Children’s entertainment: violence, death, existential despair, and other good stuff!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way that the stories you consume in your childhood will have a massive impact on your psche for the rest of your life. The cartoons I watched as a little kid are lodged permanently in my brain. But here’s the interesting thing: when I think of the things I watched as a child, it’s the darkness that I remember. The melancholy, the eerie, and the moments of deep, horrifying terror. Kids entertainment in the 80s and early-mid 90s was not afraid to be a rich source of Nightmare Fuel, true to its fairytale roots.

Don Bluth was a prime culprit of this in my childhood. Movies that you watch when you’re so young that you can barely remember if they were real or hallucinations; and then (thank god) the internet comes along and helps you to remember titles and find clips on youtube, and you’re like, okay, I was a pretty wimpy kid, surely it won’t be as freaky as I remem – oh holy shitcrackers.

Secret of Nimh

 Is that what ‘The Secret of Nimh’ actually looked like?

No wonder I had psychedelic nightmares.

Don Bluth films were a strange mash-up of sparkly, pretty, shiny stuff and pant-crappingly terrifying monsters with evil glowing eyes.

What do I remember from An American Tail? The shipwreck, the fear of a child that’s lost its parents, giant monsters that want nothing more than to eat you.

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Plus whatever fresh hell this creature of unmitigated horror was.

The main characters are small, terrified, often alone.

The Swan Princess was a soppy fairytale romance about a beautiful blonde, a dashing prince, whacky animal sidekicks, AND THIS GUY OMG WTF.

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How about The Land Before Time? Cute baby dinosaurs! A bunch of friends! Road trip adventure movie! PARENTAL DEATH!

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Why. Why would you do this to us.

But Don Bluth was far from the only culprit. Everyone thinks of Disney as all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but it still comes from the delightfully messed up source material of the Grimms Brothers and that darkness lurks just under the skin. Let’s not forget the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia, which I basically had to get mum to fast forward for me every single time I watched the movie (thanks mum).

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Even in the golden age of Disney, it was the eerie and strange moments that really stuck in my mind. When I think of The Little Mermaid (still my favourite), it’s not the happy bounce of ‘Under the Sea’, the yearning of ‘Part of Your World’ or even the firefly-lit romance of ‘Kiss the Girl’ that I picture. It’s the darkness of Ursula’s cave, the moment when something reaches in and Ariel’s voice is pulled out of her, and then the body horror of transformation, woah, hello, adolescent anxieties, yikes.

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For non-cartoon entertainment, some of The Weird admittedly also came from the exuberance of 1980s special effects: think anything that Jim Henson was ever involved in. The twistedness of some of those puppets is something that slick, modern special effects can never hope to capture.

The Neverending Story was another foundational movie of my childhood. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, it’s almost certainly on your list of Movies That Fucked You Right Up In The Best Possible Way. I’m not just talking about the heartbreak of losing Artax in the Swamps of Sadness – the thing that’s stuck with me and continued to terrify me as an adult is The Nothing (embodied in the film by that other thing that gave me a deep and lifelong fear, the wolf).

Neverending Story

Image result for neverending story the nothing I seriously debated on whether or not to include these pics cause they’re goddamn terrifying.

The Nothing was the most existential and the greatest summary of all my childhood fears, the root from which all other fears ultimately grew. A fear of ‘nothing’ is fear of death, the void, lack of existence. In the film, specifically, The Nothing is linked to a lack of human imagination, a kind of obliteration that comes to our existence when we don’t use our minds. Has my lifelong obsession with stories actually stemmed from this threat? It’s possible. I sure didn’t want Gmork showing up at my front door to tell me I hadn’t been reading enough books.

And even though this wolf and The Nothing scared me down to my bone marrow, made me want to cry with fear, and gave me recurring nightmares… I wouldn’t have changed or missed this movie from my childhood for anything. It was one of the fictional building blocks that made me.

 

It’s the weird. It’s the dark. It’s the loss and the despair and the death.

Children need this.

It’s incredibly important.

The kids are alright. They’re better than alright, because fiction lets you explore heavy ideas in a safe and constructive way.

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Walking Home (a spontaneous poem)

At night in my suburb

huge spiderwebs glimmer between the trees.

In the town square

on the green astroturf under the lights

a shoeless, shirtless man is doing yoga.

