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Best Books 2019

9780241143803I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling 2019 was a year when reading felt necessary, not so much as an escape from the world, but because the kinds of truths it communicates so often seemed an antidote to the increasingly demented and distracted world around us.

Of the books that helped, the best were smart and sane, but also not afraid to engage with the world as it is. This is especially true of the third instalment in Ali Smith’s marvellous Seasons Quartet, Spring, Lucy Ellmann’s massive Ducks, Newburyport, and Max Porter’s glorious Lanny. All three offer marvellous examples of the ways in which fiction can absorb and refract the rhythms and textures of its moment and fashion something revelatory from them. Charlotte Wood’s scabrous and hilarious The Weekend and Elizabeth Strout’s almost casually brilliant Olive Again achieve something similar in their portrait of the lives of the characters at their centre, as well as exploring the often neglected experience of ageing (in the case of The Weekend, it’s particularly fascinating to be reminded of just how bodily a writer Wood is, and of the degree to which all her books are engaged with questions of physicality and decay).

9780702260384.jpgOther books I loved included Tony Birch’s The White Girl, a book whose power lies not just in its subject matter, but in the devastating simplicity and clarity of Birch’s storytelling; Bernadine Evaristo’s Man Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other; Wendy Erskine’s marvellously compressed and blackly hilarious Sweet Home (seek it out); and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s portrait of New York life amongst the super-rich, Fleishman is in Trouble, a book that subverts the reader’s expectations in fascinating ways. Likewise I greatly enjoyed Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans, Sean Williams’ Impossible Music, and (although I suspect it’s not the best of the Jackson Brodie books) I loved every moment of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky.

I also very much admired both Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, a pair of books that have the distinction of being novels by poets that deliberately situate themselves in the unstable, interstitial space between memoir and fiction. In the case of Lerner’s I’m not convinced some of the larger connections he wants to make quite come off, but the precision and brilliance of the writing and his control of structure and the competing perspectives of the characters is so impressive I didn’t care; in the case of the Vuong the parts I found most affecting were in fact in the second half, and in particular his portrait of his relationship with his former lover and their home town.

original.jpegSadly I was less excited by the final instalment in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, The End. Partly that was to do with the surfaces of the prose – in contrast to the deliberately artless language of the first five volumes a lot of The End has the slightly-too-buffed tone of a New Yorker profile – but it was also because it often felt like the book was rehearsing Knausgaard’s greatest hits (Here I am doing domesticity in excruciating detail! Here I am worrying about my art!). But in the end, even despite moments of brilliance, it just didn’t feel substantial enough to address the concerns that are so wrenchingly explored in the first five.

As I’ve said before, I find the language we use to describe fiction engaged with questions of environmental crisis fairly problematic, but however we choose to classify it, I don’t think there’s any question Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island is likely to become one of the classic texts of the field, not least for the incredibly sophisticated way it uses the liminal landscape of the Chesapeake to elide the boundaries between past, present and future to show us we are already living in the midst of a crisis, it’s just that (to borrow William Gibson’s aphorism) it’s unevenly distributed. I also loved Alice Bishop’s incredibly intense and beautifully observed depiction of the Black Saturday bushfires, A Constant Hum, which I would also see as a significant contribution to the literature of environmental crisis in general, and the literature that has grown out of Black Saturday in particular. And I hugely admired Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, a book that makes fascinating connections between the past and the present by unpicking the intertwined forces of colonialism, capitalism and climate change, and Ben Smith’s starkly observed and very powerfully written breakdown narrative, Doggerland.

40121978._SY475_.jpgOf the speculative fiction I read the two standouts were Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers. If you haven’t read the Maughan, make the time: it’s a startlingly intelligent and profoundly political interrogation of surveillance culture and late capitalism. The Wendig is also wonderful: a seamless fusion of horror and science fiction that manages to be oddly timeless and incredibly topical. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation and Helen Phillips’ The Need are also terrific, as are Garth Nix’s wildly enjoyable Angel Mage and Margaret Morgan’s sleekly subversive The Second Cure, a book that feels more prescient almost by the hour. And although it seems to have passed a lot of people by, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower is an absolutely fascinating exercise in what is as much a form of environmental writing as fantasy.

