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May has been a big month for literary groupies like me, with the authors of two of my favourite books from last year appearing at Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre.

Last week, the author of Less, Andrew Sean Greer, was interviewed by Benjamin Law. The Pulitzer prize-winning author was charming and funny, speaking of the ways in which the experiences and behaviours of his protagonist, Arthur Less, at times reflected his own insecurities.

One of the funniest parts of his interview was when he spoke about his rejection by his publisher after he had produced a certain number of books which attracted modest sales and he reached a certain age, only to encounter his former editor as he accepted his Pulitzer Prize.

It was hard not to share in Greer’s joy.

Other interesting morsels from Greer’s interview:

  • Greer also spoke about his intention to create a work that was joyful, although the book also has its fair share of sadness and disappointment. He said that, growing up as a gay man at the time he did, he had been exposed to literature that explored tragedy and prejudice, but little that retained a sense of joy.
  • A questioner asked about his twin brother’s response to his Pulitzer win, and Greer said that during a Thanksgiving dinner, his entire family had said that the thing they were most grateful for that year had been his success with Less.
  • Greer spoke about his sense of being an imposter in literary circles before winning the prize, and how he felt that the best outcome of the Pulitzer is that he now felt he legitimately had a place in his writing community. Benjamin Law joked that it seemed like a high benchmark to reach.
  • Greer said that at a certain point when writing a novel, he tended to become paralysed by a sense that the novel was not progressing as he might have liked and needed to lie on a couch for about a week to gather himself and continue.

Home Fire author Kamila Shamsie also charmed the audience in her interview earlier in the week. In the same way as her book, her interview focused on identity and migration, and how not all residents in a country are treated equally.

She spoke with insight about:

  • Writing a tragedy that was also full of humour. Shamsie said that the interaction of comedy with tragedy reflected life. “Humour doesn’t go away when awful things are happening,” she said.
  • The abundance of information we receive and how difficult it can be to focus on the most important information at the right time. She made an example of the register of British Muslims, which was instigated by George Bush, but only gained attention when it was renamed by Donald Trump.
  • The pressure on young boys to become men, and how it isn’t the natural progression that it is for girls as they become women. “For girls, becoming a woman is an inevitability. For boys, becoming a man is an ambition.” Shamsie said this passage from Home Fire was the most commonly underlined in the book.
  • The way many young men recruited to join ISIS were not solely looking for violence or power, but a sense of belonging to a new and different state.
  • The way a succession of bad decisions never goes without consequences. “At some point you’ll have to pay the price and there’s always a price to pay.”
  • In writing a character, an author does not judge them, but get behind their eyes. In gaining this perspective, it is difficult to dislike or disapprove of a certain character.
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It seems wrong to dwell on the death of mothers in fiction in the lead up to Mother’s Day, but that is what has been on my mind and my bedside table lately. I recently finished reading Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, in which the mother, Penelope, dies a long and painful death. Her boys are left behind to care from themselves after they are abandoned by a distraught father.

Both as the mother of a son, and as a daughter, the story was difficult to read as it explored the response of the five boys to the news of their mother’s illness and impending death, and her final departure.

What was particularly touching was the point where Penelope took each of the boys for a day out on their own, one to the museum, another to a movie. Zusak wrote: “You know your mother’s dying when she takes you out individually.”

The book is full of tenderness towards the mother, highlighting her humour in the face of death, when her illness made her skin papery and her body wasted. It is as if Zusak is holding on tightly to the beauty of the mother –  showing the reader all that the boys had lost.

Similarly, the death of the mother is a pivotal point in The Eye of the Sheep. The start of the book delves into the relationship and dependency between a mother and her son. Sofie Laguna builds a warm and tender relationship that is full of humour, with the mother protecting her son from a violent father. The tragedy of the mother’s death lies not only in the boy’s loss and his helplessness without her, but also in the mother’s grief at leaving her child to such helplessness. As if prophesising her death, she says, “Oh, Jimmy, what will become of you if something happens to me?”

