Robyn Annear & David Day
BIOGRAPHIES and memoirs accounted for almost half the 64 non-fiction entries vying for this year's award. Works of history were also strongly represented among the contenders, as were political commentary and travel narratives. One surprise was the relative paucity of science writing on offer.
Nonetheless, the range of subject matter and style was far more varied than these bald categorisations imply. And as for the quality of entries, it was impressively high - high enough to make competition stiff and the judges' task a particularly difficult one.
1835: THE FOUNDING OF MELBOURNE & THE CONQUEST OF AUSTRALIA
James Boyce, Black Inc.
JAMES Boyce has a way of making the ground beneath his readers' feet unsteady. This book is about the ground beneath our feet, reframing the story of Melbourne's founding: what came before and what it has led to. Incisive as he is at tracing cause and consequence, Boyce's strength lies in discerning missed possibilities - history's ''roads not taken'' - leading him, and empowering the reader, to question the inexorability of Australia's resources rush, which he contends began at Melbourne in 1835. It is a book of eloquent scholarship and with momentous implications for our understanding of Australian history.
Paul Ham, HarperCollins
THE epic sweep of this book belies its title. Paul Ham's history of the A-bomb combines extensive research with a sure sense of drama. He uses narrative focus to brilliant effect, giving equal clarity to the machinations of the Big Three at Yalta as to a child's lunch box at Hiroshima. Ham humanises the wrangling and power plays of the war's final year, casting personality and strategy as equals. The book presents moving firsthand accounts by Japanese survivors, many of whom were children in 1945. Of those killed instantly by the blasts, Ham writes: ''They were the lucky ones.''
Adrian Hyland, Text
THE bushfires of Black Saturday exploded across Victoria, tearing at vulnerable towns and pitching death and destruction across the parched landscape. Adrian Hyland has found a path through the smoke and confusion to produce an informed account that brings tears to the eyes of the reader. He has woven a selection of experiences into a seamless and gripping narrative that shows the courage, uncertainty, tragedy and stupidity of that day. Although the causes and lessons of the fire were explored in the report by the royal commission, this book will be more widely read. And deservedly so.
FISHING THE RIVER OF TIME
Tony Taylor, Text
THIS is a beautiful book. Ostensibly about an old man connecting with his grandson while fishing for salmon in a Canadian river, the book provides an elegiac reflection on the environmental degradation that has taken place in the forests and rivers of British Columbia since Tony Taylor first fished there. But he also drifts into quiet pools to meditate on how to live a gentle life in a rapacious world and how we can better connect with each other and with the world that sustains us. Reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau, it is set to become a classic.
Jane Gleeson-White, Allen & Unwin
THE invention of double-entry bookkeeping allowed capitalism to triumph. This book is much more than a Dummy's Guide to Accountancy. Centuries after its first use in the merchant houses of Venice, Jane Gleeson-White explains the great danger that the double-entry method now poses to society, and even the future of life on earth, by not making any allowance for the environmental and social costs of doing business. In a convincing conclusion, she shows how the double-entry system is slowly being amended to include calculations of social good and how the natural world might yet be saved by accountants.
THE award attracted more than 30 volumes of poetry, testifying to the fact that poetry is a vibrant, diverse and living art in Australia. The shortlist for 2012 includes some of Australia's best-known poets and younger, less-published writers.
Kate Fagan, Giramondo
KATE Fagan's First Light creates multiple, intimate, wry speaking voices. ''Inscription will recall a way/bent as a polished tooth toward/objects of sense'' (All I can see are weather and its imitators). This volume, Fagan's fourth, is full of intimate, wry song and a highly mobile use of language. Worlds and words dance together with mutually seductive, transformative results: ''Rocks transfigure/the time it takes to swerve,/see - redouble -.''
THE WELFARE OF MY ENEMY
Anthony Lawrence, Puncher & Wattmann
ANTHONY Lawrence is one of Australia's most accomplished poets. In The Welfare of My Enemy, his 13th volume, he takes a fascinating risk, narrating a tight sequence of vignettes around the metaphor of ''missing''. Deleting all titles, the volume relies on sometimes abrupt, sometimes sly, sideways approaches to tales of loss: missing members of families, disappeared fathers or lovers, bodies found in shallow graves, children snatched from roadsides, couples gone into the night. Lawrence employs long, flexible lines that are sometimes prose-like but always intense and controlled, bristling with a coming, clinching line or image, breathless notations of fear, terror, absence, grief. The voices and passions of victims, broken-hearted parents and psychotic killers brush against each other in this powerful, grisly volume.
