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It has been a tough year and as usual books have saved the day – on a number of occasions I’ve found myself clutching my latest read to my chest, as though it was a hot-water bottle or a long-lost friend.

Here are a few that got me through.

Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) is Bernadine Evaristo’s playful yet punchy joint-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. The novel explores the power and politics of race and love and art, among many other things, doing it in a way that verges on poetry. Adding to the beguiling mix is the fact that this is a collection of interlinked short stories. Despite all that, it hangs together so beautifully – it is peopled with characters who are fighting against the system, sometimes winning, sometimes not. To my mind this novel deserves all the accolades it has received. I have held it to my chest more than any other this year.

Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me (Penguin), as translated by Molly Ringwald, takes a familiar story – a man remembers a high-school love – and mines it for considerable emotional resonance. I have read a number of Besson novels and he is a master of conviction and brevity. With this latest work, he is devastating in the way he explores the trials and tribulations of love, especially gay love, and the final paragraph is one of the most powerful I have read in years. A book to read in one sitting, and be blown away.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Originals) was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and I can see why: this is a novel that, like Girl, Woman, Other, powerfully explores and expresses the dynamics of race, this time on an American campus. It is truly heart-breaking; Taylor is a courageous writer – he is especially good at bringing to examining relationships between men, in terms of both sex and friendship. I read the novel across three days and I could not stop thinking about it, and I will not stop thinking about it.

Speaking of examining relationships between men, I read two novels by Garth Greenwell this year: What Belongs to You and Cleanness (Picador), both of which I found to be stunning to the point where I almost hurt physically. In a way both novels contain loosely connected stories, but the overall impact is truly stunning. Greenwell has an ability to start with the simplest of propositions – receiving an email from a father, who is unwell and will die soon – and the riff on it for pages, sometimes without any paragraph breaks; it is as though he just lets himself go – he is finding out what he thinks as he writes, and his readers are swept along in the process. Breathtaking.

Karen Wyld’s debut novel, Where the Fruit Falls (UWAP), is a multi-generational Indigenous epic that cuts to the core of the Australian psyche. This is essentially a realist work, but Wyld brings to it elements of magic realism as she tracks the impact of colonialism on First Nations people. By the end I cared deeply about the people of this story and was once again reminded that Australia as a country has so much work to do in terms of rebuilding a most equitable nation, one that values all life. Here’s hoping we hear much more from Wyld.

Speaking of debuts, Sam Coley’s State Highway One (Hachette) is a moving tale about returning to New Zealand to put together the pieces of a young life. Coley is a writer who brings a delicious sense of humour to his characters and their dialogue. He is terrifically good at bringing to life the sometimes fraught relationship between siblings. What is especially appealing about this particular novel is the novel can – and probably should – be read twice, because there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber) is one of the best novels about male friendship and music I have read in years. In the first section of the novel a group of friends celebrate finishing school by going on a series of benders, taking drugs and seeing bands – in a way it is familiar territory, but O’Hagan’s characters are intelligent and culturally and political aware, so their banter is hugely entertaining. In the second section, we have moved on thirty years and one of the friends is now dying of cancer, meaning the tone of the novel changes significantly. O’Hagan’s rendering of the conclusion – that true friends will be supportive, no matter what – will stick in my mind for years.

In terms of non-fiction, Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography (4th Estate) by Helen Ennis is a masterclass in compassionate biography. Cotton was once married to Max Dupain, arguably Australia’s most famous photographer, giving us the iconic ‘Sunbaker’ image. Cotton and Dupain were teenage sweethearts but their marriage took a toll on Cotton’s own photographic practice, as was common at the time (and no doubt still is). The marriage failed and Cotton left Sydney to start a new life, in the country with a new man. Due to the depth of Ennis’s research and the warmth of her writing, Cotton well and truly comes to life and I was deeply moved by the end.

Tegan Bennet Daylight’s The Details (Scribner) is a collection of essays about writing, parenting, and death – I read some essays twice and will no doubt read them again. Daylight writes with extraordinary precision and, at times, a confronting honesty. There is so much skill in every sentence: nothing is overwritten; the meaning is crystal clear. The Details, I think, compares with the best of Helen Garner’s work.