While it is terribly sad to read of death in literature, for me these stories are a stark reminder of the beauty and importance of motherhood. In times when I’m exhausted from pulling apart fights between my children or repeatedly telling them to clean up their rooms or put their shoes away, a small part of me remembers what I have before me.

Maybe this is the reason why I love a book that makes me cry about loss and mortality – it is a reminder of the value of the here and now; of the fleeting time we all have together and the luxury of health. Rather than being solely an emotional pull, it is also a tap on the shoulder to take care and pay attention. Tear-jerking literature reminds us of what is important, of beautiful friendship and of lost love.

The Kite Runner tells a heartbreaking story of boyhood friends who lose each other after other boys commit a terrible crime against one of them. From the perspective of the reader, it is awful to see not just what has happened, but also the inability of one of the boys to remain friends with the victim due to the shame of witnessing the crime, and at failing to intervene. It is a perspective that offers the reader access to the truth of how damaging shame can be, and how wasteful a reason to let go of a friendship.

In The Book Thief, the death of Leisel’s young friend of is one of many losses, yet it hits particularly hard, given the friendship that had developed between the two, and their dependence in such destructive times. What seems to be a simple friendship becomes much more once lost. In The Little Paris Bookshop, the long-ago loss of Monsieur Perdu’s great love becomes all the sadder when the reader learns the reason for her departure.

While reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I had to pause to watch my children sleeping or give them a hug on multiple occasions as I was struck by the sadness of the death of the child, which was central to the story. Living in different times, virtually in different worlds, it was a stark reminder of the gift of motherhood, and the safety and freedom that I take for granted.

As a child, one of the most memorable books I read was one of the saddest – Bridge to Terabithia. I still count it as one of my favourites for its evocation of friendship and of loss. Another was I Came Back to Show You I Could Fly. And can any child forget the death of Matthew in Anne of Green Gables? Through sadness and loss, each highlighted the power of love and friendship.

Whether it is the mother of all losses, the breakdown of a friendship or the death of a loved one, sadness in literature gives us insight into what we have to lose, and at the same time, highlight what we have.

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The Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) shortlist was announced this month, and there are some wonderful Aussie and international books in the running. I’ve added many of them to my tbr list.

The awards celebrate the collaboration between authors and publishers to create noteworthy books. Here are my thoughts on the shortlisted books that I have read:

Book of the Year for Younger Children (ages 7-12)

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2,  Jessica Townsend (Hachette Australia)

The 104-Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The Bad Guys Episode 7: Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?!, Aaron Blabey (Scholastic Australia)

I have to defer to my eight-year-old son for this category, or at least for the second two books on the list. My son devoured both of these series, and I have read some of them with him. They offer a fun and easy entry to reading that has inspired my son to continue to read more complex books. In particular, I’ll be forever grateful to Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton for their inventive, funny and accessible books that have encouraged many young people to read.

I have Wundersmith on my bookshelf, after reading the first in the series, Nevermoor, but I haven’t started it yet. The award-winning Nevermoor, by young author Jessica Townsend was imaginative and hugely enjoyable. I gave a copy to my 10-year-old niece and she loved it.

Children’s Picture Book of the Year (ages 0-6)

Cicada, Shaun Tan (Hachette Australia)

Macca the Alpaca, Matt Cosgrove (Scholastic Australia)

The two contenders for Children’s Book of the Year that I have read are very different styles of book. Cicada is beautiful and moving, with gorgeous pictures and a poignant storyline, while Macca the Alpaca is funny and light hearted. I pity the judges who have to choose between such different books.

General Fiction Book of the Year

The Nowhere Child, Christian White (Affirm Press). The premise of this book is irresistible: a woman discovers she is a child who went missing in America decades earlier. She returns to her former home to find out what happened and the truth is strange and compelling. The Nowhere Child was a real page-turner that was surprisingly believable, despite some seemingly outlandish events that were apparently inspired by reality, including a religious group that involved snakes in its worship.

The Rúin, Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Publishers). I’m not usually fond of police procedurals, but The Ruin is more than that. It touches on ethics and morality, and how history continues to impact the present.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris (Echo Publishing). I’m a bit torn about this one. I thought it was illuminating and touching in its representation of life in Auschwitz as a prisoner forced to tattoo other inmates. However, I struggled with the ending that seemed far removed from the rest of the story, and more recently I have heard criticism of the book in its portrayal of some aspects of the story.