In recent years writing about the natural world has taken on a new urgency, charged not just with helping us see the world in new ways but with bearing witness to the scale of the transformation taking place around us. Of the non-fiction concerned with these questions I read this year, three books stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first was Robert Macfarlane’s stunning Underland. I’ve been a huge admirer of Macfarlane’s work since The Wild Places, but Underland is invested with an urgency and a depth of thinking that pushes it to a new level. It’s an astonishing book. 

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I was also hugely impressed by Sophie Cunningham’s wonderfully peripatetic City of Trees. Like Underland it’s a book that’s simultaneously focussed on the particular and the global, and asks vital and profound questions about our responsibilities to the past and the future. I loved it.

And finally there was Barry Lopez’s Horizon. If I had to make a list of books that I can honestly say changed my life, Lopez’s Arctic Dreams would be close to the top. I’m not sure Horizon is as easy to admire as Arctic Dreams – it’s a much more conflicted, troubled work, that’s closer in many ways to the kinds of autobiographical writing Lopez published in About This Life, but that sense Lopez is grappling with his legacy and trying to make sense of his larger project is part of what makes it so fascinating, and so profound. It’s a remarkable book, and one I suspect I’ll be returning to.

I also very much admired a number of the essays in Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing, David Wallace-Wells’ brilliant and completely uncompromising synthesis of the bad news on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, and Ian Urbina’s thrilling and often deeply confronting portrait of life on the high seas, The Outlaw Ocean. And closer to home I was incredibly impressed by Vicki Hastrich’s illuminating and expansive essays about the waterways of the central coast, memory and seeing, Night Fishing. And although it’s not about the natural world, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism should be compulsory reading for everybody.

I also very much enjoyed a few things from previous years, in particular Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Robbie Arnott’s magic realist Tasmanian Gothic, Flames, Rebecca Makkai’s wonderfully observed The Great Believers and Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. I also finally got around to Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, which is precisely as good as everybody says it is.

As always there are also a number of things I didn’t get to but hopefully will in the next few weeks, in particular Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus, Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. In the meantime I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and that 2020 is an improvement on 2019.

Best Books 2018

xthe-overstory.jpg.pagespeed.ic.9cGSJd7DGBAs promised the other day, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of some of the books I enjoyed most this year. Right at the top of my list are two books I loved quite immoderately, Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. The former is just astonishing – a seamless synthesis of science and fiction that manages to make the ecological crisis surrounding us viscerally real – the latter is a book that ranks with Ondaatje’s best work.

I also loved a number of other novels, in particular the final volume in Rachel Cusk’s astonishing Outline Trilogy, Kudos, Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, Tommy Orange’s There There, Leila Slimani’s brutal portrait of class and isolation, Lullaby, Lisa Halliday’s brilliant Asymmetry, Julian Barnes’ marvellously controlled dissection of love and the things we cannot let ourselves know, The Only Story, Patrick DeWitt’s French Exit, Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, Ottessa Moshfegh’s reworking of the 9/11 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Tana French’s consuming The Witch Elm, Ling Ma’s Severance, Anna Burns’ Man Booker-winning Milkman and Robin Robertson’s noir verse novel, The Long Take. Alongside the novels there were a number of story collections I very much enjoyed, perhaps most notably Denis Johnson and William Trevor’s posthumous volumes, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden and Last Stories, Lauren Groff’s Florida, Jon McGregor’s companion to Reservoir 13, The Reservoir Tapes, Ben Marcus’ Notes from the Fog, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black. And although it wasn’t published in 2018, I also loved Andrew Sean Greer’s delightful Less (which took me back to his sad but beautiful 2008 novel, The Story of a Marriage).

9781925355970A number of the Australian books I read this year were from last year as well; I particularly admired Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers and Jennifer Down’s wonderful story collection, Pulse Points. Of those published in 2018 I loved Jock Serong’s historical thriller, Preservation, Jennifer Mill’s marvellous Dyschronia and Mark Smith’s sequel to his standout YA debut, The Road to Winter, Wilder Country.

