What We're Reading 


Find out here what we are reading and what we think of it. Sure, we're in the business of selling books, so we are not going to dwell on the books we loathe, but we hope the opinions you'll find here are a touch more unfiltered and genuine than what you'll read on the back of the jacket.   

If that's not enough, don't forget we have regular columnists in David, Morgan, Janice, Louise and Sonia. Gleebooks - where our bedside tables do the hard yards to help preserve yours. 

  

Best of 2019

 - Friday, October 18, 2019
Jonathon: My first pick of 2019 is The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I really enjoyed the difference in style between Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale and this year’s sequel. The first book is the closely knit, inner monologue of Offred/June, whereas this sequel draws in more voices to create a broader, more tactile picture of Gilead. Atwood’s characters really highlight just how bizarre and threatening both the physical and psychological worlds of Gilead were, and give an unexpected twist to the theocracy’s power centre. You’ll devour this quickly! My second pick is the unmissable The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. It’s a stunning re-evaluation of capitalism in the digital age. Zuboff argues that we are not so much the products of ‘free’ social media apps, but the raw materials of a distinct mode of production. Zuboff traces the invention of a world without privacy or personal sovereignty, where social media platforms turn our inner lives into grist for their data product mills. Scary, but also hopeful for push back. Zuboff writes beautifully to boot.


Hannah: Fans of Silvia Federici have been spoiled of late; her Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism & the Politics of the Commons and the incisive, brilliant and seemingly feverishly written volume Witches, Witch-hunting & Women were a real treat. She has a lot to say and not enough time to say it! Luckily, her fans are able to savour not only her work, but also critiques of her work, and in June we were blessed with Commoning with George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici—a collection of essays honouring & exploring Federici and her colleague George Caffentzis’ contributions to anti-capitalism, primitive accumulation and the commons, feminism, reproductive labour, and Marx’s value theory. I cannot recommend this highly enough either as a guidebook for the beginner or as a pleasurable read for the most seasoned of comrades.


Victoria: I have three favourite books that I read this year. Number one is the one that stayed with me the longest which was The Overstory by Richard Powers. Beautifully and cleverly written,it starts with nine short stories about a person or family and a tree and then bringing all those stories together to create something so very important to us all. After reading it, I wanted to walk where there are trees and give every child born, a seedling. The other two books I want to recommend are The Friend by Sigrid Nunez  and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.


Janice: My favourite book of the year is Faber & Faber The Untold Story by Toby Faber, the Grandson of  Geoffrey Faber, founder of the publishing house. I have been a bookseller for many years, and have seen publishers come and go, but  Faber & Faber have always been there, publishing great books, from authors such as T. S .Eliot, W. H. Auden and William Golding, whose first reader’s report  on The  Lord of the Flies is a joy to read. I still have the first copies of  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Ariel and The Colossus, that I bought so long ago, along with my treasured copy of Archy & Mehitabel. This book is a delight from beginning to end. It is a collection of letters, diaries and memos, from the Faber archives, and it would take far to long to mention all the wonderful stories of once obscure but now famous authors, novelists, poets and playwrights published by this company. Geoffrey Faber was an eccentric, clever man, publisher, poet & academic, but with little head for business—for example he told Auden: ‘You’re very obscure you know, but I am glad to have The Waste Land, although I wonder if I am especially stupid’. The company has thrived, despite shaky beginnings, to become the publisher so respected and loved today. You need not be a bookseller or publisher to enjoy this book, it is such an entertaining and colourful and revealing look behind the scenes of one of the truly great publishing houses of the twentieth century.


Tim: My book of the year was Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. I was captivated by it’s very clever re-imagining of 20th century history, and by the intriguing portrayal of the protagonists devolving relationship with a sentient, charismatic robot. The whole book seemed entirely plausible and was beautifully written. 


Ingrid: Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read. A phone call disrupts the languid evening, and the lives of the all the characters are irrevocably changed. I couldn’t put this book down. Another very different book, Adrian McKinty’s latest crime thriller, The Chain, will also keep you reading all night. Although part way through you may stop to frantically check your privacy settings on Facebook. The Chain is an insidious dark web ring forcing parents to pay a ransom and then kidnap a child before their own child is released. For more classic crime, read Maigret’s Pickpocket. It was first published in 1967, and newly translated this year as part of Penguin’s ambitious program to publish new translations of all Georges Simenon’s work. It has all the twists and turns, and atmosphere of a time without mobile phones and internet. ($30)


Sally: My favorite book of the year would have to be Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s an ambitious book with a number of fascinating characters whose paths finally cross through their shared passion for trees. Poetic, philosophical and topical , its an enthralling yarn. Another standout for me was Pachinko  by Lee Min Jin—a family saga about Korean migrants in 20th c Japan. The female characters especially are strong and resilient as they try and support their families and remain true to their culture in a profoundly racist society. Good to read something that gives an insight into a little known community. 


Sonia: My favourite for the year is Underland by Robert Macfarlane, but David Brooks’ The Grass Library (see my column this month) is right up there too and I am LOVING Catherine Schine’s The Grammarians. PS I’d have said Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth for best book but I am such a wimp about violence. However the subject matter— the ‘dispersal’ of Indigenous Australians in protection of settler rights in 1880s QLD—makes it an important book despite/because of the horror.


Jack:  Lots to admire this year (Lanny by Max Porter, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib and Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells to name a few. However, the worn-out binding on my copy of Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers (edited by Kit de Waal) is evidence of the time it’s spent in my hands—and on my mind. ‘Low esteem wants to party’, says one contributor and it does between the pages of this exhilarating collection of essays, memoirs and short stories.


John: Time again for selecting our Book of the Year—so soon, and so many wonderful possibilities. For me: Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind—a book that manages to tread the line between scholarly and accessible. For crime lovers I can recommend Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Gary Bell—a Rumpolesque romp down the Old Bailey, beware ... Elliot Rook QC is not the man he purports to be. But my pick of the year is Kate McClymont’s Dead Man Walking—the extraordinary story of the murder of Michael McGurk and a look at Sydney’s underbelly this century. If you thought the world of ‘colourful racing identities’ and ‘well known Sydney business men’ belonged in those ancient, corrupt days of the 20th C, this book will change your mind.


David G: Underland by Robert MacFarlane beautiful book about landscape, the earth and man’s relationship with it. Lyrical and personal, urgent and impassioned:  ‘time is profoundly out of joint, and so is place’. He’s a great writer about the natural world and this is his best, and most important, book.


