The best books of 2012

Helen Garner

In Speechless (MUP), James Button weaves painful family history into his year spent in Canberra as a frustrated speechwriter to then-PM Kevin Rudd. Subtle, fresh, moving, it ripples with surprises.

Crimwife (Black Inc.) by Tanya Levin is an intelligently candid, hair-raising personal account of loving a jailed criminal. The feminine abjectness Levin analyses, in her own experience and that of women she interviews, is more recognisable than one can comfortably admit.

William Maxwell's brief novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage), makes grander works look clumsy and long-winded. His simple sentences, in this story of boyhood grief and passionate love, shine with the purest light.

Helen Garner's novel The Spare Room is published by Text.

Thomas Keneally

The reissue of Patrick White's first novel, Happy Valley (Text), first published in 1939, which I'd never read before, gives us a chance to encounter again White's magnificent bag of tricks. These include lost souls in a cold, upcountry terrain, where misplaced people occupy a ramshackle and snow-prone town. There is the usual White cast of bewildered and potentially angelic souls lost among a mass of lumpen chancers and brainless poseurs. The writing foreshadows all the great work to come. A savage murder seems to arise out of the essential cruelty of the earth. It's White redivivus and a very satisfying read.

Paul Ham's Sandakan (William Heinemann) is a well-written and superbly researched book almost transcending in its potency the war crimes it describes. It is hard-headed, unsentimental history, and all the more potent for that. The survivors of the death marches of Sandakan aren't saints, and the saints, MP Rob Oakeshott's grandfather, Dr John Oakeshott for one, perish in a way that deserves immortality but probably won't achieve it. The ''this is what it was really like'' quotient of this narrative is high.

Thomas Keneally's The Daughters of Mars is published by Vintage.

Germaine Greer

The book of the year has to be The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin) by Bill Gammage. Ever since Eric Rolls's A Million Wild Acres was published in 1981, Australians who care have suspected that Aboriginal land management was far more extensive and more sophisticated than whitefellas were prepared to believe. Gammage has now proved the case by presenting an assemblage of the evidence to be found in every kind of pioneer record. To read his scrupulous and painstaking account is to feel the scales fall from your eyes. Once you know what to look for, you can see it everywhere.

Germaine Greer's books include The Female Eunuch (Harper Perennial) and Shakespeare's Wife (Bloomsbury).

Alex Miller

It is rare to find a book as well written as Evelyn Juers's House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann (Giramondo). This dual biography is the richest, most intelligent and intellectually satisfying book I've read in years. I lived gratefully within its marvels for a precious week. Among the great tangle of facts and destinies streaming across Juers's pages, she never once loses touch with the compelling essentials of her story, but navigates her material with masterful assurance. This book has been composed with as much attention to the pleasure of the reader as it has to satisfying Juers's authentic need to own the story. I was greatly moved by it. It is a masterpiece and a joy to read.

Alex Miller's latest novel is Autumn Laing (Allen & Unwin).

Colm Toibin

For anyone interested in the sheer complexity of Ireland's heritage, three enormous, door-stopping books appeared this year. The first is glorious. It is a new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson), one of the masterpieces of Celtic art from the 8th century, with more than 200 illustrations of unusually good quality and a very lucid and serious commentary by Bernard Meehan.

The second tells a tragic story. It is The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork University Press), also well illustrated, with essays by the best modern scholars on all aspects of the disaster that shaped modern Ireland.

The third book is not tragic, but it is not good either. It is Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (Profile), by Diarmaid Ferriter, and it shows how the roots of the problems of Ireland now were growing fast in the '70s, watered by a set of the most foolish politicians.

Colm Toibin's most recent book is The Testament of Mary (Picador).

Kerry Greenwood

Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve) is an examination of school shootings that isn't prurient, hyperbolic or downright silly. The author has had unprecedented access to psychiatric documents and medical professionals, as well as the court reports and the writings of the two murderers. The author manages to hang onto his sanity, his compassion and his syntax while sympathising with the victims and understanding the shooters. Uncomfortable but fascinating.

Baked to Death by Dean James (Kensington Books, New York) is about a gay vampire detective at a writers' festival. Arch. Coy. Adorable.

Kerry Greenwood's latest Phryne Fisher novel is Unnatural Habits (Allen & Unwin).

Elliot Perlman

The Politics of Memory (Ivan R. Dee) is the fascinating story of Raul Hilberg, who, having escaped the Holocaust, became the historian to write its definitive account, The Destruction of the European Jews.

Deranged Marriage (Bantam) by Sushi Das is a funny, stirring and piercingly honest memoir about culture clash and arranged marriages, using wry humour and an insider's critical eye to illuminate, provoke and entertain.

