My top books for 2011 by Toni Whitmont

by |November 25, 2011

For a person who spends at least 50% of her working hours meeting with publishers about up coming books, I spend a lot of time talking about the next big thing.

Want to know what the run away hit single is going to be for next March? I’m your person. Unless of course it’s not because, well,  readers are a fickle lot, and that’s before the media juggernaut rolls into town and changes everyone’s minds about what they want and what they don’t want.

Right now a heart beat away from Christmas, you may be making yours lists and checking them twice, but I am being sold in books for Valentine’s Day, and, heaven help me, key titles for Mother’s Day 2012.

This is not a job where you can live in the moment. But there are some advantages of being so focused on where the action might be. I can justify ignoring all the big, bossy, Christmas books that quite frankly are going to be taken up in droves whether I get behind them or not. Readers don’t need me to convince them to try Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves or Di Morrissey’s The Opal Desert. If that is your sort of book, you are going to find it anyway just by driving behind a bus.

What readers do need me for is to sort through the maze of new releases and to cherry pick the best – to give them personal recommendations based on actual reading (yes, a whole book, whether it be a manuscript, a proof copy or an epub) – to find the gems amongst the fakes, to give them the confidence to snatch their leisure time back from Facebook and Angry Birds, to give them a rewarding experience, to reconnect them with the power of the word.

It is no easy task. I was presented last week with 450 titles from one publisher for February release. 450!! For February!! From one publisher!! And they were not all just diet books (although there were a goodly number). Think about it – how many “must reads” can there really be amongst all that stuff?

What I do get to do however, is to sample a LOT of books, and I get to fall in love with a few. And the few that take me to a different place, more than make up for the rest of the 450 on that list that made me want to go out and re-plant the trees. So here they are, my top picks for 2011, for those of you for whom Morrissey and Reilly just don’t cut it.

Australian Fiction

It is not often that a book give me goosebumps but by the second page of The Street Sweeper I was covered in them. I had an inkling on page one with the opening paragraph.

Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all of its own that you can never know. It can capture, corner you or liberate you. It can a leave you howling and it can make you smile.

A page later I knew I was in the hands of a master – someone whose deliberately crafted prose, stunning ability to weave a story, intelligently thought through issues leaves the reader humbled, in a state of grace, in awe.

I don’t know about his career as a barrister, but in his writing, Elliot Perlman has rarely hit a wrong note. Known for Three Dollars, and then for the very satisfying Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Street Sweeper will certainly cement the reputation of man already described as having “traces of Dickens’ range and of George Eliot’s generous humanist spirit” by the New York Times. France’s Lire describes him as “one of the 50 most important writers in the world”.

In this latest novel, Perlman’s range is dazzling and his humanist spirit is profound. This is not to say that he can’t tell a damn good story. The Street Sweeper is a remarkable tale that takes us back and forward in time, from contemporary New York to pre-war Poland, from the awful events leading up to the civil rights movement in America to suburban Melbourne. His novel is rich in detail, meticulously plotted, cleverly constructed, with often shimmering prose. What stands out to me however, is the deliberateness of his approach. Here is a man with a lot to say about memory, responsibility, consequence, respect, history, legacy, connection, witness, and yet here is a man who is never didactic or polemic. It is liked being whipped by a feather duster.

Read the full review here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

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Who would like this book? Anyone with a brain.

I have read this remarkable novel, Past the Shallows, not once, but twice. I have wept through it not once, but twice. I have laughed in places, sighed a lot and disappeared so completely into the world that she conjures up that I had to wrench myself back into real time with an ache in my heart.

Parrett brings us the story of Miles and Harry, two of three brothers whose lives are shut down when their mother dies and they are left to fend for themselves with an angry father whose life revolves around his abalone poaching in the cold waters off the Tasmanian coast and his nursing of a bitter secret which is only numbed by large quantities of booze.

As a début novel, this really is quite remarkable. Parrett writes with elegance and simplicity. This is the kind of book that begs to be read out loud so you can savour each sparse sentence. Whether she is describing the economy of movement of Martin sorting through tubs of abalone, or Harry trying to mend Miles’ blistered hands with a comforting cup of Milo, or the warmth emitting from George’s dog Jake as he sleeps on Harry’s feet, the reader is utterly transported to the cold, bleak township clinging to Tasmania’s rocky coast.

Parrett is already being likened to Tim Winton and Craig Silvey and the comparisons are apt. But she has an assurance and authenticity uniquely her own and when it comes to Tasmania, she is certainly up there with Richard Flanagan when it comes to voicing country.

