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The Wyoming mountains bring men together, in more ways than one.

The Wyoming mountains: bringing together words and broken men.

I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.

At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:

The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.

The cover of the original story; mine's still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

Mine’s still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.

Kathleen Kent's 'The Outcasts': taking the past into the present and beyond?

Kathleen Kent’s ‘The Outcasts’: taking the past into the present and beyond?

What should a reader take away from historical fiction, from a novelist dwelling in the past and mining what has already happened to bring us a story?

Surely it should not be just that, a story, but a work of substance and weight and depth that says something exhilarating about how we got to where we are now and in what directions we might like to go next. With the benefit of hindsight and from having access to a great trove of material, a historical novelist has the chance to turn things over and reveal fresh threads and meanings. The novelist’s task in this regard is to tantalise, not to offer up another record.

Enter Texan Kathleen Kent, a New York Times best-selling writer of historical fiction who in her third novel since 2008, The Outcasts, focuses on a loose group of folk struggling to survive the 1870s, that precarious period immediately following the American Civil War. Here was a country – two countries? – torn apart at the seams, deeply divided over race and identity.

The Outcasts is a quest for revenge and redemption. But only of sorts. It is constructed around chapters that alternate between two characters, and within the opening scenes it becomes obvious we are on a collision course – it is just a matter of who is going to live to see another day.

There is Lucinda, an intelligent, somewhat devious but determined prostitute who is fond of getting dosed up to the eyeballs on laudanum because she suffers from fits and ‘the palsy’, though it might also relieve her from the spot of bother she is in – someone she may or may not be using, and who may or may not be using her. About Lucinda we are told that ‘even the dullards sized her up with telegraphic precision’. During a moment in a carriage, she watches a passenger move discourteously away’ and decides that ‘he must have been a Methodist as a Baptist would have spent the greatest part of the trip staring at her bosom’.

Then we have Nate, a newly sworn-in Texas state policeman originally from Oklahoma. Principled and thoughtful, he is also a fine horseman and is dedicated to his wife and child, to whom he writes whenever he has the chance. And we have McGill, a ‘goddamn kidkiller’. And finally we have some buried treasure, which might be the objective of the exercise.

Page after page we travel across the countryside. Horses are ridden, people are shot, and we are told about ‘gaters’ and hard-luck towns and harsh but beautiful landscapes…

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 11 January 2014

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

Alexander Maksik's 'A Marker to Measure Drift': a poetically powerful novel.

Alexander Maksik’s ‘A Marker to Measure Drift’: a poetically powerful novel.

There are people amongst us, it’s true, who are forced to experience such unimaginable horror.  Even though Australia isn’t completely free of horror, there are nations on the other side of the globe that have imploded – or that have been allowed to implode by a morally ineffective international community – and what these nations have had to endure is beyond the reach of our rational minds.

Enter Alexander Maksik.

A New Yorker, though clearly well-travelled, Maksik’s novel A Marker to Measure Drift is a poetic, often mesmerising creation that carries the reader all the way to its horrific though inevitable conclusion.  Some may ask questions about a Caucasian man telling an African woman’s story – and there is worth in asking these questions – but this novel is eminently readable, and should in fact be read by many, including those of us here who are able to live in blissful comfort at the bottom of the world.

A Marker to Measure Drift concerns Jacqueline, a young Liberian woman who finds herself (loses herself?) on Santorini, the popular holiday island on the Aegean Sea.  It is summer and the towns and villages are alive with tourists sunning themselves on idyllic beaches, swimming lazily in hotel pools, and enjoying sumptuous lunches and dinners.  For those who can afford these luxuries it is paradise on Earth.  Fittingly, cleverly, Maksik has chosen this place as Jacqueline’s refuge from her broken homeland – the island is highly volcanic and has tried to destroy itself more than once in the past.  This used to be the centre of Minoan civilisation, now well and truly ancient history.

Nations come and go, Maksik may be suggesting, and their going tends to be unintelligibly violent…

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Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald. Originally commissioned by the Canberra Times and published on 12 October 2013.

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

Exhausted already

Writers make good jugglers.  There’s the juggling of time to write and time to earn money and time for family and friends and time for your own mental health, which being a writer is more than likely quite precarious.  There’s the juggling of ideas: fine ones, not so fine ones, appalling ones.  There’s the juggling of character and plot and point.  There’s the juggling of words, getting them all exactly where they need to be so that magic is the result.  Oh my, I’m exhausted already.  But we’re not done yet.  There’s the juggling of writing fiction and non-fiction and poetry.  In terms of fiction alone, there’s the juggling of the writing of novels and novellas and short stories and micro-stories, and, those slipperiest of beasts, prose-poems.  It’s enough to make you want to chuck it all in and become something simple, like a duck-farmer, or a grower of daffodils.

