Human reads for the holiday condition
We are not interested in a story that doesn’t involve struggle.
Without struggle there is no story tension, so there is no reason for the reader to care. We asked the A story to tell... writers and editors what they sank into during their Summer holiday down-time, and their choices (unconsciously!) describe this...
Included here are stories of homesickness; risk-taking that nearly ends us; leaving comfortable lives to seeming disaster; the events that lead to a famous murder; and the foibles of the man who brought us the iThings...
Rather than “a landscape memoir”, Tim Winton’s Island Home is a love letter to Australia, starting from afar in Ireland, where he is homesick, then picking up when he is back in his beloved country.
I loved the language he used in his descriptions of sea and the joy of surfing in Breath, and I think he has outdone that in this book. He also covers so much more than landscape, with views of and on politics and society in the last few decades.
From there I moved to my favourite author, Alex Miller, and his recent, fictionalised autobiography, Passage of Love. Born in England and leaving home to work on a farm when he was 16, Alex (Robert in the book) came to Australia to work on outback stations when he wasn’t much older. However, the part of this intriguing story that I loved most was his description of living with his first, neurotic wife, in a deserted valley not far from Canberra.
In Alex’s hands the bush comes alive and you can imagine waking to the magical birdsong and the smell of wood smoke in the early, misty morning. Reading it was like going on holiday to this hidden valley. As well as the environment there have been many great characters in Alex’s life – and some not so great.
And for something light to read on those scorching days I turned to The Red Coast by Di Morrissey. Di always tells a great story and sets each in a different, interesting part of Australia. This time it was Broome and the Kimberley coastal area. The protagonist is a divorced woman who runs a bookshop-cum-café and helps set up a writers festival in Broome. People come from everywhere to speak or listen (or to dally with our friendly bookshop owner). Meanwhile, the locals – Indigenous and white –are fighting to save their beautiful coast from the ravages of offshore mining and onshore refining (sound familiar?).
- Heather Kelly
Young women explore actions and consequences at that 20-or-so stage of naïve recklessness in Alice Munro’s Runaway.
Two stories in particular have stayed with me since I first read them 12 years ago.
The first – titled Runaway – is about a young woman, Carla, who left her middle-class suburban life for a man and their dream of running a riding school, but who now feels trapped in an unhappy relationship and struggling business.
This is compelling storytelling – the situation is so inevitable, so human. Munro uses small details to make her characters – and the entrapment – utterly believable.
I love that it seems so complete – it says enough but not too much.
- Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells
I read Tim Winton’s Breath as we made the move from inland Victoria to Sydney, to get into the space of being near the ocean while considering what happens next when you pull back from a life that almost ends you.
What then through the dulled colours, Winton asks.
His pop and fizzle descriptions of the ocean were in my mind on a late night visit to Tamarama where the swell drew in on itself to pause, heave and release.
The story follows a man thinking back on the teenage years of surfing that almost killed him, pushed along by the momentum of the people around him who sought increasing highs and bigger waves, or struggled to cope in the wash of the thrill that couldn't continue. Variations of this play out among the characters, and we can recognise the effects in people we know, and in ourselves.
I discussed this book with a surfing instructor as we stood in the ocean, and with a fellow photographer who had almost died in a car crash. Both nodded and looked down as they thought about this book.
- Alina Golovachenko
Call me slow, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood until I picked up Alias Grace over the summer holidays.
How does she make a page turner out of what is, essentially, backstory? Her technique seems to go against the current ‘rule for writing a modern novel’, where backstory only ever plays a part if and when it’s absolutely required. But, looking more closely, Atwood does just this, making a slow-burning story out of what has happened to Grace to get her to where she is.
Grace is a somewhat distanced and distancing character and yet I still care for her and want to find out how she gets on.
For me, Atwood’s craft deftness shines particularly through characterisation and voice. Her word choice and sentence structure make Alias Grace such a pleasure to take in.
- Ann Bolch
How often do you read a book and find yourself going into mourning as the end approaches?
The sheer pleasure of it is almost over and you’re jealous of all those lucky souls who have yet to read it. I’m talking about My name is Lucy Barton, the 2016 novel by Elizabeth Strout.
Oh my, how can I unbutton my feelings about this book, when holding onto them so tightly is such a comfort? Lucy Barton is a lonely, singular, wise little girl who intuits how to avoid being devoured by the world around her, even as she accepts and honours it as best she can.
She reads, does her homework and lets kind people help her. She knows that she will be a writer: ‘I will write and people will feel less alone’. This book is so observant and so generous that it fills your heart for even the most damaged and dangerous who walk among us. It’s quiet, understated and powerful. Just like Lucy Barton.
- Jo Scanlan
My holiday read was a listen... the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.
As an Apple fanboy I found it a fascinating insight into the mind behind the products that have changed our lives, not to mention a thorough history of their development, and a bit of Pixar history as well.
What I liked was that Jobs effectively commissioned Isaacson to write the book, so it had his blessing, but he did not put any caveats on what could be written – and it doesn’t hold back in describing the many foibles of the man. Nothing missing that I can think of. It is plenty long enough already.
- David Brewster
These holidays I got totally immersed in This island will sink, debut novel by Melbourne writer Briohny Doyle, which Steven Amsterdam describes perfectly as: ‘A dystopian romp, deep with ideas and heart'.’
Like Steven Amsterdam’s Things we didn’t see coming, this book creates a plausible post climate change world, populates it with compelling characters, and plays around with form. Great food for the brain. Doyle adds an a layer of subtle humour – the self-centred central character is likeable, laudable and laughable at the same time. This is very deft writing. Highly recommend.
- Lu Sexton