Two Australian nurses, sisters, take you through the horrors of World War I in Tom Keneally's masterful The Daughters of Mars (Vintage).

The Wound and the Gift (Saint Andrew Press) by Ron Ferguson beautifully covers the artistic, intellectual and spiritual journey and struggle of George Mackay Brown, one of the finest Scottish writers of the 20th century. A perfect companion to his Collected Poems (John Murray).

Elliot Perlman's most recent novel is The Street Sweeper (Vintage).

Andrew Riemer

Three novels by women - one a fairly recent arrival on the Australian literary scene, the others practically unknown writers - impressed me greatly this year. Carrie Tiffany's quirky Mateship with Birds (Picador) proved that her first novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, was no flash in the pan.

The Croatian writer Dasa Drndic's Trieste (MacLehose Press) is an intricate, exhilarating and often harrowing meditation on Nazi atrocities in the region.

The republication of Sarah Gainham's 1967 novel about life (and death) in wartime Vienna, Night Falls on the City (Little, Brown), made me keen to read more of this neglected writer.

Andrew Riemer is the Herald's chief book reviewer.

Brenda Niall

Two favourites of 2012: Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens (Penguin) is astute, intelligent, unsentimental. Neither a monster of cruelty nor the world's most loveable uncle, Dickens lived half a dozen conflicted lives. Tomalin's words on Great Expectations - ''delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious'' - suggest her responsiveness to the Dickens magic, but she faces his appalling treatment of his family without flinching or judging.

Colm Toibin's mini-biographies in New Ways to Kill Your Mother (Picador) explore the family lives of a cluster of literary figures from Yeats and Joyce to James Baldwin and Sebastian Barry. Stimulating, exasperating, beguiling.

Brenda Niall's most recent book is True North (Text).

Luke Davies

Colm Toibin's new novel, The Testament of Mary (Picador), is spare, bare and unadorned: a plain-style ball of controlled anger. The anger is that of Mary, feeling her grip on her now long-dead son loosening, as the authors of the testament that is intended to carry on his legacy and free the world from death prod and bully her for memories and clarifications. It's a pointless exercise to Mary: if her recollections don't square with their own planned master-narrative, she knows which of the two will be jettisoned. She admits her son had a special quality - an energy - about him, even if in his messianic (and manic) final months he treated her indifferently and coolly. Still, that's better than his followers, the ''group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye''. Reminds me, in tone and scope, of Delia Falconer's exquisite The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers.

Luke Davies won this year's PM's Award for Poetry for Interferon Psalms (Allen & Unwin).

Peter Temple

The year's end brought two wonderful books: the masterly Robert Drewe at his supple, subtle and funny best in his memoir Montebello (Hamish Hamilton), and Like a House on Fire (Scribe), a short-form collection from Cate Kennedy that displays her sniper's eye and concern with tone and rhythm.

Another engrossing memoir was Not Me (Atlantic) by the historian and cultural combatant Joachim Fest. His clear-eyed and unsentimental memoir of his Berlin childhood in the Nazi era complemented another excellent new book involving the fatal city - Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (Simon & Schuster), by Andrew Nagorski.

Peter Temple is the author of the Jack Irish books (Text).

Jennifer Maiden

I haven't read all I wished this year. Some memorable poetry books coming my way included Tim Thorne's strong, clear Yeah No (Press Press), with relaxation of his usual skilled rhyme in favour of sharply tuned diction. While it is difficult to turn history to poetry, this book succeeds.

My publisher Giramondo presented poets from the careful Vivian Smith (Here, There and Elsewhere) to Michael Brennan's vivid risks (Autoethnographic).

Although mixing modes to suggest immediacy underestimates Marion Davies's unfragmented wit, Jessica Wilkinson's poem bio Marionette (Vagabond) impressed. Rosemary Dobson's fine Collected (UQP) turned her poetry to history, poignantly.

Jennifer Maiden's Liquid Nitrogen is published by Giramondo.

Anna Funder

The most powerful book I read was Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba (Hamish Hamilton). It's a pitch-perfect, child's-eye view of the war in Sudan, but its true brilliance lies in the way Tulba understands the slightest shifts in the heart and psyche of all his characters, and the fine-to-non-existent line between perpetrator and victim.

Nick Drake's poems after his visit to Antarctica, The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe), are works of gentle genius; to read them is to live more vividly.

Jonathan Franzen's essays Farther Away (Fourth Estate) made me laugh and startled me into seeing things I hadn't - just what essays should be doing.

I just read Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Fourth Estate), which completely floored me.

For fiction I returned to some old favourites: Sebald, Cheever, Munro, and Amy Bloom's stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Granta).

