If you’re like us, relaxing with a book is one of life’s great pleasures (the Mimosa is optional). And what better time to do it than the upcoming holiday season? Here is Editor Group’s pick of recent releases to dip into between dips in the pool.
By John Purcell (HarperCollins, 2018)
What price should you put on integrity? Is allowing a potentially bestselling novel to be published, knowing that it’s not your best work, ‘selling out’? These are just two of the questions troubling critically acclaimed author Helen Owen as she prevaricates about handing in the manuscript she promised her publisher in return for a seven-figure advance.
Settled into the stylish North London townhouse she and husband, fellow novelist Malcolm Taylor, bought with the proceeds, Helen is torn between ensuring the ageing couple’s future comfort and protecting her literary legacy. Malcolm thinks the new novel is unworthy of her. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s latest novel, which he dismisses as a “cancer of a book”, is in consideration for the Man Booker Prize.
Enter Amy Winston, the brilliant yet capricious editor sent to convince Helen to deliver the manuscript. Having made her name turning a so-so thriller writer into a publishing phenomenon, Amy’s personal life is a mess, characterised by too much alcohol and random sexual encounters.
Written by industry insider John Purcell, The Girl on the Page ushers the reader behind the scenes of the publishing industry, examining the dichotomy between commercial and literary fiction and asking what it is that makes a great novel.
While unashamedly on the ‘commercial’ side of the divide, The Girl on the Page answers many of its own questions, proving that a novel can be both successful and smart.
By Ylla Watkins
By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
This is a 400-page book by one of America’s most-revered journalists – one who had extraordinary access to the key players in this latest chapter of history. It also seems likely to become the definitive work on Donald Trump between 2015 and mid-2018.
If you’re like me and have been addicted to reading Trump (probably fake) news since 2016, you won’t find a lot of new information in this book. But you will find an astonishing level of detail about the operation of Trump’s presidential campaign and his often chaotic time in office.
As an example, Australia gets a cameo halfway through the book when Woodward describes how then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull got Australia exempted from Trump’s tariffs on steel imports to the US. However, I had never read that Trump met Turnbull in a special top-secret metal ‘compartment’ on the sidelines of a G20 summit. That compartment had to be torn down afterwards because the president had contravened US security rules by using it to meet someone who didn’t have the highest level of US security clearance.
I’d recommend this one for both those whole feel like they know the whole Trump story but want more detail and those that will be aghast afresh at what’s been going on for the past few years. Either way, it’s all delivered in superb writing that’s both lively and spare, which also makes this a good one for anyone interested in reading the work of a master.
Oh, and you do have to wonder whether the story that made Woodward famous – the Nixon administration’s bugging of the Democrat headquarters in the infamous Watergate scandal – would even raise an eyebrow today. Perhaps it would if the Russians helped.
By Grant Butler
By Ng Yi-Sheng (Epigram, 2018)
As technology transforms everyday life in ‘smart nation’ Singapore, the city-state’s most interesting writers are considering some creative consequences. Imagine, for instance, if all the animals at the zoo were discovered to be robots (so much more manageable!). Or if a secret, hyper-modern terminal was installed at Changi Airport to transport the gods, or if, owing to a mysterious breakdown in connectivity, Singapore simply disappeared.
These are some of the surreal themes of Lion City, the first collection of short fiction by Singaporean writer Ng Yi-Sheng. Well known in Singapore as a poet (his collection last boy won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008) and an LGBT+ activist, Ng’s debut short story ‘outing’ is crammed full of subversive ideas on the nature of home and belonging. As Ng put it in an interview, “What I wanted to explore … was the idea that there’s still a beating heart of wildness alive under all that circuitry. Singapore’s lions aren’t extinct, they’re just hiding.”
While the stories blend genres from sci-fi and fantasy to political satire, they all have one aim: to delve beneath the highly managed exterior of the city-state and unearth its strange complexities and singularity. A must-read for anyone looking for a fresh take on Singapore as it undergoes rapid cultural change.
By Melissa de Villiers
By Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Cornerstone, 2018)
“Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.”
So says one of the coterie of beautiful, wealthy, fragile women that literary darling Truman Capote called his ‘swans’.
This wonderfully evocative novel, spanning more than 20 vodka-soaked, jet-setting years, explores the intimate relationships that Capote unforgivably betrayed when his short story, ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’, was published in Esquire magazine in 1975.
An excerpt from Answered Prayers, the novel the author believed would be even greater than his previous masterpiece, In Cold Blood, the story pillaged the private lives of the women who’d confided in him for decades, exposing them to humiliation and ridicule.
Unprepared for the inevitable aftermath of his decision to publish, Capote cuts a pitiful figure in his later years, as he lurches from one self-destructive episode to another, desperate to redeem himself.
Artfully imagining the events around the real-life scandal, this is an immensely readable book where the hero is the least enjoyable part about it.
