boyfriend). Then there’s First Brother-in-Law (tosser), the Pious Women, and Somebody McSomebody.
Are you keeping up? Well, you’ll just have to. It’s sink or swim with this one — but if you swim with it, it’s an exuberant story of Belfast during the Troubles — a city besieged.
Nothing specific about the time and place is quite spelled out in this tale; rather, everything is embedded inside the rich stories and first-person experience of Middle Sister.
Over the course of the tale, this young woman goes from being a head-down, reading-a-book-as-she-walks, hoping-not-to-be-seen character to somebody with a name and a reputation. All because she catches the eye of a powerful man: The Milkman. He sees her and he wants her — and just like that, she’s under everyone’s scrutiny, but especially his. This is bewildering to her, but fascinating to us.
This is a novel rich with language and a convoluted style that you’ll love — or you really won’t.
Kate Evans is the co-presenter of RN’s The Bookshelf
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Abacus)
The fictional novelist Arthur Less is gay, single, and about to turn 50. He’s stuck on his latest book, and he’s just received a dreaded invite to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding.
Considering the state of the world, author Andrew Sean Greer wanted Less to be about joy.
He needs to get away — so he says yes to every strange literary invitation he’s received, setting him up for a cathartic adventure of self-discovery around the world.
As Less bounces around the globe, visiting destinations including Mexico City, Turin, India and Morocco, he finds himself in increasingly awkward and embarrassing situations.
In Berlin he mistakenly believes he is fluent in German, while in New York he interviews a vomiting science fiction writer while wearing an astronaut’s helmet.
Less is a bumbling, apologetic hero, who sees himself as a “failed novelist”. But he’s also completely lovable. He’s romantic and adventurous and sweet, and you’re rooting for him from the first time you see him in his favourite blue suit on page one.
In a year of heavy reads, this book was a joyful and funny palate cleanser. Greer won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for this book, which was the first comic novel to win the prize in years.
I laughed and — I’m not to afraid to admit it — I cried, too. An utterly charming book.
Claire Nichols is the presenter of RN’s The Hub on Books
The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen (Picador Australia)
The Lucky Galah is set in a remote Western Australian coastal town during the space-race era. (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira)
The galah that narrates the novel was inspired by author Tracy Sorensen’s childhood pet cockatoo Myrtle Skippetyhop.
(Supplied: Picador Australia)
This debut novel is narrated by a galah (yes, a galah) named Lucky, who lives in the fictional town of Port Badminton — which bears a striking resemblance to the town of Carnarvon, Western Australia, where journalist and author Tracy Sorensen spent her childhood.
In Sorensen’s novel, Lucky channels the chatter of the township through a satellite dish that was used to track communications from the Apollo space program in the 1960s, and in so doing, the story is transmitted to the reader too.
Lucky homes in on the Johnson family: Evan, the father, works as a radar technician, while Linda, his somewhat bored wife, raises their two daughters and mingles with the other families in the town — unaware that second-wave feminism is just around the corner.
Evan Johnson is absolutely comfortable and confident in his world, which is seemingly made for people like him: middle-class white men. He represents the easy privilege that Donald Horne calls out in his groundbreaking book of 1964, The Lucky Country, which has a cameo in the novel.
While it might sound kooky, the novel is written in a warm, vivid and charming manner. Who knew that galahs could provide insight into 1960s Australian family dynamics?
Sarah L’Estrange is the producer of RN’s The Hub on Books
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Penguin)
Author Pat Barker offers a rare perspective on the horrors of war by giving a voice to the women captured during The Trojan War.
This novel is far from perfect, but there are several reasons it’s floated to the top of my favourites of the year.
One of them is the irresistibility of the epic story of the Iliad, retold with freshness and a visceral punch. The opening chapter, once read, will never be forgotten. The Greeks, led by Achilles, sack the city of Lyrnessus with a genuinely shocking brutality, reminding us that such acts of extreme violence are inseparable from war and are occurring right now, in our own time.
Sons, brothers, and fathers are slaughtered with a savagery matched only by nonchalance. Sisters, daughters, and mothers are rounded up for slavery of an unspeakable kind. Human life is cheaply discarded. Human bodies are useful only for labour or sex or trade.