International Book of the Year

Circe, Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury Publishing). I really loved reading Circe, a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, told from the viewpoint of the witch named Circe. It provided some insight into ancient mythology, while remaining an engaging read. It was one of my favourite reads of the year.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette Australia). I loved this one, too, and it was another of my favourite books of the year. It was the funny, moving story of Arthur Less, who deals with the marriage of an ex and his 50th birthday by going on a worldwide book tour. However, despite leaving, he doesn’t escape life’s little humiliations and disappointments.

Literary Fiction Book of the Year

Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton (HarperCollins Publishers). This book has had praise heaped on it this year, and it would not be surprising at all if it won the title of Literary Fiction Book of the Year as well. While I enjoyed it and felt it was extremely well written, it didn’t move me in quite the way it seemed to move many others.

Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak (Pan Macmillan Australia). I just finished reading Bridge of Clay and I’m still thinking about this book. At times, it was a struggle to get through as it was quite a tome and the language was beautiful, but required concentration. But it was unquestionably moving in its portrayal of family life for the Dunbar boys, and in particular, the drawn out death of their mother. I cried in parts, which for me is a sign of a believable story and characters.

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

The Geography of Friendship, Sally Piper (The University of Queensland Press). Even though I sometimes found it hard to sleep after reading The Geography of Friendship, given the creepy sceptre that haunts the women who have embarked on a bushwalk, I really enjoyed it. It was a story of past hurt, friendship and redemption, with the bonus of being set in Australia’s beautiful bushland.

Visit the ABIA website to find out which other books were shortlisted. The winners will be announced on 2 May.

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I’ve just joined Instagram (I know, I know, I’m late to the party), and bookstagram in particular, and have been enjoying seeing the gorgeous photos of book series. There are rows of cloth-bound classics or modern books printed with gold lettering. A gorgeous row of pastel spines, or eye-catching books the colour of gemstones.

My bookshelves, on the other hand, while being my pride and joy, are admittedly a mess of different coloured, styled and shaped books. And it is not just in the appearance of the books that I am a fickle reader. I usually swing wildly between authors and styles of book, reading one one book by a particular author, ticking them off my mental list, and moving on to a book by a different author that I’ve been planning on reading. I intersperse a harrowing story with an uplifting read, and alternate between foreign and Australian authors, child and adult protagonists. In the same way as I  have become accustomed to eating from different cuisines- I couldn’t possibly eat pizza two nights in a row, but follow a night of Italian food with a Thai curry, followed by a roast dinner – I favour variety in my authors and genres.

While I love the mess of books that fills my bookcase, I sometimes crave that lovely consistency that I see on Instagram.

Younger readers seem particularly fond of a series, from Hunger Games to Twilight, and need I mention Harry P? And so was I in the past. As a child, the series I couldn’t get enough of included The Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, The Naughtiest Girl in School, followed a few years later by the many Goosebumps books, and The Baby-Sitters Club.

My son adores the Treehouse series by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, and he has finished the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. And I have noticed that almost all books for young readers are part of series, or at least similar books by the same authors. There are The Dork Diaries, Wimpy Kid, Tom Weekly, The Bad Guys, Captain Underpants … it can be hard to find a stand-alone book among the all the series.

I’m looking forward to introducing him to the Harry Potter books. But in some ways, I’m dreading the idea of dedicating that much time to reading the books of one author. I know that she is one remarkable writer, but still.

It is a feeling I first noticed when I started reading The Hobbit while I was at school, just after my Baby-Sitters Club phase, and put it down before I was even halfway. I think it was the idea of all of those thick books to follow that overwhelmed me. Today’s young readers obviously don’t have the same qualms, as they have been behind a resurgence in popularity for The Lord of the Rings books.

