There have been so many fine books published in the past year, it is almost impossible to recommend only 10 for holiday reading. And if these don't tickle your fancy, you might try new novels by Michelle de Kretser, Sofie Laguna, or Richard Flanagan. Then of course there's ... too many to mention.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO
Challenging, original, ventriloquial, engaging, audacious and, ultimately, deeply compassionate, Saunders' novel deservedly won the Man Booker prize. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the world between death and the afterlife, a Buddhist limbo, before the dead finally proceed elsewhere. Abraham Lincoln, stricken with grief at the death of his son Willie, visits the crypt to sit with his body. Narrated by a multitude of voices, a sort of ghostly chorus, it does take a while to get used to Saunders' imaginative form but once you do - trust me, you will - you'll be richly rewarded.
George Saunders won the Man Booker prize with Lincoln in the Bardo. Photo: Janie Barrett
THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE
A fascinating picture of George Orwell as he battles tuberculosis and struggles to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four. Going back and forth in time, Glover gives us Orwell in Barcelona, Wigan, literary London and the isle of Jura and lets us see the ingredients - emotional, personal, and political - that went into his masterpiece. Dennis Glover presents Orwell as intellectually honest and dismayed at the flaws of the world and writes in appropriately crystal-clear Orwellian prose.
SING, UNBURIED, SING
Her earlier novel set in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones, was a gem, and her memoir of lives lost, Men We Reaped, masterly. This novel about race, ghosts, the dark history of the Deep South and family lives that could go terribly wrong is a stunner. Leonie takes her children, JoJo and Kayla, to pick up their white father when he is released from jail. But there's another presence in the car who wants the truth about what happened years earlier in the prison. Ward won her second National Book Award for this powerful and moving novel.
Jesmyn Ward in DeLisle, Mississippi where she grew up. Photo: James Patterson/New York Times
A LONG WAY FROM HOME
Another novel with a road trip at its heart. The two-time Booker winner is in effervescent form as Irene and Titch Bobs, along with their navigator Willie Bachhuber, embark on the Redex Round Australia Reliability Trial in the early 1950s. But there are discoveries to be made along the way about the country and its dark past and the hidden background of at least one of the major characters. Carey excels in this fizzing, darkly comic novel that addresses white Australia's relations with the Indigenous population while rattling from Bacchus Marsh to Broome and back with plenty of diversions along the way.
Two-time Booker winner Peter Carey. Photo: Steven Siewert
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON
This is an astonishing story of murder, conspiracy, cover up, a dogged investigation and the early days of the FBI. New Yorker writer David Grann, who wrote The Lost City of Z, digs and digs into the mysterious deaths of members of the Osage nation, who in the early 20th century were, per capita, the richest people in the world thanks to headrights to minerals discovered under their Oklahoma land. Much of the book deals with what is already on the historical record but Grann's additional research and conclusions are truly breathtaking. An appalling, brilliantly told story from the last days of the old west that is now being adapted for a Martin Scorsese film.
The first surprising thing about this follow-up to the technically audacious Visit from the Goon Squad is that it is really quite a conventional historical novel, albeit with an added touch of noir. But it's a novel that intrigues with its mix of characters and time settings. Anna becomes a diver in the Manhattan naval yards during World War II. Years earlier her father disappeared after an encounter with the enigmatic gangster Dexter Styles and soon she falls into his orbit. As you would expect from Egan, it's a remarkably assured novel peopled by characters who seem on the cusp of new lives in a world that has plunged into flux.
Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach is an intriguing historical novel. Photo: Pieter Van Hattem
Maryanne decides to go back to her husband Roy, giving him one last chance. The couple and their two children, Freya and Daniel, move to Newcastle where Roy has bought a run-down terrace house to restore. Can he restore the family though? Michael Sala's second novel is a scrupulously written, scarifying story of impending tragedy, which is to give nothing away. Narrated largely from the points of view of Maryanne and Freya, it's a picture of domestic tension, violence and disintegration. Worth reading in concert with Sala's first novel, The Last Thread, which is virtually a memoir of his early life.
This American author of YA fiction is best known for A Monster Calls, but this is perhaps his most personal book, the sort of book he would have reportedly liked when he was in much the same situation as his protagonist. Release is inspired by Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and relates the intense events in a single day in the life of Adam, who is yet to come out, has already loved and lost, is now falling in love with Linus. It's frank about sex and the difficulties Adam has negotiating adolescent life in a conservative family in a small US town.
While this might be a reimagining of the classical Greek myth of Antigone and her brother Polynices, Kamila Shamsie's novel about two British muslim families whose fates become dramatically entwined under the cloud of global geopolitics is bang up to date. At its heart lies the tricky problem facing western democracies: how to deal with jihadis who want to return home. It is also about how the decisions of fathers can impact so significantly on their children. Shamsie crafts a riveting novel and ratchets up the tension towards an ending that will leave you gasping.
Kamila Shamsie ratchets up the tension in Home Fire. Photo: Zain Mustafa
This fable-like novel follows the lives of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, as they flee their unidentified home country - it seems to be in the Middle East - in the face of increasing violence and tyranny for uncertain futures in a fragile world. The couple move through mysterious doors - shades of C.S. Lewis and Narnia - that catapult them into new countries and new struggles to survive. It's a short book that punches significantly above its weight and the future it describes seems only round the corner.