As you get ready for long summer days and evenings, the team at Crosslight thought we’d share our suggestions for holiday reading. From historical biographies to fantasy, we hope our list appeals as you kick back at the beach, by the pool or in your favourite comfy chair.
Review by Ben Grundy
Book | Theodore Dalrymple | Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
At a glance, Theodore Dalrymple, pen name for British writer Anthony Daniels, may seem the archetypical conservative curmudgeon.
Since retiring, having worked as a physician across the British healthcare system (from prison doctor, to psychiatrist) Dalrymple has written extensively on what he sees as the degradation of modern culture in the West.
Here much of Dalrymple’s collection of essays concerns his observations of the British working classes, popular culture and anecdotes from his various roles as a physician and psychiatrist.
Many of these, as the author asserts, support the view that the world has largely gone to hell.
The breakdown of the family unit and an infantilised consumer society, that shirks responsibility and restraint, are positioned as key barometers in Dalrymple’s dystopian view of the world.
Elsewhere Dalrymple is more nuanced, ruminating on personal encounters with patients from within the British prison system or reflecting on the power of art and music.
Although published more than 10 years ago, Dalrymple’s meditations on issues such as immigration, drug use and the loss of religion through secularisation, have not lost their bite.
From reflections on high art to clinical analysis of communities trapped in a cycle of poverty, Dalrymple is equally direct in his admonishment and praise of the world around him.
Some readers may not agree with much of what he writes. Though through his particular, at times narrow point of view, Dalrymple delivers an eclectic mix of insightful essays.
Review by Tim Lam
Book | Susanna Clarke | Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gained newfound popularity this year following a highly-acclaimed miniseries adaptation on BBC. The story is set during the 19th century in a world where magic once existed. ‘Practical magic’ has been lost for centuries, with only ‘theoretical magicians’, who study and discuss magic, remaining.
This changed with the emergence of the studious and reclusive Gilbert Norrell, who becomes the talk of England after bringing to life giant gargoyle statues inside York Cathedral. However, his dominance is soon challenged by his younger and brasher pupil, Jonathan Strange. Their friendship develops into a rivalry, with deadly consequences for those around them.
Commentators have compared Clarke’s writing style to Jane Austen, with its prose and witty dialogue. It convincingly imitates the style of 19th century literature, but with a modern touch that renders it accessible to a contemporary audience.
A prominent feature of the novel is the use of footnotes. They lend authenticity to the rich history and mythology Clarke has created.
This is a quintessentially British novel that is not afraid to satirise the social class system of that era. It is infused with a refreshing dose of humour that balances the dark themes of madness and death permeating the story.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is frequently described as a historical fantasy, although it is perhaps more accurately a historical novel with fantasy elements. This is not a story about good versus evil; its morally ambiguous characters are flawed and human. They struggle with the same weaknesses many of us experience in our everyday lives – jealousy, arrogance, prejudice and fear.
Clarke has conjured up a charming magical tale brimming with complex characters, intricate plots and unexpected humour. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is perfect for long reads during the summer.
Review by Deb Bennett
Book | The girl with all the gifts | M R Carey
Perhaps my favourite book for the year, I actually read this by accident, thinking it was yet another murder mystery with ‘girl’ in the title (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
I’m glad I naively picked this up, as I doubt I would have chosen to read a novel about a dystopian future peopled by feral outcasts, cannibals and military personnel.
Carey has written an engaging, poignant novel full of tension, mystery and the odd shocking scene. The story centres around 10-year-old Melanie who, as the title suggests, is a very gifted child. Readers are introduced to the other main characters – teacher Miss Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell, Sergeant Ed Parks and Private Kieran Gallagher – through their interaction with Melanie.
The five are thrown together on an expedition to safety and the narrative is told from each individual’s viewpoint. As we get to know what motivates the characters, the story becomes a morality tale. Different aspects of their personalities are revealed as the group face an uncertain future, having to rely on each other if they are to have any hope of survival.
Carey cleverly blends the story of a child’s innate need for love and belonging with age-old questions. Does ‘following orders’ and acting within the law absolve a person from their actions? Does a person need to become evil in order to fight evil? Is the sacrifice of one justified for the good of many? And, ultimately, are we willing to lose our individual humanity in order to save humanity?
Review by Garth Jones
Book | Australia’s Second Chance | George Megalogenis
Australia’s Second Chance is former Canberra press gallery journalist and newspaper columnist George Megalogenis’ second excursion into the rough tapestry of our national identity.
Megalogenis’ first book, The Australian Moment, explored the unique political, social and economic circumstances that led to the nation surviving the Global Financial Crisis.
Continuing that line of investigation, Australia’s Second Chance delves into our migrant past, present and future, examining the advantages our history and wealth (environmental/ fiscal) afford us.
The Australian Moment was framed from Megalogenis’ perspective as a first generation Australian, and thus concerned primarily with events from the Whitlam era onwards.
This new work widens the author’s focus, examining the first encounters between Aboriginal Australia and the First Fleet through to the contemporary national conversation.
Megalogenis is concerned with charting the peaks and troughs of our growth and confidence, highlighting the rich contributions of multicultural Australia.
Contrasting our inherent egalitarian nature with our sometimes quixotic, isolationist tendencies, Megalogenis illustrates that our finest moments are characterised by our capacity to share.