Dirty feet and a backpack on a bench.

It is 11pm and a warm breeze stirs my hair

And my eyes dart reflexively:

who is nearby, where I would run,

what’s the escape route,

If.

‘What a sad thought to have

on a pleasant summer evening’, I think.

The quiet voice inside me answers:

Women after dark are always ready to run.

My 2017 Reading List

Out of a modest total of 26, this year’s reading list includes 2 non-fiction, one self-help, one poetry collection, one book of short stories, one book in translation, a couple of re-reads from childhood, and one (pre-prize-announcement) Booker Prize winner for the year. So what I have not achieved in sheer numbers, I think I have compensated for with breadth of approach. It was a year of satisfying historical reads, long-awaited sequels, and (as always) unexpected gems.

Out of these 26 books, roughly 10 of them made me cry. No, I’m not going to specify which ones. Yes, I cry quite easily when I read.

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1. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Ever since K pointed out to me that the problem with literary fiction is that it’s always about old middle-aged white dudes having affairs, I haven’t been able to unsee it (damnit, K! *shakes fist*). This classic is very beautifully written (and the affair isn’t exactly the central point of the story), and I could appreciate it for the sheer artistry of the prose, but ultimately I couldn’t really tell you what the point of it all was. I know it gets studied a lot in senior English classes, but I couldn’t really tell you why.

On the plus side, the copy (which I borrowed from my parent’s bookshelves) was a lovely compact little hardback with a blue and gold paper cover over an embossed black hardback, with beautiful typography. So I appreciated it as a physical object, if nothing else.

2. About A Girl by Joanne Horniman

After my success with re-reading Joanne Horniman’s Secret Scribbled Notebooks last year, I continued on my mission to read more of her back catalogue. This one was specifically a young adult love story, but it did involve cats, so that gave it some bonus points. I also feel I can now say with certainty that Notebooks is by far the best of this author’s work.

3. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

I have this strange fascination for old-fashioned post-apocalyptica. This book felt quite similar to Nevil Chute’s On The Beach for some reason – written in 1962 and set in 2145, it has the same sort of old-fashioned sensibility about the end of the world. This is an early contribution to the ‘cli-fi’ genre, about a planet melted and drowned by global warming. Tropical jungle and swamps cover the streets of London, and giant iguanas and crocodiles are everywhere. It’s a futuristic spin-off of Heart of Darkness as well, but I won’t hold that against it. Weird, wonderful, a bit disturbing (and when it comes to its treatment of race and gender, an obvious product of its time).

4. Still Life With Teapot by Brigid Lowry

Subtitled ‘On Zen, Writing & Creativity’. This is a collection of autobiographical snippets, poetry, and bits of writing about writing by one of my all-time absolute favourite YA writers, and the one who has had the largest impact on my own writing style. In that weird confluence of literature that I keep experiencing, she also writes about Sei Shonagon (from my 2016 list) and briefly about Mary Oliver’s poetry. I felt very close to the author from reading this book. It is very honest, sometimes painfully so, and also hilarious.

5. When There’s Nowhere Else To Run by Murray Middleton

This is a collection of short stories that I borrowed from the library because I wanted to read some Vogel Award winners. Some of the stories in this collection were fairly bland, some were okay, and there are two that I think I will always remember – one about a house full of people and their dying friend, grief, and dancing in the living room. And one that was like a beautiful miniature Cloud Street, about two families and their regular holidays in a country farmhouse, and the way they grow and change over the years. (There was gold over the hills and I knew there always would be).

6, 7 & 8. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass).

Books can be like lighthouses. They can change everything.

I re-read this trilogy in preparation for the LONG-awaited sequel coming out later in the year. These books shaped my consciousness as an early teen so deeply, not just in my attitude to organised religion but spirituality, death, life, stories. If I believe in any kind of afterlife at all, metaphorically, it’s the one in these books. “We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”


9. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I borrowed this from Mum on her recommendation, and really loved it. It’s jointly about Sara de Vos, the (fictional) Dutch Renaissance painter, and Ellie Shipley, the Australian art student who paints a forgery of her work in the 1950s, and then ends up being the curator of the exhibition half a decade later where the original and the forgery show up together. This summary doesn’t at all convey the beauty of the book and the way that it did things to me.

“There are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace.”