Another reason is Barker’s fearlessness in matching her prose to the heightened, elemental nature of the drama she retells. Later, Achilles, distraught and exhausted after another battle, wades into the sea seeking the comfort of his sea goddess mother. His tears, Barker describes with bold simplicity, are “salt water trickling into salt water”.
But what really lingers in the memory is the love Achilles bears for his general Patroclus. Erotic, heartbreaking, beautiful, it’s a grand passion for the ages. It’s so powerful, it steals the show from the more earnest women’s narrative Barker wants to tell.
Cassie McCullagh is the co-presenter of RN’s The Bookshelf
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP)
The heroine of Too Much Lip whisks readers away to her hometown in Bundjalung country. (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira)
Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors and sitcom The Beverley Hillbillies were on author Melissa Lucashenko’s mind during the writing of Too Much Lip.
The preamble to Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel establishes its concern with history and bodies. Body parts, even.
It’s 1943 and a young man named Owen encounters a Queensland policeman sprouting red hair and menace. Owen is a boxer, so he’s handy. But young Aboriginal men better watch out, if they’re handy. And for women, like Owen’s granddaughter Kerry, it’s not the handiness that gets them into trouble, it’s the mouth. Speaking up. Having too much lip.
Kerry Salter doesn’t care about watching her mouth. She roars into this book on a stolen motorbike, on her way back to a town called Durongo — and all the interwoven stories and objects and obligations and complications of her past.
It’s a cracking tale of family dynamics: Pop is dying; Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary is off the grog; the great hope of the family, Black Superman, is up from the city; the other brother, Ken, is an explosive presence — and Kerry won’t back down.
There are also talking crows and sharks, and a touch of magic that’s light enough to feel entirely real, and keep readers reaching for words like “tough” and “uncompromising”.
And it’s funny. KE
White Houses by Amy Bloom (Granta)
White Houses was inspired by Blanche Weisen Cook’s three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The romance between the American first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and journalist Lorena Hickok has long been rumoured.
In this stunning book, American author Amy Bloom brings the relationship to passionate life.
We swoon as the two ageing women romance each other in a rose-tinted 1930s America — with cocktails and Cole Porter records, holidays in open-topped cars, and kissing in the garden. While the lesbian love-affair eventually fades, the two women remain in each other’s lives until the end.
One of Bloom’s smartest moves is to hand the narration to the journalist, Hickok. Born to extreme poverty and entirely self-made, Hickok brings a sharp outsider’s eye to the White House, and the icons that are Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt.
In Bloom and Hickok’s hands, Eleanor Roosevelt is humanised — an inspiring woman who is deeply flawed, and sometimes unaware of her own privilege. The President, meanwhile, is an unfaithful husband and a “son of a bitch every day”, but a powerful and charismatic presence in both women’s lives.
This is a short book, but don’t be deceived — the writing is rich, the characters are complex, and the story is deeply moving. A perfect summer read. CN
Severance by Ling Ma (Text Publishing)
Author Ling Ma cites the apocalyptic horror films of George A Romero as an early inspiration for her debut novel.
(Supplied: Text Publishing)
This debut novel by Chinese-born American writer Ling Ma is a genre-bender.
It is zombie-influenced, post-apocalyptic, occasionally satirical, and follows the carefully curated life of Candace Chen, the only child of her Chinese immigrant parents.
When we meet her, she is one of the nine known survivors of Shen fever, a disease spread by airborne fungal spores, which has obliterated the population of North America.
After fleeing a crumbling New York City, she joins a small group of survivors led by Bob, who grows into the role of tyrannical cult leader. His plan is to take the group to the Facility, where they can gather supplies and start a new life.
The story alternates between these post-apocalyptic chapters and Candace’s account of growing up in the US, losing her parents, and working in the Bibles department of a publishing firm.
As a heroine, there is nothing extroverted or superhuman about Candace: she tries to keep to herself within the group of survivors — just as she did at her workplace. But she is a determined character, and you will be rooting for her survival by the end. SL
The Break by Katherena Vermette (Allen and Unwin)
The Break is an intergenerational story narrated by 10 different Métis characters.
(Supplied: Allen and Unwin)
It’s a miracle this debut novel even made it to Australia, but thank goodness it did.
