Whether it's by the beach, an adventure or relaxing at home, here's our guide to getting lost in a good book this summer, from some of RN's biggest bookworms.
The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes
If you love Greek mythology, this book is compulsory and addictive reading.
Haynes retells the stories of Oedipus and Antigone, through the eyes of the marginalised and largely powerless women characters in these classics. It's hard to imagine that this could be possible, but the retelling of the well-known Oedipus myth is risky and exciting.
The story is told through the voice of Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, who is just 15 when she is forced to marry the King of Thebes.
It's also told through Ismene, one of the daughters of Jocasta, who is given very few lines in the original tale. This is refreshing and insightful.
This is a blatantly feminist retelling, focused on the women characters. In alternate chapters, Haynes tells the parallel stories of the women living in a palace full of mystique and danger. Haynes takes us to Thebes in the Bronze Age, but has found a way to make the story both contemporary as well as keeping it true to its classic form.
She breathes new life into the Greek myths, taking the Oedipus story and rewriting it as a novel — a contentious move that may push the buttons of purists, but is delivered effortlessly.
Haynes describes the Oedipus myth as "a relentless piece of storytelling". Her reworked and reimagined version is just as relentless and gripping.
• Patricia Karvelas is the presenter of RN Drive and one half of the podcast The Party Room.
A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay
Because Ashley Hay's writing is so simple and precise, at first you fail to notice how powerful it is.
A bit like George Orwell's ideal of writing as a pane of glass — something you don't see, but see through — Hay's prose reveals her subjects with remarkable clarity.
Some of her subjects are characters, of course. There's Elsie Gormley, 89 years old and recently moved to an aged-care home, and Lucy, her husband and young son, who have bought Elsie's house of 60 years.
More importantly there's the relationships between them, between Elsie and her children, between Lucy and the other members of her family, and between Elsie and Lucy — a relationship that is essentially psychic, to do with memories of place, and which might be less convincing were Hay's writing not so calm and direct.
But the main character in the book is Brisbane — actually, two Brisbanes, 50 years apart, culturally different in so many ways, yet both sticky, subtropical, and prone to flooding.
Elsie lives through the flood of 1974; Lucy the flood of 2010–11. The house, the environment and the weather read so vividly, even during winter in the NSW Southern Highlands, where I live, that you can see the jacarandas and smell the frangipanis.
And, remarkably, I still can, for this is a book that stays with you long after you've read the final page.
• Andrew Ford is the presenter of RN's Music Show.
Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird
This year I found I'd read books mostly by women.
They included Caroline Baum's enthralling Only, Margaret Atwood's wicked Hag-Seed, LS Hilton's Domina — less fun than her first novel and more rude — and then my best book for 2017: Victoria the Queen, by Julia Baird.
I bought it because I love reading Julia's journalism, and am always impressed by her range, deep learning and clarity.
Did I need to know so much about a lusty German teenager who became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901? Do you? Well, holiday books are about taking chances and, in this case, hoping to learn more about our present world in 2017.
Victoria the Queen surprises, informs with real scholarship and tells a huge story with a light touch. When I finished I felt as if my brain had grown an extra layer.
• Robyn Williams is the presenter of RN's Science Show and Ockham's Razor.
What's your favourite summer read? Let us know in the comments.
Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford
After a year in which the darker side of human nature has been on full display, here's a book that reminds us that we can actually be incredibly imaginative and creative.
Written by British economist and broadcaster Tim Harford, Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy — based on his BBC Radio 4 series — covers everything from TV dinners and passports to management consulting and the barcode.
Harford is an entertaining story teller and in a series of short chapters he shows how each of these innovations contributed, for good or ill, to the immense complexity that is the world economy.
• Keri Phillips is a presenter on RN's Rear Vision.
Tex by Tex Perkins with Stuart Coupe
In 1997 Tex Perkins was on stage in Melbourne with his band The Beasts of Bourbon. He'd drunk a lot of sake before the gig and an adversarial vibe had developed between him and the audience.
Finally someone in the crowd threw a bottle of Crown Lager, which cracked Tex in the middle of his forehead.
As blood gushed down his face he sunk to his knees feeling completely and utterly exhilarated.
As he remembers it in his memoir, Tex, written with Stuart Coupe, "to be bleeding profusely, defiantly singing in front of a ferocious, ugly rock'n'roll band to an angry mob — was what I'd always wanted … this was what it was all about".
Music was an escape hatch from the future Tex seemed destined for when he dropped out of school at 15. Like Tex I grew up in Brisbane's northern suburbs to a big family of Catholics and I guess if I was a six-foot rockpig I'd like to be Tex.
