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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I learned?

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

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

What happens now?

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

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

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

New Energy by Four Tet

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

Honey by Robyn

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

Psychodrama by Dave

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

To Believe by The Cinematic Orchestra

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

All Melody by Nils Frahm

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

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

It is rather lovely to report that BODIES OF MEN has been shortlisted in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards – University of Queensland Fiction Award. It’s extraordinary company to be in; I’m just pleased to see that the novel is receiving love, from readers but now in this way.

All the shortlists can be found here. And an overview can be found in The Guardian (Australian edition).

Who knows what will happen next.

Thanks to all those who’ve engaged with BODIES OF MEN, and have sent me messages of support. I do appreciate it – very much.

Over and out.

As luck would have it, BODIES OF MEN continues to adventure itself into the world and, sometimes, I get to tag along. As many other authors have noted, there is an element of letting go when a novel is published: what happens is essentially out of the control of the person who dreamed it into being. Some of us worry – some of us worry a lot – but that’s largely unproductive. The novel has to have its own ride.

Here are two things that have happened lately, and one that’s about to happen.

Last month there was a review of BODIES OF MEN in the Australian Book Review. Although it’s rather unbecoming (and possibly dangerous) to focus too much on reviews, this one, by Patrick Allington, did offer a bit of a shot in the arm:

BODIES OF MEN offers a thoroughly humanising depiction of Australians during World War II. In telling the story of two soldiers, William and his childhood friend James, Featherstone reflects upon the brutality, drudgery, and absurdity of war but also on the two men’s love and regard for each other. He weaves a compassionate tale but one that contains multiple layers of tension. It is also persistently surprising, as if the author has found a way to keep the ground beneath the characters – and readers – constantly shifting. Although William and James dominate the story, Featherstone draws upon a range of intriguing, deftly drawn characters; his characterisations of women are particularly rich and complex.’

Speaking of Australian literary journals, one of the gutsiest and hardest-working, Verity La, published an interview with me this week. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with Tamara Lazaroff, who asked incitement questions. While we’re talking about gutsy, I understand that shortly Verity La will be running a crowdfunding campaign to keep the journal going. If you can, please swing them a few dollars.

 

 

Finally, next month I will be in Sydney doing a double-headline gig with the very fine  Holden Sheppard. Born and bred in regional Western Australia, Holden’s debut novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, won the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, and will be published by Fremantle Press next month. Our joint gig, in which we’ll be chatting to each other about our books and related topics – sexuality, masculinity, intimacy, maybe even love – will be held at Better Read Than Dead Bookshop in Newtown: 6.30pm, Thursday 10 October. It’s free. More information here.

Thank you to all those who have sent me messages or emails saying they have read BODIES OF MEN and enjoyed it. The other day, at a writing event in Canberra, someone came up to me and said, ‘I read your novel, I was absorbed into the world of the novel, and I have kept thinking about James and William.’ That’s all a novelist really wants: to have someone engage with the work in an open way. I do appreciate it. Really.

In winter you are covered from head to toe. Grey beanie; brown-striped woollen jumper that was knitted by your mother when you were a teenager; long-sleeved black sloppy-joe over black thermal top; blue thermal longs beneath blue tracksuit pants; red woollen socks from the shop in Crookwell; and Ugg-boots, of course. You spend those dark days in your writing room with a bar heater beside you, your right hand hovering over the bars. As the hours progress the room does get warmer, but the rest of the house, a worker’s cottage dating from 1895, does not. If you are lucky, the fog burns off by lunchtime and there is a bright blue sky, at which you will gaze longingly while eating an omelette.

At 4pm off go the jumper, tracksuit pants and Ugg-boots, and on go a pair of grey tracksuit pants, a grey hooded top, black sports socks, and running shoes (if that is what they are called). You leave the house and get on your way, past the little cottages the same as yours, all the corrugated iron roofs rusting, past the newer, bigger houses on their manicured blocks, until you reach the edge of town and the twin water-tanks there with the view across the paddocks to the low ranges to the west, wind-turbines turning in the distance.

There’s hope in those turbines, you think.

Then – in September, October, November? – the outfit changes.

*

Keep reading in the Sydney Morning Herald, which commissioned this piece and published it on 31 August 2019.

As I write this it’s freezing and blustery, though, thankfully, there’s a deep blue sky – this neck of the woods really does know how to beguile and contrast. Perhaps we should just enjoy the feeling of winter, because it’s a feeling that will become increasingly rare as we cook our planet into smithereens?

In any case, enough of the grim stuff.

Over the coming weeks I have a handful of events in Canberra:

And before I head to the couch with a blanket and a book, I thoroughly enjoyed chatting about BODIES OF MEN with journalist Genevieve Jacobs for RIOTACT – our chat in the cafe of the Australian War Memorial resulted in a brief video interview as well as a terrifically engaged written piece.

Onwards.

Last Tuesday, late on a bleak winter’s morning, I headed down to my local, the Southern Railway Hotel, and spent a few hours being interviewed by arts journalist Steve Dow for the Guardian Australia.

Over a beer (for me) and a red wine (for him), our conversation touched on a range of issues relating to BODIES OF MEN: patriarchy, masculinity, nationalism, faux military history, the North Shore (the conservative region of Sydney where I spent my formative years), and religion. To discuss – and question – masculinity and war in a traditional Australian pub on a weekday lunchtime required some caution: I must admit to stopping the conversation every so often, looking around, checking the blokes at the bar to make sure they were ensconced in their beers and burgers, before, almost in a whisper, proceeding to answer the question truthfully and openly.

The resultant interview can be found here.

Luckily both Steve Dow and I survived.

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