What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Staff Favourite Reads for 2018

 - Friday, November 02, 2018
David M: For me, it’s The Overstory by Richard Powers. Make no mistake. This is political literature. It is about trees and humans and the fate of the planet. It is a poetic call to arms. It is brilliant. No matter what theory prevails at any given time, I have always tended to think that good literature is potent in that it can at least influence our moral compass. I would like to believe that great literature will always influence us for the better. We have one decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change, and even the head of Shell has said that we need to plant the equivalent of another Amazon rainforest immediately. I read The Overstory before it was shortlisted for the Booker, and I am writing this on the day before the winner is announced. With luck, millions more will read it now. And do something worthwhile. ($33)

Tamarra: My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen—Lily Allen delves deep into her personal life in My Thoughts Exactly—she’s frank and brutally honest and doesn’t bother to sugar coat the good or the bad. Allen discusses her music, excess drug and alcohol use, and her mental health. She talks candidly about her chaotic childhood, the breakdown of her marriage, the ugly side of celebrity where men took advantage and of loss and grief. Respect to Lily for being so honest—it’s an engaging insight, and at odds with the woman who is often seen as brash and outspoken. She is smart, witty and wise, talented and beautifully flawed. ($35)

Louise: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje entranced me. Its shadowy, extraordinary characters, the crepuscular settings in both the English countryside and London, and the detailed, imaginative plot, all written with grace and clarity. A very literary thriller, a war book, and a love story ($30). The Only Story by Julian Barnes is also a memorable love story, but a heartbreaking one. The author’s exquisite writing is somewhat at odds with the harrowing but compelling story of two people taking a road less travelled. Very affecting. ($30)

Judy: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid—Saeed and Nadia must exit the life they are living as their city is destroyed around them. They find a door to scramble through and enter upon a new existence—via Greece to England & beyond. Their struggles, their resilience, their relationship engage us completely and yet the perspective afforded by the author is large, poetic. He tells us, through this fantastic novel, that we are all displaced, all lurching through doors to other lives—even the woman who lives her whole life in one place as the neighbourhood transforms utterly around her. To be alive on this planet is to be moved along. ... ‘and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, & our shared sorrow’.... A moving, intriguing and generous book full of great characters & encounters. ($20)

Stephen: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney—In 1918, a unique, mutating influenza virus, later to be called the Spanish Flu, arrived in France from Kansas. It became a pandemic that in three global waves between 1918 to 1920, infected 500 million people—a third of the world’s population—and killed between 50 to 100 million people worldwide. It surpassed the death toll of both WW1(18 million) and WW2 (60 million) and probably the two combined. Yet how many people today have even heard of it? Laura Spinney’s engrossing book is a scientific detective story of the origins, the course, the human response and the legacy—a century later—of the worst pandemic of modern times. It’s also a moving narrative of individual human tragedy on a worldwide scale.($23)

Morgan: White Houses by Amy Bloom

— A superbly written novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and her long-term companion and lover ‘Hick’, a journalist who covered the Depression and politics in a time when that was unusual. Written in Hick’s compelling voice, this beautiful novel interprets real people in the real world but rises above the ordinary to become all art ($28). I also loved Asymmetry, a debut novel by Lisa Halliday—written in seemingly unrelated sections, the fun is in working out how in the end, they do relate. A book about writing and fame and the modern world. ($28)


Andrew: I was gloriously stunned by Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (the conclusion to her Outline trilogy). Her babushka doll stylistics were an absolute eye-opener ($30). Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair was published late last year, but I read it over the summer and it is so consummate that it floored me ($19). But if I have to choose one book for the year it is The Only Story by Julian Barnes—this short novel packs a sucker-punch that had me reeling ($33).