There are signs I am wrong in my trepidation. Last year I read the four books in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, and they formed one of the great reading experiences I have had in recent years. I became immersed in the lives of the characters, and familiar with that small corner of Naples. I understood the motivations of Lila and Elena, feeling their resentment, pain and triumph. When I finished reading them, I felt bereft. It was an experience that couldn’t happen in the space of just one book.

But that hasn’t motivated me even to continue with a series that I’ve started, and enjoyed. I read Pat Barker’s Regeneration and liked it so much that I bought the next two books in the series. Barker’s books are about a convalescence hospital during World War II. They offer fascinating insights into a little-seen aspect of the war – the mental and physical toll the frontline took on returned soldiers. As interesting as the theme, before I pick the next book in the series up, my eye is always drawn by a standalone book, so Barker’s gets put back on the ever-expanding tbr shelf.

So, while I’m looking forward to finding out what all of the Harry Potter mania is about, a part of me is dreading the challenge of tackling such a long series. Hopefully the magic of the story will help me forget the tomes to follow, and all the other writers I could be reading.

And if nothing else, I will think about how lovely that row of books will look on Instagram.

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I recently finished reading The Rosie Result, which has been praised for helping break down misconceptions about autism. I found that reading Graeme Simsion’s books helped me not just understand autism and its challenges, but also appreciate the benefits of neurological differences. His books revealed that those on the spectrum were often far more astute and reasonable than those who were not, and highlighted the absurdity of some behaviours we consider to be ‘normal’. Author and parent, Monique Cain, has written about how personal experience inspired her to spread the word about autism through children’s books.

Before my first-born daughter Madi was diagnosed, we knew absolutely nothing about autism.  I assume this is probably the case for a lot of other people.  Unless you are directly affected by it, know someone on the spectrum or are associated somehow, it is not common knowledge.  I think most people now have a general comprehension of Autism but probably not how much it can really affect someone or a whole families’ life.  There are also varying degrees of how people can be affected.  There are common factors but everyone is different, so it can be quite confusing…

From my personal experience, I found people reading about autism and in particular The Everyday Autism Series books I have written, had a profoundly positive impact.  They helped everyone, both children and adults to understand what autism was and how people and families can be affected.

My daughter Madi was in her second year of 4-year-old kinder when a boy said to me one morning “Madi is dumb” and “Madi doesn’t know anything.”  It was like a dagger through my heart and I honestly didn’t know what to say, especially to a five-year-old.  I said “Madi is not dumb, she just doesn’t talk very much.”

Shortly after that I began writing.  A poem turned into a story and I thought if I put photos of Madi at kinder together with this story, the kids and teachers might understand her better.  So, I went online, put my first book together, ‘Madi at kinder’, took it into the classroom, showed the teacher. She loved it and read it out to the class.  She said there was nothing like that out there for kids and it really helped them to understand Madi more. She kept the book in the classroom for the kids to look at it any time they had questions.

Madi went off to main stream school the following year and straight away I thought to show her teachers the book.  With the same desired reaction, her teacher showed the principal and she had every teacher in the school read the book to their class.

The whole school then knew about Madi but also, they would be more educated about autism and would hopefully be more kind, understanding and friendly to all kids that may act a bit different.

After such a positive response from the initial book, I continued writing about more of the situations that we had found difficult because of how Autism affected Madi and our whole family life.  Madi Starts School, Madi Goes Shopping and Madi are written about how people may need extra help and time to feel more comfortable, how noise and crowds may affect them but also to encourage kindness, inclusion and acceptance.

I had the books illustrated and published to help other children and families too, after seeing the positive affect they had for Madi and our family!

The books are simply written, in rhyme to be entertaining yet informative for children to understand but adults also gain valuable knowledge.  I definitely think that having Autism broken down basically, in a book to read and explained in a way to be easily understood, was vital to how all the kids and people that knew Madi treated her in a kind and understanding way.

After the Madi books were released, there were some questions as to why Madi, the Autism character in the book, was a girl?  My son Thomas had also just been diagnosed on the spectrum, so I then created a ‘boy version’ of the Madi books to help the literal thinking boys and families diagnosed.

I have received great feedback from parents that have also used my books to explain a diagnosis to their own children.