Scott D: My favorite read this year was also the shortest—Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli. Set during the Russian Civil War in 1919 as Spring signals the resumption of hostilities on the Romanian front line, four young soldiers idle away their last days of freedom. Deceptively simple and profoundly moving Mingarelli’s novella was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker prize and described by past winner Hilary Mantel as ‘A small miracle of a book, perfectly imagined and perfectly achieved’.


Louise: Laura Cumming’s evocative memoir of her beloved mother’s childhood, On Chapel Sands, is evocative and thought provoking, and resonates with the author’s thoughtful way of looking at the world. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, was my favourite fiction book; a dark fairytale that travels back and forth in time with a family whose destiny is inextricably entwined with the extraordinary house they live in, and are cast out of. Finally, I’d also really like to recommend Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson, is a book about a book, and its most unlikely author, Miss Barbara Buncle. Written in 1932, it is a most ingenious, amusing story about life in an archetypal English village. Now published (beautifully, and alas, expensively) by Persephone Books, there’s more to this cosy book than meets the eye.


Tatjana: If I say The Overstory by Richard Powers is about trees it sounds boring, but this ecological epic has changed the way I look at trees. It turns out trees live lives similar to ours & they exhibit social behaviours, communicating with each other through a vast network of root systems.This of course happens slowly over centuries and has been scientifically proven (see the brilliant The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben). But it’s the way Richard Powers uses structure, narrative and his disparate characters to draw the reader into a perspective of a vast primordial history, of longer lived lives that are more subtly developed than our own that gets under your skin. He manages to both celebrate the world’s grandest life forms—trees—and warn about the greatest crisis of our time, that of climate change & biodiversity collapse.


Scott V: This Storm by James Ellroy—set in Los Angeles in 1942 after Pearl Harbour, this is the second installment in Ellroy’s new L.A. Quartet. Along with the usual diet of violence, murders, corrupt cops, celebrities and debauchery, you can now throw in a gold heist, fifth columnist activity, Nazis and massive thunderstorms. (Ellroy is not for the faint-hearted.) His short punchy no-nonsense writing style is an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, you’re hooked. God bless his dark unscrupulous heart.


Viki: I am surprised to be saying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. The judges may not have favoured Ellman with a half (or a third) of a Man/Booker this year, but despite my general disinterest in experimental/stream of consciousness writing I have found Ducks to be an addictive, irritating and calming (at the same time) immersion in this tidal wave of anxieties, plans, lists, opinions, the fact is the fact is the fact is factoids running through a distracted 21st century multi-multi-tasking mind. PS—the US edition may be a couple of dollars more, but the cover is so much better than the UK edition. A bright gouache of a duck bobbing—for more factoids, or perhaps cooling its head in a blue rippling pond of forgetfulness—whatever, it offers a salve on closing the book to the cacophony of words inside.


Andrew: Novels of decidedly poetic prose more often than not fall way short of the mark for me, but this year On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong excelled where so many others have flailed. The last chapter was as devastating a conclusion to a novel as any I have read. A shout out, too, to The Wall by John Lanchester. Not perfect but a captivating and melancholy page-turner nevertheless. The Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published late last year, is a consummate novella that gained a little traction this year, but deserves far greater recognition. And finally in non-fiction, The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour filled me with horror and fascination at every turn; rich in cultural and psychological theory, it’s an erudite, horrifying exposition of what social media is doing to our brains and our society, and as such proved a game-changer for me.


Morgan: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert—Gilbert said she wanted to write a book that, in these troubled (Trumpian) times, would ‘go down like a glass of champagne’. In this she has brilliantly succeeded. A great holiday read. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak—A beautifully written story about a group of friends living in the margins of modern Istanbul, with the gorgeous prostitute Leila, at its centre. Evocative and tender, this is a book not to be missed. Shortlisted for the Booker this year.


Stephen: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold—British social historian and novelist Rubenhold investigates the lives of five women—Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly—the ‘canonical’ five, killed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, London between August and November 1888. Their murderer is completely absent from this story. Through researching parish registers, rate books, newspaper articles, coroner’s inquests—although three of these are missing—workhouse archives and birth, marriage and death certificates, Rubenhold brings them back to life and takes us through every aspect of their life – from the moment they are born to the moment they are killed. We see their hopes and their dreams as well as their struggles. We are also taken down the dark path that led them to their circumstances —alone and destitute in Whitechapel.


Judy: Two standout reads this year for me—each one affording that sense of delighted surprise: Emilie Pine’s Notes To Self—essays of memoir fresh, bold and most beautifully structured to reveal a self I felt most drawn to. And Anna Burns’ Milkman written in wonderful, immersive Irish prose that takes you into a divided neighbourhood in Northern Ireland in the 70s. Our narrator introduces us to a craziness that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. The novel is funny, frightening and so disquieting.


David M: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee—Smack in the zone for the surge of exploration and learning that characterized the European Renaissance, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, Hernando, sets out, amongst other things, to create the ultimate library. An extraordinary tale of the mind and spirit, wonderfully told. Right up my street.

October 2019

 - Wednesday, October 09, 2019
SCOTT V: Stasiland by Anna Funder & The Spy & the Traitor by Ben Macintyre—After watching the excellent HBO series Chernobyl, I decided to stay behind the iron curtain and picked up Stasiland by Anna Funder, which I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. It’s a fascinating, humane and tragic (and occasionally humorous) look at the lives of East Germans under communist rule—specifically under the eye of the Stasi: the state police. The tales include near-escapes over the Berlin Wall by a teenager; an interview with the man who actually painted the line where the wall was built; and a heart-breaking story of a family divided between the two Germanys, among many other first-hand accounts. Much of the appeal of this classic work comes from the author’s own weird and wonderful experiences in East Germany and her empathy with the men and women she interviews.

My cold-war momentum then quickened with Ben Macintyre’s The Spy & the Traitor, recommended by my colleagues and John Le Carré, who calls it the best true spy story he has ever read. I have to agree. This story gripped me from page one and never let go. It’s about the recruitment and attempted defection of British Intelligence’s most valuable asset in the KGB, Colonel Gordievsky. It reads like a Tom Clancy spy thriller and I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened. The most chilling aspect is just how high the stakes were, not only for Gordievsky but between the two nuclear superpowers who could have easily blundered into a nuclear exchange if not for the rogue KGB agent.