Hooked

For some reason, after twenty years, I haven’t yet chucked it all in, although I do think about it every second day, every single day if things aren’t going well, which is usually the case, if I’m honest with myself, and honest with you.  I began my writing life, as in with seriousness and an almost religious sense of purpose, in my early twenties as – drumroll please – a poet.  I wrote a poem, miraculously it was published, so I wrote another, and miraculously that, too, was published.  Remembering that I loved reading short stories as a boy, I wrote a story, which was short-listed for publication; that it didn’t end up in print wasn’t the point – I was hooked again by words and their meaning, and by play, and by dream.

Wait, there’s more

Since 1994 I’ve had over 40 short stories published, including in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and Island, and in the USA.  In 2003 my novel Remnants was published by Pandanus Books.  In 2011 and 2012 respectively, my novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now were published by Blemish Books.  Okay, now I’m just boasting.  Wait, there’s more.  Wanting to expand my readership, and add another string to my bow, in 2007 I began doing freelance work for the Canberra Times, primarily for the paper’s weekend magazine Panorama and its First Words column (along with Marion Halligan), as well as feature articles.  Clearly not having enough to do, in 2009 I started this blog, ridiculously named Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, which was selected for archiving by the National Library of Australia.  I still write a post for the blog every Saturday morning.

More life

Despite now working across these different modes, my mission hasn’t changed: I’m still just playing with words and their meanings.  No matter what form there’s nothing like crafting and re-crafting until a piece hangs together, everything in its right place, it all makes sense; with any luck it might engage readers, perhaps – with an extra dose of luck – it might even move readers.

Ever since early 2010, when I spent a month in Launceston as a writer-in-residence courtesy of the City Council (as written about on this blog ad nauseam), I’ve written everything by hand.  My handwriting is truly appalling, which, oddly, helps – I’m forced to slow down, to think about every mark on the page, but I’m also forced to follow my head and heart and gut.  When writing like this is both mental and physical work, you want it to be worthwhile in the end – for yourself and the reader.  These days, everything, even blog-posts, even articles for the local writers centre magazine, is first written with pen and pad.  Because it’s better this way: there’s more life.

A decent dose of honesty

There are, however, subtle differences between the various forms of prose.  Short stories, of course, are a cousin of poetry, so every word has to do more than one job.  In the writing of a novel there’s greater opportunity for exploration and multi-layering and depth (and that awful flipside of getting tangled up and lost).  Novellas are an especially peculiar creature: neither a short story nor a novel, they have their own prospects and hurdles; but in some ways I feel that this in-between mode is my natural home, because I’m an in-between kind of guy in an in-between stage of my life.  Writing for newspapers requires turning down the literary fireworks and turning up general accessibility, although I still like strong characters, some kind of plot, a decent dose of honesty, and perhaps the odd writerly trick to create a spark – there’s nothing like an email from a reader saying that my work brings freshness to the newspaper.  And there’s the writing of blog-posts, which can be more a terrific whoosh of words, maybe even something experimental (why not?), but still I like to make sure it’s as fine as possible.

A writer must have wine

One side of all this that I’ve become better at over the years is choosing the best form for an idea.  Is there enough in it for a short story?  Or perhaps there’s a lot in it and could run the marathon length of a novel?  Or perhaps a novella might rein it in?  In terms of creative non-fiction (which is my euphemism for journalism, because I really have no idea what I’m doing), is it something for the First Words column or a feature or an opinion piece – where in the newspaper might it belong?  Blogging is interesting, too.  When I first started Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot I committed to never self-publishing fiction on the thing, and I’ve held to that commitment, so it’s a place for everything but fiction.  Except there’s something else about blogging: every so often, if I try harder, I can get the piece up a notch or two so that it can first be published by a journal that pays.  Because, quite frankly, I need the money – a writer must have wine.

Writing is writing is writing

Despite all these years of juggling and practice and more juggling, writing is still about play – playing with words and their meanings – and dreams – dreaming up characters and predicaments, or imagining a non-fiction piece into existence and making a contribution to the broader cultural discussion.  Scottish comedian Billy Connelly once famously said that ‘funny is funny is funny’.  Perhaps I can echo Connelly by somewhat less famously saying that writing is writing is writing.