I also loved Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (UQP), which explores the devastating impact of industrial agriculture on Australia’s landscapes and their ecologies. This is a brick of a book and it is filled with science and philosophy, but Massey writes in an accessible and engaging way. As someone who spends so much time driving through farmland, I now can’t stop looking at what is growing in the paddocks and what isn’t, and I also can’t stop imagining what might have been if the British colonisers had been more open to appreciating the existing systems and cultures rather than imposing one from the other side of the world.

For the poetry lovers, Melinda Smith brings misogyny to its knees in Man-handled (Recent Work Press). This collection is necessarily angry, but as always with Smith the skill is evident in every line – she is a poet who knows exactly what she is doing, and there are frequent fireworks. What I love most about her collections is the terrific variety, especially in terms of accessibility: one poem will stretch me as a reader (a good thing), the next will open out immediately and delight within seconds.

In The Other Flesh (UWAP) Robbie Coburn reveals the loneliness and isolation he has experienced in regional Australia. Despite being still in his twenties, Coburn has been writing and publishing poetry for some years. He is especially good in writing about mental illness. This is very fine poetry, and Coburn asks you to sit within him as he shares his experiences. Yes, this is emotionally raw, but every line has been worked and worked some more until there are depths and layers, encouraging slow reading, and re-reading. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more from Robbie Coburn.

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word, edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (UQP) is an extensive and timely collection of poetry written for the stage (rather than for the page). The editors have a longstanding commitment to holding space for writers from diverse backgrounds who have a diverse range of subject matter. I was incredibly moved by the work in Solid Air and my being has been exposed to issues and predicaments that have otherwise passed me by. Highly recommended.

More and more I’m doing the majority of my music-listening in the car, which is primarily because, living in a regional area, I do so much driving, most of it through paddocks and bush. That means I’m looking for music that will help to knock off the kilometres, or keep me awake, or evoke the Southern Tablelands landscape around me. When an album does all three? Head explodes (in a good way).

Here are the albums that have kept me on the road this year.

No Geography by The Chemical Brothers

Released in 2019 and bagging a Grammy, this is one of the most enjoyable – and joyful! – records I’ve heard in years. Despite being a full-length album with 10 songs, the whole thing clocks in at just over half an hour, but not a second is wasted: every beat and note, every lift and release, is exactly where it needs to be. It’s just so damn listenable. There’s a vague hint of politics, or perhaps an attempt to at least reflect some of the dominant discussions, as though Rowlands and Simons know that the world is going down the shitter, but there’s also an almost unbounded celebration of the human spirit. Start with the title track and then get the party really started with ‘Got To Keep On’.

Kitchen Sink by Nadine Shah

The find of the year for me is Nadine Shah, a Londoner who has been described as the lovechild of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave (which to my mind only partly makes sense). Shah’s Kitchen Sink is chock-full of terrific rhythms, fascinating structures, and political lyrics, most of which explore contemporary feminism – it’s almost as if Sade has a daughter who makes music and she isn’t pleased with how women continue to be treated. All the tracks are brilliant, though the title track and ‘Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)’ have truly worked their way into my brain. An album of power and grit.

Komorebi by BPMoore

Taking things down a notch, though just as memorable, is Komorebi by BPMoore. Perhaps due to the popularity of composers such as Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, the planet is awash with neo-classical music, if I’m using the label correctly. BPMoore’s music is more rhythmic than most of its ilk, artfully employing drums and bass, which gives a wonderful warmth to the songs. The overall feel is less cinematic and more driven; there’s a strong human pulse to the work. Try the title track. Note: the album has been reworked, with stunning results.

Two electronica albums got beneath my skin this year. The first is Four Tet’s Sixteen Oceans, which continues Kieran Hebden’s relatively recent formula of combining experimental dance songs that could be played in nightclubs with ambient tracks that could be used to aid meditation – or falling asleep. With Hebden there is always the sense that he’s trying to reach for new electronic horizons, and he almost always succeeds. Like on No Geography, there’s a sense of joy in this recent Four Tet collection, as if Hebden is saying that it’s still pretty good being alive in 2020, despite everything. Try ‘Baby’ and ‘Romantics’.

