My 2018 Reading List

What a goddamn year this last one was, hey? This is a little delayed due to the unrelenting chaos of the end of my 2018, and so much has happened that I find my memory of a lot of these titles somewhat hazy, but I’ll do my best to recap.

I have read a total of 38 books this year. Some random stats:

  • 12 books were by Australian authors (many of them Sydney-siders), which is just under a third of my total.
  • 19 of the books were borrowed from the library – many of them are things that I only picked up because I happened to come across them, rather than seeking them out specifically (though some of them I got the library to order in just for me). I enjoy the element of eclecticism that library work brings to my reading life.
  • The longest book I read (in terms of page count) at 659 pages was Gemina, book #2 of the Illuminae Files, and I started and finished it within about 48 hours.

On to the list!

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Being a big fan of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, I was interested in reading this (I haven’t seen the movie of it). It was quite beautifully written, a good tribute to Woolf. Don’t remember much else about it! Except I felt for the 50s housewife who drove away from her husband and young child to go hide out in a hotel and read books all night…

2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is my author of the year. It’s not the first time I read her, but this year her reputation has solidified for me as someone who I must read absolutely everything of. The Poisonwood Bible is about a family with four daughters in the Congo during the 60s, and apart from being an amazing and emotional read it also taught me a lot about the country and the time period and America’s interference in international affairs. I’m one of those people who pretty much only gains historical knowledge through reading fiction.

3. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

I’ve always wanted to read Sartre ever since a character in Secret Scribbled Notebooks raved about him, but sadly I was not a fan. The writing was not particularly interesting and, well, the main character’s existential philosophy seemed to boil down to ‘I’m a middle-class white man in my mid-20s and I’m so much smarter than everyone else around me and no one understands me’. Very much like if That Guy In Your MFA wrote a novel.

4. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places by Ursula K. Le Guin

gran's favourite quotes

Gran’s favourite quotes from ‘The Dispossessed’

I was very upset that the world lost Ursula K. Le Guin in 2018. I read The Earthsea Trilogy as a child and it has always stuck with me. She is also one of my Gran’s favourite authors and so I was sad on her behalf. I’d long been meaning to pick of some of Le Guin’s ‘writing about writing’, so I got this out of the library. As well as interesting essays it had some great road trip poetry in it.

And it’s not from this collection, but I also want to share the first stanza of this: Poem written in 1991.

 


5. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I saw an author talk with Charlotte Wood in Gleebooks a while ago, and enjoyed it enough that I bought the book as a gift for my Mum and then got the book out of the library for myself. It’s a weird, gritty, confronting story about a group of women imprisoned for mysterious and misogynistic reasons in a remote country compound. I did find it very hard to believe that these women never seemed to consider banding together and taking out their three captors, (who they greatly outnumbered and who did not seem to have serious weapons of any kind), and never even attempted to escape (???). But gradually it drew me in further and further and I found myself embracing the story, until…….. an irritatingly inconclusive ending. Argh.

6. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

I should have a special bookshelf for ‘I Read This as a Kid and it’s Still As Good As I Remembered!’ books, because they are such a joy. This book is like a honey-scented hug. It was an interesting re-read because when I first read it, I knew and understood almost nothing about the context of the story (South Carolina in the 60s). But it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl who scribbles in notebooks. I have a type. ❤

Secret life of bees tweet

 

7. Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman

A richly-bound and engraved red hardcover full of Philip Pullman’s essays on writing. He is the purest ‘storyteller’ that I know, and his passion for his craft shines through in everything he writes.

Reading pile

 

8 & 9: Gemina and Obsidio (The Illuminae Files, #2 & #3) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

I read book one of this series, Illuminae, back in mid-2017 and described it as a ‘space-opera-zombie-thriller-hacker extravaganza’. Books 2 and 3 of this trilogy continue in the same vein and add pulpy-romance-scifi-alien-horror and probably a few other glorious descriptors that I haven’t yet thought of. The most page-turny page turners I’ve read in a while. Plus, I recommended the series to Bec and thus had the enjoyment of reading her outraged and sometimes traumatised reactions via text message (she loves my recommendations, really):

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10. The Eye of the Heron / The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

Two separate novellas by Le Guin which I picked mostly at random from her sizable back catalogue of stories. She was an amazing author of the best kind of thought-provoking science fiction – somehow very different in tone and approach to any other scifi I’ve ever read. Her stories quietly question everything about established world orders – masculinity, violence, conquest, power – without ever feeling like they’re hitting you over the head with a big stick of sanctimoniousness.