Anna Funder won this year's Miles Franklin Award for All That I Am.

Richard Flanagan

Some decades ago, a Cambridge mathematician called Rupert Sheldrake posited the idea of morphic resonance, backed by apparently incontrovertible mathematical proof. The nub of Sheldrake's idea was that where one thing has happened it is much more likely to happen again. And so it seems with genius and Scandinavia. Not content with furniture, light shades, Sarah Lund's jumper and the other marvels of Scandi noir, they have now given the world Karl Ove Knausgaard's novelised memoir, My Struggle (Vintage), a work of such singular feeling and beauty that it puts everything else I have read too far into the shadow to mention. If you want to know why novels still matter, read this book.

Richard Flanagan's most recent book is And What Do You Do, Mr Gable? (Vintage).

Michael Robotham

Having once been famously misquoted as being the crime writer who had read only one crime novel (it wasn't quite true), I set about redressing the problem this year. My standout was Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Gillian Flynn, a brilliantly clever novel about a dysfunctional marriage, told from both points of view, where the reader never knows who to believe, or who they can trust, or what facts are real.

Dennis Lehane rarely writes a bad crime novel and occasionally a great one. This year he delivered Live by Night (Little, Brown), an old-fashioned gangster novel fuelled by sex, violence, corruption and bootleg liquor. Don't wait for the film.

Michael Robotham's Say You're Sorry is published by Sphere.

Kate Holden

Some of the better history books I read were themselves historical: in the year of his demise, Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore (Pan) still overwhelmed; Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered (Vintage) by Howard M. Sachar and The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown) by Maria Rosa Menocal, although not new, were fascinating portraits of cultural epiphany, then tragedy.

Toni Jordan's novel of wartime Melbourne, Nine Days (Text), was convincing, affecting and memorable. And Hilary Mantel didn't disappoint with Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second part of her Tudor trilogy.

Kate Holden's memoir The Romantic is published by Text.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Looking for a book to give your relations who are general readers for Christmas? I couldn't go any further than the broad Meanjin Anthology, edited by Sally Heath and others (MUP). Covering all manner of Australian writing, it boldly represents what we have thought and written from the 1940s to the past decade.

Where novels are concerned, a lot more attention should be paid to Susan Hancock's The Peastick Girl (Black Pepper). Written in prose of eloquent intensity, this does for New Zealand passions and landscapes the kind of thing the Brontes did for Yorkshire.

Chris Andrews's Lime Green Chair (The Waywiser Press) is a deservedly prizewinning collection of fresh, linguistically alert poems; I don't know who else could have written ''finding the ice cube root of a gin sling shot''.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe's New and Selected Poems will be published next month by Carcanet.

Robert Adamson

Bunting's Persia (Flood Editions), edited by Don Share, is an anthology of Basil Bunting's translations from Persian poems by Rudaki, Hafiz and others: fresh, immediate, profound. Share's useful introduction tells how this collection came about, from a manuscript Bunting prepared in Tenerife in 1935, to emerge finally an as exquisite publication from Chicago.

My other choice is the much-anticipated and magnificent Edward Dorn Collected Poems (Carcanet), edited by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn and published as a first edition in Britain. Including many uncollected poems, this book is a remarkable achievement. Dorn was one of the US's great satirists. A leaping brilliance darts through the political narratives, and his delicate early lyricism and linguistic dark magic make this work an exhilarating read.

Robert Adamson won the Patrick White Award last year.

Michael Farrell

This year in poetry I loved Lionel Fogarty's Master-blasting Mogwie-Idan: Stories of the Land(Vagabond): mind-blowingly humorous and stunningly illustrated; Kate Lilley's combo of honky warmth, psychoanalytic cool and punning insight, producing what it is to be Ladylike (UWAP); and Linda Norton's poetry-memoir hybrid The Public Gardens (Pressed Wafer): a space where everyone's welcome, including those we've lost.

In criticism, Ben Hickman's provocative John Ashbery and English Poetry (Edinburgh UP) productively rereads Ashbery's ''inattention'' to Marvell, Auden etc.

Finally, Gerald Murnane's original perspective on reading and writing fiction in A History of Books (Giramondo) gave me new ideas and poems.

Michael Farrell's most recent collection is Open Sesame (Giramondo).

Sophie Cunningham

The novel I've been most entranced by this year has been Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin). The aimless Laura travels to find a home, while Ravi is forced from his. But my pleasure in the novel wasn't simply because questions of travel, to Sri Lanka in particular, are close to my heart. Its slow build of momentum is extraordinary. As well, de Kretser evokes Sydney's faded but fecund splendour quite beautifully.

My favourite non-fiction book so far has been Speechless (MUP), by James Button. In part it is the memoir of a political family, and in part it's a memoir about political work. It's melancholy, beautifully written, and true.