James R: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid—I’ve wanted to read Hamid for a while, and finally got to it with Exit West. The story reads like a modern blend of Graham Greene and Paul Coehlo—weaving magical realism through an otherwise familiar world. As Saeed and Nadia escape the religious conflict that devastates their home, they share moments of fear, anger, and tenderness in the face of the unknown. It was a moving and (surprisingly) sweet journey, told without sanctimony or artifice. ($20)

Tatjana: All About Saul Leiter—Originally published to accompany a retrospective in Tokyo 2017, this book presents the photographer’s work in the best way. Of course it covers his much loved colour photography but also included his b/w photos, fashion magazine spreads, paintings and overpainted photographs. He was a master of composition, managing to layer information into photos that may at first sight look simple. His work is genius in its simplicity. ($40)

Scott V: The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin—Not only my best read for 2018, but my best non-fiction read for many years. The story of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and a group of magazine writers who would become pioneers of investigative journalism. An amazing read for anyone in the least bit interested in US history ($35). As for fiction, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton was a revelation. Not only a well-written page turner, but a journey back into Australian 1980s suburban culture. Set to become a classic. ($30)

Scott D: British/American historian Bernard Lewis wrote his entertaining and eventful memoir Notes on a Century at age 95. He reflects on a lifetime of engagement with the Middle East, first as an Orientalist scholar at the University of London and later as an academic in the United States and occasional adviser to Western governments and their allies in the Middle East. He knew personally many of the key players in the region during the last century and relates an endless store of surprising and frequently amusing anecdotes of political gamesmanship, misunderstandings and lost opportunities. While it cannot claim to be great literature Lewis’s memoir succeeds in putting a human face to the region’s years of conflict and to provide a historical framework on which to build a lasting peace. ($30)

David G: Julian Barnes has always been a prodigiously gifted novelist, although I’ve not always loved his work, as it shifted through genre and subject. But, for me, the last four books Sense of an Ending, Levels of Life, The Noise of Time, and now, The Only Story, show us a writer at the peak of his powers, and focused on what truly matters. The Only Story is, put simply, about love (what other story is there, in the end?) and it is bleak and uncompromising tale—but so beautifully, poignantly told that it has stayed with me, all year. As has Tim Winton’s gloriously distinctive and heartfelt The Shepherd’s Hut. I don’t know another writer who can match him for an Australian landscape and the predicament of survival within it. His books should be required reading for all of us. ($34.99)

Jack: There are several books still echoing in rooms at my house: Last Stories, by William Trevor ($30); On Kate Jennings by Erik Jensen ($18); If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin ($27); Endure by Alex Hutchinson ($33); The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner ($33); The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand by Geoff Dyer ($108). One book in particular, to quote Louis MacNeice, left the walls dancing over and over with its shadow: Reading With Patrick, a memoir by Michelle Kuo ($30), a Harvard graduate who volunteers for a temporary job at the Teach for America program based in Helena, Arkansas, in a high school ‘decrepit and accountable to nobody’. Two years after she leaves Helena, a former student, Patrick Browning, is jailed on a murder charge. Kuo abandons her law career, moves back to Arkansas and teaches him to read and write while he awaits trial. She brilliantly examines the effects of race, class, poverty and privilege. And observes of Patrick that ‘he had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterward was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me so little was required for him to develop intellectually—a quiet room, a pile of books and some adult guidance’.

James P: Less by Andrew Sean Greer—The Pulitzer Prize winner ticked all of the right boxes for me this year. There was something about Arthur Less’ odyssey of avoidance; punctuated with hilarious and profound moments (often simultaneously) that sang to my reader’s heart. I still catch myself daydreaming about certain scenes and the extraordinary cast of supporting characters who are all so vivid in my mind. ($20)