STEF The Katharina Code and The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst—Norwegian author, Jørn Lier Horst is my latest find. On perusing the crime pages of last month’s Gleaner and seeing The Cabin, I knew I was in for a treat—especially once I realised it was book two in the Chief Inspector William Wisting series, which started off with The Katharina Code. These are great detective reads, the focus is all on the solving of solving aq crime. Both stories introduce the reader to a cold case and as the investigation and evidence is re-examined and new leads are discovered you find yourself shadowing Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team of investigators, including his journalist daughter, Line. Henning Mankell readers will like Hørst, and he is bound (I’m hoping) to deliver many more books in the Wisting series.

CHLOE: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez—This is a remarkable book about an unusual trifecta of grief, writing and dogs. The unnamed protagonist, who is a writer and writing teacher, finds herself suddenly lumbered with responsibility for a middle-aged Great Dane following the suicide of a dear friend. Although she is not in the market for a pet, the narrator finds herself rearranging her entire life around the dog, Apollo. She wonders constantly what Apollo is thinking, how he is grieving for his lost owner and how she can best provide for him in his few remaining years. Dogs are not allowed in her apartment building and the Great Dane is not a subtle breed to be hiding, so the narrator soon finds herself facing homelessness as well as social isolation from the many friends who think she is crazy to be harbouring the dog.
Nunez’s writing is direct, spare and conversational. It reminded me very much of Jenny Offill, one of my favourite writers, in that she writes in poignant vignettes that seem to speak directly of her own experiences—particularly her difficulties with writer’s block, and the idea that autofiction might be a cure. (It seems that dogs can also benefit from the autofiction cure. While grieving, Apollo destroys an enormous volume of Knausgaard. Later, he places the same title by the narrator’s side and tacitly asks her to read from it.) Like Offill, Nunez’s writing also offers a myriad random facts that you’ll have to interrupt your reading to verify. (Allow me to save you the effort in one such case: yes, Ted Bundy did volunteer at a suicide-prevention hotline.)
The theme of suicide is woven throughout the book and for this reason many might find it difficult, but despite this it is a rather hopeful book. The narrator has done her best by her friend and by Apollo, and slowly, she does come to know this. She has also found a writing process that has started as a cure for one thing and ended as a cure for another. She has written herself better.

JOHN: The Secrets We Kept is a spy story set in the late 1950s. Dr Zhivago Has been banned in the USSR and the CIA plan to use the book against the Soviets  and will go to extraordinary measures to procure a copy. What makes this book so different from other Cold War thrillers is that the main characters are women, and the males are in supporting roles. It is refreshing to see women occupy centre stage rather than being relegated to the typing pool or the bedroom. Plot wise the book is on par with Le Carre or Robert Littell’s excellent novels of the CIA The Company and Legends. I loved it!

September 2019

 - Tuesday, August 27, 2019
John: Over the last several weeks I have read the first ten books in the Patrick O’Brian books featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  I’ve had this whole series sitting on the shelf awaiting my attention for possibly 15 years. And having finally begun, I find myself to be no exception to the readers I’ve seen fall prey to the O’Brian addiction—I find myself compelled towards the next episode, while trying to limit myself because I don’t want them to end. Aubrey is a Commander, and later Post Captain, in the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Stephen Maturin is his friend, musician, Physician, naturalist, naval surgeon and spy. The books are set in the same period as Jane Austen’s work but show a very different side of Britain (where the non-inheriting second and third sons in an Austen novel may choose the navy as a career). This is Britain as a World Power. The battle scenes are exciting but O’Brian doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Giant splinters from the breached structure of the ships leave men dead and horribly injured. O’Brien has managed to create characters with complex inner lives and while much happens on the high seas, Jack and Stephen’s lives are very different, and equally compelling ashore. This is compulsive reading and I am looking forward to the remaining eleven books in the series. 

Andrew: I’ve just started Inland by Tea Obreht and so far it is worthy of the swag of rapturous reviews it has received. It has one of those first sentences that immediately drops you into a time and place and compels you to keep reading:  ‘When those men rode down to the fording place last night, I thought us done for.’ Serbian-American Obreht made her name with The Tiger’s Wife which was set in an unnamed Balkan country, but with this, her sophomore effort, she confidently shifts to the American West of Arizona in 1893.

Louise: Ann Patchett’s new book The Dutch House has been a refreshing reading experience for me. Every other book I’ve read recently seems to be about sociopaths, and it’s nice to read about characters I’d be happy to meet in real life. It’s beautifully written—a very literate book—and full of fairytale and allegory. All of this is underneath the surface, while the narrative drives along with a most compelling plot, and extremely engaging characters. 

Janice: It has been a while since I read a Fred Vargus and I’d forgotten how good they are. A colleague gave me a copy of the latest and I was delighted to find that Vargus has not lost her touch with her latest—This Poison will Remain. I had forgotten how much I loved Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsburg, head of the Paris Serious Crimes Squad. Another of my favourite fictional policemen, who love their food and wine, and rely on instinct and feelings to solve crime. 

 Morgan: On Drugs, is—I have to use the word—mind-blowing. Brilliant in its analysis, lyrical in its prose and intellectually rigorous (he can’t help himself!), this is a book about addiction, mental health and the desire so strong in Fleming to re-invent himself. ‘I loved the idea that one could simply swallow something and be transformed as a result;  the notion transfixed me.’  Fleming’s writing is superb and to use another well-worn phrase, this book is searingly honest and very powerful for it. There’s no sentimentality, no self-pity and no lecturing. A memoir not to be missed.

August 2019

 - Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Chloe Groom: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill—It’s very rare, in my frantic life, that I re-read a book, but Dept. of Speculation is an exception. My most recent reading of JennyOffill’s thin gem of a book was probably my sixth, and I’ll be very happy to go back and read it again. It’s quite simply the clearest depiction of the constant compromise of adult life I’ve ever read. That makes it sound depressing, but it’s also one of the funniest, self-deprecating novels I know. It has none of the annoying cockiness that so many self-referential authors display (Franzen; Safran Foer; other people whose names aren’t Jonathan) and yet there is clearly so much of Jenny Offill in this book. In the first part, the protagonist speaks in the first person and through a series of very short, unconnected but overall chronological vignettes we learn about her life as a creative writing teacher, her marriage to the host of an obscure music show, and her hilarious, very realistic struggles with parenthood. (She also offers tit-bits of general knowledge that you’ll find yourself wasting hours trying to verify. In part two the protagonist has become ‘the wife’ and the narrative switches to the third person. A family emergency, which for mystery’s sake I won’t describe, has driven her at least partly towards madness. Whereas in part one, she was so much more than a wife, in part two she feels defined and depressed by that role—this second half is a deconstruction and reconstruction of a family in a beautiful, complicated way. I first read it close to five years ago when I was in the very early stages of parenthood. Every moment of love and pain rang true. Yet this is not just a book for parents. Offill’s understanding of relationships of all kinds is spot-on, and her images will stay with you forever. Please read this book. It’s very short, it’s truly wonderful, and you won’t regret it. (Offill has a new book coming out in 2020 called American Weather which tells the story of a librarian-cum-fake-shrink who finds herself drawn into the polarised world of left-wingers worried about extreme weather and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilisation.)