Approachable, engaging and illuminating, Australia’s Second Chance combines history, dry economic data and political acumen informed by Megalogenis’ decade at the Canberra coal-face. In a sometimes grim zeitgeist, Australia’s Second Chance offers a hopeful blueprint for a brighter future by shining a light on our adventurous, creative and somehow more inclusive past.
Review by Emmet O’Cuana
Book | Bearing Witness | Peter Rees
Subtitled ‘The remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent’, this book is a timely study of the man who reported home about the experiences of the Anzacs (published to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landings). Rees also evokes the spirit of Australia at the turn of the 20th century, its colonial heritage and displaced sense of Empire, of an identity that Bean is credited with having defined as finally taking shape on the field of battle in Turkey.
Rees accomplishes this by capturing a sense of Bean, of his family history and a life spent crisscrossing the world from Britain to Australia and back again. Placing reminiscences of the future wartime journalist as a struggling student and a young man later abandoning the law for journalism within the events of the period, Rees expertly blends a personal account with historical narrative.
Bean becomes a measure for the colonial mindset, increasingly troubled by the uncomfortable facts of Empire. His interest in town planning was inspired by the overcrowding and squalor of London. In Australia he saw the opportunity for a different kind of city, one that reflected the particular qualities of Australian life. His previous study of the NSW wool industry had already made a dent in his inherent faith in British superiority. Australians were, in his eyes, a new kind of man.
This all informed his consideration of the Digger, his criticism of the officer class and arguably defined generations of political rhetoric with regard to the Australian national character. When politicians discuss ‘plain Australians’, or ‘battlers’, there is an echo of Bean’s writing from Gallipoli and the Western Front to be heard.
This is a well observed and compelling historical account of Australia’s role in the First World War and how it shaped the country.
Review by Penny Mulvey
Book | Captains of the Soul | Michael Gladwin
“The only reason that I went to Vietnam,” recalled Methodist padre Roy Bedford, “was that I believed that the soldiers there needed ministry more than anywhere else.”
This year’s Australian Christian Book of the Year is the first significant history of Australian Army chaplains, Captains of the Soul, by Michael Gladwin.
Capturing both chaplains’ ministry and experience, and of the department to which they have belonged, Captains of the Soul chronologically works through the different military engagements in which Australian army chaplains have served.
Gladwin has written more than just a history text. He provides narrative which interweaves the political and sectarian culture of the different timeframes as well as commentary on the tightrope chaplains walk as they strive ‘to minimise harm’.
As the army increasingly professionalised in more recent years, the issues which have confronted other Christian institutions also impacted army chaplaincy. Gladwin writes: “There is [also] a belief among chaplains that a Christian minister depends on the empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit – rather than merely professional competencies – if he or she is to help anyone to encounter Christ. The chaplain’s own priestly vocation, character and ability to connect with soldiers are the touchstones of effective uniformed ministry.”
For those interested in the role chaplaincy has played within the army, and how it has changed to reflect the changes, both in churches and society, this book is a stimulating and thought-provoking read.
Captains of the Soul, A history of Australian Army Chaplains, by Michael Gladwin. Please contact publisher: email@example.com to purchase the book.
Review by Ros Marsden
Book | The eye of the sheep | Sofie Laguna
Reading a novel that’s won the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award inevitably raises expectations, but readers of Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep will be jumping to join the cheers when they reach the last page of this vigorous story.
It’s hard to talk about The Eye of the Sheep without revealing the complexities of the main character, Jimmy Flick. Jimmy is a small boy who for various reasons sees the world in the simplest and most complicated of ways. He is both observer and principal player in the domestic affairs of his family, but it is the gift of Jimmy’s language that leaves the reader gulping for more of his naïve and innate wisdom.
Jimmy’s poetic voice carries us from anguish to happiness to the challenges of boundless love. He lives with his father Gavin, mother Paula and older brother Robby. But Jimmy is different. His mind and his mouth somersault 24 hours a day, whether he is devouring his collection of household equipment manuals, lying beside his mum counting sheep or discovering the beach with his uncle. “When I was slow I should have been fast, and when I was fast I should have been slow.”
As Jimmy tries to navigate the turmoil of his own family, you become entrenched in his fragile vulnerability. You want to engulf him in a protective hug and on the next page push him forward to master the trip wires disrupting his world.
The Eye of the Sheep explores serious social issues, including domestic violence and alcoholism, but in doing so it takes you into a world devoid of cliché or predictability.
This is a book you can’t bear to put down. Pack it in your holiday suitcase and find a comfortable reading spot!
Review by Nigel Tapp
Book | The Kite Runner | Khaled Hosseini
I have my son to thank for giving me the reason to read The Kite Runner, which was first published more than a decade ago to rave reviews. If it had not been a set English Literature text this year I may never have picked it up.
The story begins in Afghanistan in the tumultuous period after fall of the nation’s monarchy at the hands of the Soviets, and covers the eventual rise of the Taliban. The Kite Runner centres on the relationship between privileged boy Amir and his friend Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant.
The two are an interesting pairing – Hassan has nothing and is perpetually happy and giving, Amir has everything but is always sad and forlorn.
Much of the book also dwells on Amir’s quite complex relationship with his father, Baba, and his struggle to win Baba’s approval. Spanning several decades, the narrative explores family relationships, betrayal, redemption and the exercise of power in many forms.
The Kite Runner is a powerful book and one of the most absorbing novels I have read for many years.