In the last few weeks of 2011 I remember thinking to myself – as yet another ‘picks of 2011’ landed in my Twitter feed (and in all manner of other publications that crossed my desk) – that I was starting to tire of the phenomenon. After all, as fun as it is to recollect your own absolute favourites of the year, to read about everyone else’s can make you feel more than a little overwhelmed and guilty: all those books that you didn’t manage to get to, and clearly should have!
Is it more liberating and exciting to instead hear about what’s on the horizon, from a diverse bunch of Australian writers*?
I certainly hope so – thus the genesis of this post.
Incidentally the criterion for contributors was simply to select one to three 2012 titles from Australia or abroad that they were aware of, or had already read. As you shall see, there are a number of titles mentioned more than once, which I think is a really good indicator of these readers’ estimation of the authors concerned.
As for my own picks? Well, inevitably, there were numerous titles that got stolen by my dear contributors! So I shan’t go on and on about how excited I am about a new Chloe Hooper on the horizon, or an Emily Perkins, or the wondrous debut story collection of Ryan O’Neill. For sheer entertainment value, I can’t wait for the new Dan Rhodes (This is Life, Canongate, May). I’m intrigued that Patrick Holland – author of the unforgettable The Mary Smokes Boys – has a thriller set in Ho Chi Minh on the way, The Darkest Little Room (Transit Lounge). And I think my good friends at Penguin Books might really be on to something with a fiction debut in July from a young Australian writer originally from the Southern Sudan – Majok Tulba – called Beneath the Darkening Sky. I don’t think we as a nation know this ethnic group’s story sufficiently, and fiction (rather like Nam Le did for the Vietnamese diaspora with The Boat), might well be one of the best ways of enlightening us. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, for here’s what his publisher, Ben Ball, has to say:
Majok Tulba narrowly escaped being forced to become a child soldier in South Sudan’s civil war when his village was invaded and many of its inhabitants massacred: he was an inch shorter than the AK47 used to measure recruits. After a number of years in a refugee camp, he came to Australia at 16. Ten years later, he has written an extraordinary novel about what might have happened had he been an inch taller… Majok is an extremely accomplished storyteller and a writer of great psychological insight, one of the most fearless and forceful writers we’ve seen emerge in this country in a very long time.
Years ago now there was a short-story anthology published in the US called You’ve Got to Read This, in which contemporary American writers introduced stories that held them in awe. If ever I’ve had a publishing ambition, it is somehow to emulate the spirit of that book – writers are, after all, so often the most voracious and passionate readers amongst us. So, in a small way, I hope you find that these selections – the first in a weekly series of three – will inspire you in your reading year, and please do feel free to offer your own picks in the comments field at the end of the post!
*and the prize-winning literary critic Geordie Williamson for good measure!
The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus (Knopf): If wanting to read a book based purely on the awesomeness of its riveting cover is slightly superficial, then so be it. Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet was designed by Peter Mendelsund, and somehow manages to evoke flames and mountains and something slightly scaly or avian all at once. You could practically prick your fingers on the tips of these paper cut-outs. Of course, it helps that the plot – in which the language of children becomes a sort of poison for adults – sounds excellent too, tapping into a similar linguistic vein as China Mieville’s Embassytown.
Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications, October): I’ve been a fan of Kennedy’s writing for a long while and her return to the short story form is a reason to get excited. Her first collection, Dark Roots, sits on my desk as one of those books I always revisit from time to time, especially for ‘The Correct Name of Things’ and ‘The Wheelbarrow Thief’, and the glass-like clarity and coolness of their prose. More of this please.
Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin): Okay, technically this has already been released but this isn’t a race based on technicalities (is it?). Lanagan writes dark, moody folk stories with a decidedly contemporary, feminist twist. Sea Hearts, her ‘selkie novel’, turns on the power of a sea-witch who can draw a girl form the heart of a seal to be sold as a wife. Next on my to-read list.
I saw Ali Cobby Eckerman read from her collection little bit long time at Darwin’s WordStorm writers’ festival a couple of years ago and was struck by the direct, personal nature of her poems as well as the beauty of the words. I immediately bought the collection as well as some other anthologies containing her work, so I’m looking forward to her verse novel Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books, April), which won the kuril dhagun Indigenous writing fellowship at the State Library of Queensland.