Stef: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong—Ocean Vuong is a celebrated young American poet and this discipline shines through when reading this, his first novel. His prose is so perfectly nuanced, capturing our often conflicted emotions,  especially when it comes to love,  love of our family,  friends and lovers. The book is written as a letter from a son to a mother who can’t read. The letter writer, Little Dog, is in his late twenties and his epistle unearths a family history that begins in Vietnam before he was born and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known. Vuong draws on his family’s migrant experience, his difference in a new land.  He explores his sexuality and the barriers he must break down. His observations of the passing of time, change in seasons and of life and death are truly poetic. If you only read one book this year,  make it this one—it is so raw, so powerful and so beautiful.  Andrew: This debut novel from the author of the acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds is wonderful. Narrated by a young Vietnamese immigrant to the USA, Little Dog, written as a letter to his mother Rose. Whether it is  napalm and gasoline infused descriptions of seventies Saigon or the heady acetone drenched backdrop of a nail bar in middle American—(the work that Rose scrapes by on)  Vuong’s writing is immediate and raw, startling and corrosive.  Definitely worth checking out, and absolutely a writer to watch.

Roger: Prompted by the release of Big Sky ( Kate Atkinson’s new novel in the eccentrically brilliant series featuring ex soldier, ex cop, now nearly ex private eye, Jackson Brodie) I took advantage of a recent holiday at son’s family’s  house in beautiful Bermagui to get stuck into the backlist of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series of novels. I first fell in love with Atkinson’s writing when I laughed out loud at her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I had read and loved the first Brodie book, Case Histories, when it came out in 2004. But somehow work and personal pressures had kept me away from the three subsequent books featuring the lovable Jackson, victim (or Influencer?) of fate. And now there was this fifth coming out—so I had to catch up. And what an exciting ride it is. Good characters, irony and comedy galore combined with tragedy on steroids in fast moving, zanily coincidental but emphatically believable plots, ( What is the plural of ‘Deus ex machina’?). What more could you want in the modern British novel. They stand alone, but the best way to read them is in order as Jackson struggles and sails through adversity and good fortune adapting  himself to the changes of life and society.  We need someone to publish a book The Jackson Brodie Novels and Philosophy.)
If you want to catch up we have two early books in the series: Case Histories and Started Early, Took My Dog in stock at the special price of $12. And of course Big Sky

in stock at the special price for $29.99.


July 2019

 - Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Andrew: The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith—Dominic Smith has produced a wonderful follow-up to his bestseller, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, with an international adventure seen through the eyes of a brilliant silent film auteur.  Smith has that wonderful juggler’s skill of keeping all the balls in the air with his fiction. He effortlessly uses social and historical research across a range of locales (this one opens in a seedy dive of a hotel in fifties Hollywood, but then zig zags from 1890s Paris, to a vaudeville addicted New Jersey to battlelines of the First World War), and he conjures up engaging characters in a matter of sentences. Throw in a knack for moving plot along at a cracking pace, and a consummate knowledge of his subject, and you’ve got a singularly good fiction writer of the William Boyd ilk. I was delighted by the cameo appearance of a late nineteenth century Tamarama too—if you don’t know why Wonderland Avenue is named as such, I implore you to Google it! 

Stef: The Burnt Country by Joy Rhoades—This is the sequel to The Woolgrower’s Companion, but can be read as a stand-alone. I’ve been glued to my armchair finishing it this morning—it’s not normally my genre, but I really wanted to see if Rhoades could follow up with a good sequel to Woolgrower’s, and she has. It’s 1948 and Kate Dowd is running Amiens, a sizeable sheep station in NSW. The cards are stacked against her—estranged husband Jack wants an outlandish amount of money to walk away from their marriage and keep her honour intact; the neighbouring farmer who has neglected his property and put both properties at risk is sowing seeds of doubt about Kate’s farming and fire protection management; a disgruntled former property manager is out to seek revenge; not to mention the local policeman, bank manager and store owner, come volunteer fire Captain—who all disapprove of Kate as a landholder; plus the Aborigines Welfare Board, who are threatening to dismantle Kate’s household by removing either Daisy, Kate’s domestic, or Pearl—Daisy’s daughter and Kate’s half-sister. What a thrilling read! Drama, plenty of tension and a touch of romance—just enough to keep hope alive. Due for release in August.

Jonathon: Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason—A call to arms, for a new radical humanism, inspired by Aristotle, The Enlightenment and Marxism. Mason has a similar diagnosis of our present to alt-right figures like Jordan Peterson: postmodernism and the chaos and disorientation, he argues, it has lead to. The coming age of AI and machines that may well control us—that some already call for our surrender to—is the fire behind Mason’s plea for a return to an ethics based on global, human-oriented goals. Some great analysis of the present moment here; and some interesting takes on Marx’s legacy—and the legacy of humanism.

David M: Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott—
I am ashamed to reveal that I have only just caught up with this Australian classic. With superb control of narrative voice and flow, and a wonderful ear for language, thought and feeling, a compelling story that is guided to its satisfying conclusion. Careful, don’t miss it.

Jack: The Porpoise by Mark Haddon—Oh dear, one of those compulsive novels that turn the stomach, break the heart and create an urgent need to witness violent retribution. Is that a recommendation? Nervously, yes...

Judy: Milkman by Anna Burns—Swept into a divided neighbourhood in 1970s Northern Ireland on a tide of rich English Irish prose—think Eimear McBride meets Anne Enright—that is the experience of reading Milkman. Years of violence and local warfare drives people crazy. But precisely what sort of crazy? Well this is the novel that will take you to scenarios to rival Samuel Beckett. How walking-while-reading puts a person beyond-the-pale. How attracting the ownership intentions (otherwise called ‘romantic hostilities’) of a Renouncer Official—Milkman—can mark you out for death from Renouncers and The State alike. How working assiduously on your skills of not being present, being non-responsive, eats away and hollows you out in bizarre ways. How looking at, and seeing, a sunset is probably subversive. The book is frightening, so disquieting, and outrageously funny. Our narrator is known to us only as ‘maybe–girlfriend’, sister-in-law, daughter, older sister to ‘wee sisters’, and yet I was so drawn to her. She is a deeply compassionate survivor along with her community of ‘people of the rumour’.

