Top Books of 2012
1. Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis (Allen & Unwin)
Beginning with a seven page sentence that draws the reader into the world of the opium dens of Bombay, Narcopolis is savage, surreal and deeply sympathetic. Following a cast of characters, the story weaves in and around their lives like smoke and traces the tale of Bombay’s transformation alongside those of the people within it. Exceptional overall, it’s in language that the book excels and there’s a fierce poetry within the prose, making each page a wonder by itself.
2. Ben Lerner – Leaving the Atocha Station (Allen & Unwin)
Another book defined by the beauty of the writing, and another written by a poet, Leaving the Atocha Station follows the story of an American poet on a fellowship to Spain. Consumed with self-doubt and thoroughly self-medicated, he ponders the nature and the truth of people’s experience of art, and while he lies and seeks refuge in mystery, his soul-searching and guilt ensure that he remains sympathetic and relatable. The many deviations taken to examine specific poets, artists, places and emotions are what define the book more than the overall plot and it’s nice to read an author so confident in his own intelligence and the audience’s.
3. Richard Holloway – Leaving Alexandria (Text Publishing)
An autobiography, and I’m shocked to find one so high on my list, as I’ve always been inclined to fiction over non, but this is a strangely comfortable fit with my top two books. In it, the former Bishop of Edinburgh chronicles his life through the lens of faith and doubt and spends more time reflecting on the world around him and on his internal struggles then on a simple chronicle of events. There’s a genuine beauty to the writing and honesty to the struggle with doubt that Holloway depicts, enhanced by the conflict of his seeming dismay at his own lack of faith and an underlying belief that doubt is actually the element that should underpin any true faith, to keep it humble.
4. Jeff Sparrow – Money Shot (Scribe)
Another non-fiction, this time exploring the world of censorship and pornography in Australia. It would have been very easy to get the tone of this book horribly wrong, but by using his own uncertainty on the topics as a grounding point, and treating them as serious topics, worthy of adult discussion, Jeff Sparrow has managed to create a thoughtful and educational look at two taboo topics and their frequent intersection, along with the ways they influence and are influenced by neo-liberalism. The anecdotes are humorous and sometimes heart-breaking, and there’s a lot to think about. Read it with a friend or partner, because it’s sure to start a lot of conversations.
5. Michelle De Kretser – Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin)
A book in two parts, exploring the nature of location and dislocation and how our identity is shaped by where we are and where we want to be, Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel is beautifully written and brings great humanity and believability to its characters and to its settings. Suffused with evocative descriptions and speeding through the first three decades of story in captivating snapshot memories, before slowing down and examining the very different Australian experiences of its protagonists, the book shows how open the world can be and how much it can close itself off.
Honourable mentions (that were finished slightly too late for inclusion): Sergio De La Pava – A Naked Singularity (dense in the best possible way, marvellously entertaining, overflowing with ideas and capable of invoking a breathless enthusiasm in everything from legal theory to boxing), Keith Ridgway – Hawthorn & Child (surreal, strange, compelling, easily the best crime fiction of the year)
1. Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Hachette)
A smart page-turning thriller crossed with a twisted anti-love story, this book made a huge splash in 2012, receiving high praise from literary critics and mass-market crime readers alike. I couldn’t put it down, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone who likes their fiction with a healthy dose of bitter cynicism.
2. Sergio de la Pava – A Naked Singularity (UCP)
This self-published novel was rescued from obscurity through the efforts of a few critics who hailed it as a masterpiece, and has now been republished by University of Chicago Press. Surreal, confronting and experimental, yet always highly entertaining, it’s the story of a young and brilliant public defender in New York City whose world is slowly unravelling as he struggles with the injustice of the American legal system and contemplates committing the perfect crime.
3. Hilary Mantel – Bring Up the Bodies (Harper Collins)
Bring Up the Bodies picks up the story of Thomas Cromwell where its predecessor, the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, left off, dramatising the tense months leading up to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. It sets itself apart from the common run of costume-drama fiction with its finely-tuned prose and the psychological realism of Mantel’s characterisation – especially her beautifully nuanced portrayal of Cromwell.
4. Junot Díaz – This Is How You Lose Her (Allen & Unwin)
This short story cycle follows Dominican-American immigrant Yunior (whom readers will recognise from Díaz’s previous novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) through his misadventures in love from childhood to middle age. It’s a painful book to read, as the deeply flawed main character compulsively cheats, lies, and makes himself and those around him unhappy – yet you can’t help but be drawn into his world.
5. Cate Kennedy – Like a House on Fire (Scribe)
Short stories often leave me cold, but I read several collections this year that really impressed me with the power of the medium. Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy’s second short story collection, showcases her strength at depicting ordinary people’s lives in ways that feel anything but ordinary.