If we had books like them in the beginning, to simply spell out Autism and to give to family, friends and teachers, it would have saved us all a lot of uncertainty and heartache.

The 12th annual World Autism Day is on 2nd April in recognition of people living with autism and those who support their journey. 

Find out more about Never Give Up.

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As seen on Ten Daily

The season for laughs is upon us as the Melbourne Comedy Festival begins this month, followed closely by the Sydney Comedy Festival in April. In preparation, here are some books that will make you snort into your coffee, stifle a chuckle on your commute or belly laugh in bed.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

I can’t write a list of funny books without including Vernon God Little, which my husband continues to quote with a chuckle whenever he eats ribs. Fast food plays a central role in this story of a disadvantaged family living in small-town America. DBC Pierre turns his sharp gaze on suburban America and its taste for grease, injustice and religion.  It is at its funniest when the women of the story are talking to each other, most often about food.

Vernon God Little won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing 2003.

“Mom’s best friend is called Palmyra. Everybody calls her Pam. She’s fatter than Mom, so Mom feels good around her. Mom’s other friends are slimmer. They’re not her best friends.” 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

It is a rare writer who can combine classic literature with fart jokes, but that is exactly what John Kennedy Toole does in A Confederacy of Dunces. The protagonist, Ignatius J Reilly, is creative, educated and idealistic, but also overweight, flatulent, belligerent and slothful. Despite his shortcomings, he finds his inability to get a job inexplicable, and blames the ‘confederacy of dunces’ around him.

Ignatius’ pomposity and delusions of superiority lead him into some hilarious situations, and his responses are as painfully awkward as they are funny.

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Much of the humour in How to Be a Woman comes from the awkward truths that Caitlin Moran reveals in her likeable, occasionally angry, always engaging, way. The book chronicles Moran’s physical, social and emotional evolution from being a girl to becoming a woman, and all the humiliation, confusion and frustration that involves.

It is a kind of memoir and feminist manifesto that is both funny and serious, tackling issues ranging from abortion to sexism, and somehow Moran imbues each of these weighty topics with humour.

“The idea that women should have to flirt in order to get on is just as vexing as any other thing women are supposed to have to do – such as be thin, accept 30 per cent lower wages, and not laugh at 30 Rock when they have food in their mouth and it falls out a bit, on to the floor, and the cat eats it.”

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand by John Birmingham

The title of John Birmingham’s cult classic offers a hint of what is to come in this book about the filth and debaucherous fun of share housing. Published in 1994 long before Big Brother, He Died with a Felafel in his Hand offers insight into what happens when young strangers move in together.

At the time I read it I was living at home with my parents and it introduced me to an unfamiliar world that was at times disgusting and slightly horrifying, but undoubtedly funny. When I later lived in share houses after uni, John Birmingham’s book came back to haunt me as I came to recognise many of the situations and characters.

I am not the only one. A comment on Goodreads is indicative of many reviews of the book:

“’He Died With A Felafel In His Hand’ is hilarious, and so spot on. As an art school student, I lived and slept in various group houses in Queensland. They were fun years, although a bit hazy. I’m sure I know some of the people in this book, and a great many of the cockroaches…”

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Can a book be funny but sad? Yes, according to Sean Greer. Less centres on the story of a heartbroken central character, Arthur Less, who leaves home to avoid attending his ex’s wedding and celebrating his 50th birthday alone.

The hapless Less is more famous for a previous relationship with a genius than his own writing, and has resigned himself to life as a second-rate author. He tells himself he is not still in love with his ex, while obviously pining for him. Despite and sometimes because of Less’s disillusionment that verges on despair, this book is heart-warming and hilarious, written with wit and self-deprecating humour.

“New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you. It is completely reasonable to call none of them.”

Down Under by Bill Bryson

There is plenty that foreigners might find funny Aussies, from the way we name our swimmers ‘budgie smugglers’ to our nickname for our most successful export, ‘the singing budgie’.  And while it might sound unappealing to read about ourselves from the perspective of a visiting American, somehow Bill Bryson writes about Australia and its inhabitants in a way that is both affectionate and hilarious, but never condescending.

