It’s been an incredible year for fiction. For every book I’ve read, I’ve added another five to my ‘to read’ pile and barely made a dent. Narrowing my favourites down to a list of just 10 was tricky. It’s worth noting that, since launching Lectito in June, I’ve made a particular effort seek out work by female authors, who are often under-represented in mainstream reviews. The list below features a small selection of those writers who blew my hair back.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
From the outset, Groff’s narrative sparks with theatrical flair: a tale of mythological proportions taken from the stars and strung together with dramatic irony, untimely deaths, family secrets, fatal misunderstandings—all the good stuff. It’s the story of a marriage: two bright young things drawn together, one an agent of Fate the other of Fury. Lotto is the shining hero—charismatic, if a little dim—and destined for greatness. Mathilde is the grit to his glitter, and their love is millennia of romantic myth distilled.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
(Allen & Unwin)
Ten young women wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves held captive on a disused sheep station in the middle of the outback. They have their heads shaved, and are forced to dress in coarse, old fashioned tunics and bonnets that blinker their vision. They spend their days building a road across the station beneath the sweltering mid-summer sun and sleep locked in the shearers’ quarters—cramped, filthy cubbies not fit for dogs. They are marched around the station in a pack, clipped together by leashes, and are kept in line by hired guards.
The station is surrounded by a high electric fence that draws its power from a hidden source; escape is impossible. But when then lights go out in the main house and food supplies begin to dwindle, it becomes clear that the girls’ captors are also prisoners and, little by little, the balance of power begins to shift.
The Natural Way of Things is brutal, violent, gothic. Wood’s prose is vivid, flecked with gore, and she draws on the sublime terror of the Australian outback to make her reader sweat and squirm as she pulls them into her increasingly primal, animal world to consider what happens when the roles of hunter and hunted are reversed.
The Strays by Emily Bitto
Winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, The Strays is an enchanting foray into a bohemian paradise where art reigns supreme, creation and destruction walk hand in hand and desire winds snake-like through the grass.
Set in 1930s Melbourne and inspired by the lives of the famous Angry Penguin artists who lived and worked at Heide under the patronage of John and Sunday Reed, The Strays is an imaginative reworking of that dark and ancient premise: et in arcadia ego.
Eight-year-old Lily feels she’s stumbled into a fairytale when she befriends Eva, daughter of modernist painter and founder of the controversial Melbourne Modern Art Group, Ethan Trentham, and his wealthy, bohemian wife, Helena. On their rambling property artists drift like gods through the gardens and retreat to their studios to work for days—weeks—on end in fits of divine madness while Lily and the Trentham sisters run free in an endless game of make-believe. There are no rules. No bed times. No problem when Lily’s father is injured at work and she needs a place to stay while her mother nurses him. But as the girls grow into adolescence the cloistered, adult world they inhabit comes more sharply into focus and the fairytale Lily so eagerly clings to reveals itself as little more than an illusion.
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Patricia is, according to her medical chart, ‘very confused’. A long-sufferer of dementia, she’s passing her final days in a nursing home. But it isn’t only memory loss that has her muddled. The nursing home appears to morph around her. One day there’s an elevator, the next there’s not. Sometimes the toilet is to the right of her room, other times it’s on the left. And in her moments of clarity she remembers living two very different lives.
In 1948, two years out of Oxford and working as an English teacher at a remote boarding school in Cornwall, Patricia receives a phone call from her fiance, Mark. He hasn’t got the marks he needed to continue on to postgraduate studies and pursue an academic career as he had hoped. Instead, he’s been forced to accept a low-paying teaching position and if Patricia still wants to marry him, it’s now or never. In one life, Pat says ‘never’. In another, Tricia says ‘now’. It’s a choice that will change not only the course of Patricia’s life and the lives of those she draws close to, but a decision that sets in motion a butterfly effect that changes everything from the legalisation of gay marriage to who kills JFK and which superpower wins the space race.
My Real Children is a heartbreaking story of parallel lives that asks that most overwhelming of questions: ‘What if…?’
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Even if you’re not religious, you’re likely familiar with the story of King David, the shepherd boy with a talent for music who slayed a giant, gathered an army and became King of Israel. Everyone knows David the myth, but little is known of David the man. Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord takes readers back three thousand years to ask: who was David?
Narrated by the prophet Natan (who is himself and intriguing character), The Secret Chord is the story of a man as told by his most trusted advisor and dearest friend. Natan draws from his experiences with David but also seeks other lost voices to enrich his tale, namely those of the women in David’s life. In having Natan seek out these untold stories, Brooks gifts their tellers complex lives that extend beyond the roles of ‘mother’, ‘wife’, ‘sister’ and ‘daughter’.
