10 New(ish) Australian Books

Award winners, future classics and some personal favourites are listed here in my top 10 new Australian books.  In alphabetical order:

1.  Common People by Tony Birch

I bought this recently, prompted by doing this blog post and realising I had no books by indigenous Australian authors.  This is a gap I need to redress, especially given one of the joys of reading is to gain a different perspective from my usual sheltered existence.  Tony Birch has won multiple awards and this short story collection has received rave reviews.  I shall report back once I’ve read it!

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Two award-winning indigenous Australian authors (and an echidna)

2. The Strays by Emily Bitto

Inspired by the Heide artists, this perfectly evokes the time and place of 1930s Melbourne and captures their bohemian lives.  Lily and Eva’s friendship feels like those of our teens, when a friend’s house was a wondrous playground, as they experience the thrills and risks of growing up.  The dark side (lack of parenting) is explored too.  Thoughtfully written with well-crafted characters, this won the 2015 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.

3. First Person by Richard Flanagan:

This is a bit of a cheat as it’s not released until October 2017, but I predict a 5-star read.  I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014 Man Booker prize winner), a thoughtful but unputdownable read with vivid prose and great humanity.  And his earlier novel Wanting, a story of Matthew Franklin (explorer and Tasmanian governor) and Charles Dickens, was a beautifully woven and original tale.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

I really enjoyed this thriller. A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story. Harper creates the atmosphere of a small Australian country town, both the sunburnt landscape and a community on edge. Some bleak aspects but it kept me guessing.

5. The Good People by Hannah Kent:

A widow in 1820s Ireland struggles with her deformed grandson. Doctors are beyond reach, the church no help so Nance offers to cure the boy with herbs & fairy rites.  As in Burial Rites, Kent brings to life women forgotten by history. The language is full of vigour & poetry, she evokes the way of life & land beautifully & the characters, with little to hold onto but their beliefs, feel real. Mary the maid has dignity & resilience, Nora is unflinching & Nance is firm in her wisdom but lives in poverty.  A little slow-paced for me, but thought-provoking and her prose is a treat.

6. An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award. Another rural Australian thriller, this is distinctive for putting the women front & centre: Chris, whose sister was murdered, & journalist May.  Maguire sustains the constant feeling of threat that men potentially pose to women, and the ambiguities & blurred lines in relationships. She also reflects on the sadness of women having to be on their guard, sometimes putting up defences against men who are trying to love them. None of the characters are simply good or bad though, and this attention to nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Chris is a memorable character and this is a strong, honest book.

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A stack of books by Australian women.

7. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

A beautiful debut, intelligently written.  We follow Alice from her rural Australian youth to Oxford, then to old age.  Her bad marriage is hard to read but so sympathetically described and much is left unsaid.  Subtle and infused with music: Zoe Morrison is a pianist and her knowledge and love of music adds depth to the story.  Brava!

8. Taboo by Kim Scott

This is the latest by Kim Scott, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award, and looks wonderful (the cover, for a start!).  The first page is strong and, like Common People, his voice has the ring of truth and authenticity.

9. The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton

Another 5 star prediction from one of my favourite authors and four-time Miles Franklin award winner.  I loved Cloudstreet, an epic family saga and modern Australian classic, and the distilled perfection of Breath.  Winton is a masterful writer and I highly recommend all of his books.

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A trio of my favourite Tim Winton books.

10. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I will admit that this has been sitting in my shelf for two years now because I’m too scared to read it.  Winner of the Stella Prize and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016, it has been highly recommended as an important, thought-provoking read, and is described as ‘feminist horror’ story of women who are drugged and imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. I promise to brave it and report back soon!

And that’s a list of ten, hopefully diverse, Australian books that we should all be reading this year.  Who are your favourite Australian authors?

Books and Small Museums

I blame Orhan Pamuk for my love of small museums.  (Of course, I didn’t say that when I had the honour of meeting him last year).

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Meeting Orhan Pamuk, September 2015

Specifically, The Museum of Innocence – a rich, intricate story to immerse yourself in, with textures of Istanbul, layering of details and the human flaws and obsessions of Kemal.  This was my first Pamuk and I’ve since gone back to read all of his books – My Name is Red is another favourite.  It features beautiful works of art in miniature – Pamuk as a former artist and architecture student describes these with intelligence and sincerity, without being over-bearing.

A part of The Museum of Innocence which always resonated was Kemal’s odyssey to find private museums: collections built by individuals and reflecting their idiosyncracies.  These often give an insight into lives on a human scale, rather than seeing objects held by large government institutions.  Pamuk conceived of the novel and a museum (of Kemal’s collection) simultaneously, and has opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.  I saw some exhibits from it at Somerset House this year and dream of visiting it and the city.

So now I think of Orhan Pamuk whenever I visit small museums.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is mentioned in the book and blew me away when I went recently.  It was the house of Sir John Soane, architect, and is meticulous, surprising and a beautifully designed space with a reverence for architecture, Rome, sculptures and the absurd (he had a Monk’s Parlour where he would take guests after dinner, to sit amongst the skulls).

In the Frick Collection in New York, you can wander through Henry Frick’s home and chance upon Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell which, after reading Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, is like spotting a celebrity.

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In Melbourne I love the Heide Museum of Modern Art, preserved as it was when John and Sunday Reed hosted artists there in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and with a superb collection of Australian art.  It is wonderful to see the works of Charles Blackman, Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan (to name just a few) in the setting where they were conceived or created.  Emily Bitto’s The Strays (2015 Stella award winner) is inspired by this period; it’s on my shelf at home and high on my must-read list (= the never-ending TBR).

In Denmark in 2014 we took the wrong ferry – yes, we actually drove onto a ferry and discovered at sea 40 minutes later that we were lost – and a catastrophe ensued which was only redeemed by a visit to Finn Juhl’s House just north of Copenhagen.  It is as cosy or hygge as you would imagine and inspiring for any designer or indeed anyone with no design capability (like me) but who wants to live simply and well.

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Lost at sea, 2014

This week as part of our school holiday activities, we visited Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, recommended by the excellent Richard the Third of London Walks.  It’s rather large for a family home, but houses the private art collection of William Murray (later Lord Mansfield) and is glorious.  All rooms have volunteer guides with interesting tidbits of history – like the time the house was nearly burnt down because of Lord Mansfield’s Catholic background a local publican waylaid the would-be arsonists with drinks.

I have library envy:

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Library at Kenwood House

The ceilings are by Antonio Zucchi.  There are also some works in the next room by Angelica Kauffmann, who was his wife.  In another room I came across The Guitar Player by Vermeer, a Turner hung casually on another wall and watching over them was a Rembrandt self-portrait.

The kids dressed up in the Orangerie and Zoe declared she could happily live there.  That makes two of us!

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Sir George and Lady Zoe

Do you have a favourite small museum?