In Tex, he is self-deprecating but not apologetic: yes he's drunk too much, been an idiot, sabotaged his chances of commercial success, but he has also made great music and, above all, had fun. There are nobler aims in life and wiser books, but if you're sitting on a beach towel with a beer this summer Tex will serve you brilliantly.
• Sarah Kanowski is a presenter on RN's Books and Arts.
Common People by Tony Birch
Common People, a new collection of short stories by Melbourne writer Tony Birch, is my highlight in a great year for Aussie fiction.
Tony's most recent novel Ghost River is set on a stretch of the Yarra where I walk most weekends. The book has transformed that pleasant urban park into a place of mythic power.
These new short stories have the same kind of effect. They take us into the lives of very ordinary people — often people who are doing it tough — and open up the pain, the wit and the twinkle of their worlds.
Tony's wisdom and goodwill are beyond politics. His prose breathes with humanity.
• Michael Cathcart is a presenter on RN's Books and Arts.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Is it possible to dither passionately? I fear that's what I've been doing, trying to select my 2017 "best read". Because fiction offers so many different experiences, from the careful exploration of age and identity in Josephine Wilson's Extinctions to the heart-stopping drama and humour of Adrian McKinty's Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, or the devastating possibilities of another American civil war in Omar El Akkad's American War.
But I find I do turn again and again, to literary fiction that explores the past intelligently, with complexity, and with a sense of uncovering something surprising. Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach does that, which is why I finally had to settle on this story of the New York waterfront in the 1930s and 1940s, where the corruption, criminality and seedy characters are not the central story.
Instead, it's the story of Anna, who's 12 in 1934 when the story begins. She lives with her father, who believes the working man has a right to luck even though he doesn't have much of it himself; with her mother, who stopped dancing; and her sister Lydia who will never dance, walk, talk or have much of what other people think of as luck.
The father disappears, leaving behind a mystery and a daughter who works in the shipyards, wanting more than the tiny metal parts the Second World War thinks women should be content with. So she dives (literally), she dons heavy suits, she steps into the murky undersea and underworld.
As the plot swims along apace, the ideas and research and watery layers hold up very well.
• Kate Evans is a presenter on RN's Books and Arts.
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
He was an intellectual giant, and by all accounts, a lovely guy too. But it takes an extra special talent to keep publishing new books after you're dead.
Reading The River of Consciousness by celebrated writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks is a strange comfort. It's as if he never left us two years ago, as if cancer never robbed us of one the most creative scientific minds of our time.
Best known for gripping stories about his patients and their extraordinary brains — in books like The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Awakenings — Sacks has charmed and surprised generations of readers.
This latest collection delves inside minds of other kinds, too, to consider the unique sensory intelligence of the smallest beings we share the planet with, but often fail to notice: worms, wasps, sea snails, jellyfish, plants and protozoa. Plus there are evocative essays on the human brain and speed, time, remembering, forgetting, creativity, consciousness, and more.
His polymath passions are on show as ever. HG Wells sits alongside Hannah Arendt, Edward Coleridge next to George Harrison. He's personal, provocative and delightful.
Rest in peace, Professor. Come back anytime. We miss your magpie mind.
• Natasha Mitchell is the presenter of RN podcast Science Friction.
Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
I like a book that loosens my grip on reality and allows a little bit of magical realism to seep into the edges of my vision.
Julie Koh's collections of short stories Portable Curiosities did just that.
The stories are dark and make fun of hipsters.
In fact, in gorgeous and believable flow, Koh unleashes a portmanteau of fables, which take on body image, racism, father-son relationships and cat cafes.
I loved these stories and this slim little paperback can slip right into your backpack for your summer trip. Just beware though — the ice cream you eat on the way might be fatal.
• Ann Jones presents RN's Off Track.
Glimpse of Light by Stephen Mumford
This curious novella is titled Glimpse of Light, and its author Stephen Mumford holds a day job at Durham University as a professor of metaphysics. He's also a visiting professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, which appears to have been a key posting when it comes to this little book.
Glimpse of Light is about a philosopher who treks to a tiny settlement in the far north of Norway. It's cold, way cold. In a secluded wooden cabin with only a bed, table and fireplace, Professor Benedict Chilwell tries to break out of a deep personal abyss.
His chosen remedy is philosophical rather than psychological. He has set himself a strict task: he has six days before the return of the northern sun to work out a failsafe proof that the world does indeed exist. Sounds familiar? Well yes, Rene Descartes tried the same trick and ended up with the dangerously solipsistic cogito ergo sum.
Chilwell comes at it from another direction and in doing so articulates what Mumford-the-philosopher really believes about Descartes: that he took a fatal false turn that set the whole enterprise of contemporary philosophy in the wrong direction.
Philosophical fiction can be didactic, abstruse, and generally hard going; but not this one. OK, Mumford is not exactly Iris Murdoch, but if you want a gentle introduction to some heavyweight ideas while taking in the sun this could be it. Oh, and it's also got intrigue, humour, love, and lust for good measure.