June 2019

 - Thursday, May 30, 2019

Morgan: Walking on the Ceiling, Aysegul Savas  Like Crudo, The Friend and Asymmetry, this is also an auto-fiction about a young woman writer and her friendship with an older male writer. Set in Paris and Istanbul, Savas, a Turkish author, examines her difficult childhood in Istanbul and her troubled relationship with her strange, nervous mother as she walks the streets of Paris with her friend. Beautifully written, warm and compassionate, this book is also a sad indictment of what is happening to the beautiful old city of Istanbul as the government razes much of it down in the name of progress.


John: The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of a devastating fire in the main Public Library in Los Angeles. Orlean, of course, makes it about far more than that. It’s about the role of the library in society, the eccentric early librarians, the fire itself and the devastation it caused when 700,000 books were destroyed. It’s also a true crime story and the story of the person who may have started the fire. As if this wasn’t enough, there is also Orlean’s wonderful prose.... plus 

Rivers of London Series (Books 1 to 6)  by Ben Aaronovitch—These books have been something of a guilty pleasure. Over the past few months I have read the first six novels and thoroughly enjoyed them. Ben Aaronovitch  blends police procedural and contemporary fantasy. With a nod to Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde and J K Rowling these plot driven tales are great entertainment.



David M: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey—A medieval mystery, as the blurbs say. But much more than just that. Cleverly structured and convincingly involved with the lives of the people, the beliefs and the world view of the time, this novel has at its heart crimes and failures which are as profoundly significant today as they were then. Only now it’s not just a single village we’re talking about.


Andrew: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo—This book—a work of non-fiction due for publication next month—has a massive buzz about it.  From Leigh Sales to Elizabeth Gilbert, it seems it could  well prove to be the book one needs to have an opinion on this year. And, well, I don’t quite have an opinion... yet. Basically it is the emotional and sexual lives of three women—broken up and then interwoven chapter by chapter—portrayed by Taddeo with an almost shocking vociferousness. She has no qualms about projecting herself into the point of view of these women; she gets under their skin more readily than one could imagine possible. Whilst it is bound to polarise readers, what lifts the book well above being a sensational pot boiler is that Taddeo writes exceptionally, startlingly,  well.  I am not far in but I have found myself in equal measure both transfixed and discomforted.


Victoria: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is a multilayered story: A family of four on a road trip from New York to Arizona in search of the history of the Apaches. On this road trip, the family pack seven archive boxes with their favourite or important things— which reveal themselves throughout the book. Alongside this story of family dynamics is the story of thousands of Mexican children being smuggled across the US border which is being documented by one of the parents. Fascinating novel and extremely well written. I have not read Luiselli before—and Lost Children makes me want to read more. 


Jonathon: Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead—A book about facing the ghosts in our past; what we want to but cannot forget. Whitehead fictionalises the true story of a Florida juvenile prison during the US civil rights era, showing the brutality inflicted on children there and tracing its consequences decades later. He powerfully contrasts the idealism of those inspired by MLK with the pragmatism of those not yet ready to trust hope. I particularly enjoyed his snapshots of New York City and the way he ends this story—somewhere between sweet and bitter. (due in July)


Stef: I Built No Schools in Kenya, A Year of Unmitigated Madness by Kirsten Drysdale—is a surprising and often laugh out loud tale of how Kirsten Drysdale found herself caring for an elderly white man with dementia, in Nairobi, Kenya. At times you wonder who has really lost the plot - Walt, the dementia suffere; Marguerite, Walt’s 2nd wife, who is seen as a threat by her step-daughter; or Fiona, Walt’s daughter, micromanaging Walts’ care from her home in the UK. Not to mention the carers, who have to manage every minute of Walt’s waking day—from arranging his clothes in reverse order to help him get dressed to substituting Ribena in the wine bottle so Walt can still enjoy a glass of wine with his meals. As Walt’s dementia worsens the Symth household more isolated and more crazy.  Kirsten finds herself on a crash course on managing dementia and toxic family dynamics; and observing British Colonialism and the social and racial attitudes of the master of the household; and discovering a deep affinity to Africa.

May 2019

 - Thursday, May 09, 2019
David:  Underland: A Deep Time Journey  is thrillingly ambitious, and important. This is a journey through ‘deep time’, traversing myth, the spread of geological time across the aeons till the present day. Rich in scientific and historical detail, it is still an extremely personal narrative, written with Macfarlane’s trademark lyricism, and full of extraordinary anecdotes of his own travels in the ‘underland’ (the catacombs of ancient Paris).   

Morgan: I was hugely impressed with Miriam Sved’s A Universe of Sufficient Size which is partly based on Sved’s grandmother. It is the story of a group of young Jewish mathematicians in Hungary before the war who would meet at a park to discuss their latest work—now that they are banned from attending the University. The story is told as Eszter’s daughter, Illy in Sydney in 2007, reads her mother’s diaries and begins to understand what a brilliant and complex woman she really is. The narrative jumps between contemporary Sydney and pre-war Hungary and post-war Brooklyn and ends with a fantastic twist. A fascinating story beautifully told.
  
Steve: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather—In 1848 two French, Catholic priests—Jean Marie Latour and Father Vaillant—are sent to New Mexico to establish a diocese in a country where the Faith has slumbered for centuries. Published in 1927, Willa Cather (1873–1947) had written about, visited and worked in the Indian villages of the Southwest for a decade before she wrote this book. The title may arouse expectations that are not met. The Archbishop’s death—solitary and peacefully contemplative in the land he has grown to love—is only one incident in the series of events, none of which are given much dramatic weight. Some reviewers declared it not a novel at all. The unobtrusive style and structure made the book hard to classify. Replied the author: ‘Why bother? I prefer to call it a narrative.’ A narrative of serene language and timeless simplicity. A masterpiece.


Jack: Lanny by Max Porter—An intoxicating book akin to flicking a radio dial end to end and hitting on a chant, a fable, a warning and a folkloric hymn. Tune into its frequencies and Max Porter will put a spell on you.