By Ylla Watkins
By Helen Pitt (Allen & Unwin, 2018)
The recent furore over advertising on the sails of the Sydney Opera House is nothing compared to the scandals, political rows and media frenzies that characterised the creation of this iconic building. Most newsworthy was the sacking of Danish architect Jørn Utzon who famously won a 1957 competition to design a world-class performance venue for Sydney. After nine drama-filled years overseeing the protracted construction process, he left Australia, never to return.
The House, by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Helen Pitt, tells the story of Utzon and many others who toiled on the building between the 1959 sod-turning on the former tram depot site and the official opening by Queen Elizabeth in 1973. There’s world-renowned conductor Eugene Goossens, who was credited with instigating the project, but left Australia in disgrace after a sex scandal. There’s architect Peter Hall who stepped in to finish Utzon’s job in the face of mounting pressure over cost blow-outs. And there’s the building itself, every aspect of which attracted scrutiny – from its intricately engineered arches to its tiles, plywood interiors and much-maligned acoustics.
Pitt weaves historical accounts from many and varied sources into an informative and entertaining narrative, which received the 2018 Walkley Book Award for Excellence in Journalism.
By Lesley Lopes
By Richard Glover (HarperCollins, 2018)
From 1965 to 1975, Australia was a land of body shirts and no social media on which to show off (or shame) them. A land where housing prices were downright reasonable. And, as Richard Glover dutifully explains, there really were no avocados – or near to none. It was also the land of rubbish coffee, rubbish TV reception, rubbish (and unsafe) cars, scungy caravan-park holidays, corporal punishment in schools, unpoliced drink driving, unfenced swimming pools and unprotected sunburn. (“The main summer occupation, particularly among young Australians, was shedding skin.”) Couples couldn’t get divorced without hard evidence of adultery (or worse). Rape in marriage was legally sanctioned. Married women had to quit their jobs, and couldn’t hold a passport without their husband’s permission. Homosexuality was illegal; “…at the first Mardi Gras parade, activists wore fancy dress and masks in order not to be recognised”. Though we remark now that shades of the White Australia policy remain, in the Land Before Avocado it was quite literally the law.
To his credit, Glover recounts all of this with great humour (he is Richard Glover after all), and at a cracking pace. You could happily devour this hilariously grim retrospective over a weekend at the beach – or like I did, over a couple of long-haul flights – all the while grateful that you know the benefits of Slip-Slop-Slap and aren’t surrounded by a cloud of mile-high cigarette smoke.
By Olivia McDowell
By Barbara Kingsolver (Allen & Unwin, 2018)
The plot of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel rests on absent foundations – literally.
In alternating chapters, Unsheltered weaves together the stories of two strong, intelligent individuals whose homes are crumbling around them. The homes seem to act as a metaphor for the seismic social and economic changes that are ripping the rug out from under the lives of these two main characters. Thatcher, a science teacher in the newly established utopian town of Vinelands in the late 1800s, is isolated and attacked for supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Willa, a recently retrenched magazine editor, can barely feed and shelter her family after moving to a house she inherited in the same town in 2016.
Like The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver’s rich characters and abundant detail make for absorbing and educational reading. Loved it!
By Kim Irving
By Michelle McNamara (Faber & Faber, 2018)
If immersing yourself in tales of death, detectives and the depraved doesn’t sound like your ideal summer holiday, please don’t read this review. If, on the other hand, you start your day with a bowl of cereal and a side of serial killers, welcome!
The New York Times–bestselling I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the true story of the man who terrorised California during the 1970s and 80s – and one woman’s search to find him. True crime writer Michelle McNamara’s masterful account of her hunt for the Golden State Killer – a name she coined – will undoubtedly become a true crime classic. Her relentless and meticulous pursuit of him is consuming – for the reader, and the writer. “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now,” she writes.
As well as being an evocative and haunting snapshot of California back in the day, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is also a compelling, intimate portrait of McNamara’s life. A memoir-style narrative is interwoven with her investigation – made all the more poignant by the fact that McNamara passed away before the book was finished. The final book was pieced together by Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, and researcher Paul Haynes, who worked alongside McNamara as she was writing.
As author Gillian Flynn writers in her introduction to the book, as a reader of true crime – and consumer of others’ tragedies – you need to be careful in the choices you make: “I read only the best; writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.”
McNamara is all these things. Her goal is always clear: to catch the killer and shove him into the light.
After it was published, they caught him.
By Emma Walsh
By Andrew Webster and Matt Norman (Macmillan Australia, 2018)
Peter Norman was one of Australia’s greatest sprinters. In 1968, he competed at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City and won silver in the 200 metres. At the medal ceremony, he stood in support of fellow medallists, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as they protested the treatment of African Americans in the US.
That moment, captured in one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, would change his life – and the lives of Smith and Carlos – forever.
Drawing on interviews and commentary from coaches, competitors, sporting officials and family members, The Peter Norman Story is a revealing account of the life and enduring legacy of one of the most significant figures in Australian sporting history.
By Kieran Bockman