THE BROKENNESS SONNETS I-III AND OTHER POEMS
Mal McKimmie, Five Islands Press
THE Brokenness Sonnets takes us into fragile, haunted, bodily terrains. There is wit in abundance here, often in the service of tooth-and-claw survival. Mal McKimmie's language is employed as a life raft, as defence, as a probe against a seemingly indifferent - or possibly evil - universe: ''My head is atomic with unspoken thought./My heart a river that strains its banks until released by seizure.'' These opening words introduce us to worlds that are simultaneously metaphoric and experienced viscerally: nightmare hospital wards, the trapped thoughts of a stroke victim, the song of ''my mad lost daughter''. The inventive language of these sonnets constantly, courageously pits itself against the nullity and defeat of pain experienced by human flesh.
LATE NIGHT SHOPPING
Rhylll McMaster, Brandl & Schlesinger
RHYLL McMaster's Late Night Shopping is nothing like its title suggests. McMaster's sixth volume, this poetry is deeply meditative, a wise compendium of physical and metaphysical observations by a highly skilled poetic mind. Language becomes a precise tool for piercing through the losses that time and space forge, for reimagining the why and how of existence. McMaster addresses the gene, death, the solidity of things that nevertheless ''aspirate and blast into uncertainty'' (Flight on the wind).
SURFACE TO AIR
Jaya Savige, University of Queensland Press
JAYA Savige's Surface to Air is a delight to read, full of grace and attentiveness. The opening sequence, Sand Island, is a series of tiny sketches made up of precise observation and an airy, glittering imagination, creating a world where ''Gnats phit like nanojets./Eucalypts rust at sunset, stonefish murmur in the stagnant lagoon''. Savige's language is melodic and keenly observatory. Self and physical world interpenetrate: ''Adrift, warm-blooded,/you long to sleep/but your pulse, nomadic//roams again/the humming coastline/of your skin …'' (5.07am.)
Peter Pierce & Lucy Sussex
SEVENTY-THREE books under 34 imprints were entered for this year's fiction award. Besides small presses, large publishers were more evident than in recent times. Perhaps the most striking feature of the field was the number of first-time authors. At the same time, plenty of others were deep into successful careers. Not all of the debuts realised their potential, just as some of the established names had stronger books behind them. Nevertheless, we were readily able to select a strong, varied and challenging shortlist of five novels.
WHAT THE FAMILY NEEDED
Steven Amsterdam, Sleepers
WHAT the Family Needed is written in Steven Amsterdam's trademark form of interconnecting short stories but here applied to urban fantasy rather than the post-apocalyptic future. A family all prove to have the gift of superhero abilities. Each is different and the results are somewhere between a blessing and a curse. A daughter can become invisible, a mother develops telepathy. In no case does this wish fulfilment lead to comic-book adventures, nor a grim fairytale. The novel is wry and subtle, finely nuanced. It is ultimately an unsettling journey, taking a different and wholly original path. Above all, it is elegantly, concisely written.
Mark Dapin, Pan Macmillan
MARK Dapin richly and disquietingly combines the voices and viewpoints of Jimmy, a survivor of Japanese captivity on the Burma railway, and his grandson David, who has been abandoned by his parents in Sydney, in 1990. One of the most original of fictional depictions of Jewish-Australian life, this is also a fresh account of brutality and resistance in time of war. Dapin's command of the vernacular invigorates every page of a bold and satisfying novel.
THE MEANING OF GRACE
Deborah Forster, Vintage
THIS is a novel of ordinary but extraordinary lives. Grace leaves her husband and takes her three children to live by the sea. She takes responsibility for all of them by this defining act. The children grow up with their single parent, feuding yet loving, self-reliant yet needy. They take different directions in adulthood but are drawn back together by Grace's terminal illness. The writing is lucid, with precise and memorable images. It is a novel built on acute character observation, told with great beauty and that rare thing in fiction: genuine poignancy.
Janette Turner Hospital, Fourth Estate
FORECAST: Turbulence is a highly accomplished collection of short narratives that cross the Pacific in terms of settings and themes. American and Australian backgrounds are depicted with equal authority and insight. Unifying all is the theme of weather, humans amid calm and storm. Great variety in technique is shown, from slice-of-life realism to unexpected twists. It ends on a high note, with Moon River, a musing memoir of Brisbane and its floods. The whole is strong and adeptly written.
Gillian Mears, Allen & Unwin
GILLIAN Mears finds the extraordinary in the lives of country battlers in New South Wales before the Second World War and extends across generations to end with a benediction near the present time. She portrays arduous rural toil, moral peril and the periodic, fleeting delights of participation in the high-jumping circuit right across outback Australia. Measured but daring, eloquent and shocking, the novel is one of the most unusual and accomplished accounts of a way of life more often mocked or mythologised than depicted with this clarity.