Past the Shallows is not a long read but it is completely engaging. It will leave you both broken-hearted and enormously grateful.

Read our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

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Who would like this book? Anyone with a heart.

In 2003, Nikki Gemmell created waves when The Bride Stripped Bare became a literary sensation with its raw unflinching depiction of female sexuality.

Now she returns with another tour de force addressing the questions of what is intimacy and whether it is ever really possible to know another person.

It is at once a manifesto of married mothers everywhere and a highly personal story of one woman’s sexual awakening.

This is beautiful, and literary, and raw, emotional and bold. It is also deeply resonant of the classic French erotic writings of Colette and Nin although with a modern and provocative twist.

However, to label it as erotic is to do With My Body a disservice. Gemmell has absolutely nailed the female psyche with this novel. This story is more about discovery of self than discovery of sex.

Yes, women will read this book in droves, but if they give it to their male partners to read, the world would be a happier place.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone with trying to find her place in the world.

Where to start with The Coffee Story?

Let’s get the story out of the way first. Theodore Everett is dying.

An old man now riddled with cancer, he looks back at his life at the helm of Everett and Sons Coffee, which for a time, dominated world trade in this most addictive of commodities. Teddy has been married a couple of times but his heart was always Lucy’s, the girl who emerged from the Ethiopian forest at the age of fourteen carrying a Zippo lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other.

It was the early 30s and Teddy, not yet a teen, was living on one of the many family plantations in what was then Abyssinia pre-the attempted Italian invasion, in a house which started to fall apart from the day it was built, ignored by his completely peculiar parents, in the thrall of the perpetually plotting Marxist foreman, a blind seer and his sexually adventurous wife, and his shadowy silent alter ego Kewibe Abi.

Teddy’s coffee story unfolds in the ramblings of a dying man, getting more and more elliptical as the drugs take hold. Peter Salmon’scharacters are magnificent – Simon the Big Nose (Teddy’s grandfather), Ibrahim Salez the infinitely sleazy go-between in Alexandria who deals in everything fake and authentic from Pharaoic treasures to hashish, Susu the silent bean grinding servant who is perhaps as prized for his brewing skill as his silent acquiescence to the unwanted advances of his patron, Teddy’s unnamed first wife and her preposterous Cuban revolutionary lover Carlo (himself an offsider of Castro), his grandmother Adelaide of the Suitcase, his father’s body guard (the villain of the piece), Siobhan his palliative care nurse with whom he falls in love.

Just as crucial to his story are real figures from history, emerging as palpable characters even though they we never “meet” them. Salmon has a great grasp of the past but who would have thought of including King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba who, according to Ethiopian legend, were the first in the line of royalty extending all the way down to Haile Selassie, (known as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God and whom Teddy meets on not one but two occasions), Gramsci, Lenin, Fidel Castro, President Batista of Cuba? And then there is the possible theft of the Ark of the Covenant some 3000 years earlier. And is it just me, or did Salmon name Lucy after the three million year old Australopithicean skeleton discovered at Hadar in Ethiopia in the 1970s?

But it is his prose that is the real star of this completely engaging novel. It swoops and loops. Salmon’s use of language and construction are both clever and well thought through. There is plenty to laugh out loud about in this book, but there is also plenty to be bedazzled by.

Read the rest of the review here.

Read the author’s answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

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Who would like this book? Anyone who needs fuelling up for a wild ride.

The publication of a new Kate Grenville novel is always cause for excitement, especially so this time, as she is concluding her loosely related Colonial trilogy, which started with The Secret River and then went on to The Lieutenant.

Sarah Thornhill can be read as a standalone novel, although the characters include Sarah, the youngest child of Will Thornhill, whose brutal convict past is the subject of much of The Secret River and whose secret casts a shadow over the life choices of his wilful and brave daughter.

The Secret River is disturbing and luminous. My theory is that it should be mandatory reading for all new comers to this country. I don’t reckon you can understand Australia without having read that book. The Lieutenant, which didn’t sell quite as well but which was to my mind in many ways a more intriguing story, bookended it neatly. Both books concerned powerful emotional relationships between the first Australians and the white colonists, and both involved the drama of choice.

Sarah Thornhill is a fitting ending to the trilogy. Grenville writes like a poet, matching her rhythm and cadence to the characters and the setting. The story is utterly compelling and the emotion is taut and eventually, overwhelming.

