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Best Books 2020

When I sat down to select my favourite books of 2019, the east coast of Australia was ablaze, and Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne had been swathed in smoke for weeks on end. Twelve months later Sydney’s Northern Beaches are in lockdown, restrictions are being reimposed across the rest of the city, and the other states have closed their borders to New South Wales again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, a number of the best books I’ve read over the past year engaged with this sense of accelerating and multiplying catastrophe. Some of them do it by tracing the crosscurrents of dissonance and denial that inflect our culture in the way Jenny Offill’s Weather or Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea do. Others, like Anne Charnock’s terrific Bridge 108, explore the effects of displacement and social breakdown. And some explore the processes of resistance, violence and dispossession that underpin the larger crisis as Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem does.

But the most significant was undoubtedly Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. The final book in the dazzling cycle of novels that began with 2312, and it simultaneously draws together and transcends many of the questions that are explored in those previous books, illustrating not just the scale of the crisis we inhabit, but mapping out a path toward a sustainable post-capitalist future. Like all Robinson’s novels it’s exhilaratingly dense with information and ideas, but it’s also deeply affecting. That’s partly because so much of what it depicts is so horrifying, but it’s also because while it insists on the imperative of hope, it doesn’t shy away from rage and despair. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and a book I wish everybody would read (I also highly recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with Robinson, which is one of the most consistently intelligent 90 minutes of media I consumed over the past twelve months).

One of the other highlights of my reading year was The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. The consensus seems to be that the final quarter is the best bit, but I have to say I thought the depiction of the aftermath of Anne’s execution in the first 100 or 150 pages was simply astonishing, and captures the mute trauma and terror of a community that is suddenly inescapably aware that none of them are safe with great power. But part of what I found so compelling about those sections was the way they also expose the uncanny terror of state power. Mantel has explored the connections between violence and terror and death and undeath before, perhaps most notably in Beyond Black, but in The Mirror and the Light they take on a whole new set of resonances. And those opening sections are only one element of a genuinely remarkable creation.

Despite a lot of will-she won’t-she angst in the British media about the prospects of Mantel pulling off a Booker hat trick, The Mirror and the Light didn’t make the shortlist for this year’s prize, which instead went to Douglas Stuart’s terrific Shuggie Bain. As I said in my roundup of the Booker shortlist in The Weekend Australian, Stuart’s novel is notable not just for its refusal to sentimentalise Shuggie’s mother’s alcoholism, but for the astuteness of its portrait of the effects of addiction on children and, perhaps most remarkably of all, its immense capacity for forgiveness. I found it an enormously affecting and quietly devastating novel, and it’s been wonderful to see it finding such a wide readership.

Other novels I loved included the final instalment in Ali Smith’s remarkable Seasons Quartet, Summer, Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful Mayflies (a book that felt micro-targeted at me and my interests), Anne Enright’s Actress, Deb Olin Unferth’s wonderfully off-kilter novel about chickens and activism, Barn 8, Emily St John Mandel’s brilliantly structured The Glass Hotel, Daisy Johnson’s splendidly unsettling Sisters, Lily King’s lovely, warm, wise Writers and Lovers, Vigdis Hjorth’s merciless Will and Testament (make the time), Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and Sigrid Nunez’s follow-up to The Friend, What Are You Going Through. The two story collections I most enjoyed were Emma Cline’s Daddy and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ fabulously compressed Sleepovers (seek it out: I promise it will be worth it).

At the more speculative end of the spectrum, I was blown away by M. John Harrison’s compellingly strange The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, a book that elides boundaries of all kinds, so reading it makes the world around you feel uncertain in all sorts of ways. It’s also a novel that invites all kinds of readings, but the one I kept coming back to was the way its emphasis on the watery, floods and transformation echoes Amitav Ghosh’s description of the “insistent, inescapable continuities of the Anthropocene”. I also loved Garth Nix’s delightfully playful and effortlessly entertaining The Left-handed Booksellers of London, a book that might well be my favourite of Nix’s novels, Paul McAuley’s emotionally expansive and affecting reworking of the Samurai and Western in the far future, War of the Maps, and William Gibson’s terrific follow-up to The Peripheral, Agency, a book that plays with our assumptions about the future and contingency with sly wit and deadly seriousness. Wit is also available in abundance in Natalie Zina Walschots’ hugely entertaining reworking of the superhero genre and the modern workplace, Hench, and Lev Grossman’s delightful excursion into children’s fantasy, The Silver Arrow, whereas Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a strange conjuring trick that draws upon many of the tropes and preoccupations of classic fantasy while also taking them somewhere that feels startlingly new. And I hugely enjoyed both Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians and Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild.

Although there are a host of things I still haven’t got to (Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron! Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile! Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s! Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People!) I read a lot of Australian fiction I hugely admired, perhaps most notably Laura Jean McKay’s gloriously weird and feral The Animals In That Country, Chris Flynn’s delightfully deadpan deep time comedy, Mammoth, Lauren Chater’s beautifully constructed and expansive reworking of the silences in Swift, Gulliver’s Wife, Kate Mildenhall’s gripping The Mother Fault, the next instalment in the historical sequence Jock Serong began in Preservation, The Burning Island, Kristen Krauth’s terrific Almost a Mirror and Luke Horton’s terrific debut, The Fogging (if you’re interested, you can hear me and Luke chatting on The Book Show).