Bryson embraces the quirks of the country and its people, and is enamoured by some of our most underwhelming tourist sites, including Ned Kelly’s Last Stand in Glenrowan. It is a book that allows Australians to laugh at themselves, while reminding them of what is so special about the sunburned country.

I found myself snorting with laughter when I was reading Down Under, as well as other travelogues by Bryson, including Notes from a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods.

“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey

The queen of television comedy has also successfully turned her hand to memoir in Bossypants. Tina Fey’s book is different from many celebrity memoirs in that it is less revelatory and more of a discussion of the humour in different situations that she has faced in her life.

Like many other funny books, this one doesn’t rest solely on its humour – I’m not sure a one-dimensional comedy could be sustained for hundreds of pages – but it is also insightful and inspiring as it shines a light on her industry and her dream of working in comedy.

“Obviously, as an adult I realize this girl-on-girl sabotage is the third worst kind of female behaviour, right behind saying “like” all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster.”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Another book in which serious issues are tackled with humour and wit is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Described as ‘grimly hilarious’, The Sellout’s narrator is an African American who decides the answer to society’s ills is to reintroduce racial segregation and slavery in the US.

During his campaign, some of Beatty’s satire can be a bitter pill to swallow, as he casts a critical eye over the history of racism, classism and sexism, and the current malaise, in the US.

“I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.”

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is an irresistibly witty collection of stories inspired by his move from New York to Paris. In the book’s title story, Sedaris recounts his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher with savage humour.

Like classics before it including My Family and Other Animals and Cold Comfort Farm, family also plays a central role in the book. Sedaris’ own anxiety is both endearing and irrepressibly funny, and he has a sharp eye for absurdity, both in society, his family, and in his own thoughts and behaviour.

“When asked “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.”

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

In the first book in Graeme Simsion’s bestselling Rosie series, The Rosie Project, genetics professor Don embarks on The Wife Project to find himself a suitable partner. This, in itself, offers ample opportunity for humour as the awkward and highly practical Don tries to find the perfect wife.

The latest in the series, The Rosie Result, follows Don’s attempts to ensure his son, Hudson, doesn’t encounter the same social problems that he faced at school. Both Don and Hudson have behaviours that might place them on the Autism spectrum. However, Simsion ensures both are well and truly in on the joke, and often highlights the absurdity of social interactions that we consider to be ‘normal’.

At one point, in his direct and perceptive way, Don describes his potential employer as, “a woman of approximately forty with an enthusiasm approaching mania.”

The humour in these books does not entirely disguise the serious issues of acceptance and equality, but makes reading them a fun way to challenge prejudices and misconceptions.

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What has everyone been reading and loving? Dymocks gave us the answer yesterday when they released a list of the top 101 favourite books of 2019. As premature as it seems to be making this decision in March, I love a list as much as the next person, and a book list a little more.

The most popular books, as voted by 11,500 Australian booklovers were:

  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  2. Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford
  3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (last year’s winner)
  4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (the 2016 and 2017 winner)
  5. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Some classics – Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale, alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry and The Lost Man, rounded out the top 10.

Three of the top five books were by Australian authors, while women made up 54 of the top 101 books.

One thing the list tells me is that I am by no means original in my reading choices – I have read four of the top five books, and 31 from the entire list. Many others are on my tbr pile, or my mental list of books I’d love to read.

My favourites books in the list

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I really liked the winning book, more than I have liked the past two winners. Eleanor Oliphant is easy to read, tender and moving. It’s an easy book to recommend because it is hard to imagine anyone not enjoying Eleanor’s story.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Last year I read all the books in Ferrante’s Neopolitan series, and I loved them. The characters were complex and the setting of a poor area in Naples was beautifully drawn. These books proved to be  a little addictive, and I was at a loss when I finished them.

Circe by Madeline Miller

This book introduced me to the ancient classics, as it is based on Homer’s Odyssey. However, Miller’s book was far more accessible than the books which inspired it, and it takes the focus from Odysseus to the witch, Circe. I loved the combination of modern sensibility with ancient myth.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

In many ways, this was the perfect book. It tackled contemporary issues, while remaining loyal to the story of Sophocle’s Antigone, on which it was based. The story was a pleasant read until that startling ending that changed the goal posts.

Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

This book was as readable and enjoyable for adults as it was for my 10-year-old niece. Its heroine Morrigan Crow is saved from an early death by a stranger who takes her to a magical place where she must compete for a place in the secret society. The follow up, Wundersmith is on my tbr pile.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

While its author is annoyingly young to have written such a gorgeous novel, it is hard not to love Normal People. The story follows an unlikely couple through school and university, and explores the complicated dynamics of their relationship through this awkward and important time of life. Rooney’s brilliance lies in how she captures human nature, and the ways in which relationships can twist and turn as a result of internal and external pressures and circumstances.

The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Christian White’s debut novel is set between the US and Australia, after a woman is told she was the child who was stolen from her home in America. She returns to find out what happened, and uncovers the dark secrets of the community from which she was stolen. It is an irresistible premise that is delivered expertly by White.

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I read The Rosie Result at the same time as I was reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved – Simsion’s book was on my bedside table and I read Morrison’s classic during my commute to work.

While in many ways the two are strange bedfellows, they proved to be nice foils for each other. Beloved is a hard book to read, even though the language is unquestionably beautiful, while Simsion’s writing is accessible and enjoyable. Both were highly rewarding reads.

The third book in Simsion’s Rosie series shifts the focus from Don to his son, Hudson, after the father sees him enduring some of the struggles he faced at school, due to what they believe might be Asperger’s. Don embarks on what is described as ‘The Hudson Project’, trying to teach Hudson the lessons that he learnt growing up. However, it is often Hudson that teaches Don, Rosie, and the reader a few lessons about difference and acceptance.

I have found the Rosie books to be thoroughly enjoyable, even though the lessons about kindness and acceptance occasionally teeter towards the heavy-handed. Fortunately, they never quite tip over into the realm of becoming a lecture.

It is hard not to think differently about neurological difference after reading Simsion’s Rosie books, which is enough reason to recommend them. The characters are fun and Simsion finds the humour in both the absurdities of everyday life, relationships and work. In this way, they have parallels with another book that I read recently and loved – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The Rosie Result  is the perfect way to round out a series that has been as heart-warming as it has been entertaining and illuminating.

*This book was a gift from Text Publishing

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There is a big, white wall in our living room that we are looking to fill with an art work. While visiting galleries and scrolling through online art sites, I noticed that there are few pieces that don’t feature nature, whether flowers or animals.

Birds are popular, as are seascapes; modern art features floral bursts or regal cockatoos perched on gum trees. Compared with galleries featuring the art of the past, there are far fewer reclining nudes, or people in any stage of dress or undress at all. It is hard to find a cityscape and the domestic scenes most popular in Belgium in the 17th Century are few and far between.

The natural world has also played a central role in many of the books I have read recently. In The Dry, the drought stricken Australian landscape is almost as central to the story as the mystery of how the family died. Similarly, in Wimmera, the hot sun baking the suburban landscape plays a crucial role in the story, sparking memory and a sense of foreboding. The Choke is set on the Murray, and this is another book in which place plays such a role that it is part of the title of the book.

Australian author Tim Winton is well known for his descriptions of the coastal landscape, and for the way he weaves the natural world into his stories. In Dirt Music, he also describes the interior of Australia when his protagonist flees to the Kimberley after being forced out of his small town for the crime of theft.Described in The Sydney Morning Herald as a ‘master of landscape’, Winton has in some ways changed the way readers view their local environments by depicting them in art.

In Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, it is both flora and fauna that play starring roles in the book, from the sheep that has been mysteriously killed to the Australian farming landscape and the dangers that lie within.

This is not necessarily anything new – I remember reading The Lost Salt Gift of Blood in one of my final years of secondary school. The short stories in the book were set in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and told of the harsh, cold landscapes were inhabitants struggled to make a living from the land.

