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This year, which was bonkers (and not in a good way), was one that was both softened and enlarged by reading. Every year there are truly spectacular books, those that genuinely get under your skin and you think about them for weeks, if not months or longer. What follows is not a list of books I consider ‘the best’ (as if I’d know) but ones that have resonated in a way that was surprising, or beautiful, or funny, or shocking, sometimes all at once – and more.

Although I don’t usually break my reading down into genre or geographic categories, I have this time, only because the list is long and some structure might be useful.

Australian novels I enjoyed this year include Melissa Lucashenko’s cheeky but powerful and very necessary TOO MUCH LIP, Charlotte Wood’s moving and piercingly astute THE WEEKEND, RWC McDonald’s wondrously joyful THE NANCYS, and Simon Cleary’s THE WAR ARTIST, which is a timely addition to Australian literature that dares to question our apparently unbounded love of military history. Other novels that packed a necessary punch are Andrew Goldsmith’s intricately drawn INVENTED LIVES, THE BREEDING SEASON by Amanda Niehaus (my review for the Canberra Times here), and THE ORCHARDIST’S DAUGHTER, Karen Viggers’ study of Tasmanian forest ecology and the human lives that depend on it. THE PILLARS by Peter Polites puts a dagger through Sydney’s obsession with real estate; the novel actually does so much more. INVISIBLE BOYS by Holden Sheppard is a no-bullshit exploration of growing up gay in regional Western Australia – the novel and its author are attracting a huge fanbase and it’s not hard to see why. Finally, three novels that deserve to be widely read are Julie Keys’ THE ARTIST’S PORTRAIT, which is such an ambitious and unique historical novel about art and memory, HITCH by Kathryn Hind (my review for the Canberra Times here), and IN WHOM WE TRUST by one of Australia’s greatest living prose writers, John Clanchy.

Novels from overseas that I adored include HAPPINESS by the always wise Aminatta Forna, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, and Max Porter’s utterly magical – and devastating – LANNY. I finally read works by Rachel Cusk – TRANSIT – and Elizabeth Strout – OLIVE, AGAIN – and, oh my goodness, both were extraordinary and I will be reading more of both. To my mind, the novel of the year, if not the decade, was Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, which knocked my socks off, partly because it gently though forcefully reveals the inter-generational impact of war and partly because the language is so poetically exposed.

I read some very moving Australian non-fiction this year, including GROWING UP QUEER (edited by Benjamin Law), Laura Dawes’ FIGHTING FIT, which scientifically and entertainingly explores the many ways Britain kept its home population healthy during the Second World War, Chloe Higgins’ tragic and remarkably vulnerable THE GIRLS, James Halford’s wonderfully drawn essays about his love of Latin American literature as collected in REQUIEM WITH YELLOW BUTTERFLIES, and Patrick Mullins’ impeccably researched and thoughtfully written biography of the much-maligned Australian prime minister Billy McMahon – TIBERIUS WITH A TELEPHONE. I found THE SATURDAY PORTRAITS by Maxine Beneba Clarke incredibly moving and does a lot to reveal the challenges presented by contemporary Australia. I very much enjoyed Peter Papathanasiou’s LITTLE ONE, which is a joyful memoir about determination and crossing boundaries (in many ways). NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS by Behrouz Boochani is an extraordinary – and deeply poetry – chronicle of ‘life’ in this country’s deplorable refugee prisons, and THE ERRATICS by Vicki Laveau-Harvie shows how powerful prose can be, especially when focused on a highly dysfunctional family.

I didn’t read as many poetry collections as I would have liked, though the form is a regular part of my reading. I loved ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Eileen Chong, and I had my own celebration of Mary Oliver, lapping up the Pulitzer Prize-winning AMERICAN PRIMATIVE and LONG LIFE, which is a collection of essays, many playful, interspersed with Oliver’s typically accessible though always moving poetry.

As this year, a publication year for your old Goulburn mate, comes to an end, I’d just like to say thanks so much to all the lovely folk who have been a part of the BODIES OF MEN adventure.

Thanks to those who attended the launch of the novel back in May at the wonderful Street Theatre in Canberra.

Thanks to those who attended my speaking gigs, in bookshops, libraries, and schools.

Thanks to those who have messaged me with photos of the book in various places around Australia and in New Zealand – it’s such a simple gesture but it means a lot.

Thanks to those who have emailed or messaged me or come up to me at events and shared their experience of the novel. So very much appreciated.

Thanks to those who interviewed me and helped find an audience for my funny little war novel.

Thanks to those who have written responses to the novel online and then shared them. Some members of the literary community are just amazing, like Sue Terry from Whispering Gums – check out Sue’s summary of authors who have blogs, which includes a little mention of this here place in the online world.

Special thanks to all the many bookshops who stock the novel – you are bona fide heroes.