• Joe Gelonesi presents RN's Philosopher's Zone.
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
Mostly, biographies are about famous people. This one is about someone you've never heard of.
Sandra Pankhurst cleans up crime scenes after the police have finished. She also sorts things out after "unattended deaths".
These are people who die alone, like the 35-year-old woman who died of a heroin overdose in her flat and who wasn't found for two and a half weeks, in the height of summer. That's when Sandra goes in.
Trauma cleaner is more than a job title though; it's what Sandra Pankhurst has done with her life. She was labelled a boy at birth, and in 1954 adopted into an abusive family. As a young man, getting married and having a couple of children was followed by a breakaway into living as a woman.
There was a whole lot of trauma and guilt in all that, and a lot more would follow. The job Sandra does is emblematic of the cleaning-up, rearranging and putting to right she's done in her own messy, difficult life.
The Trauma Cleaner pays tribute to a person who's an absolute life force, even among the death and decay and squalor and stench that she works in every day and the crushing difficulties of her own past. And it's a story told more beautifully than you can possibly imagine.
• Amanda Smith presents RN's Life Matters.
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
American author Sarah Sentilles abandoned divinity school after being moved by two images. One was a photo of a conscientious objector during WWII, a man struggling with the onset of dementia; the other, a former US serviceman caught up in the degradation of Abu Ghraib.
Her book Draw Your Weapons explores the fragility of memory, the power of the visual record and the way photos can deceive as well as inspire. It used to be said that the camera doesn't lie. If the adage was ever true, it certainly isn't today, in an age of Photoshop and filters. But the visual still has impact.
Sentilles's book is a challenging read, full of snippets, thoughts and reflections. It cuts between time, place and character. Part memoir, part exploration, it avoids neatly-cut explanations or definitive conclusions; it shows, suggests and probes. The two men she chronicles are complex and their actions often ambiguous.
At its core, Draw Your Weapons challenges us to question the truths we see with our eyes. Photos become artefacts. They freeze a point in time, but their meaning is never fully set or captured, it is free to twist and turn under layers of ongoing interpretation.
A photograph of people smiling as they watch a black man being lynched gradually transforms into a portrait of repression and intolerance. The details of the image have not changed with the years, but the sentiments and sympathies of the viewer have shifted significantly.
In an age consumed with its own reflection, this is a timely work and I highly recommend it.
• Antony Funnell presents RN's Future Tense.
The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman
Over the last couple of years, Alexander Hamilton has been all the rage.
Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda's zeitgeisty musical, this unprincipled Hobbesian tyrant-in-waiting has been elevated to the sine qua non of the American revolutionary spirit.
And yet the most unforgivable historical sin of Miranda's musical is the way it libellously diminishes an intellectual and moral giant of the post-revolutionary era: James Madison.
In his thrilling new biography, constitutional law professor Noah Feldman recovers the utter brilliance and rather astonishing prescience of Madison's political vision.
But whereas Hamilton drew too heavily on the brute authoritarianism of Thomas Hobbes, Madison was nurtured by the philosophy of Aristotle, with its emphasis on the beauty of political friendship, the importance of principled moderation, a keen awareness of the corrosive effect of economic inequality, and the vital connection between rights and reciprocal obligations.
From the pages of Feldman's book, Madison emerges not only as one of the greatest statesmen in the history of democratic politics, but also a political thinker of the highest order, a virtuosic practitioner of the art of practical wisdom.
The musical Hamilton ends up sharing in the malaise of Trump era America. But it is the recovery of Madison's moral and political vision that presents the best antidote to what now ails the United States.
• Scott Stephens is a presenter on RN's The Minefield.
The Road to Somewhere by David Goodheart
Like a lot of RN listeners, I spent much of 2017 trying to make sense of Donald Trump, and the forces behind his election.
I also wanted to understand the grievance and pain that triggered Britain's decision to leave the European Union and the resurgence of ethnic nationalism in Europe.
Of all the articles and books I read on the subject, one really cut through — David Goodhart's The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.
Goodhart is controversial — a left-winger who believes in reducing but not ending immigration to Britain — but he nails the new divide in western politics brilliantly.
It's never absolute but, in general, he refers to "Somewheres", those people who value place, custom, tradition, common values and a more settled community. But they're not right-wingers because they also distrust global capitalism, and support unions and much of the welfare state.
Their rivals are the "Anywheres", people who style themselves as cosmopolitans, who can live and work anywhere in the world and have a credential that makes such a lifestyle easy. But they embrace free markets and free immigration and favour culture over community.
Much more interesting than the stale old left-right stuff!
• Andrew West presents RN's Religion and Ethics Report....Read more