Book Club co-host and writer Walter Mason suggests some short and long fiction: perfect gifts, but perfect also to be bought at any time for your own or others' reading pleasure.
For some reason I have found myself reading lots of fiction in 2014, more than I have for years and years. Perhaps it's the times, and perhaps it's the fact that so much really exceptional fiction is coming out of Australia recently. Some of the books I mention below have been big releases and award winners. Others have been more obscure. All are well worth reading, and would make perfect gifts for the other bookish people in your life.
Felicty Castagna, The Incredible Here and Now
This book won the 2014 Prime Minister's Literature Award for Young Adult Fiction, and it is incredibly deserving of such recognition. Castagna is a young writer whose fiction engages with contemporary themes of place, identity and cultural belonging. Largely set in Sydney's Western suburbs, The Incredible Here and Now is a collection of stories that describe an intensely real world that is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows the place. Castagna's characters are alive with their sense of displacement and youthful unease, and exist in a haphazard world of unglamorous accidents and relationships that expose much larger truths. I was just blown away by the virtuosity and originality of this book, and how well it captures life for young people in the early part of the 21st century. It is an excellent gift for the young adult reader in your life, and they will be totally absorbed in its resonance.
The Incredible Here and Now is published by the artisanal publishing house Giramondo, so I'd like to mention here another of their fiction releases that captured my attention this year. Nicholas Jose's Bapo is the latest release from one of Australia's most interesting writers on Asia. Jose has enjoyed an illustrious literary career, characterised by his energetic pursuit of literary interest rather than career or commerce. His books are always deeply personal and eccentric forays into bookish obsessions (and I must mention here his simply brilliant family memoir Black Sheep), and Bapo is no different. It is a collection of short stories based around themes of luck, Australia and China. Each is an absolute gem, and the whole book is a belletristic delight.
Laura Jean McKay's Holiday in Cambodia was always going to attract my attention, having published my own book about that most fascinating country. McKay's engagement comes in the form of stories set in Cambodia, describing aspects of its culture and history largely through the eyes of visitors, all there for their own, complicated reasons. The travel-as-short-fiction genre seems to be an entirely Australian invention, having been done previously (and brilliantly) by the aforementioned Felicity Castagna. McKay is a thrilling writer, her gentle humour and subtly deep meditations on Asia, poverty and Western narratives about those things constantly engaging. Deeply original and thought provoking, a must for anyone who has travelled to Asia.
Short fiction seems to be making a real comeback, perhaps the result of our speeded-up lifestyles and the lack of time we all complain about. This year I was enthralled by a collection of short stories that wasn't simply another anthology. Cracking the Spine, edited by Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan, is a collection of absorbing stories, but each story is followed by a short exegesis by that story’s author explaining how and why they wrote the story, and what inspired them. This is a brilliant idea, and makes for terrific reading, especially for other writers.
This anthology was published by the small Australian press Spineless Wonders, who also published this year a really intriguing collection of fiction about the future called The World to Come. Each of the stories is incredibly diverse, and engages with the idea of tomorrow in many different ways. I loved it, and loved the story-a-day adventure I decided to pursue. These books have re-invigorated my taste for short fiction, which I will be reading a lot more of in 2015 (I hope!).
Speaking of beautiful small things, I lost my heart to Hoa Pham's novella The Other Shore, a perfect little book about spirits, politics and Vietnam which was one of the Seizure magazine's Viva La Novella award finalists. Hoa is a Melbourne writer and this haunting look at embodied spirituality and its real-life repercussions is utterly perfect. More people should know about it.
The novella, too, is having its moment, and perhaps the most unexpected fruit of this renaissance is Michelle De Kretser's latest release, a novella and ghost story called Springtime. I was lucky enough to have a long chat with Michelle about the book, and she said that it sprang forth almost fully-formed and demanded its own, eccentric, size. It is a wonderful and seductive read, and is very handsomely published in a gorgeous hardcover with colour plates. A perfect gift, and just the sort of thing to read before bed on hot summer nights.
In 2014 I have re-discovered the escapist charm of Jane Austen, who I haven't read since the early 1990s and was trapped in Taipei with nothing else to read but her complete works (glorious rainy days!). The main reason I have picked her novels up again is the influence of Sydney literary historian Susannah Fullerton, a Janeite of the highest degree whose enthusiasm is catching. I have wickedly enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's update of Emma, released just in time for the 200th anniversary of that great novel in 2015. Of course it's silly, but it's so much fun, and McCall Smith can enchant like no other writer. Wonderful beach reading, though it might infuriate those who are too much in love with the original.
Finally I'd like to recommend a quirky, gently funny and really quite touching novel from Australian writer and film producer Mark Lamprell, The Full Ridiculous. Based loosely on real life, it is the bittersweet account of family life (and torment) after a major accident. I shared the stage with Mark at the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival, and saw that he embodied the bumbling good nature of his characters. The Full Ridiculous should to be read by every Australian over the Christmas break, as it gives us all some perspective on our blessings and great gifts, and encourages not to be so picky with our loved ones.
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