Sarah Thornhill is, at heart, a love story. And it is so much more. Grenville’s familiar preoccupations are all worked in exquisitely – the shame of past wrongs, notions of home and place, the carving out of identity, the connection and disconnection of race, the poison chalice of inheritance.

Sarah Thornhill is published in a handsome hardback edition. This is a book that deserves its place on your shelf. You will be coming back to it again and again.

Read the author’s answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone interested in identity.

International Fiction

The Hebrew month of Elul – the last month of the year – is ushered in with the sound of the shofar (the ram’s horn). This primal ancient call is supposed to wake the spirit to repentance and renewal. It is also a month of granting and asking for forgiveness. It is the month to search one’s heart and come close to God in preparation for the coming days of judgement.

Alice Hoffman has chosen the calendar settings wisely for her upcoming novel The Dovekeepers, which is a remarkable re-telling of the Masada story. Set between 70 CE and 73 CE, the story tracks the rhythm of the weeks, the months, the seasons in the period from the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to the mass martyrdom of 900 Jews in their desert fortress the night before the invaders breeched the walls to discover they had achieved a completely empty victory. The Israelites had already determined their own day of judgement.

Masada has a place in Jewish history not unlike Gallipoli does in Australian. It is a site of a magnificently pointless clash of civilisations, a loss of epic proportions, a place of ghosts and spirits. Visit Masada today and it is easy to imagine the sound of the shofar blown in Elul that very last time.

It certainly fired Alice Hoffman’s imagination. Her story of four women who were there until the very end is compelling, powerful, evocative and more. Her characterisation is detailed and believable. The plot is interesting and well developed and for those unfamiliar with the history, it would no doubt be fascinating. Hoffman’s gift is her cadence and tone. She treats both her characters and her story with respect. Her imagery is finely crafted, and it is rendered with considerable literary skill.

Read the rest of the review here.

Read the author’s answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone with a taste for the exotic.

In the world of fiction, short stories are the perpetual bridesmaids. Every now and again, there is a collection like Nam Le’s The Boat, that hogs the limelight for a little while. Most of the time however, they play support for the main event, the novel. It is a great shame, because a finely crafted, beautifully written, disciplined short story, one in which every word counts, is, I have discovered, the perfect thing for the reader jaded from way too much reading.

Go here for details or to buy

Recently, I was given Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West collection. Never heard of him? Either had I. Penkov is a young Bulgarian born writer who now is an assistant professor of English in Texas and an editor of American Literary Review.

Set mainly in Bulgaria, his stories are lovingly crafted pen portraits of a hidden world. Makedonija, about an elderly couple in a nursing home, is one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of love and war that I have ever read. In fact, I had to read that one twice – once to myself, and then again, out loud, to a friend. East of the West, about a village stradling the border of Serbia and Bulgaria, is funny, sad, insightful with knock-out original imagery and a brilliant end.

In EAST OF THE WEST we have stories that speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. There are stories that speak of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism. There are stories that speak of what became of both Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, while so many young people leave for the West in search of a better life.

The stories in EAST OF THE WEST tackle all these upheavals of history individually, and through individuals, but I believe that when read together the stories complement each other, like pieces in a puzzle adding up to reveal a larger picture.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone looking for bite-size brilliance.

The circumstances under which I read this book were not promising. Pages snatched on long-haul flights, changing time zones, waiting for connections – conditions not normally conducive to a satisfying reading experience. Despite this, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht turned out to be a revelatory and completely engrossing read. It is a book that demands a second reading, not just for the haunting story but also for the beautifully crafted prose.

The story is set across several generations in an unnamed Balkan city (which I have subsquently pin-pointed as Belgrade because I couldn’t stand not knowing). Told in two voices, it concerns the circumstances of the death of a doctor, and the unravelling of his final few days, by his grand-daughter, Natalia. Natalia is also a doctor. She has crossed the border into hostile territory to administer medicines to a remote village orphanage ostensibly left resourceless after the war in the 90s. From there she travels to the village where her grandfather died, hoping both to retrieve his belongings and to get some clue as to his demise. She muses over the stories about his childhood, when, on the cusp of World War Two, internicine conflict was played out with bizarre and unpredictable twists by villagers whose lives were as much about superstition as they were about politics and ideologies.

Along the way, Natalia pieces it all together with her own childhood memories – the tale of a rogue tiger, the deaf-mute young woman said to be the tiger’s wife, her grandfather’s obsession with his pocket copy of The Jungle Book, the “deathless man” whose predictions of mortality proved to be strangely prescient.