There was also this moment, when the older Ellie looks back on notebooks from her youth, and wow, it really hit home…

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10. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield is that awesome space guy who did a bunch of youtube videos about life on the International Space Station and answered random questions like ‘how do you brush your teeth in space?’ I like the idea of this very driven, high-achieving, incredibly intelligent man who is also able to do community outreach and share day-in-the-life stuff about the space station and living without gravity. He’s not exactly a poet, but the book was a fairly straightforward autobiography about a genuinely cool dude.

11. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

My only Gaiman for the year was his collection of re-tellings of the Norse myths. In addition to my burning need to read anything Neil has every written, as a literary nerd I do feel it’s important to know my source material. I do also love the concept of Ragnarok and the doomed battle in which we fight anyway, though there wasn’t much of that in this collection. And no matter how hard I tried, I could not for the life of me picture Loki as anyone other than Tom Hiddleston.

12. Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (Book #3 of The Fitz & the Fool trilogy).

The final, final book. The last book of the last trilogy, and though there were some unexpected things that happened along the way it literally could not have ended any other way than it did. I always knew – we all always knew. There was a sense of fate about the ending, a story that had been left hanging for so long finally finished.

At 853 pages it was definitely my longest book for the year. Robin Hobb is, hands-down, the greatest creator of universes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. These characters have been my companions for the last decade of my life. You wanna guess if this is one that made me cry?

13. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

The Tempest is my favourite Shakespeare (right up there with Macbeth), so how could I resist a re-working of it written by Margaret Atwood? This book was quite different to what I expected; at first I thought it was only loosely inspired by the play, but in the end, it tied in very closely. It was clever, and it was also (unexpectedly to me) quite funny, and a lot of fun. Who knew the writer of A Handmaid’s Tale could be fun?? She is an author of many talents.

14. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Definitely the most bizarre book I read this year, even by Miéville’s standards. Set in Paris in a parallel World War 2, an American anti-Nazi group somewhat accidentally invents a new kind of bomb – the S-bomb, a bomb that releases surrealist energy and brings the dreams and nightmares of the surrealist movement to life. This book is basically surrealist art made literature, and also like doing a whooooole bunch of drugs. So kind of just your average Miéville novel, really.

15. Get Your Sh*t Together: How to stop worrying about what you should do so you can finish what you need to do and start doing what you want to do by Sarah Knight

I bought this self-help book because Laura and I saw it in the bookstore of the National Library in Canberra and because “get your shit together” is a regularly used phrase in our working relationship <3.

Spoiler alert: Even after reading this, I still do not, in fact, have my shit very together.

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“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” ― Mary Oliver

 

16. Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

I got this poetry collection out of the library because I kept writing down these quotes and bits of poems over the years and I eventually realised that all of these words that I loved belonged to the same person, and obviously I should check them out. I feel a year of reading is incomplete without one good book of poetry. These are my favourite kinds of poems; poems about nature and the self and beauty and paying attention, being awake.

 

17. Illuminae by Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

By far and away the coolest, hippest book that I read this year. It’s a space-opera-zombie-thriller-hacker extravaganza. (Bec, this one is for you). This book is second only to House of Leaves in the awesome things it manages to do with its design and typography – and it’s much more of a page turner. Some of it is straight narrative but huge parts of the book are diagrams, found notes, ship’s logs, reports (with plenty of redacted swear words), emails, IM chat logs – you name it, it’s in here. It’s also (fair warning) book one of a trilogy, and the third one is not yet out (but should be coming in 2018).

18. A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson

This is the book of 2017 that I bought purely based on the cover and the blurb, and my well-established love of fairytales. This was translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund, and as with other translations I’ve read, I couldn’t tell if the style and the language was a result of the translation or the actual style that the book was originally written in. The story is about the relationship between father and son. And I really wanted to be invested in it; I tried, you guys. But I just couldn’t. Self-indulgent morally ambiguous characters and a plot that never seems to come to a point.

19. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I requested that my library order a copy of this book because after reading this article by George Saunders about his writing process, I immediately knew I had to read it. It’s about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son, and about the ghosts in the graveyard and why they are stuck in a kind of limbo there. It’s a very strange book and it took me a while to get into it, but it was definitely worth it. And then a few months after I read it it went and won the Booker Prize, so I got to be all smug about my taste in literature to boot.

20. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

First published in 1938, this is a charming little book about a shy and somewhat mousey housekeeper who ends up accidentally spending a day and a night with a glamorous nightclub singer and friends. It was very sweet and incredibly relatable (considering the decades behind it) until suddenly, near the very end of the book, out of nowhere, HOLY RACISM, BATMAN!! It was like being slapped across the face by an unexpected fish of racism. Wowzers.

21. The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on one of the main characters of this book, but the prose overcame my misgivings. One straight forward narrative about an astronomer (who seemed to make quite a few poor life choices?) and one slightly more magical-realism tale about a woman who sees the ghosts of her ancestors whenever a comet is passing over the earth. I got this one based on the lovely cover too, and wasn’t disappointed.

22. Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

This urban fantasy was spoiled for me only by the fact that I saw the Surprise Twist Ending coming at least a third of the way through the book, which always annoys me deeply (I don’t normally pick these things, so when I do I’m extra put-out). K assures me that the first book is very much establishing the universe, and the series broadens out from there. If you want to read about the Faerie Court rubbing elbows with modern city life, this might be for you, I guess?

23. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

I hadn’t been planning on re-reading Anne of Green Gables, but when the most gorgeous golden-embossed hardback edition of it appeared through the library’s return chutes, how could I resist? (I spend most of the time in the library’s return’s room accumulating books I want to read, to be honest). I hadn’t read this book for at least 15 years, but it has definitely stood the test of time. It was another big influence on me as a child, as I ran around outdoors naming places things like ‘Violet Vale’ and ‘Bubbling Brook’. It also contains my earliest memory of crying my eyes out over a character death, for the first time in my 8-year-old-life. That sticks with you.

A beautiful uplifting read. If you haven’t (re)read it recently, you really should.

24. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Book 1 of The Book of Dust)

The second, even-longer-awaited sequel of the year. As I said above, His Dark Materials has had a huge impact on my life, and the last book of that trilogy was published in 2000. My wait time for this sequel was almost old enough to legally drink in Australia. It wins my Book Design of the Year Award: the dust jacket was beautiful enough, with this simple quote on the back of the illustrated cover, but an even further delight waited underneath – black hardback, speckled with gold. Just perfect. Don’t judge me, but my breath actually caught and I got all tingly when I first held it in my hands. I can’t wait to see where books 2 and 3 of The Book of Dust take us.


25. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Another one I read on recommendation from Mum; I don’t think she’s ever recommended me something that I didn’t love. (Hi Mum! Thanks!) I often profess a deep desire to avoid books and movies about the world wars, possibly after being emotionally scarred by watching Gallipoli and Life is Beautiful in high school – I can’t say that I really appreciate bleak, depressing stories. And yet I keep accidentally reading these excellent tales about Nazis (??) and Paris and wartime. I loved both of the main characters, a young French girl who goes blind at the age of six (and the prose descriptions of her experience of the world were amazingly handled) and a young German orphan who is a whiz kid at radio and joins the Hitler Youth to avoid a short and unpleasant life in the mines of his home town. Despite the setting, it was never a bleak story; the characters were too sympathetic and there was simply too much that was beautiful in it.

26. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

When your previous read was a serious one about Nazis and World War Two, you need to follow it up with something appropriately light; a nice little fairytale-esque story about a mouse who falls in love with a Princess was just the thing. I unashamedly enjoyed this little book, and was unexpectedly touched by the ending, which turned out to be a perfect summary of another reading year:

Despereaux

How I Got Here: The Long and Winding Road of My Career

I have, as really many people do, an odd sort of background to librarianship.

Let’s go back.

There was a good year or two of my life that was lived inside of a personal essay that I never quite wrote about the conflict between art and science and which side of the fence I thought was ‘right’. Once you get a little bit older you realise that, well, neither side is purely right and as a matter of fact that fence was largely imaginary to begin with.

It was my grappling between science and religion in the burgeoning stages of of my personal atheism that led me to believe that art was the true path – I literally drew a diagram of this, which I wish I could find, but it was something like:

sketch

Religion was up in the clouds, all wishy-washy and unanchored to anything and vague.

Science was too specific, down in the microscopic dirt, with fundamental laws about particles but no bigger picture, no essence.