Honourable mentions go to Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, an experimental collection of linked short stories that turns the police procedural on its head; Gaysia by Benjamin Law, a non-fiction travel narrative that investigates LGBT communities in different parts of Asia with humour and sensitivity; Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket, a children’s mystery which continues to prove that Snicket is in a class by himself when it comes to young adult fiction; and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (see Sky’s review above).
1. Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding (Harper Collins)
Chad Harbach’s first novel is warm-hearted, well meaning and intimate. Taking ten years to write, the book endorses a kind of good natured heroism that is rare in contemporary literary fiction. Appealingly old fashioned in its small university town setting, and its baseball narrative the novel distinguishes itself with its cast. From the superhumanly graceful shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, to aging and newly-in-love Melville scholar Guert Affenlight each character excels in some manner, and each character impresses themself on the reader with the intimacy of an old friend.
2. Matt Williamson et al – Unstuck Annual Issue 1# (unstuckbooks.org)
Unstuck is an independant annual that collects literary fiction with a surreal, fantastic, or futuristic edge. Genre-bending, and deeply effecting, their first issue reads as a labour of love. Aimee Bender’s The Coat, Meghan McCarron’s Six Flags, Joe Meno’s Apes and John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser’s Peer Confession are particular highlights.
3. Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis (Allen and Unwin)
The city of Bombay pulses under the skin of this often languorous novel. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, Narcopolis hits its stride with its first sentence: a sentence that continues for pages uninterrupted. Thayil’s training as a poet is on full display in this dream-like novel, that wanders the length and breadth of its characters lives, but never seems to objectify them, or its setting as ‘exotics’ for foreign eyes.
4. Nathan Englander – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Hachette)
There is an ‘Old Testament’ feel to Englander’s collection of stories. A profoundness undercuts the frequently mundane topics of the tales. The burden of history seems to weigh down on the stories of geriatric campers, neighbourhood bullies and visiting couples. Very specific in its focus, the collection may be opaque to readers with no knowledge of Jewish New York, Long Island, Israel or yiddish, but repays a reader’s investment with its stark, painful and often beautiful conclusions.
5. Ned Beauman – The Teleportation Accident (Hachette)
Beauman’s second novel lurches, in various states of drunkenness and withdrawl, through science-fiction, noir, romance and murder-mystery. Filled with ironic reversals, historical dislocations, and thwarted expectations, the novel follows an egotistical loser, Egon Loeser in his stumbling pursuit of Adele Hitler. In the background of this frequently funny and absurd novel, the history of the Holocaust and the first World War tick away casting a darkness over the wry cadences of The Teleportation Accident.
1. Hilary Mantel – Bring Up the Bodies (Harper Collins)
It’s impossible to go past this as one of my favourite books of this year. In her sequel to Wolf Hall, Mantel returns to Thomas Cromwell as he contrives the downfall of Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn. In Mantel’s Tudor court, there is nothing as terrifying as Cromwell thinking (to Anne) ‘I can separate you from history’, or as thrilling as watching him do it. Need I say that it won this year’s Booker Prize? The trilogy’s final installment, The Mirror and the Light, chronicling Cromwell’s fall from power and ultimate execution, is on its way and I cannot wait.
2. Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus (Random House)
This is Morgenstern’s debut novel, a gorgeous fantasy/romance/historical fiction. Two young magicians are locked into a contest of skill and endurance; their arena is the Night Circus, inside the black-and-white-striped tents that appear from nowhere and in which everything is possible. They fall in love – but their combat must continue, with consequences not only for themselves but for everyone else inside the circus. A highly, headily visual book that I loved.
3. Paul Griffin – Stay with Me (Text Publishing)
I don’t generally go for urban teenage romances, but I fell for this one. ‘Good girl’ Cece falls in love with Mack, a dead-end school drop out. Then Max kills a man. Their doomed relationship makes for bittersweet reading without being sentimental. Cece and Mack’s voices are distinct, engaging and – I felt – real. Griffin draws characters from his work with incarcerated and disadvantaged youths, which give his stories genuine power: I recommend them highly.
4. Venero Armanno – Black Mountain (UQP)
This is one of the more frightening books that I have read recently: about eugenics and humanity’s quest for good health and longevity. Mark dreams of a faceless, man-like creature and begins a quest to find himself. Sette is a boy without a past enslaved in the sulphur mines of Sicily – a boy with uncommon strength. Their connection is revealed slowly, through a story within story, spanning decades and geographically from Italy to modern-day Australia. A thought-provoking and extremely unsettling read.
5. James Treadwell – Advent (Hachette)
Treadwell’s first work of fiction is a dark and grown-up fantasy, which combines Arthurian legend, Greek myth, Faust, and shamanic folklore (and more). Magic returns to the world and a boy becomes a hero. His transformation, however, is not easy: the magic in this book brings death and madness, as much and perhaps more than wonder. I was intrigued, and am looking to the next book in the series.