Jonathon: Two books particularly stood out this year. First, Lynne Ramsay made Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here into a startlingly spare film, which pointed me to the book. Ames’ curt thriller draws the psyche of an American veteran bent on purging his emotions, leaving him a hollow hired bludgeon specialising in rescuing children kidnapped into the child sex trade. You can imagine how that goes. But Ames’ asides on American society push this from pure grime to some sort of gravity. Second, Ronen Givony’s celebration of Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy provides a wonderful history of the comically pious punk scene of the early 1990s, giving an indispensible orientation for today’s alternative rock music, where hitting the mainstream is celebrated and the mainstream appears more like the do-it-yourself world than ever before. ($20)

Sally: The Lost Man is another great crime story from Jane Harper—perfect for summer reading. Like her first, The Dry, it’s redolent of the Outback—this time a huge cattle property in western Queensland. While it does have a murder at its centre—and a bizarre one at that—it’s more a gripping psychological thriller about the extended family who run the station. You can almost feel the heat
and dust. ($30)

Victoria: I have two favourite books that I read this year. I loved The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. No other writer writes about the Australian landscape or it’s characters, like him in my opinion. It is narrated by fifteen year old Jaxie, which is a powerful drive throughout the novel. He is on the run and alone in the harsh western Australian desert until he meets Finton MacGills who lives in the middle of nowhere in eponymous Shepherd’s Hut. Why is he there? Winton always leaves his reader thinking and this book stayed with me for a long while afterwards ($34.99). The other book I loved was published last year but I only got around to reading it this year—and that is Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Set in modern day London with its terrorism and prejudice’s—it was brave and sad and uncomfortable and wonderfully written. ($20)

Lynndy: Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee—This is the sort of story that lingers ever after in your mind; the sort of book that in 30 years’ time bookshop customers will open their enquiry with ‘I want a copy of a book I read when I was a kid; can’t recall the exact title but I absolutely adored it and read it over and over again...’ The further into this book I read, the more slowly I did so, wanting to stay with and savour the story of Lenny and her younger brother Davy whose gigantism progressively forces him to become isolated from the outside world. The siblings experience much of the world vicariously through the weekly issues of a Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, and Lenny, as family chronicler, allows us to engage with everyone who intersects with their single parent family. Set in the 1970s, Foxlee’s novel is populated by slightly offbeat characters and warm humour. What’s to like about this book? Everything! ($20)

Viki: I found Michael Lewis’ new outing, The Fifth Risk ($39.99), not only a great read, as are all his books, but, despite the rather bleak picture he paints of a Trump ‘government’, I also found it truly inspiring. His portraits of people who give their lives and talents to the less well remunerated and certainly less celebrated life of public service (only ever noticed when something goes wrong)—working for the common good rather than opting for the outrageously overpaid and generally rapacious corporate sector—are enough to encourage a late life leap into the bureaucracy before it’s all been sold off, or farmed out to high-priced consultants. I encourage parents to give this to their kids in the hope it inspires them likewise. While still on the subject of hoping for the future—I also really enjoyed the new Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered ($29.99).

Ingrid: Beautifully written, and carefully structured Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a contemporary coming of age love story. Marianne and Connell attend the same school, but come from very different backgrounds and families. The reader gets to know them as they navigate their friendship and relationships through the final year of high school to University in Dublin and beyond. ($30)

Janice: First, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Well, Eleanor is not even remotely fine, rather she is a bit of a mess. With no friends at work or at home, she spends her week days alienated from her colleagues and spends her weekends drinking vodka. She lives a life of endless routine, wearing the same clothes to work every day, eating the same lunch. Then something happens, and Eleanor discovers a new way of living, one that brings friends, hope and happiness ... and a dog. Loved it. ($25)
Second, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. This is a joy of a book. Keiko is a convenience store worker and she loves her job. She loves having everything in order, looking neat & tidy. She finds peace and purpose in simple daily tasks. But this isn’t right for an educated Japanese woman—her family and friends all think she is weird, and pressure her to find a partner and settle down. How Keiko finds a partner, and how she tries to live a life away from the convenience store, makes a great read. Funny, quirky, absurd, this book is for those, like me, who often find themselves at odds with the world. Wonderful! ($25)