And then there was art, there was creativity, which seemed to draw these two together to make them larger than the sum of their parts. It’s true: my English major literally saved my academic career. I’m not sure I could have completed a degree in pure science.

And now, a decade out from my University qualifications, in a move that could perhaps have been predicted by some people but certainly was not by me, I have found myself in a University library, pointing to a stapler and answering fine queries from oblivious undergraduates (oh how the cycle perpetuates, there I am, a ghost of myself transposed ten years into the future and meeting myself), but also, if you step back, teaching people how to find, how to know, how to learn, how to synthesise, which is almost the same thing as pure creation, or at least the opening steps of the dance of it.

There are many things about my current life which I never could have foreseen but which at the same time have a certain inevitability about them. For example, blog posts written at 1am after a reasonable amount of chardonnay find their parallels in the essays I used to write the night before the due date, finishing at 4 or 5am after 4 or 5 cups of coffee. Some things do not change as much as we think they do.

And that’s how I got here.

On Yellowcard, old music, and why every rock band should have a violinist.

This evening I went to Yellowcard’s farewell concert at the Enmore Theatre.

This music has been with me through a full half of my lifetime. The lyrics are embedded invisibly somewhere deep within my neural pathways. I don’t listen to much of this kind of music any more so it seems a funny choice to get misty-eyed about, but it was just that 2 or 3 year period of your teenage life where certain things stick, you know? If I were a few years older I’d probably feel the same way about Blink182.

It’s simple music – in some ways a lot simpler than what I generally listen to these days. But it’s real and it’s genuine and it’s energetic and joyful, and there are moments when the lyrics shine and the melody soars, and it’s a bloody punk rock band with a violin. The notes of it are engraved on my bones.

They have always been excellent in concert. Tonight, Sean Mackin backflipped off an amp (as he always has done) and I lost. my. goddamn. mind. 

They did an acoustic guitar/violin arrangement of Empty Apartment and I swear to you every single person in the theatre sang every single word, a single seething mass of song. 

Ryan says “I want you all to run around in a circle in the same direction like it’s fucking 1997 up in here.” And the average age of the crowd was about 30 so we were right at home. It wasn’t new fans; they’d brought these people along with them through the decades. Imagine creating something so good that people can still sing it along with you half a lifetime later.

It’s not my music now, but it was my music then.

And their music does acknowledge the passage of time – as the albums go on things get messier, darker, lost, saved, and then nostalgic, and lastly (because they knew it would be their final album), a closing sense of farewell, a goodbye, a thank you. 

It has been quite a few years since I got home at 1am, feet aching, ears ringing, throat swollen and sore, guitar riffs still fizzing in my veins. But tonight they brought it like they always do. Like the time in the Big Top at Luna Park when the stupid mosh kids broke the stage barrier and we had to wait around for an hour for a new one before they could play. Like the time a week or two after ‘Light Up The Sky’ was released and everyone knew it off by heart already and there was a moment in the last chorus when Sean and Ryan looked at each other, their eyes glittering in this ferocious disbelief and joy that we were GOING OFF for this brand new thing they had created. We were more levitating than jumping, I swear our feet barely brushed the floor. They have always looked so freaking happy to be up there on stage, and it’s infectious to watch someone doing what they love to do. It’s a privilege. It’s a joy.

I’m so sad to see them go. I’m so thankful for the soundtrack they provided to my growing up.

I Can’t Keep Quiet

A couple of things making me think.

  1. Friend comments that I really should start blogging again (thanks Nick!)
  2. Red wine.
  3. This:


So here is something that I truly believe. In these dangerous times, if you have an ounce of creative instinct in you, it is unethical not to create. Make good art.

This joy in protest, in the face of ugliness, this beautiful resistance. This harmony in the face of being torn apart. Personally this is my favourite act of protest that I have seen. What could be greater, what could be more glorious than this?

(There’s something ancient and undeniable in song. When you open your mouth and your throat and your everything and it comes pouring out like the purest fucking thing you’ve ever experienced)

What if this is opportunity? There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. What if this could be how the light gets in?

How dare I stop writing? Even for a moment. You have to write like you’re running out of time, because what if you are? Hard times require furious dancing.

And what if it happens here, what if this insane wave of neo-liberal-fascism comes to my country? It’s already stirring. If it can happen in America it can so just as easily happen here (let alone all the places around the world that are in even greater suffering), and the planet these days is just one big place, anyway, what’s an ocean or two in separation?

I gave up on this stuff for a while, I burnt out, I thought we got what we deserved, I stayed (relatively) quiet. Fuck you Tony Abbott.

… You know what? No.

No one deserves this.

That’s not good enough. Try harder.

We (earth, people, us, the pale blue dot) are better than this.

Time to re-ignite.

~

Cause I can’t keep quiet,
a one-woman riot.
I can’t keep quiet
for anyone.
No. Not any more.

 

My 2016 Reading List

There has rather sadly only been three blog posts since my last reading list, and yet here we are again! Already!

I have read a total of 33 books this year – 15 more than last year, so a numerical improvement (although that’s not really what I measure reading by). Some interesting serendipities, old flames and new discoveries.

 

1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This was a great ‘ideas-book’ of a sci fi, translated from the original Chinese. I think it’s always good to read more books from different countries of origin, and interesting to feel the difference in tone between this and English sci-fi. The prose was certainly nothing spectacular (although who’s to say whether this is from the original or the translation), but I can certainly say it was very different to any other sci-fi novel I’ve read.

2. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

I’ve always wanted to read Camus ever since I read that quote of his – “In the depths of winter, I finally found that within me there lay an invincible summer” – and this year I finally got around to it. A treatise on absurdism in a meaningless, Godless world. I found it incredibly cheerful.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

3. Trigger Warning: short fictions and disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Short stories by Neil Gaiman are always good. They are the kind of short stories that I absolutely wish I could write.

4. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

One of my great discoveries of the year, Station Eleven is the story of several characters experiencing the end of the world as we know it (a swine flu mutation wiping out most of the earth’s population), and the post-apocalyptic survivors 20 years later, a travelling band of Shakespearean performers keeping the Bard’s words alive. Two things about this book:station-11

1) There is a scene during the global melt-down where a plane full of infected passengers lands at an airport and taxies to the far end of the runway. The doors remain sealed. The plane sits in the background of the story for decades, full of bodies. I felt eerie and haunted every time I saw a plane for at least a month after reading this book.

2) A fantastic hidden interactive reading experience. I turned the page and the first line on the next page was “A folded piece of paper fell out of the book.” … And a folded piece of paper fell out of my book. I was literally seeing what the character was seeing. This is my favourite piece of cool publishing ever.

5. Writing Down the Bones: freeing the writer within by Natalie Goldberg

I’ve read a lot of writing advice books in my time, and in fact I’ve generally stopped reading them now, as it’s reached the point where the only thing I really need to do in order to write is just to sit down and do it. However, this tiny little pocket-sized book caught my eye in the library returns room and I couldn’t pass it up. While there were quite a few good prompts and bits of writing advice in there, what I really got out of the book was a philosophy of writing more than anything.

“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter…”

6. Writing to the Edge: prose poems & microfictions by Linda Godfrey (ed)

Another random acquisition from the library returns room, I picked up this slender volume because I figured if I was going to be writing short stories I should be reading more in the genre, and I really enjoy microfiction.

7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Honestly all I can remember about this book is Barnes’ usual glorious prose. I have no memory of the plot or narrative or anything whatsoever. Whoops. I remember enjoying it, though.

8. The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

I picked up this book and the following one after a Gleebooks YA author talk, and I’m so glad I did. Three teenage boys deal with the death of one of their friends. I may have cried a little bit.

9. The Flywheel by Erin Gough

Enticed into buying this after the same author talk, I was not disappointed (I find I never am, when I buy a book due to meeting the author). Del drops out of high school to take care of her family’s cafe. I need to read more books with LGBT characters in them. Also, this was set very specifically around Glebe, where I was living at the time, and I always love reading Aussie books with recognisable settings.

10. Slade House by David Mitchell

My Halloween book recommendation of the year, Slade House was deliciously creepy in a very David-Mitchelly sort of way. A succint but satisfying addition to The Bone Clocks universe.

11. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The disappointment of the year.

Authors, repeat after me: Fairytales should not be extended into novels, at least not while trying to keep the fairytale-esque style. This could have been good as a short story but as a lengthy novel it draaaaagged. I wasn’t really sure what the point of it all was. And since the prose was fairly bare, in keeping with the fairytale style, I couldn’t even squeeze enjoyment out of that aspect.