I had never read a book that had entwined character and storyline with the environment in such a way, and still remember the depictions of a place that I have never visited, but of where I have retained a picture in my mind from the book, all of these years later.

But from my own reading, more and more books seem to be placing the landscape in a central role, which is something I hadn’t noticed since reading that prescribed text in school.

There is even, apparently, a new genre that refers to books about the natural world, and its destruction: cli-fi. Cli-fi, the abbreviation of climate fiction, addresses climate change and global warming, now or in the future.

I wonder whether the predominance of the environment in the media and our consciousness, given the realities of global warming, has led to an increasing presence of nature in our literature. After all, fiction reflects the concerns of our times, and I can’t think of a greater fear than the destruction of the planet.

Or by reading and writing about the natural world, are we just trying to get closer to nature, just as we try to decorate our little city boxes with ferns and lilies? Instead of hiking through bushland or tilling the soil, is a fictional environment the modern alternative?

While the social will always be central to literature – recently I have read The Rosie Project, Home Fire, Kudos, and Beloved, which are some of the many books skewed towards humanity and psychology – the environment is also staking a claim in our fiction and our consciousness.

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Lately I have been hearing a lot about competitive reading, and the pressure to have read ‘the right’ book.I have written before that there is nothing more off-putting than feeling pressure to read a certain book within a certain time frame, whether for a book club or in secondary school, so I agree that competitive reading sounds like a bad idea.

Sally O’Reilly recently wrote an article for the US version of The Conversation, titled  ‘Books are delightful as they are – don’t fall into the trap of competitive reading‘ about the importance of ignoring the pressure to read competitively, and to instead immerse yourself completely in whatever book you choose. She wrote:

“Are we so obsessed with being able to tick a book title off a check-list that we risk forgetting that reading is a physical and emotional activity as well as an intellectual one?”

But, I have to wonder about what is behind all of this talk of competitive reading. For, from where I sit, it looks like reading is an almost completely and happily selfish pursuit that has little to do with what anyone else thinks or ticking boxes. While I wholeheartedly agree with O’Reilly that anyone should feel free to read (or listen to) any type of book they choose, I don’t really see that this is not already the case. And by claiming that reading has become competitive, are we skewing  and misinterpreting the nature of conversations about books?

When people ask if I’ve read a certain popular book, I don’t feel like a failure for not having read it, but either an interest in picking it up next time I’m at the library, or trying to find a book that we have read in common. We are not competing, but finding a common grounding, embracing the joy of finding out if we have read and loved or hated the same book, whether it is popular fiction, a classic or the latest ‘it’ book.

For me, this is part of the pleasure of reading, and if there is one reason to cave in to the temptation to read a new release that is attracting a lot of attention, it is to get the chance, selfishly, to talk about it.

You could also say initiatives like the Goodreads Challenge, in which readers attempt to get through a certain number of books, equates to competitive reading. However, Goodreads itself brands the challenge as a way to, “Motivate yourself to read more books”. In this case, the only competition is with Netflix, Facebook, or any of the other activities that might distract potential readers from books.

However, judging by such articles as the one in The Conversation, and by posts on social media, you would think that readers were viciously attacking or ridiculing other readers for their choices of books. On the contrary, on Twitter I see an endless number of posts like one that I spotted today, reading:

You only read one book a month? You’re still a reader

You only read graphic novels? You’re still a reader

You only listen to audiobooks? You’re still a reader

You only read one genre? You’re still a reader

Whatever, and however much you read…yes, you’re still a reader.

The concern about competitive reading brings to mind a quote on getting older that I love. US columnist Ann Landers famously – and wisely  – said:

“At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.”

Similarly, it seems wise to understand that few people are concerned about the genre that we read, the authors we prefer or the formats we like to use, whether paper or audio. No one cares if you haven’t read the latest Lianne Moriarty, or Sally Rooney’s much-discussed Normal People, whether you prefer comic books or the memoir of your favourite rock star, find your books on the bargain table at the newsagency , Target, or the local bricks and mortar bookstore.  I don’t, and if I ask you if you’ve read the book I just finished, don’t take it as a challenge. I just want to talk about books.

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