Sophie Cunningham is the author of Melbourne (New South).

James Bradley

Hilary Mantel may have been surprised when she won her second Booker prize for the second part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), but I'm not sure anybody else was: simultaneously rich and astonishingly spare, full-blooded yet somehow uncanny, it's a book of a different order from almost anything else published this year.

Next to it, Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her (Faber & Faber) looks slight, but its size belies the invention and energy of Diaz's writing.

And, finally, the astonishing opening story of Kij Johnson's new collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Small Beer Press), is worth the price of admission all on its own. The book as a whole offers an eloquent reminder of the fact much of the best writing happening today is happening in science fiction and fantasy.

James Bradley is a novelist and the Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year for 2012.

Kim Scott

I read Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending (Vintage) in one sitting, trapped in the narrator's consciousness until almost the very end. Barnes manipulates the truth, just for the sake of a good story, and I thank him for the deceit.

Striding through some spiteful polemics in Am I Black Enough for You? (Bantam), Anita Heiss is gracious and eloquent, particularly about her parents and family. She has a keen sense of politics and social justice, yet it's her inclusiveness and humour that shine the brightest light.

Peter Temple's The Broken Shore (Text) is almost worth reading just for the description of the way poodles move. Fortunately, there's a whole lot more in this book that's admirable, though sometimes unsettling. The protagonist, Cashin, carries pain and damage he's not quite willing, or able, to articulate.

Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin Award for That Deadman Dance (Picador) last year.

Charlotte Wood

I've been looking forward to Damon Young's Philosophy in the Garden (MUP) all year. Part philosophy lesson, part literary companion, it's a contemplative stroll through writers' relationships with their gardens, from Austen to Proust to Emily Dickinson, George Orwell and others.

Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin) is as good as everyone says: satirical but also shocking, lit by a fine, perfectly controlled fury.

A writer friend led me to the bitingly sharp, intimate works of the late Alice Thomas Ellis this year. I loved The Birds of the Air and Unexplained Laughter (Corsair); I'm saving up the rest.

Charlotte Wood's most recent book is Love & Hunger (Allen & Unwin).

Michael McGirr

The highlight of my reading year has been the rediscovery of All the Green Year (Text) by Don Charlwood. The lowlight was the death of the great poet and essayist Peter Steele, but at least that sadness sent me back to his writing: Braiding the Voices (John Leonard) and White Knight with Beebox (John Leonard) are both full of discoveries.

Otherwise, the measure for me is the books I have read and then bought as presents. Maureen McCarthy's The Convent (Allen & Unwin) is her best-ever book, which is saying something; Peter Barry's We All Fall Down (Transit Lounge) is a novel that probes modern living with a scalpel, Cate Kennedy's Like a House on Fire (Scribe) is a superb collection of stories and Sufficient Grace (Scribe) by Amy Espeseth is a gem.

Michael McGirr's Things You Get for Free is republished by Scribe.

Gig Ryan

Alice Oswald's Memorial (Faber & Faber) sifts Homer's Iliad to a plaque of names, and translates his soaring similes into blunter alliterative English. A warrior's armour ''tin cans'' open, and a generation enters ''a door in earth''.

Kate Lilley's Ladylike (UWA Publishing) is a strikingly clever, often mordantly funny, detonation of the feminine, the elegiac, and psychoanalysis: ''Where does a woman's sympathy end / and her indiscretion begin?''

In the late Rosemary Dobson's Collected poems (UQP), a subtle feminism seeps into some later work; her poetry extends from formal verse, such as the resonant Piltdown Man, to concise haunting portraits.

Impressive collections and selections came from Steve Kelen (Brandl & Schlesinger), Ken Bolton (Shearsman Books) and Robert Gray (John Leonard Press).

Gig Ryan's New and Selected Poems (Giramondo) won this year's NSW Premier's poetry prize.

Chris Womersley

My reading year was dominated by Anthony Powell's superb 12-novel epic, A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow). Exceedingly generous, wry and melancholy, it concerns the lives of dozens of English aristocrats from 1920 through to the late 1960s. Easily one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life and a book I (almost) wish I hadn't yet discovered, just to experience the pleasure of doing so all over again.

Wandering into vastly different terrain, I also enjoyed Dan Chaon's short-story collection, Stay Awake (Ballantine), which features pieces suspended artfully on the fringes of horror.

Closer to home, I was mightily impressed by Josephine Rowe's elegant and poetic collection of (occasionally very) short stories, Tarcutta Wake (UQP).

Chris Womersley's Bereft was shortlisted for last year's Miles Franklin Award.

The story The best books of 2012 first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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