Of the science fiction and fantasy I read I adored Adam Roberts’ wildly brilliant sequel to last year’s The Real Town Murders, By the Pricking of her Thumb, the conclusion to Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Quartet, Europe at Dawn, Tade Thompson’s terrific Rosewater, James Smythe’s I Still Dream, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, John Schoffstall’s extremely engaging YA fantasy, Half-Witch, Emma Newman’s Before Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon, Christopher Priest’s queasily powerful An American Story, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards. And although it was published last year, Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is an astonishing book: dense and furious and ferociously engaged with the contemporary world.

Most of the comics I read were in series format, but I’ve been loving Al Ewing’s joyously creepy 1950s horror comics-inflected The Immortal Hulk, and I hugely admired Nick Drasno’s Man Booker-longlisted Sabrina.

9781783781355.jpgAnd finally, my non-fiction reading was a bit spotty, but a lot of what I did read was terrific, and of that, the absolute highlights were Caspar Henderson’s prismatic A New Map of Wonders, Joy McCann’s wonderfully rich and expansive history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea, Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice, Phillipa McGuinness’ 2001: The Year That Changed Everything, and two books about sea level rise, Elizabeth Rush’s beautiful Rising and Jeff Goodell’s deeply confronting The Water Will Come.

Obviously there’s still a couple of weeks of the year to go (a chunk of which I’ll be spending on Knausgaard’s mammoth The End), and I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten, but hopefully not too many. In the meantime I wish all of you the very best for the holiday season and the year ahead. Go well.

 

November update

I’m deep in the middle of two books, so not here all that often, but just a few quick updates.

The first is the wonderful news that my essay, ‘The End of the Oceans’, which was published in The Monthly in August, has been nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature Writing (Long). I’m thrilled for all the obvious reasons, but I’m also delighted because it’s a subject of the utmost importance that I care about very deeply. If you enjoy it please share it.

I’ve also had several other pieces of non-fiction published over the past few months. The most significant was ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, a long essay about Adelaide, extinction and the death of my father for Sydney Review of Books’ New Nature series. It’s a very personal piece and was extremely difficult to write, but I hope people find something in it.

Also in Sydney Review of Books I have ‘A Family of Disguises’, a long review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in The Australian (and staying with the oceanic theme), a review of Joy McCann’s terrific new history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea (possible $$$). And finally, I’ve recently uploaded a long review of the imaginary history of Australia Rodney Hall mapped out in the Yandilli Trilogy, The Island in the Mind and The Day We Had Hitler Home. It’s a few years old now, but they’re marvellous books, and it would be wonderful if they found new readers.

 

On writing and not writing: depression, creation and fiction

Resurrectionist coverAbout fifteen years ago, when I was working The Resurrectionist, Ivor Indyk from Giramondo Publishing approached me and asked me whether I’d be interested in writing a piece about my work in progress for Heat. Although the book was slowly moving toward completion it had been an incredibly difficult process, both emotionally and creatively, and at first I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to open up about how hard it had been. Eventually I decided I would, but in the process I found myself having to think about a whole series of questions about the way I worked, what I thought fiction did, and the ways in which my experiences with depression had shaped both the book and my life and work more generally.

I hadn’t thought about the piece for a long time, but recently I found myself going back to it after somebody asked me whether I’d ever written about process. Reading it again was surprisingly difficult – many of the feelings and experiences it discusses are ones I have no desire to revisit. But simultaneously I was struck by how little had changed, especially in regard to the mysteriousness of the actual process of writing:

“Novels – or at least the ones I am able to write – always seem to me to be curiously fragmentary things, at once prismatic and elusive. These pieces, these fragments, are part of a pattern, and they take their meaning from the whole, even as they reflect the whole within themselves. Finding these pieces, fitting them together, is not so much an act of creation as one of uncovering, of giving voice to something that is already there. This thing, the unwritten book, is like a potential, and to find it you need to learn to give way to the lines of force within it, the invisible tensions and attractors which give it its shape.”

I’ve now uploaded the piece. Although I don’t discuss it explicitly a lot of the piece is about depression, a subject I explored more fully in my essay ‘Never Real and Always True’. And if you’d like to read more by me about how I write, I recommend Charlotte Wood’s fantastic collection of interviews with writers, The Writer’s Room, or my interview with Catriona Menzies-Pike in Sydney Review of Books.