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
The Gardener family tree is full of twisted branches and hidden hollows. Back in the late 1980s, Briar Rose, Grace and Plum Gardener went searching for a fabled orchid of incredible power and were never seen again. Now Great Aunt Oleander is dead and Fleur, Clem, Charlie and Bryony have each inherited a seed pod believed to be from the same orchid their mothers went looking for years before.
If the Gardeners can figure out how to use them, the seedpods will give them the fulfillment happiness the so desperately seek—but at a terrible price.
The Seed Collectors is a brilliant, mind-expanding novel of botany, desire and forbidden fruit.
Gold Fame Citrus by Clare Vaye Watkins
Wind and drought have made a wasteland of the American south-west. The Amargosa, an uncharted dune sea, moves glacier-like across the landscape, the rocks at its base crushing towns, filling canyons and levelling mountains. The West has reverted to the wild place it was before people came seeking gold, fame, citrus. Most people have been evacuated to the northern and eastern states, but a scattered few—the Mojavs—remain. Drifters. Dreamers. Criminals without a clean ID to secure their passage across the border. Lost souls who feel the tug of the Amargosa’s sublime energy.
Luz and Ray are among the hold outs, an ex-model and a soldier gone AWOL living on ration cola and $200 cans of blueberries in a starlet’s mansion. They keep their desires small until towheaded baby Ig toddles into their life and with pleading eyes demands: ‘More, more, more … Mama, I’ve got so much want in me.’ Like the pioneers before them—the prospectors, runaways, Hollywood hopefuls, immigrants, criminals and con artists, the unlikely family leave burned out LA and venture into the sunbaked heart of the wild, wild west, risking death in search of a better life.
Gold Fame Citrus is a sweeping, sublime story of faith, fortune and divine madness that ventures deep into the Gothic underbelly of the American Dream.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna
(Allen & Unwin)
The Eye of the Sheep is the story of Jimmy Flick, a young boy with special needs growing up in a family on the verge of falling apart in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. His dad works at the nearby refinery scraping rust from the pipes and drinking himself to violence on Friday nights, while his mother suffers severe asthma, her airways clogged with dust. Jimmy’s only friend is his elder brother, Robby, but Robby is growing up fast and soon there isn’t room for him and his dad under the same roof.
The world has always seemed strange to Jimmy, full of situations just beyond his grasp, but when the flame at the end of the refinery pipe in the empty field behind the Flicks’ house at Nineteen Emu gutters, even the routines and domestic machinery he relies on begin breaking down, one by one.
Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Eye of the Sheep is a story of broken systems: rusty pipes, clogged airways, failed communications, relationships turned rotten and government departments under strain. Obsessed with instruction manuals, Jimmy is certain he can put all the pieces back together if only he can figure out the connections between them.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
(Alfred A. Knopf)
The night the world ends, Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. A paramedic-in-training rushes up from the audience to perform CPR while Kirsten, a child actor playing a ghostly apparition of young Cordelia, watches from behind a pillar. Within a month, everyone else present at the Elgin Theatre will be dead.
Twenty years earlier, Leander’s first wife, Miranda, sits up late after a dinner party coming to terms with the end of her marriage and working on Doctor Eleven, a series of graphic novels about a physicist living on a damaged space station that once resembled a scaled down Earth.
Twenty years later, Kirsten flees from a cult town into the forest with the Travelling Symphony—a knife at her belt and two tattered Doctor Eleven comics in her backpack—to begin the long journey to the rumoured Museum of Civilisation.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Cheryl Glickman is a woman in crisis and a long sufferer of globus hystericus—a hard lump in the throat thought to be psychosomatic. Approaching middle age and living alone, Cheryl is the longest standing employee of Open Palm, a company that teaches women’s self-defense. At the owners’ request she now works from home, her managerial style deemed ‘more effective from a distance’. However, Cheryl’s retreat from the world is largely self-imposed and through a carefully devised system, she efficiently minimises her presence in her own life.
And then along comes Clee. Sloppy, sexy and self-assured, she is the rambunctious daughter of Cheryl’s employers and is everything Cheryl is not. When she finds herself in need of a place to crash, her parents send her Cheryl’s way.
Contrary to what its title suggests, The First Bad Man is a story about women—how we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world and how we negotiate our roles as mothers, lovers, friends and adversaries.
What have been your favourite reads of 2015 and why? Based on this list, can you suggest any other books should I add to my TBR pile?
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