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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.

As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.

puberty-2Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.

Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.

kiasmosKiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.

In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.

It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.

chopin-projectSpeaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.

Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.

For some odd reason year-end lists seem to be getting a bit of a rough trot this time around, but I’m not dissuaded from their worth. I enjoy them, for the simple reason that I find new books to read and new music to listen to; ultimately they help to diversify and enrich my life. So, in terms of music, what follows are the records I’ve enjoyed this year. I make no claim to being a critic, so there’s nothing that says ‘the best’; I just want to share what I’ve been listening to. As always, not all albums were released in 2015 – one (the Max Richter) first came out in 2012.

Bronze MedalThe Bronze Medal’s first long-player is a treat from start to finish. A young band from Bristol, and clearly inspired by The National, Darlings is filled with beautiful melancholia and rich instrumentation. ‘Life Plans’ is worth the price of admission alone. It will be very interesting to hear what these guys do next – as a debut Darlings is as stunning as it gets.

The Acid is a band comprising British DJ and record producer Adam Freeland, a professor of music technology Steve Nalepa, and the Australian singer-songwriter Ry Cuming. With Liminal the trio has created a slice of intimate electronic – it’s one part Bon Iver, one part The xx, and one part The Breeders (for those of a certain age). The production and dynamics are sublime; here’s ‘Fame‘. Fascinating to read that they have been performing at experimental music festivals, which makes sense as on this record they go far beyond the comparisons listed above.

I’ve been following Lamb since their drum-and-bass beginnings in 1996. They have never been afraid of getting metaphysical and filmic on us and, at times, just a little twee, but Backspace Rewind Lamb is a highlight of their career. ‘In Binary’ is an absolute thumper and I play it often and I play it loud, and the song blew the roof off the Enmore in Sydney when I saw them live earlier this year – it was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever attended.

Neneh CherryOn Blank Project, Neneh Cherry has done what mega-selling recording artists should do: break free of all preconceived notions. Produced by Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet, someone else I’ve been following for quite a while) Blank Project is daring, experimental, and sounds utterly fresh. Sure it’s raw in parts, and it’s not entirely comfortable, but it deserves a stack of praise. Start with ‘Out of the Black‘. (Side note: I’ve made a mix-tape of the albums in this list for the car and Cherry’s songs are the strongest and most urgent.)

Pet Shop Boys are master songwriters but their output can be patchy. Electric, which was produced by Stuart Price (who worked on Madonna’s surprisingly excellent Confessions on a Dance Floor), is a ripper. Filled with melody and wit and worldliness – they cover Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Last to Die’ – there is never a dull or half-formed moment. ‘Love is a Bourgeois Concept’ deserves a video, and ‘Vocal’ is one of the finest album closers I’ve heard in years (wonderfully nostalgic video too).

Max RichterChanging the pace, the record I have listened to the most in 2015 is Max Richter’s recomposing of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Not only do I love the idea of a minimalist like Richter unpacking and then rebuilding a work as iconic as Vivaldi’s, it is also extraordinary to listen to. Richter has stated that if his reimagining makes more people discover the original, then he has done his job. Start with ‘Summer 1’.

A band that in my opinion simply can’t put a foot wring is The Go! Team, which is essentially Ian Parton, a one-man song-writing genius. Discarding the basement samples of previous albums, this time around Parton has used real instrumentation as well as collaborating with a fresh batch of vocalists. It’s true that Parton has a formula – infectious pop is his thing – but there is always such joy in his music. (And there’s more melody packed into any one Go! Team song than some bands manage across an entire album.) ‘The Art of Getting By’ has a coda that is so jam-packed with interweaved harmonies it’s hard not to throw you hands up in the air and cry.

Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands that have been around for years (since 1996 to be precise) but I’ve never quite managed to connect with them – perhaps the whole shy-bedroom-poetry-pre-hipster vibe put me off, or I was too busy listening to DJ Shadow. Hearing that after a 7-year hiatus they have come back with what they call their dance album, I thought I’d check them out. Girls in Peacetime want to Dance is wonderful: it’s clever, politically aware, and meticulously put together (as others have said, it sounds a little like Electric by Pet Shop Boys; case in point: ‘Nobody’s Empire‘). By no means is this record for everyone – with ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ they enter Eurovision territory – but they know what they’re doing and there’s a lot of good listening to be had here.

Sarah-Blasko-Eternal-ReturnSarah Blasko’s latest album, Eternal Return, is a sublime piece of work. With an electro feel overall, the selection comes across as a paean to love in the digital age, and while there is some darkness and loss there is never cynicism. There are no weak tracks, though ‘I’d Be Lost’ and ‘Only One’ are the stand-outs – both are gorgeous – and ‘Luxurious’ is exactly that. Here’s hoping this record does wonderful things for Blasko. It’s certainly done wonderful things for my car trips.

Another album that has hugely enriched my life is In Colours by Jamie xx, the ‘xx’ linking him to the wildly successful band of that name, for which he is the eletronica artist and producer. In Colours sees Jamie step well and truly onto the dance floor; the single ‘Loud Places’, which features Romy from The xx, is a hymn to nightclub possibilities, and the raga-esque ‘There’s Gonna be Good Times’ is ridiculously upbeat. In Colours was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and it’s not hard to see why.

I’ve also enjoyed No No No by Beirut (not Condon’s best release – it’s his first for the iconic 4AD label so perhaps the pressure got the better of him – but there’s still a lot to like, especially the single) and Features by the German producer Kris Menace (check out ‘Higher Love’, which has a vocal by Julian Hamilton from The Presets). Although I’ve not yet been able to hear full albums, I like what I’ve heard of Mercury Prize-winning Benjamin Clementine, and Floating Points and Majical Cloudz have been exciting new finds.

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