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2017: the year that was

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Because I’ve had my head down for a lot of this year I haven’t had much time for posting, but since it’s almost the new year I thought I might pull together some links and news.

The big news for this year was obviously the publication of my first YA novel, The Silent Invasion, which was released in Australia in April. It’s done well so far – it topped the bestseller lists in August and it’s just been longlisted for the Indie Awards (something I’m particularly thrilled about) – which has been great, especially since the second book in the series, The Buried Ark, will be out in April. If you’d like to know more about the series I wrote a piece about the inspiration for it to coincide with the publication of The Silent Invasion.

The other big news was the international publication of Clade by Titan Books in September. It’s had lovely reviews in various places, not least The Guardian and SFX, and I’ve done a number of interviews about it, most significantly for the fabulous Eco-Fiction and the Chicago Review of Books. I also did a long interview about climate change and fiction for Five Books, something that was doubly wonderful because I love the site so much (if you’ve never seen it I urge you to check it out: it’s an extraordinary resource).

I also published The Death of Neutrino Man, a comic I created with artist Melanie Cook from a script I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a project sponsored by iF Book (an experience I wrote about at the time). You can buy it for 99c at Comixology or read it online for free. I’ve got a couple of other comic projects cooking away, so hopefully there will be more soon.

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On the non-fiction front I wrote a couple of longer things, most notably a review essay of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and a piece about the place of fiction in the Anthropocene, both of which were published on Sydney Review of Books. I also wrote about fish intelligence in The Monthly, which I’m delighted to say was shortlisted for the Bragg Prize for Science Writing and has recently been republished as part of Michael Slezak’s excellent Best Australian Science Writing 2017 (which would make an excellent Christmas present). And just a few weeks ago I published another ocean-themed piece in The Monthly, this time about the kelp forests of Australia’s other reef, the Great Southern Reef. And finally I’ve just written an appreciation of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career for The Neighbourhood Paper.

I’ll have more news about future projects, in particular The Buried Ark and my new adult novel in the new year. In the meantime I wish you all a very happy holiday season and all the best for 2018.

Best Books 2017

sparsholt-affairIt’s nearly the holidays, so I thought I’d brush the cobwebs off the website and pull together a list of some of the books I’ve loved this year.

Two of the novels I enjoyed most – George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – turned up on the Man Booker shortlist, and while if it had been up to me I might have ended up handing the gong to Hamid instead of Saunders they’re both very fine novels. Interestingly though, I felt the Booker longlist was stronger than the shortlist, and while I was also very impressed by Ali Smith’s Autumn (and I loved the second part of her seasons quartet, Winter, which was published a couple of weeks ago) and Fiona Mozley’s visionary and charged Elmet, the book I wish had won, Jon McGregor’s thrillingly strange portrait of the unsettled landscape of an English town Reservoir 13, didn’t make the cut. Nor was it the only baffling omission: certainly I would have rated any of Sebastian Barry’s beautiful Days Without End, Kamila Shamsie’s deeply engaging reworking of Antigone, Home Fire, Elizabeth Strout’s quietly brilliant Anything Is Possible and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (both of which I mentioned in my 2016 round-up) over a couple of the shortlisted titles.

87146a_d6b6ad6e767249fa804d1bd126b757e6~mv2_d_3070_4653_s_4_2.jpgI also loved Alan Hollinghurst’s glorious The Sparsholt Affair, a book that is so gorgeously and wittily constructed sentence by sentence and so wonderfully well-observed I spent the whole final third being sorry it was going to end. I was also hugely impressed by Megan Hunter’s slim but beautiful story of a flooded England, The End We Start From, Philip Pullman’s triumphant return to the world of Northern Lights, La Belle Sauvage (a book that also, not coincidentally, I suspect, features an epochal flood), Jennifer Egan’s sleekly oblique Manhattan Beach and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing. And while we’re on the subject of floods, I very much enjoyed Daisy Hildyard’s elegant exploration of the infinite unboundedness of the Anthropocene, The Second Body.