12. Secret Scribbled Notebooks by Joanne Horniman

This one was a re-read for me – I read it as a 16 year old and absolutely adored it. I thought it might be a let-down since I loved it so much as a teenager, how could it stand up to re-reading?

… IT WAS EVEN BETTER YOU GUYS. The bookish main character read all of the same books that I went on to read in my late teens and early 20s, and I don’t even know if that’s just coincidence or if this book wormed its way so deeply into my subconscious that I was destined to read them. I’m pretty sure Kate is my soul mate, or maybe I was her in a past life, I don’t know.

13. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

The longest book I read this year. I have no idea how to summarise a Miéville novel, as I’m too dazzled by his imagination. It’s a chunky book and a bit of a slow starter, but it accelerates towards the conclusion. You know how in most sci-fi books the aliens are just funny-looking humans, maybe speaking a different language, but otherwise pretty indistinguishable? … Yeah, Miéville’s alients are not like that. Not that this book is sci-fi, exactly, unless sci-fi got cross-pollinated with urban grunge fantasy.

14. My Candlelight Novel by Joanne Horniman

Kind of a sequel to Secret Scribbled Notebooks, this one is told from the perspective of Kate’s older sister Sophie. While I don’t feel I have quite as much in common with her, there is something about the way Joanne Horniman writes and the way that her characters see the world that nestles perfectly against my heart. I must now acquire every single little thing that this author has ever written.

15. The Penelopiad: The Play by Margaret Atwood

I got this out of the library randomly, and since I did actually make my way through Homer’s Odyssey (as a complement to my slog through Joyce’s Ulysses), I thought it might be worth reading the feminist, Atwood-version of the story. I do enjoy modern re-tellings of ancient myths. Reading plays is always a bit weird though.

16. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is the least David-Mitchelly book of all of Mitchell’s books – if you hadn’t read anything else in his universe, it would probably just seem like a quirky 1980s coming-of-age story. Of course, if you know where to look you see characters from his other books popping up all over the place.

17. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

How can a journal, a secret scribbled notebook written so many centuries ago (AD990-early 1000s), feel so relatable in so many ways?

pillowbook-insta

18. We Ate the Road like Vultures by Lynette Lounsbury

I heard the author speak somewhere (was it at the Sydney Writer’s Festival?) about how she really loved the beat poets and On The Road by Kerouc, but hated the part where they were all kind of sexist assholes and not very nice people. She wanted to write a road story told in the same style but by a teenage girl, and so this book was written. It was an insanely fun wild ride. I read it in about 24 hours. A moose explodes in the first few pages. You have been warned.

19. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

I opened this novel and lo and behold, the epigraph was one of my favourite quotes from the last few pages of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, which I had only just finished reading. My Year of Meats is about a Japanese American documentary maker and the dodgy practices of the American meat industry, and it will probably make you want to be vegetarian. It’s also about documentary making and telling the truth in general, which is where The Pillow Book comes in.

20. Communion Town by Sam Johnson

I bought this book years and years and years ago on sale (it has a pretty cover), and finally got around to reading it. It’s an unusual city told in a collection of short stories, with different styles and genres. I like this idea of collected short stories, and I think I want to try writing one one day.

21. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Set on the British airfields in WW2, this book is about two girls (a secret agent and a pilot) and their friendship. Apart from making me cry (as war books have a tendency to do), this had a lot about planes and airfield life in general, which I found really interesting – my grandparents on my dad’s side met on an airfield base in WW2 so I gave them a copy for Christmas.

22. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A. S. Byatt

A collection of fairytales – done right this time, each tale sticking to an appropriate length. Traditional in many ways but also with an edge of modernity underneath.

23. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Okay, so I know I’m late to the bandwagon in finally getting around to reading this book. I sort of liked it, but there were a few too many “hand-wavy” moments to explain the time travel. It didn’t quite make sense and seemed to promote the irritating idea that the future is set in stone, so the characters never bothered to make any real choices. Also I wasn’t quite sold on the romance – if a middle-aged guy showed up in my childhood and told me we would get married one day, I think I’d resent the loss of agency and free will. Even if he turned out to be super hot and totally cool.

24. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

I got this one out of the library because a Text newsletter reviewed it as being “A sweatier, dustier, woozier, kangaroo-ier Heart of Darkness” and I was immediately sold on this description. I’m not sure why, as I don’t really like Heart of Darkness much, and had a bit of the same dislike for this one. It’s never fun to watch characters make obviously stupid decisions and ruin their lives. But it was an interesting take on the Australian outback (and alcoholism and gambling).

25. Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Mosssigns-for-lost-children

The sequel to Bodies of Light which I read last year, with an equally gorgeous cover. Early interactions between Japan and Europe in the 19th century seem to crop up weirdly often in the books I read, and it happened again here – Ally’s husband Tom goes off to Japan to build lighthouses while she stays behind and works as a doctor in a women’s mental asylum. Loads in here about the psychology and mental health of 19th century women but that description makes it sound far too dry; Sarah Moss is one of the best wordsmiths I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Ally is such a powerfully real character, a quiet feminist of her times.

26. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A fantastic idea told in some of the worst prose I’ve ever read. It’s set in a slightly futuristic, somewhat dystopian world which everyone escapes by logging in to a virtual reality game called ‘OASIS’. It plays on RPG/gaming tropes (which my geek heart really enjoyed), but the little amount of social commentary given to this fascinating idea was extremely unsubtle, and there were a couple of moments where the writing/dialogue was so bad I had to stop and put down the book in order to roll my eyes. If I had gone into it expecting a story for young to mid-age teens I may have enjoyed it more; I think I approached it too much as an adult book, which was a mistake.

27. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

It was with this book that my love for Steinbeck became somewhat tainted with the realisation that he really, really, really didn’t like women. I’ve read three of his stories now and all 3 of them have had a ludicrously vile and evil/stupid woman as the antagonist. (Usually a sexual element to their evil-ness, too). Come on, Steinbeck – a guy who wrote the timshel passage should bloody well know better.

Read East of Eden instead.

28. Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down

I opened this book to the ‘about the author page’ to the following three realisations: 1) Her name was Jennifer (cool name yo). 2) It was her debut novel. 3) She was the age of my little brother.

Then I huffed and got jealous.

Anyway, a melancholy little book set in very recognisable parts of Australia (in the second half of the book the main character moves to Randwick). How do debut novelists have such gorgeous prose? It’s not fair.

29. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Prameeta had been recommending this to me for ages (thanks PLal!) and I finally borrowed it out of the library after seeing the three writer Moriarty sisters at an author talk (what a family full of talent). It’s about relationships and family life and secrets. It’s not quite my usual cup of tea but I did like it better than I expected. It’s tightly written with a satisfying conclusion.

30, 31 & 32. The Colours of Madeleine Trilogy by Jaclyn Moriarty

I’ve put these three books of the trilogy together because I devoured them as one story in the space of about a week and a half (they were holiday reading while I was in Byron Bay – book 1 was actually a re-read for me). I read Jaclyn Moriarty’s first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, when I was about 15 and have eagerly snapped up anything she’s written ever since. I was so excited to finally meet her at Hornsby Library this year and thank her for a decade of happy reading – I think it’s so important for young readers to have access to Australian books, with characters that you might bump into while hanging out at Hornsby Station or at school on on Sydney’s Northshore.

Not that The Colours of Madeleine is set around here – it’s in Cambridge and also in the magical Kingdom of Cello, where Colour Storms rage over the land and a rogue Purple can kill you in an instant. Jaclyn Moriarty is a seriously whimsical lady.

33. Railsea by China Miéville

 I am cheating only a little bit by including this – it’s midday on December 31st and I haven’t quite finished reading it yet, since reading time has been delayed in favour of Christmas events and eating far too much delicious food. Quite different to the other Miéville books I’ve read (as I think this one is classified as YA), it’s just pure rip-roaring fun. Sort of riffing off Moby Dick (and maybe a touch of Robert Louis Stevenson too), except instead of a whaling ship on the ocean it’s a mole-train on the Railsea, crossing the earth that boils with giant beasties that will eat you as soon as you put a toe overboard. The captain of the mole train is hunting a giant white moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack and…. here, just read this and giggle with me:
“You know how careful are philosophies […] How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”
Something tells me Miéville studied Moby Dick in high school and had to write that essay explaining what the white whale was supposed to symbolise.

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