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First published in ACTWrite, the monthly journal of the ACT Writers Centre (August 2013).

This book may appear on my Best Ever Reads list.

This book may appear on my Best Ever Reads list.

I’m surrounded by fire, year in and year out, day in and day out.

I’m not a smoker, nor am I some kind of professional fire-breather, I just live in an old house in an old country town. In summer, with bushland and paddocks just up the street, there’s the forever whiff of smoke; some days, when it’s bad, the sky is white with it, sirens rushing in this and that direction.  In winter, to keep the house warm, there’s a fire in the living-room, another in the library, which really is a library, the shelves stacked and packed with books, novels mostly, though there are quite a few short story collections, and poetry collections too.

It’s the library I worry about the most, because the fire, which is actually a Hordern and Sons coal-burner that I use for wood, is surrounded by the books – a stray spark and whoosh up it all goes.  So I’ve organised the books into categories: up high, as if I’m also worried about flood (in the past three years the river has flooded annually, though I’m alright in this regard – my house is high on a hill), are my favourite novels, the ones I’d risk life and limb to rescue.  There’s a full shelf of these favourites, so if I really was in the midst of an emergency and only had a few seconds to decide I’d have to make the choices of a lifetime.  As a trial run, as if this is a part of my Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, I just ran from my writing room into the library and bundled up a baker’s – a writer’s – dozen.

Now, back in the writing room, piled on the desk, are thirteen books I’ve rescued in this mad drill…

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Keep reading over at the Universal Heart Bookclub. Many thanks to Walter Mason and Stephanie Dowrick.

Some novels do amazing things.  This is one of those novels. Do seek it out.

Some novels do amazing things. This is one of those novels.

Violence is never far beneath the surface, it’s always just over the horizon, it rarely leaves us alone.  Surely one of the best means we have of examining our innate capacity for violence, to survey its insidious possibilities, is the novel.  And surely one of the most astute English-language novelists whose primary focus is violence, particularly the lingering impacts of civil war, is Aminatta Forna.

Born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Forna’s previous novel was The Memory of Love, an awful though not inappropriate title for an astonishing work.  This was a complex and multi-dimensional examination of the consequences of war in Sierra Leone, a country with which Forna clearly has a profound affinity.  The novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011 and won that year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize.  The Hired Man, despite again delving into war, is a lighter, simpler work, and, due to a miracle of literary achievement, is an even more potent piece of story-telling.

Set in Croatia, and spanning the shaky decades leading up to 2007, The Hired Man has as its central protagonist a forty-six-year-old man called Duro Kolak.  Duro lives alone, enjoys the company of his two dogs, and gets by doing odd jobs around his small hometown of Gost.  A sometimes reticent soul, he is an adept observer of human relationships, but his real passion is hunting.  Indeed, it is telling that on the first page of the novel there is Duro seeing a new arrival in town:

I trailed the bird lazily through my rifle sights and that was when I noticed the car.  A large, newish four-wheel drive, being driven very slowly down an entirely empty road as though the driver was searching for a concealed entrance.  I lowered the gun so that I had the vehicle fully in my sights but the angle and reflection of the sun made it impossible to see who was driving.

The woman who is driving is Laura…

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Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald.  Originally commissioned by the Canberra Times and published on 3 August 2013; thanks to Rod Quinn.

This desk and room might not be mine, but sometimes it does feel as though this is what's in my head.

This desk and room might not be mine, but sometimes it does feel as though this is what’s in my head.

  1. Write for myself and no one else.
  2. Compare myself to no one.
  3. Write what I’d like to read.
  4. Write the story only I could write.
  5. Some writing sessions are better than others.
  6. Take the time to enjoy the creation, because the creation is the whole point, potentially the only point.
  7. Taking breaks during writing sessions isn’t a bad thing.
  8. Reading and writing are the two sides of the same coin – one can’t happen without the other (well, to be sure, I can’t write my own stories without reading the stories other people write).
  9. I’m not writing a book; I’m telling a story.
  10. Simply being in the writing-room and writing, even if the writing is utter rubbish, is 70% of the task.
  11. When in doubt, play and dream – enjoy it.
  12. Be gentle with myself.
  13. Just keep going.

