My personal picks for 2011: Novels you can give as gifts with confidence

by |November 2, 2011

This year I read more novels by living, breathing writers than by stone cold dead writers. This is a first for me.

However, if the truth be told, many of the contemporary novels I started were left unfinished. It’s partly due to the nature of the job. Publishers throw box loads of fiction at us to review and I can’t read them all. And, it is partly due to the state of modern fiction – I expect a lot from the books I read and very few contemporary writers deliver.

That said, when I do fall for a novel, I fall hard.

The books of 2011 I recommend you read yourself and give as gifts to others are:

Australian Fiction

Last Summer by Kylie Ladd

By the simple act of telling a story a good book can carry a light into the dark and unexamined corners of a reader’s life. The darkest of these unexamined corners is occupied by the single irrefutable truth of our existence, death. Left in the shadows this stark fact can take on all of the attributes of a nightmarish spectre. Left unexamined we may be left entirely unprepared when death intrudes upon our own lives. Something it will do, eventually.

Last Summer by Kylie Ladd, begins with the sudden death of Rory Buchanan, captain of the local cricket team, a man in the prime of his life. We immediately enter the lives of those Rory left behind – his wife, Colleen, his sister, Kelly, her husband, Joe, and Rory’s friends and team-mates, Nick, James and Pete, and their wives, Laine, Anita and Trinity as they, in their various ways, cope with Rory’s death and face up to the fact that life does, and will, go on without him.

Last Summer is told from the points of view of these nine characters with full chapters from one point of view only. This method of storytelling requires strong characterisation so that each individual point of view provides a unique perspective on the events. By choosing suburban Melbourne as her setting, and the cricket club as her focal point, Ladd has made things difficult for herself. There is much that is necessarily shared by all of these nine characters. They are all white, they are all moderately well off, they are all around the same age and they all have some connection to the game of cricket. This seeming difficulty turns out to be one of the novel’s strengths. Read the full review here…

You can order a copy of Last Summer from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Your best friend.

Animal People by Charlotte Wood

I read Charlotte Wood’s novel Animal People twice. I think it’s one of the best contemporary novels I have read. But I cannot review it. I tried a number of times and failed each time. I only recently realised why this is. I don’t want to review Animal People. I want to recommend it.

The trouble is, I can’t recommend it to just anybody.

Sure, some part of me wants to help encourage complacent book club readers the world over to read it. I would like to think it would do them good (and Charlotte Wood’s bank balance good). But, if the truth be told, I don’t want them to.

If they read it they may want to discuss it, as few people these days can understand a book without first discussing it with their peers. They may take the central character of Animal People, Stephen, and compare him with people they know. They may debate whether he is a sympathetic character or not. They may ask what the significance of the dog might be, what the title means, what the ending means. I don’t want them to do any of these things. I want them to wander away from the safety of the group. I want them to let their guard down. I want them to be smacked in the face by Animal People. If they’re not willing to take a few hits, I don’t think they deserve to read Animal People.

So who can I recommend it to? Read the full review here…

You can order a copy of Animal People from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Someone who needs a helpful kick up the bum.

Matilda is Missing by Caroline Overington

I read Matilda is Missing in a few days. I was hooked within pages and found myself reading well into the night. I would pick it up in between times, too, snatching bite sized portions of the story while I was rushing to get ready in the morning – while the kettle boiled, before the toaster popped and while the kids printed off last night’s homework.

What surprised me most about my reading of Matilda is Missing was that I was reading it at all. If I were flicking through a newspaper or reading a magazine and I came across a story about the family court, or a grandparent’s right to access their grandchildren, or equal rights for fathers in divorce cases, I wouldn’t read beyond the headlines.

But I read Matilda is Missing.

I picked it up on a whim, curious to see what all the fuss was about (The success of Overington’s last novel, I Came to Say Goodbye, has the book world salivating over the sales potential of Matilda is Missing). I do that a lot. I pick up review copies here in the office and flick through a few pages, read a bit and then generally drop the book back on the pile. We have so many books to review. You can’t read them all.

So I picked up Matilda is Missing. I read the preface. I was interested. I read the first page, then the second, then the third. It was compelling stuff. I was won over. I popped the review copy in my bag and took it home that night. Read the full review here…

You can order a copy of Matilda is Missing from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Anyone who wants children or has children.

International Fiction

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is a novel which looks at the way our priorities change as we age, a novel which examines the consequences of editing our own histories to suit these changing priorities, a novel which attempts to make sense of a life which accommodates hundreds of shifts, great and small, in its moral foundations.

You can read The Sense of an Ending in one sitting, but it would be wrong to. Let the book work upon you. It raises, examines and ultimately answers many of life’s most teasing puzzles. Brilliant.

Dame Stella Rimington, Chair of the 2011 judges, says “The Sense of an Ending has the markings of a classic of English Literature.”

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.

You can order a copy of The Sense of an Ending from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… The person you know who really should read better books.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I have been reading Murakami’s 1Q84 for some weeks now. I am a slow reader and it is a big book. But that isn’t why it has taken so long. This has been a very busy period for me personally and I haven’t had the hours and hours of reading time I usually enjoy. Which is one explanation for why I have been feeling a little bit odd lately. Reading is my mental safety valve.

I have another explanation, however, for why I have been feeling a little bit odd lately, which is –

1Q84 is messing with my mind!

Be warned, if you pick up Murakami’s latest novel your sense of what is real will be given a nudge. Just a nudge to start, mind, which is the secret to its success. Murakami takes his time with us, pulling gently at the loose threads hanging from the fabric of our being. And we let him.

Getting us to agree to being unravelled isn’t an easy thing to do.

To this end, 1Q84 has to be a long novel. Part of Murakami’s challenge is to convince his reader that what he is telling them is not only possible but most likely probable. The reader must come to this conclusion gradually, like someone accepting the crazier parts of a religion. Read the full review here…

You can order a copy of  1Q84 from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Anyone who still believes in BIG love

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Difficult to explain, easy to read, The Cat’s Table is part memoir, part fiction. A delicious and sometimes intoxicating blend of reminiscence and storytelling. Ondaatje conjures up the exotic and the bizarre, the erotic and the romantic without obvious effort.

Though published as fiction and avowed to be such by the author, on reading The Cat’s Table we immediately recognise parallels with Ondaatje’s own life. In fact, Ondaatje seems intent on reinforcing this by naming the protagonist Michael, by alluding to his later career as a novelist, by revisiting and utilising episodes from his own life.

The author/narrator seems to be entranced by, and then suspicious of, his own memories. He pulls them close and then pushes them rudely away. He wants his reader to believe and disbelieve at the same time. The past is not real. It is past. It has no witness but I and I cannot be trusted. This, it must be said, creates a peculiar tension which urges the reader to continue on.

The book opens with Michael, an unaccompanied eleven year old boy, boarding an ocean liner in Ceylon bound for England where his mother awaits. At dinner he discovers he has been placed at what becomes to be known as The Cat’s Table – the table furthest from the captain’s table. And it is here he meets the off-cuts of the cruise, a table of eccentric passengers who become a surrogate family to the boy. Read the full review here…

You can order a copy of The Cat’s Table  from Booktopia here

Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Anyone who really, really needs a holiday.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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