March 2020

I’ve enough books by the bedside table at the moment to dispense with the rickety little bit of Balinese cane-ry and construct a solid edifice out of my reading matter. The summer hiatus in communication between publishers and booksellers accounts for the size of the pile, but there’s now the rush to let us know what goodies await. And I’ve noticed some changes in the process whereby advance copies of books find their way to us. It’s too many decades for me to remember, but I’m quite sure we spent at least the first twenty years in bookselling not seeing any new books before we unpacked them for sale. Likewise, unless we knew an author personally, or via newspaper, literary journal or (occasionally) radio, we knew as much or little as anybody about writers. All vastly different now, of course. Not only are we inundated with proofs, advance chapters and sneak previews, but frequently we have personalised notes from writers, from enthusiastic staff at publishing houses, and from ‘readers’ recommendations’ spruiking the worth of the offerings. We also know way more about the writers themselves—especially as so many more drop in to say hello, or sign copies. And only last week I went to a gorgeous ‘literary bites’ evening put on by one of our major publishers, where no fewer than five of our best  young writers spoke with exceptional ease and conviction to their upcoming books. We booksellers were suitably enthused, and I couldn’t help but think that we’ve come a long way from Lawrence’s famous ‘Never trust the artist, trust the tale’ adage. We’ll find out, of course, for ourselves, in the reading.

What am I reading then? For what it’s worth, and in summary, as I understand some of these are being reviewed by keen colleagues, I’ve these to look forward to:

Tom Keneally The Dickens Boy (April) which reimagines the extraordinary (and little-known) episode in the life of one (Plorn) of the two sons whom Dickens sent to an outback station in NSW, fearing he would ‘waste’ a life in London. Familiar and rewarding terrain for a much-loved novelist  

Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (March)  is a moving, personal exploration of what sustains us when ‘our world goes dark’—beautifully written

Leah Swann Sheerwater (April). This is a first novel, set around the south western Victorian coast. It is a real gut-wrenching page-turner, as woman searches desperately for her missing sons. I found it grippingly tense, especially those parts written through the boy’s experience. And my goodness, you’re holding your breath hoping for a happy ending.

Trent Dalton All our Shimmering Skies (June) will undoubtedly be the ‘second book’ of 2020, after the phenomenon that was Boy Swallows Universe. I’ll let you know, once I’ve read it.

Steven Conte The Tolstoy Estate (August) is set during the doomed German invasion of Russia, in 1941. Looks great, but again, the pleasure awaits. Conte was the author of the award-winning The Zookeeper’s War in 2007  

And three EXCELLENT novels from writers of the first order, out just now: Sebastian Barry A Thousand Moons (he’s writing more audaciously than ever, with such lyrical flair —and the subject matter is likewise wonderfully original; he’s a rare talent). Graham Swift’s new offering is Here We Are (a quiet, understated triumph of a novel in the landscape of Last Orders, set in a Brighton of 1959, as remembered personal history) and the stunningly good Actress by Anne Enright (a first-person narrative of the daughter of legend of the Irish Theatre, searching for what truth might mean. David Gaunt