A year after first appearing in Canada it was re-published here, defying the odds of tough times in literary publishing. Clearly, the profound power of Vermette’s story has won it many champions, both inside the industry and beyond.
She takes us into the lives of an extended family of Métis, one of Canada’s Indigenous ethnic groups, as it struggles to hold together in the unapologetically bleak outer suburbs of a freezing Winnipeg winter.
The Break is a tract of land that runs through their neighbourhood, a corridor set aside long ago for a line of giant electricity towers that extends to an unknown destination. Considered worthless, it has become an unlikely refuge for wildlife, and a remnant of the land before settlement.
It is also, of course, a metaphor for the Métis and their survival, and has familiar resonances with Australia’s Indigenous communities.
Vermette is a published poet, and her prose is crafted by the sharpest of blades, with short sentences and pared-back description.
It may not sound like an obvious must-read, but there’s a reason this novel has been lifted out of obscurity. Read it, and find out what it is. CM
All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy (MacLehose Press)
The protagonist of All The Lives We Never Lived recounts his childhood spent in a town close to the Himalayan foothills. (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira)
Roy named her fictional town Muntazir, which means “to wait for with anxious impatience” in Urdu.
(Supplied: MacLehose Press)
Anuradha Roy (not to be confused with Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who wrote The God of Small Things) is a writer of great complexity and skill.
This novel, her fourth, is told from the perspective of Myshkin, both as a boy and an old man, whose life ends up shaped by the trees he plants and the city planning he imagines for a new India.
His life is also fundamentally shaped by the frustrations and ambitions of his mother Gayatri who, in the 1930s, was taken on a trip to Java in Indonesia — where her creativity, as an artist and dancer, was given space.
On her return, all those possibilities were thwarted. Later, she left her husband and son behind, and returned to her promised land.
Roy tracks a story of loss and possibility through both imagined lives and real historical characters (including the poet Rabindranath Tagore and German artist Walter Spies). She also adds a fresh perspective on the 1947 Partition of India, by beginning this social, political and personal story in the 1930s, then carrying it on for many decades more. KE
The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady (Allen and Unwin)
A warning — you might need to set aside a full day for this one. Because if you’re like me, this will be a book you can’t put down.
The 2010 murder of teenager David Auchterloine by friend Matt Milat (nephew of Ivan Milat) prompted Emily O’Grady’s debut novel.
(Supplied: Allen and Unwin)
Ten-year-old Cub lives with her family on an Australian rural property, next to an abandoned cattle farm and knackery. She doesn’t like to go near the knackery, which was once owned by her mysterious grandpa, Les.
When Cub’s estranged aunt and cousin move in to Les’s yellow weatherboard house just over the fence, family secrets begin to bubble to the surface. We learn that Les was a murderer — and the knackery was the scene of his gruesome crimes.
What’s it like to grow up in the shadow of a serial killer? Through Cub’s eyes, we see how the family has been ostracised by the community, and the fear and shame that her parents live with. But it’s Cub’s beloved older brother Cassie who is maybe struggling the most — and his menacing new friend Ian doesn’t help.
This is a chilling book that explores the different ways that trauma resonates through a family. But don’t just take my word for it: The Yellow House was this year’s winner of the Vogel Award, for an unpublished manuscript by an author aged under 35. CN
The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmed (Hachette)
The Lebs is inspired by its author’s experiences growing up in Punchbowl, south-west of Sydney.
Bani Adams is one of the few boys at Punchbowl Boys High who has a passion for literature. He loves Nabokov’s Lolita — and he has a crush on his English teacher. But his sensitivity is drowned out in the sea of hypermasculinity on display at his school, which is dominated by the Lebs.
Here, the term “Lebs” doesn’t just refer to Lebanese Australians; it’s an identity that can be applied to Middle Eastern or Muslim young men in Sydney’s West.
This novel will divide readers, but there’s no doubting its verve and originality. It gives an insight into the lives of the teenagers in Western Sydney, capturing a milieu that is rare in Australian literature. It’s terrain Ahmed knows well, having attended Punchbowl Boys High, which he compares to a prison.
There’s a lot of violence, homophobia and sexism in the novel — the author doesn’t recoil from an honest portrayal of life through the eyes of his protagonist.
The result is a lyrical, at times comical and often challenging read. SL