The Tiger’s Wife has a fable-like magic realist quality to it. The story is certainly intriguing but it is the prose that is the real drawcard. Obrecht’s writing is lucid and she handles words with the confidence of a much more experienced writer. Indeed, it is no surpsie that she was included (as the youngest) on the New Yorker’s top 20 writers under 40 list. Unpublished until now, she now joins an alumni that comprises Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Euginedes, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz among others. Impressive stuff indeed.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone who wants to unravel Europe.

I have to confess I approached this book rather like approaching a blind date – everyone said it would be perfect for me but I just didn’t want to know in case I was disappointed.

The Language of Flowers was one of the most coveted acquisitions of last year. The uncorrected proof arrived on my desk with oodles of marketing guff aimed at getting my attention. And there it sat for months, despite rather plaintive inquiries from the publisher as to whether it had made it to the top of my reading pile.

What I knew about the book was that it was quirky, ‘unputdownable’, and involved a woman who communicated with the world by singly out flowers for the meanings attributed to them by nineteenth century romantics. It sounded mawkish and saccharine to me and I didn’t want to waste my time with an asinine version of “roses are red, pansies are blue”.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In other words, what would I know?

I have just spent the last 24 hours reading The Language of Flowers and it certainly is not asinine, mawkish or saccharine. In fact, this rather unusual novel about mother-daughter relationships, is enormously satisfying. Its characters are prickly and interesting, the premise is unusual and the resolution is nicely ambiguous.

The story involves Victoria Jones, a ward of the state of California, who was abandoned at birth and has no knowledge of any family. She is withdrawn, rather unlikable, misanthropic and a bit of a sociopath. The one constant in her life is her obsession with flowers, and in the meanings subscribed to their floral characteristics by the now largely forgotten romanticists of the nineteenth century. In some ways she is not unlike Lisbeth Salander aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if our Lisbeth had been into flowers rather than hacking (although the stories are in no way similar). The tale is told through the rather disconnected voice of Victoria, both in the present time when she is a young woman and in the past, particularly at the age of ten.

To read the rest of the review, go here.

Read the author’s answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone with who likes to be a little bit uncomfortable.

Pity the poor publisher. Every months hundreds – thousands – of new books hit the shelves, and sure as eggs, about eighty per cent of them are doomed to fail. What keeps everyone in the industry going however, is the hope that they have enough of the twenty-percenters to carry them through. And when it comes to fiction debuts, it is an even greater game of brinksmanship.

At the London Book Fair last April, the big money was on Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit. Rights were snaffled up around the world.

Pre-order here for April 2011

The book was presented to meas the “it” book for the first half of the year. It came to me as “a little piece of heaven”, “a rare and moving novel about the power of families and friendships”, “something truly unique and magical”. Hmmm.

It is hard for publishers to get attention for the next great book, to differentiate it from their last great book, especially at a time of year when booksellers are so obsessed with the upcoming Christmas season that they are completely going spare. Perhaps this is why When God Was a Rabbit had arrived in a tin, with other bits of memorabilia, all tied up with string, and a postcard from Cornwall. Attention grabbing? Yes. Could I get into the book? No.

Well, I had another shot at it some time later when my mind was in another space. Can I tell you, I am now hopping on the Winman bandwagon? On my second attempt, I read it in a day or two, loving every moment of it, sneaking in pages between other committments, and going back over lovely little gems of passages.

Basically we are talking a coming-of-age story in two parts, one seen through the eyes of a young English girl and the second set in New York some 20 years later. When God Was a Rabbit is a mesmerizing portrait of childhood, with very dark and quirky humour. Stripped down to its bare bones, it’s the story the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister and while its take on loss of innocence, familial bonds and eccentricity are perhaps familiar themes, Winman’s treatment of them is subtle and original.

Read the rest of the review here.

Read the author’s answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Buy the book from Booktopia.

Buy the ebook from Booktopia.

Who would like this book? Anyone who has an opinion about family.

3 Comments Share:

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  • Malvina

    November 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    You are the first person to post a positive review of The Language of Flowers. I’ve been so put off by so many others who panned it, yet the premise really intrigued me. Thanks for your list, I’ve decided to read a few myself.

  • Malvina

    November 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    P.S. I want your job. Legitimate reading for work. Lovely.

    • Toni Whitmont

      November 25, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      ah yes, but the reading unfortunately takes place out of work time.

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