Two writers. Two excellent, contrasting, collections of short fiction both, in their way, exposing the simple truths and glorious complexities of everyday of life.
First Helen Garner, one of Australia’s most under-stated yet wise and clear-sighted writers has consistently held up an unwavering mirror up to the country through more 13 books (including forensic studies of two highly publicised court cases), two plays and numerous magazine articles. Stories ( Text Publishing) a collection of fiction, some of which dates back more than 20 years, has been released to coincide with her 75th birthday. It showcases her meticulous, pared back, observations on the magical and the mundane. She has a glorious ear for the vernacular so mesmerising you can hear the conversations in your head as you read. Postcards from Surfers will resonate with anyone who has tried to bridge the gap between childhood holidays and the present. Stories is a partner to a volume of her non-fiction work.
One of the reasons I so enjoy Donna Leon‘s books is that the beautifully crafted and enduring character Commissario Guido Brunetti is so refreshingly normal. Not wounded – emotionally or physically – in the way that seems to have become almost de rigueur in police drama. He’s principled and compassionate. Utterly faithful to his wife, Paola. Loves his children. True, no meal however humble can pass without a glass or two or suitably matching wine, and he particularly enjoys a glass of grappa with his dessert. But he doesn’t wake up barely able to crawl to work or unable to remember the events of the previous evening.
Whilst criminals do abound, his lingering adversary is the divisive snobbery and rampant corruption that cripples every level of life in his beloved Venice. Ironically it is the elite social standing of Paola, that allows him to maneuver through the political web that is the city’s Polizia. The opening scene of The Waters of Eternal Youth provides even the newest reader with a colourful snapshot of the power elite that is the real Venice.
For a debut novel, in fact, for any novel, The Widow by Fiona Barton is a staggering success. It grabs you in the first few pages and just doesn’t let go. In theory it’s the relatively straightforward story of a crime and the ensuing police investigation, albeit dealing with a deeply harrowing subject. A toddler, Bella, has gone missing from her garden during the few minutes she had been left unattended. A media frenzy engulfs the country. In the absence of any immediate breakthroughs, speculation and gossip become the main currency. But slowly, painstakingly, the police begin to piece together shards of evidence which takes them into the dark world of on-line hard-core sex and pedophilia and, finally, a suspect.
One of the literary highlights of 2015 for me was the number of superb collections of short stories published (Adam Johnston’s Fortune Smiles and Colm McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking being two standouts). Now Australian author Fiona McFarlane has given me hope that this year is going to be as good.
McFarlane’s collection, The High Places, brings together thirteen stories that are highly original, often haunting and occasionally slightly disturbing. Although I wanted to race through them in long hit, I soon forced myself to leave a gap between each to allow time for their substance to settle, the frequently tantalizing ambiguity to be fully appreciated.
The Gun was the first book to be written by Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura, back in 2002, but it is the most recent of his work to be published in English. In the meantime he’s found great success with his other books including the three of his sinister Japan Noir crime books that have also been translated into English: The Thief (for which he won the Kenzaburo Oe prize), Evil and the Mask and Last Winter We Parted.
Nishikawa (he has no family name) is an able but disinterested student, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. Adopted out of an orphanage to parents he appreciates, but with whom he has little in common, he spends most of his free time alone, walking the streets around his home in a Tokyo suburb, or with his friend Keisuke roaming cafes and bars,
Over the years I’ve travelled many times to Venice with novelist Donna Leon. I’ve got to know the historic Italian city through the eyes of her enigmatic hero Commissario Brunetti who has a far more nuanced appreciation than the average tourist, or tourist guide. In her latest book, Falling in Love, Leon provides an encore appearance for famed opera soprano Flavia Petrelli who was introduced in Death at La Fenice, the first novel in what has become a 24-book series. Petrelli has returned to Venice to Teatro La Fenice to sing the lead in Puccini’s Tosca. Each night she is mobbed by fans clamoring for their moment in the company of greatness.
Australian literary heavyweights Joan London, Liane Moriarty, Peter Carey and Helen Garner are all included in the shortlists for the 2015 Australian Book Industry Association awards announced today. There are 11 categories this year including two new ones specifically targeting small publishers.
The full list is: