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Best Books 2016

Spiotta.jpgIt’s that time of year, so because what the world needs is yet another best of the year list (surely it’s time we all went meta and started producing lists of the best best of lists?) I thought I’d pull together a quick roundup of some of the books I loved this year (if I get the time I’ll also put together a few music picks).

If you’d like to get a head start you can check out the Best Books features in The Weekend Australian (Part One and Part Two) and Australian Book Review, both of which include some of my selections as well as those of many other smart, interesting people, or indeed the features in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which I’m not part of but are terrific. And you can also hear me in conversation with Jonathan Strahan, Gary Wolfe and Ian Mond about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year on The Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review episode.

As I say in The Weekend Australian, my favourite book of the year was Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, the follow-up to her fabulous Stone Arabia. I’m a huge fan of Spiotta, and like all her books Innocents and Others is just thrilling as a piece of literary art: beautifully written, strikingly intelligent about the questions of friendship and art at its core, wonderfully oblique in its approach to narrative. If you haven’t read it I recommend it very much (in fact I recommend all her books).

Barkskins.jpgI also hugely admired Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, a book that forces the reader to confront the scale of the destruction humans are visiting on the world around us, and which, in its final, wrenching sections, embodies more than a little of the incoherent grief so many of us feel. It’s also a book that makes a useful companion piece to three of the best non-fiction books I read this year, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and Horatio Clare’s slim but often profound search for a vanished bird, Orison for a Curlew.

I was also deeply impressed by Colson Whitehead’s speculative reworking of the history of slavery, The Underground Railroad, Frances Spufford’s gloriously poised and entirely delightful riff on the eighteenth century novel, Golden Hill (a book that deserved much more attention than it received), Ann Patchett’s characteristically smart and expansive Commonwealth, Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, and the fifth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Some Rain Must Fall (like many people I’m torn between being unable to wait for the sixth and regret that it will be the final volume).

Amsterdam.jpgI’m not sure it would be correct to say I loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but other than the Proulx I’m not sure any book affected me more this year: I found its portrait of grief and mental illness and their generational legacy deeply distressing and extremely powerful. Something similar is true of Han Kang’s intense and deeply disquieting The Vegetarian, while Elizabeth Strout’s hugely impressive My Name is Lucy Barton is distinguished by the pain that lurks in its silences. And although Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out approaches its subject with a real lightness of touch, its exploration of the ways in which assisted suicide affects those who must facilitate it is hugely intelligent and very moving.

Other novels I enjoyed very much include David Dyer’s wonderful Titanic novel, The Midnight Watch, Sarah Perry’s exuberant The Essex Serpent, Mike McCormack’s novel in a single sentence, Solar Bones, Ali Smith’s Autumn, J.M. Coetzee’s delightfully strange and darkly witty The Schooldays of Jesus and Kirsten Tranter’s beautifully pitched study of grief, Hold. And while I came to them late (and I don’t think the stories are necessarily best served by being presented in collected form) I was hugely impressed by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Dark Emu.jpgIn terms of non-fiction, my pick of the year is Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant study of pre-contact Aboriginal agriculture and technology, Dark Emu. There aren’t many books I think every Australian should read but Pascoe’s is definitely one of them. I also very much admired Amy Liptrot’s Wainwright Prize winner, The Outrun, Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Kate Summerscale’s brilliant The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. I also hugely enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s foray into memoir, Born to Run, and although I read it under sad conditions, Simon Critchley’s wonderful Bowie, a book that along with Hugo Wilcken’s study of Low is, for my money, the best of the small library of Bowie books I’ve read in the past couple of years (if you’re interested you can check out my essay about Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which is also in this year’s Best Australian Essays).

I’m biased, obviously, but of the science fiction and fantasy I read my favourite was the first instalment in my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new series for middle grade readers, Escape to the Moon Islands. Like all her books it’s warm and funny and wonderfully original and I can’t recommend it enough (it also has a talking parrot).

In second place was Garth Nix’s Goldenhand, which saw Nix return to the Old Kingdom with triumphant results, but it was a close-run thing with Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderfully expansive sort-of sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, Children of Earth and Sky, and I also very much enjoyed the conclusion to Paul McAuley’s Jackaroo duology, Into Everywhere, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station and Charlie Jane Anders’ exuberant Anthropocene fantasy/sci fi mash-up, All The Birds in the Sky. And while it isn’t strictly speculative, I also hugely admired Nike Sulway’s Dying in the First Person.

There’s not really any competition for comic of the year as far as I’m concerned: that crown goes to Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s stunning Vision, but I also loved Adrian Tomine’s short graphic stories, Killing and Dying.

Wolf and a Dog.jpegAnd finally, although my experience of it was tinged with great sadness, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog. Georgia’s death a fortnight ago from brain cancer leaves a huge hole in so many people’s lives, but it has also robbed us of one of the most important voices in contemporary Australian literature: Georgia’s writing, both fictional and non-fictional, was always distinguished by her preparedness to speak plainly and truthfully about her own experience, the lives of women and the demands and contradictions of family and love, and to my mind at least she was one of the bravest writers I have ever known. Worse yet, it came at a time when Georgia’s work seemed to have found a new freedom and expansiveness, qualities that are very much on display in Between a Wolf and a Dog, and which I am certain will be everywhere in the book she completed in her final months, The Museum of Words, which will be published next year. I wrote a short piece about Georgia and her work for the Fairfax press, but there have also been beautiful tributes to her from Charlotte WoodSophie Cunningham and Jane Gleeson-White, and a terrific piece about her and her mother, Anne Deveson (who died only three days after Georgia) by Anne Summers. As Sophie says, she was magnificent.

Clade cover reveal

Very excited. Out September in the UK and US with Titan Books.

clade-titan

The world has changed: on writing in the Anthropocene

Here’s me in conversation with the wonderful Iain McCalman (if you haven’t read his marvellous The Reef: A Passionate History it’s brilliant).

Clade shortlisted for the 2016 WA Premier’s Book Awards

800px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaI’m thrilled to be able to announce that Clade has been shortlisted for the 2016 Western Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction, alongside books by Miles Allinson, Elizabeth Harrower, Gail Jones, John Kinsella, Joan London, Susan Midalia and Tracy Ryan. The winner is announced on 3 October, but in the meantime the shortlists for all categories are available via the State Library of Western Australia. And on a more personal note I want to say how delighted I am to find myself sharing space on a shortlist with Joan London, a writer I admire enormously. My thanks to the judges and the organisers, and congratulations to all my fellow shortlistees.

 

Clade shortlisted for the 2016 ALS Gold Medal

CladeI’m delighted to be able to announce that Clade has been nominated for Australia’s oldest literary award, the ALS Gold Medal, which is both completely unexpected and a huge honour. My congratulations to the other shortlisted writers, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Drusilla Modjeska and Brenda Niall – it’s fantastic to be in such distinguished company – and my heartfelt thanks to the judges and the organisers of the prize, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. The winner is announced on 6 July at the Association’s conference in Canberra.

Clade now available through Audible

Clade AudibleI’m very excited to say the audio book edition of my Victorian Premier’s, Christina Stead and Aurealis Award-shortlisted novel Clade is now available through Audible in Australiathe UK and internationally. It’s read by Ian Bliss, and features a rather lovely new cover, so if you’ve been holding off reading it perhaps now’s the time to grab a copy.

And if audio books are your thing you might also want to check out the audio editions of The Resurrectionist, read by Stan Pretty (UK only), and Wrack, read by Humphrey Bower (AustraliaUK and US).

Midyear Music

Because it’s getting toward halfway through 2016 I thought I might share a few of the albums I’ve enjoyed so far this year.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Underneath the ferociously political lyrics A Moon Shaped Pool is the poppiest Radiohead album in years and perhaps not coincidentally the first one that’s resonated with me for almost a decade. Although the video for ‘Burn the Witch’ is so brilliant it could probably carry the album on its own.

 

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
Hope Six
isn’t as good as Let England Shake (although what is?), at least partly because Harvey is clearly hitting up against the limits of the popular song’s ability to communicate complex arguments, but it’s still genuinely thrilling a lot of the time, and Harvey’s passion and fury remain as exciting (and salutary) as ever.

 

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Will Toledo has been recording albums alone for years, a process that led to the release of his excellent Teens of Style a couple of years ago, but his new album Teens of Denial is his first record with the backing of a proper band, and it’s incredible. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but every one of these mini-epics of suburban desire and despair is like a tiny novel, with all the variousness and passion that implies. I need a few more weeks to get to grips with it properly but it might just be my album of the year so far.

 

The Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust
It’s been a while since I listened to Hollywood Town Hall and Rainy Day Music, and the first of the Jayhawks’ reunion records passed me by a couple of years ago, but their new one, Paging Mr Proust, is a bit of a gem. Lovely, literate folk rock that owes a little to the Byrds and a little to REM (no doubt at least partly because it was produced by Peter Buck) but never feels rooted in the past.

 

Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Parquet Courts have always been one of those bands I felt like I should love but never quite did. But their new album, Human Performance, is terrific, and filled with tight, driving songs.

 

Beverly, The Blue Swell
Because there can never be enough dreamy, blissed-out noise pop in the world.

 

Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
Imagine a fractured 2016 version of Nico and you’ve got the general idea. Easily as good as her last couple of albums. The film that accompanies it is also splendidly weird.

 

The Last Shadow Puppets, Everything You’ve Come to Expect
I think Alex Turner is one of the great contemporary songwriters, and although there’s something a little too considered and contrived about his work with Miles Kane (and some fairly icky lyrics) there’s still a lot to like about the baroque, Scott Walkerish Everything You’ve Come to Expect.

 

David Bowie, Blackstar
I wrote about Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s death. I haven’t changed my view: it’s a thrilling, mercurial album, his best since Scary Monsters, and a reminder of what his death robbed us of.

 

There are also a number of things coming out in the next little while I’m excited about (new Kills! new Band of Horses!) and more than a few things I need to listen to more carefully (the new Lucinda Williams for one) but for now they seem like enough.