Another verse novel that’s caught my eye is The Hanging of Minnie Thwaites (Arcade Publications, March), by the wonderful educator, activist and poet (and my former lecturer) Judith Rodriguez. Its subject matter is the ‘true crime’ story of an apparently notorious nineteenth-century Brunswick baby farmer.
Finally, in non-fiction, I’m intrigued by Behind the Shock Machine by Australian psychologist Gina Perry (Scribe Publications, May), who has been given access to over 150 boxes of archival material from Stanley Milgram’s infamous 1960s experiments at Yale University. Milgram’s subjects were asked to give electric shocks to people they could hear screaming (apparently in pain but actually acting) in the next room. Such an experiment would never be allowed now, but what did it tell us about human empathy and what happens to it when a hierarchy of power is introduced?
Little Sister, Julian Novitz (Vintage, Random House NZ, May): Little Sister is a psychological thriller that alternates between pre-9/11 Auckland and present-day Melbourne, trying to make sense of an impulsive, seemingly senseless murder. It will be Novitz’s third book, and has the plot-driven, speed-of-light intensity he’s known for, while slowing down just long enough to investigate ideas of motivation and identity. As the author is a member of my writers’ group, I’m lucky to have read the draft manuscript. I guarantee you won’t expect the ending.
Running Dogs, Ruby J. Murray (Scribe Publications, May): Set in Jakarta, Running Dogs is a novel that takes the reader from the eve of the 1997 revolution to today. Murray is a writer with personal experience in Jakarta and a background in environmental politics, gender and international development. Religion, power and privilege are all interrogated through the eyes of several expats. I’m anticipating an exciting, intelligent and authentic trip through a global city I’ve always dreamt of visiting.
Geek Mook, edited by Aaron Mannion and Julian Novitz (Vignette Press, May): While it’s a coincidence that all of my highly anticipated books are being published in May 2012, it’s not a coincidence that I’ve chosen the Geek Mook. As the new publisher at Vignette Press, I’m delighted that this year will see the continuation of Lisa Dempster’s acclaimed subcultural journal series, which begain with The Sex Mook in 2007 and The Death Mook (2009). Edited by literary geeks/academics/writers, Geek Mook explores the worlds of hackers, gamers, steampunk fashionistas, trekkies and obsessives of all fixations. I’ve had a sneak peek at the collected fiction, poetry, non-fiction and illustrations, and Geek Mook deftly shows the human heart beneath the steampunk carapace.
Skagboys, Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape, May): An unexpected prequel to Trainspotting, chronicling the early days of Renton, Sick Boy and Spud as they go from promising young Scots to junkies on the prowl in 1980s Edinburgh. I saw Welsh at the Wheeler Centre and he doesn’t seem to have mellowed much, so I’ll be interested to see if Skagboys has an edge, or if he’s just run out of ideas. I’m hoping for the former.
Silver, Andrew Motion (Jonathan Cape, April): The former Poet Laureate writes a sequel to Treasure Island? How can I resist this? The son of Jim Hawkins meets up with the daughter of Long John Silver to go off treasure hunting – a very odd career move by Motion, but reports are that he’s had enormous fun writing it, so X marks the spot for me.
Talulla Rising, Glen Duncan (Text Publishing, April): I’ve already read this sequel to The Last Werewolf and it’s stompingly good. Picking up where the last one left off, this has a vicious, bloody opening that sets up the premise of Talulla being vastly outnumbered by vampires but taking the bastards on anyway. Smart, funny and even filthier than the first one.
Ever since being struck by the precision and strangeness of Chloe Hooper‘s A Child’s Book of True Crime (Vintage), I’ve been hanging out for her next novel [due out late in 2012]; similarly, Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba (Scribner), which augured magnificently for her next effort. Both follow-ups are coming out this year. Like millions of others, I’m excited to read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Out the Bodies (4th Estate, May), her sequel to the superb Wolf Hall. And the word on the street is fast and loud for Richard Ford‘s new novel, Canada (Bloomsbury, June) – I’m more than ready to re-enter the rhythm of his sentences.
Martin Shaw is Books Division Manager of Readings, and an editorial advisor at Kill Your Darlings.