33673959._UY585_SS585_.jpgI’m not sure it makes much dividing science fiction and fantasy publishing from literary publishing any more, especially not when the concerns so many of the best novels on both sides of the divide are exploring are so similar (and indeed, when so many writers move so fluidly back and forth), a point that’s underlined by the fact stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s hugely impressive Her Body and Other Parties were published in Strange Horizons (read it: it’s fabulous) and Tin House, while Sarah Hall’s gorgeous and deeply uncanny Madame Zero deliberately reject the notion they need to be one or the other (it’s probably not coincidental another of the books I admired most, Ottessa Moshfegh’s viscerally unsettling Homesick for Another World, features a photo of a flying saucer on its cover, but despite often having an affect that owes a little to the weird and horror fiction, has almost no fantastical elements). But it still seems a pity that a book like Jeff Vandermeer’s riotously inventive Borne (which I loved, and reviewed for Sydney Review of Books) is so much more visible to mainstream readers than books such as Adam Roberts’ joyously inventive mash-up of Agatha Christie, Hitchcock and Black Mirror, The Real-Town Murders, Paul McAuley’s deeply sad and tender Austral, Nina Allan’s brilliantly off-kilter exploration of the unresolvable nature of grief, The Rift, Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling and intellectually dazzling New York 2140, or even Ann Leckie’s sort-of sequel to her Ancillary Trilogy, Provenance. The other science fiction and fantasy title I loved, Garth Nix’s playfully subversive fairy-tale mash-up, Frogkisser, is YA, and so less troubled by these sorts of questions.)

From-the-Wreck_cover.jpgMy favourite Australian novel was Jane Rawson’s fabulously weird remaking of the historical novel, From the Wreck, but I also loved Krissy Kneen’s science fictional exploration of post-humanity and desire and intimacy, An Uncertain Grace, Ashley Hay’s delicate exploration of post-natal depression and the complex entanglements of place and love, A Hundred Small Lessons and Kathryn Heyman’s brutal but necessary Storm and Grace. I also enjoyed Shaun Prescott’s unsettling excursion into the haunted spaces of central west NSW, The Town, Sally Abbott’s powerful and deeply unsettling exploration of climate change and similar questions about Australia’s inland communities, Closing Down, and Jock Serong’s incredibly powerful excursion into the charged territory of Australia’s refugee policy, On The Java Ridge (a book that has one of the most viscerally intense central sections I’ve read in a long, long time). And while it wasn’t strictly a 2017 book, I also really enjoyed Mark Smith’s post-apocalyptic young adult novel, The Road to Winter, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, Wilder Country (which did come out in 2017).

MonsterCover_FINAL.pngOn the comics front I was hugely impressed by Emil Ferris’ extraordinarily dense and marvellously idiosyncratic My Favourite Thing is Monsters, and while there were fewer moments of excitement on the mainstream comic front, I’m completely in love with Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer (and its new offshoot, Sherlock Frankenstein) and I continue to be surprised by how much I’m engaged by Ed Brubaker’s reworking of the trope of the lone vigilante, Kill Or Be Killed. But the comic I loved most this year was one I should have read a decade ago but never quite got around to, Alison Bechdel’s astonishing Fun House (and which I’m going to mention here simply because it’s so good I think everybody should read it).

And finally, two non-fiction books. the first, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of the inner world of cephalopod consciousness, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, is a fascinating illustration of the ways in which philosophy can illuminate science in just the same way science can illuminate philosophy. The second, The Museum of Words, is the book my friend Georgia Blain wrote in the months before her death, and which was subsequently edited by her husband, Andrew Taylor, and while its range is circumscribed by the conditions of its composition, it is a wonderfully eloquent reminder of the clarity of thought, empathy and humour that made Georgia’s writing so special.

Publication Day!

Clade Titan.jpgClade is out today in the UK, Ireland, USA and Canada through Titan Books. You can pick up copies at good bricks and mortar bookshops or online.

It’s already had some lovely responses: SFX gave it 4.5 stars and said it was “beautiful, terrifying and – despite everything – uplifting”, and Robert Macfarlane says Clade is a brilliant, unsettling and timely novel: a true text of the Anthropocene in its subtle shuttlings between lives, epochs and eras, and its knitting together of the planet’s places”. 

If you’d like to know more you might want to check out my interview with Ecofiction about it and some of the challenges of writing about climate change.

My thanks to everybody at Titan for making this possible. I’m so pleased the book is going to find new readers.