The other electronica album is Crush by Floating Points. This collection starts with what can only be described as a chamber piece – yes, there are strings involved – though, of course, it is gently fucked-up to give a sense of what’s coming. The rest of the album alternates between minimalist bangers and highly experimental sections that sound like Sam Shepherd has left his machinery to do its own thing. At first I found the glitchy tracks to be more annoying than anything else, but eventually the album made sense and it’s had countless spins in the car. ‘Last Bloom’ is a good place to start.

Paring everything back is Emily Alone by Florist. This is lo-fi, bedroom accoustica and it’s wonderful from beginning to end. It’s a highly poetic collection – there is even some spoken-word – and fans of Nick Drake and/or Red House Painters will find much to love, especially in terms of wordplay: ‘My hair is dirty blonde now / and there are even little / sea sand pieces in there / probably’ (from ‘Moon Begins’). The opening track, ‘As Alone’, is the perfect place to begin your Florist adventure.

Finally,  Marét is an Australian pop-artist who is making songs that sparkle in the night. Despite having spent much of my life seeking out music that pushes boundaries (whatever that means), I have always loved perfect pop, and Marét’s pop is as perfect as you can imagine: there’s some Kylie, some Beyoncé, and a fair whack of straight-up disco, all of it intricately cut and polished. Try ‘Press Play’, which has a terrifically cheeky video – make sure to watch all the way to the end.

 

The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

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Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

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.

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.

Reading is the foundation – all the stillness and immersion and depth and revelation – but music is the other constant: without it I would not be able to respond to the world in a meaningful way. For what it’s worth, the following are the albums that I enjoyed the most this year.

I have loved everything The Go! Team has ever done, so I hardly have a balanced view, but Semi-Circle is a delightful albeit subtle progression on what they do best, which is alternative pop (if that’s the right term). As always, every song is impeccably crafted, despite the lo-fi aesthetic. Head towards ‘Semi-circle song’ for a fun entry point.

Depth of Field by Sarah Blasko is a wonderful companion to the stunning Eternal Return from 2015. This is sexy, soulful electronica with some heart-breaking ballads. Beautifully produced too. ‘A Shot’ is one of the many highlights from a very special album.

Another Australian who is doing amazing things is Luke Howard. Open Heart Story fits into the category of beautiful, simple, new-classical music made popular by Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. There is a lot of cinematic melancholia on this record – try ‘Bear Story II‘ – which means I’m all over it and it’s all over me.

Borrowed Verse is a fascinating project initiated and curated by Brisbane-based songwriter Simon Munro – it pairs Australian songwriters with prominent Australian poets, including Judith Wright, Dorothy Porter, and Michael Dransfield. Ben Salter’s ‘Tracks’, based on a poem by Herb Wharton is, for me, song of the year. Also brilliant is Angie Hart’s ‘Not The Same’, based on a poem by Dorothy Porter.

To my mind, in 2018 there were two albums that verged on being truly great.

The first is All Melody by Nils Frahm. Although I have been listening to experimental new classical music for years (starting with Glass and Nyman decades ago), Frahm is new to me. All Melody is everything I want a record to be: fresh, adventurous, intricate, all the while being highly listenable. There is such a range here: from simple piano pieces to electronic epics that could almost be played in nightclubs (if they dared). Sublime is the world. Try this video of Frahm performing ‘All Melody’ and ‘#2’.

The other truly great album from this year, and one that I have been playing on repeat for months, is Singularity by Jon Hopkins. Immunity from 2013 was a superb work, but it is possible that with Singularity he has made his masterpiece – from the first note till the last it is stunning: there are dancefloor bangers and gentle ambient pieces, some of which are soft echoes of the more intense songs. Yes, a masterpiece. I could listen to ‘Luminous Beings‘ till the end of days.

 

There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.

This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

This feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.

solar-bonesOne of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.

Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.

Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)

glasshousesFour poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.

the-hate-raceNon-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.

the-writers-roomIn terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.

Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.

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A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.

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