Of the non-fiction I read, I loved Julia Baird’s elegant and wise Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, a book I read at just the right moment, David Farrier’s marvellous and intellectually peripatetic investigation of deep time, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, Stephanie Convery’s heartfelt and unsparing dissection of violence in sport, After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s elegant and moving The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Danielle Clode’s study of the remarkable life of Jeanne Barret, In Search Of The Woman Who Sailed The World, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World in the Whale, and David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, and Craig Brown’s often hilarious One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. I also very much admired two shorter books of essays: Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers.

And finally, two more books of poetry: Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, both of which offered reminders of the power of language to console and reveal, something I suspect we’re all going to need more of in the months to come.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney Writers’ Festival is just around the corner, and features a stellar line-up that includes George Saunders, Anne Enright, Colson Whitehead, Mariko Tamaki, Fiona McFarlane, Witi Ihimaera and Krissy Kneen, and events in many locations across the city. I’m appearing on a number of panels.

First up, in Sydney Dance 1 on Thursday 25 May at 1:30pm, is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Visions of Dystopia, with Sally Abbott, Briohny Doyle and Maria Lewis. Tickets are free.

Next is A Gathering Storm: The Rise and Rise of Cli-Fi, in the Richard Wherrett Studio at 11:30am on Friday 26 May, which also features Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay. Tickets are $15.

Then, on Saturday 27 May, I’m appearing at two events. The first is Keeping Company: Characters Across a Series, which is part of the Festival’s new All Day YA Program at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, and also features Catriona Feeney, Amie Kaufman, Garth Nix, Lynette Noni. Tickets for the session are $15, and a five event pass is $50. The second event, which is back at Walsh Bay in Pier 2/3 at 4:30pm, is Dear Science, and also features Ashley Hay, Henry Marsh, Bianca Nogrady and Michael Slezak. Tickets are $20 or $15 concession.

I’m also appearing as part of two other events. The first, Close to Home, in Sydney Dance 2 at 3:00pm on Friday 26 May, is a tribute to my late friend, Georgia Blain, who died of brain cancer in December, and features readings from Georgia’s work by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Charlotte Wood and me. It should be a terrific event, and a great opportunity to celebrate Georgia’s life and work. Tickets are free.

And finally, on at 11:30am on Monday 29 May, I’ll be appearing with my partner Mardi McConnochie at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba as part of Generation Next, where we’ll both be discussing writing for younger readers. Tickets are $15, or you can buy a one day pass for $65/55, or a two day pass for $100.

If you’re there say hi!

Dreaming in the Dark and a Best of Trifecta

Best ofs.jpgA little after the fact, but I’ve got a story in Dreaming in the Dark, the first book from PS Publishing’s new imprint, PS Australia. Edited by Jack Dann, the collection features stories by a roll call of brilliant writers, ranging from Garth Nix and Sean Williams to Angela Slatter, Lisa L. Hannett, Rjurik Davidson and many more (you can check out a full list of contributors and order a copy on PS’ website). Like all PS’ books it’s also a stunning-looking object, with a gorgeous cover designed by Greg Bridges, and if you hurry you can get an illustrated slipcased limited edition. It’s a fantastic book and I’m delighted to be in such fantastic company.

I’m very proud of the story that appears in the collection. Entitled ‘Martian Triptych’, it moves from the dying moments of Percival Lowell to billions of years in the future, and explores the way human time and geological time intersect in our imaginations and in reality. So I’m absolutely delighted Charlotte Wood has selected it for Best Australian Stories 2016, where it appears alongside stories by people such as Elizabeth Harrower, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Fiona McFarlane, Gregory Day and Georgia Blain. It’s a real honour to be included and I’m very grateful.

It’s also a real honour to be able to say my essay about the late David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which began life as a post on this site, has been included in Best Australian Essays 2016, edited by Geordie Williamson. It’s a piece I’m very proud of and one I’m thrilled is now going to find a new audience.

I’m also thrilled to say ‘Slippery Migrants’, a piece I wrote for The Monthly about the amazing lifecycle of the long-finned eel, has been included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016, which was edited by Jo Chandler. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of myself as a science writer – certainly when I look at people who write about science for a living like Chandler and Bianca Nogrady I’m keenly aware of the skill and knowledge they bring to bear on their work – so it’s wonderful to find myself in their company, and even more wonderful to be able to say the piece was shortlisted for the 2016 Bragg Prize for Science Writing.

And finally I’d like to thank both the editors who helped shape and refine the original pieces – ‘Slippery Migrants’ in particular benefited from careful and thoughtful editing by the team at The Monthly – and Black Inc Books and New South Publishing for their continued support of these Best of series, which play an incredibly important role in celebrating and supporting Australian writing and Australian writers.

 

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.

Best Books 2015

Brief History of Seven KillingsI’m aware this is a little late in the piece, but I thought I might take a few minutes to pull together a section of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the past twelve months.