Victoria: Fusion by Kate Richards—This is a weird but compelling story about four people (well...you could say three as two of them are conjoined) living on the fringes of society for different reasons—but they care for each other as no-one else will. It raises questions of difference and love and dependency which is woven through a haunting tale. A well written first novel by this Australian writer.

 


Jonathon: You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian—Hell yes! This is such a fun feminist horror read. Roupenian is something like an edgier Sally Rooney, writing on sex, dating and relationships. Lots of the stories have a horror element, like the creepy take on gaslighting in The Matchbox Sign, or simply they present some horrific aspect of toxic masculinity, as in Cat Person. I read many of these stories either gleeful or worried that they were all too familiar. Loved it.


Andrew: Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le is the author of an acclaimed short story collection, The Boat—the title story of which remains one of the most powerful and heartrending stories I’ve ever read. Its portrayal of refugees escaping from the Vietcong by boat is gut-wrenching, and has remained a moral touchstone for me in relation to the plight of refugees. I’ve been waiting eagerly for a decade for his debut novel, but, in the meantime, am delighted that he is publishing an appreciation of On David Malouf,  for Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series this month. Which is my rather lengthy explanation of why I’ve decided to pick up The Great World by David Malouf. This would have to be one of Malouf’s finest novels. I’m a little over halfway through but am finding it enthralling. It has so far flitted consummately from the Hawkesbury River, to a depression era Strathfield mansion, to the Burma Railway, to a raucous postwar Darlinghurst Road, and as such must be one of the great novels of Sydney, and of World War Two. Malouf’s prose soars in its realism one moment and swoops effortlessly into the metaphysical with the poeticism and precision of a bird of prey.


John: Set mainly in Paris and Israel, A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon is a great international thriller. When an Israeli citizen is kidnapped and later found murdered at Charles de Gaul airport an overworked French detective is joined by an Israeli ‘investigator’ Colonel Zeev Abadi who is in fact from one of Israel’s most secret intelligence agencies, Unit 8200. The chapters are short and pacey with the author sharing information as the story unfolds. Who was the target of the abduction and murder? Who are the assassins? The motivation of various key players slowly becomes clear—some acting in their own interest others are acting on behalf of the State. Bureaucratic rivalries and politics continually interfere with the investigation making it a perfectly believable scenario in the era of Trump and Netanyahu. A terrific page turner!


Viki: At the moment I’m relaxing with a read of Ben Elton’s new book Identity Crisis—an entertaining Gordian tangle of identity politics and #everything. So far Elton has managed to traverse every convoluted iteration of the identity debate without sounding like a whining old white guy, and I love the concept of England hopping on bandwagon and opting out of Great Britain - someone's sure to hashtag it and run. Elton’s book brings to mind an Australian book I really enjoyed last year—Ken Saunders' 2028. If you haven’t read it, this often laugh out loud (and to my mind entirely plausible) solution to our tax cuts for votes Australian democracy might give you some relief from the 2019 election carpet bombing. The other book I have open is Brian Phillips’ collection of essays, Impossible Owls. What a fantastic writer. I give you Phillips on Prince Charles: ‘He has the bearing of a man who has fought bitterly, with the tooth and claw of detachment and protocol, to survive the immense good fortune into which he was born...There are men who command a room with their presence, men whose vitality bullies the air. Charles compels attention through a mechanism inverse to this, a king of charismatic absence: Reality warps toward his titles as toward a reluctant black hole.’ This is from an encyclopaedic essay about the Queen that will satisfy many a The Crown viewer.

April 2019

 - Friday, March 29, 2019
Stef: If you love historical fiction, look no further than Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. From the very first page to the last, it is storytelling at it’s best— and storytelling is just what you’ll get when you stop by for a drink at The Swan, the local inn, set on the banks of the river Thames, in the village of Radcot. The Radcot village drinkers gather at The Swan of an evening, for a drink and to share a story. But the night of the winter solstice delivers a story that they would tell and retell for years to come. Shaped by the ebb and flow of the great river, this tale brings a stranger carrying a young child, seemingly dead, to their door. Miraculously, the child, a girl of around four has wakens and breathes again. But who is she? And who does she belong to? Three families come forward to claim to the child, but who is telling the truth. That is where you come into it dear reader—listen carefully as they each lay bare their own story in this atmospheric novel, brimming with mystery and intrigue.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton—Fiona Barton sure knows how to craft a real page turner. The Suspect is the third thriller featuring investigative journalist, Kate Waters. Two teenage girls are missing. They are on their first overseas holiday. It should have been a great adventure but it has turned into a nightmare. Can Kate Waters discover the truth behind the missing girls’ dream holiday in Thailand? Written in short bursts from different perspectives,this adrenalin fuelled thriller will keep you guessing to the very end.

Jack: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley—I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. I’ve always thrilled to that opening, so it’s a quiet joy (in a Grace Paley kind of way) to have her funny and passionate short stories at gleebooks. Cherished by Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Joy Williams, Nathan Englander, AM Homes—and the occasional bookseller! Her story, Goodbye & Good Luck, is similarly affecting: I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. The thrill is now yours...

Andrew:  Deer Reeder: First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. 
I’ve just finished the sublime fable Fox 8 by George Saunders  which as you can gather is narrated by Fox 8 himself.  It is a short story that you can knock over in half an hour but the smart little hardback presents the story with line drawings by Chelsea Cardinal that suit the funny-sad prose beautifully. Whilst it is chock full of wry jokes, and Saunders’ trademark clever language play, this story of environmental carnage ultimately packs a heavy emotional punch. I’ve also just started the short story collection You Know You Want This by Kirsten Roupenian—another 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival quest. One story, Cat Person, has garnered the distinction of being the New Yorker’s most shared article of the digital age. It is indeed a doozy. A blowtorch taken to the subject of dating in the age of the text message, it is a swirling, nauseous, rollercoaster of a story.

Judy: Outline, Transit & Kudos by Rachel Cusk—I recommend reading this group of three one after the other. It will be worth your time. They are written as episodes, conversations and encounters between a working author and the people she meets going to book festivals, conferences, creative writing classes, and in the process of renovating her house. The form she has chosen is revelatory and exhilarating—it becomes something of a high-wire act. She writes beautifully, deftly—I found myself re-reading passages for sheer delight, and the joy of seeing with her clear eye things strange, funny, threatening. The three books hang together as an edifying whole. Indicative of the boldness of the author is the final scene in the final book. After all has been said and done, she throws all the balls up in the air again concerning the major theme of the novels: the power struggles between men and women. It’s a stunning last episode.