In the past on Under the counter I’ve compiled a brief list of the best books of the year, according to no one but old muggins here.  In 2012, however, my reading has been much more scattered, partly by design and partly by circumstance, so that I’m less up-to-date than I’d like to be.  Thankfully that hasn’t meant that I’ve not been moved by books and the experience of reading.  What follows is a list of six books I’ve read this year that have ended up meaning a lot to me.  What’s a good reading experience?  One where I’ve been utterly convinced by the words on the page, so much so that I’ve believed that they are true, the people are real, and the predicaments they are in dangerous, that important information has been conveyed, that in the end it has all just meant so much.  In short, my life would be poorer if I’d not experienced these books.  So let’s get the party started.

The UnfortunatesThe Unfortunates by BS Johnson (Picador, 1999).  This was a gift from He Who Can Sniff Out A Good Present At A Thousand Paces, and it intrigued me from the moment I undid the wrapping.  First published in 1969, this is an unbound book where, apart from the first and last chapters, it is meant to be read in random order; Johnson believed that it provided the ‘solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness’ better than ‘the imposed order of the book’.  The story itself is about a newspaper report who is sent to an unnamed UK city to cover a football game but is forced to remember a friend who died a rather horrible death from cancer.  Needless to say, this isn’t the cheeriest of reads, but despite the experimental format it packs an emotional wallop.  The book’s melancholy, if not tragedy, is underscored by the fact that Johnson, plagued by family trouble and a lack of critical success, killed himself in 1973 aged forty.  Thankfully The Unfortunates, which many consider one of the great examples of Sixties experimentalism, was republished in 1999.

Foal's BreadFoal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  I was hugely moved by this novel.  Even though I know next to nothing about its subject matter – the strange world of country horse-jumping championships – I found myself engrossed in the people of the book, their hardship and tenacity, the tragedies that strike (and strike they do, in more ways than one), but the great love-story that ties it all together.  To be sure, it’s a grim book.  However, the prose, which others have described as ‘knotty’, which is most apt, is so superbly composed that it’s hard not to be affected by this incredible work.  Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so.

Invisible ThreadThe Invisible Thread, edited by Irma Gold (Halstead Press, 2012).  It’s a little odd – and self-serving – to list a book that I am in, but it’s worthwhile rising above that, because this is one almighty collection (and in this company I’m a very minor player).  Amongst its pages, the book celebrates one hundred years of words from those who’ve had a connection with the Australian Capital Territory.  There are names such as CEW Bean, Judith Wright, Roger McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clarke, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Miles Franklin, and Omar Musa.  Iceland has a population of about 300,000 people but has a reputation for producing some of the most influential contemporary musicians of recent times.  The ACT’s population is only marginally higher – might it be that with The Invisible Thread this region may soon be credited with having an impact Australia’s literary culture?

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  This novel is three years old now but I didn’t read it until very recently.  It’s scored an enormous range of accolades, including being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010.  The Monthly described it as being an ‘Australian To Kill A Mockingbird’, and, surprisingly enough, the hyperbole isn’t that far off the mark.  The narrative, which is essentially one of two boys growing up in small-town Western Australia, is simple, the prose engaging and accessible, and there’s humour and heart.  Jasper Jones may not be Australia’s very best novel from recent times, but it’s certainly one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

Spirit of ProgressSpirit of Progress by Steven Carroll (Fourth Estate, 2011).  Let me make it clear from the outset: I love this man’s writing.  Carroll puts word down on the page with such precision, so that even though little happens across the arc of the novel you’re swept away by the sheer artistry.  Amazingly, despite this lack of plot, I really couldn’t put this book down.  Carroll clearly knows his history – Spirit of Progress focuses on the years immediately after the end of World War Two – and he brings it so alive that the reading lingers for months after the turning of the final page.  I adored The Time We Have Taken, which won the Miles Franklin in 2008, and adored what is essentially that book’s prequel.

Midnight EmpireMidnight Empire by Andrew Croome (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  Generally speaking I’m not much of a reader of espionage thrillers, but Andrew Croome’s follow-up to his The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award-winning Document Z is not only a page-turner but a finely crafted and thought-provoking warning-shot across the bow.  There’s no doubt that drone warfare is the military tool of the very near future, and Croome examines it with considerable insight and lucidity.  Much of the action in Midnight Empire happens on computer screens; that he is able to bring alive the drama and horror and tragedy is quite miraculous.  This is a book that should be placed under thousands and thousands of Australian Christmas trees, and widely read and discussed.

Seasons greetings.  Whatever that means.

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