I tend to stumble upon my books (matters not if it is work by Sri Lankan or Australian authors) and I started young. We have a bookcase in our house that spans the length of the downstairs study. It is mostly filled with modern day thrillers and what I refer to as airport novels – Jeffery Archer, Frederick Forsythe, Connelly, Koontz, Deaver. John Grisham. Those books. A smaller bookcase housed the encyclopedia set and the treasure trove of Agatha Christie novels. In the bookshelf for us kids, there were Enid Blytons and Carolyn Keenes, topped up by regular birthday and Christmas gifts. I read the classics – the cornerstone foundation of Western Civilisation Literature. And by some mere miracle I didn’t, as so often can happen, I didn’t stop reading there.
I had a desire to read more and so I did. I wanted more crime fiction, so I looked for more authors and found Marsh and Greenwood and others. An aunt gave me Tolkien and in an university in the US I found Piers Anthony and Robert Jordan. I tend to stumble across most of my books – very rarely are they recommended personally to me by others. I found Calvino via my current partner for example and it meant the world that someone said “This is a book you might like” and was right.
So part of why I love books is the serendipitous nature of how I find them. My current partner has a list he uses – out of a book entitled 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. It is helpful to have a list but then I peep over his shoulder and realise that perhaps one should be a little bit wary of such big canonical lists – there were important books that weren’t listed that I thought were worth reading. A list reflects the bias of the listmaker and no one person can read so widely but that doesn’t mean that one should not try.
And so in a few days I will post my reading list for 2017 and ask you to add your suggestions to it but in the meantime here are my top three stumbled upon and serendiptous book finds by Australian authors that I got to read in 2016 and that I loved. If I listed all of them we may be here for quite some time.
1. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities
What is it: It’s a collection of short stories, Julie Koh’s second book and it is hilarious.
Why I loved it: Because it is absurdist and funny and there are recognisable digs and jokes and send ups of groups and people (hipsters and yuppies for example), because I can see how Julie gets angry at certain things and then writes them into her stories where she makes a sharp, cutting point via surreal humour. There was recognition of shared experiences and ideas and thoughts and reactions to everyday events. There was utter disbelief at some of the premises for the short stories and sometimes downright annoyance and envy that she had hit upon some of the best ideas I have ever seen for short stories by Australian authors – ones that I wished I had thought of first. And I felt like colour had exploded in my face while I was reading because apparently that’s what reading surrealist work seems like to my brain. Don’t be afraid that you won’t understand anything because you will. You will understand it, you will be in total awe and shock and you will be laughing like a loon.
How did I find it: The inaugural Australian Short Story Festival where I got to meet Julie as well.
Who is Julie: Julie Koh is an awesome writer who isn’t entirely certain if she, herself, is actually real and existing in real life. No, really. Her website is called The Fictional Julie Koh. She is also in the Margaret River Press Short Story Anthology for 2016: Shibboleth which I will be reviewing soon once I get back to Perth.
2. The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan
What is it: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut novel about a mother’s grief at the loss of her child.
Why I loved it: At first you think, oh dear, oh no, heavens above, how can I read about this sort of thing and then you start reading it and get sucked in by the language. Anna moves back and forth in the story, recounting a mother’s current experience of dealing with grief and her backstory in childhood of dealing with her own mother’s issues. You are left to watch curiously as she reacts to how her newfound friends and neighbours try to help her partner and family as she attempts to recover from her loss. You actually feel the sense of despair and futility, the feelings as they come and go of being fed up, of just not wanting to do anything even when others desperately want you to do something. You feel the irritation and inability to explain when others around you feel that you can’t be in a certain state of mind unless you are doing something they believe will indicate that. Which goes to show how amazing Anna is as a writer. You can read my much more indepth review of The Paper House as well.
How did I find it: I think I was asked to review it. It blew my mind.
Who is Anna: Anna is a writer, social media genius for hire and lives with a dog and a cat who is so cool he has his own Twitter account and has previously been in the news. She, herself, is pretty cool and is working on a second book right now.
3. Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men
What is it: The first book in a crime fiction series set in 1920s Australia. With a ton of political history included.
Why I loved it: First off, OMG CRIME FICTION BY AN ASIAN AUTHOR! WHO IS ALSO AUSTRALIAN! SET IN THE TWENTIES AND THIRTIES!
Yeah, what was not to love? Also the cover. Look at the covers for all these books. They are amazing. These are books that will NEVER leave my shelf. Well, unless I send The Paper House to my mother which I actually might do. But I love that the main characters are artists and bohemians. I like that Sulari Gentill actually is an artist herself and does her own covers. I like that she brings in other POC characters and that she knows her history well enough to have it sit in the background and form a major cohesive part of the story but in a way that doesn’t require any effort from you. You as a reader do not need to wade through it to understand it. It is a rich tapestry and it is easily understandable. Her plots and subplots are intricate. I understand the desire to be left the damn hell alone with your friends to create as you would and to not have to try to escape potential suitable matches arranged for you. I started picking up more books in the series and am planning to read them in order and I can vouch for the fact that as you go through the series, various family tensions get slowly resolved. There is a place of understanding and compromise that is reached.
There is also a bit of heartbreak, unrequited love and such things forming the subplot but all this is carefully handled through the protagonist’s squad of friends – and a real squad they are, knowing what to mention and what not to and wading into fights to back up and rescue one another. It is a lovely series and it makes you feel as if you are right there in the midst of it all, trying to prevent people from going undercover and doing foolhardy risky things.
How did I find it: I saw it in a bookstore because I always browse the crime fiction section. The cover got me. Then I raved about it and Pantera Press told me that Sulari drew the cover art.
Who is Sulari: Sulari wields not just pen but also pencil and paintbrush and does all her own covers as outed to me by her publisher Pantera Press and lives in South Australia I believe with two rambunctious kids and if I recall correctly tends to be some kind of jam making queen. Possibly I made that last bit up but who knows. I have swapped my sugar addiction for this series now.
Who were your favourite Australian authors in 2016?
What are the serendipitous finds of new Australian authors that 2016 brought you? How do you find new books to read? What did you discover that you loved? Have you read any of these books and did you like them?