The year is over and you've read maybe a dozen of the 8000 new books published in the past 12 months (make that 8 zillion if you count books digitally written or sold). There's no hope of catching up in the summer breather before 2013's wordathon begins, but you would like to seem vaguely up to date, or simply pick some sure-fire holiday books.
Based on my year's reading - and reflecting my interests - here are some suggestions.
The book of the year for readers of disparate tastes is Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second volume in Hilary Mantel's brilliant fictionalised portrayal of Thomas Cromwell and his back-room manipulation of Henry VIII's court and wives. It's worth beginning with volume one, Wolf Hall - both won the Booker Prize - and even if you are not a "historical fiction" fan, you are likely to be gripped by Mantel's deeply human characters.
There were smaller, quieter books on the Booker shortlist that suit a different reading mood: my favourite was The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Canongate), an understated study of an ill-fated man on holiday in Germany.
Ian McEwan's Cold War thriller, Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape), was flicked by the Booker judges but grabbed me with its moody portrait of rundown 1970s London, the seduction of a novelist by an MI5 agent, and its clever literary games.
Richard Ford delivered another of his slow-burning family dramas in Canada (HarperCollins), with its much-quoted opening line: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." And Canada's Alice Munro continued her quietly impressive output of short stories in Dear Life (Chatto & Windus).
The much-younger Cate Kennedy is sometimes described as Australia's mistress of the short story and her new collection, Like a House on Fire (Scribe), is satisfying, if discomforting. For me, Australian women dominated the year's fiction. Among the most powerful was Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin), an epic, intimate and funny study of two people who leave home and are tossed on a sea of social and technological change.
Also recommended are Mateship with Birds (Picador), Carrie Tiffany's tough and tender treatment of the sexual undercurrents in a country town; Deborah Robertson's Sweet Old World (Vintage); and Susan Johnson's sensual study of a woman's life in My Hundred Lovers (Allen & Unwin).
Most years produce a surprise feel-good novel that thrives on word of mouth, and this year's is The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Allen & Unwin), by Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson.
Scandinavia continues to pour out crime fiction, and you might enjoy The Bat by Norway's Jo Nesbo (Vintage), the first in his now-famous Harry Hole series and not the best but newly translated. Better is Standing in Another Man's Grave (Orion), the latest in Ian Rankin's long-running series.
Some of the most intriguing non-fiction was about writers: J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing by J. C. Kannemeyer (Scribe), the first biography of the elusive Nobel laureate; Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper (John Murray), about the English adventurer who walked across Europe; Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (Granta), D. T. Max's biography of the late, eccentric David Foster Wallace, which can be read beside Wallace's posthumous collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not (Hamish Hamilton); passionate Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's memoir Country Girl (Faber); and Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape), Salman Rushdie's memoir of the fatwa years.
Of course, there's much beyond literature. Read The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press), for a rich, irascible account of the great actor's love of theatre, booze and Elizabeth Taylor. Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace (Viking) was probably the best of many ageing musos' autobiographies. On Warne (Penguin) is Gideon Haigh's colourful analysis of Australia's most colourful cricket star.
That's only a taster but, look, we got this far without a mention of Fifty Shades of Grey. You really don't need to read it, but perhaps I'm too late. Happy reading.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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