                                                       

Stephen: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris ($23, PB) The subtitle says it all. Medical pioneer Joseph Lister (1827–1912) ushers surgery into the modern era with his use of antiseptics, sterilization of medical instruments and the necessity of personal hygiene. Before Lister, medical surgery was a charnel house of blood, dirt and infection. Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’. Post-operative infection mortality rates were so endemic in hospital wards that it was named ‘hospitalism’. Fitzharris narration of scientific progress in the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery is engaging, informative and gruesomely entertaining. Footnote: Joseph Lister did not invent Listerine, but it was inspired by his antiseptic techniques.

Jonathan: The First Bad Man by Miranda July—A brilliant, celebrated debut novel from the performance artist and filmmaker. Ultimately a warming story about loneliness, friendship and shaking off pasts that no longer serve us. This book will take you on a wondrous, hilarious journey. July also includes a witty commentary on Feminism in the late 20th Century in the women’s group that Cheryl Glickman works for. Just great.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff—A stunning re-evaluation of capitalism in the digital age. It is not so much that we are the products of ‘free’ social media apps, but that we are the raw materials of a distinct mode of production. Zuboff traces the invention of a world without privacy or personal sovereignty, where social media platforms turn our inner lives into grist for their mills. Scary, but also hopeful for push back. Zuboff writes beautifully, to boot.  

Viki: I’ve just overdosed on Trumpian America reading Richard Cooke’s ‘chronicle of American decline’, Tired of Winning, in one gulp—a very intelligent and highly readable outsider view of the ‘United’ States, with essays ranging from gun culture to the 1968 Democratic National Convention and its unintentional creation of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ and the ‘Southernisation of the Midwest (quoting Norman Mailer—the Yippies’ ‘demand for all-accelerated entrance into a 20th century Utopia’ represented the ‘destruction of every saving hypocrisy’). An invigorating collection. 

On a less depressing subject, I’m planning a trip to Europe at the end of this year’s magazine and have started a related reading tour of London. First Peter Ackroyd’s doorstopper biography of London, followed by some of Iain Sinclair’s explorations in and around London’s fringes—but this week I’ve been on a side trip to Roman Britain with Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Roman Britain trilogy (this lead from another travel research related book, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins). The first in the Sutcliffe series is The Eagle of the Ninth, which I’ve already ripped through. This is ‘childrens’ literature from an era when books for children were less compartmentalised, and the boundary between children's and adult fiction less defined. Sutcliffe uses a poetically descriptive pen without florid overuse of adjectives, capturing a sense of another time and sensibility, while at the same time keeping a tight rein on the narrative tension—the race for the safety of the Roman wall at the end had me on the edge of my seat. It’s writing that children can aspire to.

March 2019

 - Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Stef: The Aunts’ House by  Elizabeth Stead— Set in Sydney, 1942. Angel Martin,  just 11 years old and recently orphaned, is settling in at Missus Potts’ boarding house.  Angel is an unusual child, who perceives the world around her through music and colour, and is often thought of as a strange child—not quite right in the head. She may be a little unusual but there is nothing wrong with her ability to read those around her and find her way in the world, and she is determined to have a different life than the one fate has handed her. Stead has created a world of eccentric characters and captured the time, place and unsophisticated society with both naivety and charm. (due out in April).

Also I found John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky to be perfect summer reading. He has created a wonderful malevolent tale of one man’s ambition to achieve his long held desire to be a prize winning author of international acclaim— no matter the cost to others. The book had me squirming uncomfortably from start to finish,  as the story unfolded with aspiring author, Maurice Swift trying any manipulation or manoeuvre to get his story published. A deliciously dark exploration of ambition and greed.


Andy: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez—The premise of The Friend was (for me) immediately captivating—a New York writer living in a small apartment is obliged out-of-the-blue to adopt the mature Great Dane of a suddenly deceased friend. The blurb suggests it is a meditation on loss and loneliness and so of course, my heart all aflutter, I began it thinking  the book was going to be some sort of heart warming tear-jerker. A sort of highbrow literary Marley and Me. I think my false expectations put me on the wrong footing with the book for a while; it is well worth the read but it a spiky, discursive, measured and contemplative little affair, and it spends as much time wryly examining the art of writing, literature and academia as it does dwelling on canine companionship and animal intelligence.  There is a bit of the autofictive about it, and it reminded me a bit of the Rachel Cusk trilogy in its clever, playful, voice. And, yeah, whilst the book is much much more than this, there is a bit of cute dog observation in it too.


Sophie: Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety by Fiona Vera-Gray—Based on Vera-Gray’s research and women’s real experiences, this book details the largely unnoticed “safety work” and energy women put in to avoid sexual violence everyday. Written in an accessible and thought provoking manner, a book to be read by all genders to understand how rape culture and the threat of sexual violence effects women’s everyday enjoyment of the world. Gaysia by Benjamin Law—Law’s humour and wit makes this often sad and troubling journalistic style exploration of Asian queer culture a fun ride the whole way through. From the ladyboys of Thailand to the fake marriages of China, this book gives an insight into how queer cultures are resisting, thriving and surviving in countries that aren’t always forthcoming in their acceptance. An insightful read.  

Morgan: Zebra, a collection of stunning short-stories and one novella. The latter is a small tour-de-force written with a dead-pan humour about an imaginary female Prime  Minister who is sent a Zebra to live in the extensive gardens of, one assumes, the Lodge—or maybe it’s Kirribilli House, or more probably,  a fictional garden. And it’s in this garden that a strange and remarkable friendship is formed. In Festive Food for the Whole Family, a woman has a hideous Christmas Day catering to everyone’s dietary needs and peccadilloes only to realise certain betrayals are going on behind her back. Adelaide’s writing is  marvellous—there’s not one bad story in this collection and not a word out of place. She manages to juggle a wry humour with pathos and intellectual rigour.   

Louise: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. An extraordinary book. Set in an inhospitable camp site in Northumberland, Silvie, the narrator,  is there with her mother and father, as part of an archaeological, pre-Roman life re-enactment. The family are there with a group of university students and their professor. From the very beginning a sense of dread pervades the story, although how that dread will manifest is kept just out of sight by the author. Silvie’s father is a piece of work—an extremely abusive man who has managed to persuade his family to submit to his bizarre wishes, but someone with enough credibility to team up with professional archaeologists who actually listen to him. The expression ‘the banality of evil’ came to mind the whole time I was reading this, but Sarah Moss created enough suspense to keep me reading—her spare but vivid descriptions making the story come alive in a really compelling way.