These sorts of lists always make me uncomfortably aware not just of how little I’ve read over the past twelve months, but how incoherent that reading feels, a feeling that, for various reasons, is even more pronounced this year than usual.
Yet despite all that I read a number of books this year that I admired enormously. And while I’m mostly going to try and avoid ranking books, one book that would sit near the top of any list I might make is Marlon James’ astonishing, virtuosic A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book that is as impressive technically as it is as a portrait of the complex ways violence and reverberates through both individual lives and history.

Similarly impressive was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a series I’m still working my way through, but which is as remarkable as everybody says, astonishing not just for their ferocious moral intelligence and psychological penetration, but for their almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict.

Buried GiantIt seems to have slipped off many people’s radar already, but I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s deeply strange excursion into post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant, Kevin Barry’s similarly strange and stylistically pyrotechnic portrait of John Lennon lost in rural Ireland in 1978, Beatlebone, and Anne Enright’s marvellous The Green Road (the second chapter of which is worth the price of admission alone). Likewise I very much enjoyed the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My StruggleDancing in the Dark, not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s the book where the series’ fictional and autobiographical elements begin to enfold each other in fascinating ways, and in so doing begin to bring the complexity of Knausgaard’s larger design into focus. And although I’ve come to it late, John Williams’ Stoner is exactly as brilliant as everybody says it is.

I also very much admired Max Porter’s wonderfully odd and richly poetic exploration of grief, Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Tom McCarthy’s archly brilliant Satin Island and Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-Shortlisted The Year of the Runaways. And while it was perhaps slightly less brilliant than Life After Life, I loved Kate Atkinson’s wonderfully inventive exploration of historical contingency and the immensities a simple life can contain, A God in Ruins. And while I’m not sure whether it quite came off overall, I’m not sure I read a book over the past twelve months that was smarter, funnier or stylistically exciting at a line by line level than Nell Zink’s Mislaid.

Thing ItselfOver on the genre side I adored Dave Hutchinson’s smart, politically savvy near-future political thriller, Europe at Midnight, Kelly Link’s brilliant Get In Trouble and Paul McAuley’s wonderfully accomplished Something Coming Through, and very much enjoyed China Miéville’s dazzling Three Moments From An Explosion, Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde and Naomi Novik’s magical Uprooted. I also loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, a book that brought her fabulous Ancillary series to a wonderfully satisfying, emotionally resonant and fascinatingly subversive conclusion, and although I’m not quite sure whether it’s technically a 2015 or a 2016 book, Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is a triumph: a deeply strange, extremely funny and metaphysically thrilling riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics (trust me – it’s great). And finally, while it’s a bit over a year old, I adored Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (don’t be put off by the title: it’s wonderful).

Six BedroomsI read fewer Australian books than I should have, but of those I did I very much admired Mireille Juchau’s portrait of an ecologically fraying landscape, The World Without Us, and Tegan Bennett Daylight’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely painful Six Bedrooms, Charlotte Wood’s ferocious The Natural Way of Things and (although it’s a couple of years old), Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife.

I also read less non-fiction than I should have, and a lot of what I did read was things I’ve read before (Tim Dee’s wonderfully expansive Four Fields, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure), but I found time to knock over Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial Landmarks, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Hal Whitehead’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins and I loved Thomas Farber’s wise, witty and delightfully sideways Here and Gone. And while neither are 2015 books I also very much enjoyed Helen MacDonald’s 2006 contribution to Reaktion’s Animal series, Falcon, which is a rather drier affair than H is for Hawk, but fascinating nonetheless (I also recommend her closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year) and Rebecca Solnit’s marvellously spiralling The Faraway Nearby.

Unfaithful MusicOn the more technical side I very much enjoyed Mckenzie Wark’s notes toward a theory for the Anthropocene, Molecular Red (his unpacking of the politics and architectonics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a must-read for anybody interested in Robinson). And while it needed a much firmer editorial hand (and, I suspect, to be broken up into two different books), Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is as funny, savage and fascinating about songwriting as you’d expect, and while too long and oddly unreflective in some regards, often surprisingly moving, especially when it comes to Costello’s relationship with his father.

On the graphic side of things I hugely enjoyed Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, and I continued to love every panel of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel, Charles Soule and Javier Polio’s She-Hulk, Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s wicked and wise Loki: Agent of Asgard, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s joyous Daredevil and the endlessly delayed conclusion to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Ms Marvel

 

As I said in The Weekend Australian a couple of weeks ago though, the two books I loved most this year are a pair of novels that at first blush seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. The first, Sarah Hall’s exultant, lyrical The Wolf Border, focuses on a plan to reintroduce wolves to the north of England, the second, Kim Stanley Robinson’s dazzlingly expansive Aurora, follows the struggles of a group of colonists sent to Tau Ceti half a millennium from now, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent both are books deeply engaged with a series of questions about the ethical and imaginative dimensions of a world whose systems have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered by human activity, yet which simultaneously try to look beyond the reality of the present day in order to reclaim the imaginative possibilities of the future,  quality that, as 2015 draws to a close, seems not just important but necessary.