Special thanks also to my magic-making agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary in Sydney, and my very smart and hardworking publisher, Robert Watkins at Hachette Australia.

What have I learned?

To be frank, I have no idea, but here are some thoughts, which may or may not end up being true:

  • confidence is a trickster
  • publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence
  • for the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be
  • accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint
  • it is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made art
  • success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work; no one knows what makes up the remaining 20%
  • doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

What happens now?

After a bit of a summer break, my mind will turn to other projects, although I do have a BODIES OF MEN-related event in Queensland in April, just in time for Anzac Day 2020 – it will be at Avid Reader and with authors Melanie Meyers and Simon Cleary and moderated by the tireless Cass Moriarty. We’ll be talking all things writing war.

See you next year (if we in Australia survive the Bushfire Apocalypse).

Another years goes by and yet again music has played such an important part in keeping me afloat; more: music keeps me feeling alive, properly alive. So, it is a bit of a surprise to discover that I didn’t buy as much music as I have in the past, and I can only list five new albums that have made an impact. Perhaps I’ve been revisiting older records – In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007) and Violator by Depeche Mode (1990) both have had quite a spin, and I have also been enjoying mix-tapes (yes, old cassettes) that I made many moons ago. In any case, the following albums have significantly enriched this year.

New Energy by Four Tet

This is the album I have listened to the most in 2019, partly because I love much of what Kieran Hebden has done over the years – Rounds (2003) and There is Love in You (2010) are beauties – and partly because this latest release is such a strangely wonderful suite of tracks. To my ears, it is more laid-back, ambient even, though there are also some bangers e.g. ‘Scientists‘. Is this an absolutely necessary collection? Maybe not, but considering the world is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket, sometimes it’s just good, if not essential, to just let intricate beats and thoughtfully crafted melodies ease and lift the spirit.

Honey by Robyn

This is the first album of Robyn’s in which I have fully engaged, although many of her earlier songs, including her collaborations with Neneh Cherry and Röyksopp, are familiar. It’s a ripper of a collection and deserves repeated listens – at first it came across as a little lightweight. Give it time and the songs soon reveal themselves to be masterclasses in dance-pop. Intelligent dance-pop, with plenty of subtle left-turns to keep the ears interested. Check out ‘Honey‘. What a delight.

Psychodrama by Dave

UK rapper Dave won this year’s prestigious Mercury Prize for Psychodrama and deservedly so. Structured as a series of conversations (of sorts) with his therapist, this record chronicles the vulnerable and, at times, furious reflections of a young man dealing with contemporary racism and having a brother in jail for murder. In parts it’s understandably and appropriately tough-going, but the music, which mostly involves pretty piano samples, provides contrast. Psychodrama packs a punch and is very, very moving. Try ‘Black‘.

To Believe by The Cinematic Orchestra

Ma Fluer (2007) is one of my favourite albums, fusing piano ballads with jazz shapes and trip-hop beats and was not afraid to experiment. So, what would this outfit, which apparently spawned the ‘nu-jazz’ category, do next? We had to wait twelve years find out. To Believe is both extraordinary and frustrating. These songs are more, well, cinematic, with most rendered in lush strings; the various vocalists – including Moses Somney, Roota Manuva, Tawiah – give spirited performances; a melancholic mood dominates, which to my ears is no bad thing. Because the songs are so masterfully constructed and produced, the collection deserves close, immersive listening; but whenever I do that – and I have done it many times – I am struck by three things: the songs often don’t seem to line up internally, and by that I mean so much of them sound off-kilter (perhaps intentionally, to reflect the off-kilter times, ,or it could be a jazz thing?); and on one song, ‘Lessons‘, there is a weird and repeated clicking sound that infuriates, as if it is a mistake that escaped the mastering process – to be fair, it also appears on live recordings, so it’s clearly intentional. I would love to sit down with the band and ask them about how and why they made this record; no doubt it would be illuminating. I’m also sure that I will still be listening to this collection years down the track. For a taste, head to ‘A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life‘ featuring Roots Manuva.

All Melody by Nils Frahm

I am relatively new to Nils Frahm, even though I have been listening to experimental electronica and ‘new classical’ music for many years. All Melody is a beautifully constructed masterpiece, contrasting short reflective tracks with long and almost frenetic pieces that sound like what Philip Glass would create if asked to write for the dancefloor. As opposed to other popular contemporary composers, such as Ólafur Arnalds, All Melody is not easy-listening; it can be intense, even up-tight, but the genius comes from it being so warm and human. A classic of the genre. Check out this live recording of ‘Resident Advisor‘. (To think he is a classically trained pianist.)

While we’re talking new classical composers, an emerging one of considerable interest is Joram van Duijn from the Netherlands; his EP Handwritten (under his previous name of Elevate) is definitely worth checking out.

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