February 2019

 - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Jack: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday  ‘Love is volatile. Recalcitrant. Irrepressible. We do our best to tame it, to name it and plan for it and maybe even to contain it between the hours of six and twelve, or if you’re Parisian five and seven, but like much of what is adorable and irresistible in this world it eventually tears free of you and, yes, sometimes you get scratched up in the process.’  For lovers of Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney and Jennifer Egan....between the hours of eight and one.


Jonathon: Golden State by Ben H. Winters—In a future California, telling a lie is a crime and honesty holds society together. Or does it? And what about metaphor? Winters’ detective Laszlo Ratesic moves through a procedural frame to eke out the edge where the story that a society tells itself begins to fray, burn, or simply adjust with the needs of the powerful. A political meditation ripe for our post-factual times.


Janice: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott—A young Irish immigrant finds it impossible to carry on and turns on the gas. The fire that ensues sees Sister St. Saviour, an old nun, appear in the damaged apartment and take over the lives of the widow and her unborn child. Thus, Sally becomes the convent child, growing up in the basement, playing while Sister St. Saviour does the ironing. Sally becomes involved with the work of the nuns, visiting the poor and feeding hungry. She goes to school and is influenced by her teachers to join them. Whether this will happen or whether an action of Sally’s makes this unlikely, we shall see. I like Alice McDermott’s Irish catholic family novels. She is a wonderful writer, her description of the New York slums is vivid and disturbing. I found the nuns, Sally and her mother, very believable, each trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances.


Judy: Mythos by Stephen Fry¬≠—What a pleasure to be told these tales by the amusing and erudite Stephen Fry! It’s all here, from Chaos to Prometheus, with many informative and hilarious footnotes. Zeus’ radiance as a young man almost painful to look upon is footnoted thus: ‘As is often the case with extraordinarily attractive people. It is incumbent upon us to apologize or look away when our beauty causes discomfort’. The pleasure of the narrator infuses the whole enterprise of Mythos.


John: Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring  skirts the border between literature and thriller. As the title suggests it is set during the historic events, 50 years ago, when the communist government of Czechoslovakia relaxed the restrictions on individual freedoms only to be crushed by the Soviets. The events are seen through the eyes of a young English couple, students from Oxford University, and a British diplomat and his Czech girlfriend. It tells their stories and their stories become intertwined with historical events. Wonderfully told and very deftly resolved. Highly recommended.


Andrew: The Wall by John LanchesterThe Wall is quite a departure from Capital,  Lanchester’s previous novel—which was a kind of contemporary Dickensian beast, based around a rapidly gentrifying south London street. It was fat and meticulously observed and very very current. The Wall couldn’t be more different. It is a lean and spare 200 odd page novel that I flew through. Set in a dystopian Britain in the very near future (a bit like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). Britain has built an almost impenetrable wall around its entire coast, manned by a national guard, made up of young men and women on compulsory two-year stints. I will admit I was a bit impatient with this book for the first couple of dozen pages; I don’t love speculative fiction, and I found the climate change and refugee themes initially so obvious and blatantly telegraphed that I was about to give it up—but I’m really glad I didn’t. The plot kicks in with a series of enthralling voltas, and the tedium of life on the wall is replaced with incipient terrors every which way. It becomes a corker of an adventure horror novel that ultimately crams a lot into its relatively few pages; and manages, too, a real melancholy profundity. It is a real page-turner and where Capital tended to get bogged down with verbosity I think this sparer form suits Lanchester really well. 

Morgan: I love nothing more than discovering a new writer—new to me, anyway—and was bowled over by Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican writer who lives in New York and whose latest book is the utterly astonishing Lost Children Archive. In it Luiselli counterpoints two journeys—that of a couple, both sound archivists who, with their two precocious but funny and lovable children, drive from New York City to Arizona. The husband and father (no-one is named for reasons that don’t escape me but do annoy me) is researching the last of the Apache (much interesting history here) while the woman, a Mexican like the author, is trying to find her way in to a project about the thousands of children who travel alone, through dreadful hardship and uncertainty, from Central America through Mexico to the United States. A deeply intelligent, politically prescient and topical book, it is also one in which the prose swoops and soars and holds you in its thrall. In her skewering of the human condition, Luiselli reminds me of Siri Hustvedt, that other brainiac New Yorker.  Lost Children Archive is out this month and I can’t wait for you all to read it.


Morgan: Also out this month and highly recommended is the sixth and last book in Steven Carroll’s Glenroy series which chronicle a suburban Melbourne family from the early 20th, to the early 21st Century. In The Year of the Beast, WW1 and the rise of the suffragette movement provide the background to the story of the brave and resilient Maryanne who defies social mores to keep her illegitimate baby Vic—father of Michael, who the central character of the rest of the Glenroy series. Beautifully written, the book circles back and around the other novels and characters in the series but can be read on its own. The six books in the Glenroy series, along with his four books based on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, is  a remarkable body of work—which, despite several literary awards and shortlistings, has not wide enough a readership.  

Steve: As the apparently lone (almost?) Gleebooks staff member who does not read a lot of crime fiction/thrillers, it may stop the presses to announce I thoroughly enjoyed Christine Mangan’s Tangerine ($23, PB). Set in 1950s Morocco, a timid English wife, Alice Shipley arrives in Tangier in tow with her unpleasant husband who has married her for her fortune. He disappears daily into the city, while Alice remains afraid to venture out much at all. Then Lucy Mason, her one-time best friend and college roommate shows up unexpectedly. Estranged for years over a mysterious college incident, Lucy’s sudden reappearance and her determination to introduce sheltered Alice to the delights of city are told in chapters that alternate between the two women’s points of view. The past and the present unfold. As does Lucy’s darkening obsession with Alice and her increasingly manipulative, suffocating friendship. This book reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s unique Ripley thrillers. I found myself thinking that the sweltering, claustrophobic atmosphere of the tale combined with the lush, vivid descriptions of Tangier itself would make an equally enjoyable film—and it turns out that Scarlett Johansson has already been cast in the role of Alice in a forthcoming production.  

 Also recommended is Nicholas Thomas’ Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook ($25, PB). This finely written account covers all of the three voyages, ending in Cook’s death in Hawaii in 1779. No mere chronological travelogue—there are plenty of those—this is a freewheeling narrative which often sees the author step into the historical account himself and relate his own experience. Thomas highlights incidents that illuminate the two-way encounters of Pacific islander and the Europeans.