11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two by Jack Thorne

This book wins my ‘Golden Raspberry’ award for the year.

It was truly and almost uniformly terrible. Indistinguishable from bad fanfiction.

Luckily, it had been out for a good while before I got around to reading it, so I had my expectations appropriately lowered in adavance. Thus I didn’t suffer too much disappointment from this glimpse into the future of the wizarding world.

Maybe it’s better on stage? Who knows.

12. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

I picked this one up because of the cover. A coming-of-age YA romance between two girls, that slowly unravels a backstory to explain the current mysterious situation. I quite like this narrative format but this book sure does make you wait for it, and I’m not sure the payout was quite worth the suspense. But it was a sweet little book with understated but beautiful prose.

13. The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

I really enjoy Ursula Dubosarsky’s writing for kids, as it’s somewhat darker and quirkier than your average YA fare. I also visited Luna Park shortly after reading it (it’s a featured location in the book), and found myself absent-mindedly looking for a blue cat everywhere.

14. Paula by Isabelle Allende

This is a book that I read in high school (year 10 I think it was?) which I really enjoyed, and strangely almost everyone else in my class disliked. It had a lot of parts that I didn’t remember very well (lots about Chile, and various love affairs that the author had over the years) and plenty of parts that I did remember, about death and loss and grief. “Silence before birth, silence after death; life is nothing but noise between two interminable silences.”

15. Willow Tree and Olive by Irini Saviddes

This is a YA coming-of-age story about a Greek-Australian girl. The main character almost immediately put me off when in one of the first chapters, she laughs at a white waiter/caterer being upset about their plates getting smashed at a Greek wedding. Being annoyed by the destruction of your property makes you a clueless white person? Hmmm okay then. My opinion of the character never quite recovered from this setback. Which is a shame, because I really like the other book I’ve read by this author.

16. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian

I’ve seen David Christian give a presentation on Big History and he is an excellent speaker, so I thought I’d read the source material. I really like his over-arching approach to science as being an ‘origin story’, a story that we use to make sense of our world and our place within it (since many of us don’t use religion for this sense of meaning any more).

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17. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story 
About Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

I wanted to read this book because of its pretty cover. However, from the perspective of a person who is lucky enough not to suffer from anxiety, I think I still don’t understand ‘The Beast’.

That being said, it does get my personal Book Cover Design Of The Year award! (I’ve decided to make this a regular thing.)


18. Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology by multiple authors

This is a collection of YA short stories from Australian authors, and it reminded me how incredibly lucky I am to have grown up reading excellent fiction by local writers. As a teenager there was nothing like the thrill of reading a story and finding out that the characters hung out at all my local haunts. From this collection, it looks like young Australian readers these days have even more of a smorgasbord to feast from. A lot of my enthusiasm for Australian fiction this year came from this book!

19, 20, & 21: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy – The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie

Book one of this trilogy was a re-read for me, as I originally read it a while ago and couldn’t remember enough to confidently go on with the rest of the trilogy. Like most excellent science fiction, it dumps you in a vastly alien universe and story and it takes a little while of furious concentration to get your mind around what is going on. My favourite thing about this series is the (almost tangential) fact that gender is not an important signifier in Radch society and almost all of the characters are presented as gender-ambivalent. Additionally, the main character is a ship’s AI split into multiple bodies – so not even close to human, let alone gendered. And yet, the writing is so good that after half a book of figuring out what is going on, Breq is just Breq. She’s probably the most unique character I’ve ever read and I love her.

22. Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco

I picked this up because I really enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Eco is known for his literary musings as much as his fiction. This was a collection of talks and essays he’d written. Nothing particularly jumped out at me or blew me away, though.

23. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Book of the year award! Yay!

The main character of this book is a writer (amongst other things), and it was utter perfection. Authorship, censorship, art, life, and Frida Kahlo. What’s not to love? Kingsolver tackles huge ideas in the most readable format. She says, “A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it”, and that’s exactly my experience with her fiction. It takes my breath away and at the same time inspires me. I think it’s exactly the kind of fiction that I would aspire to write one day (you know, in my wildest dreams).

24. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

A short but piercing tale of radioactivity and elephants. Beautifully strange and full of a burning anger that is both alien and very familiar. This one is very hard to summarise. Definitely the weirdest thing I read in 2018 (in a good way).

25. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

I picked this up because I kept running across the title in /r/books and countless people seem to adore it. It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and I am a bit fascinated by science fiction written in that era, since it always feels like a such an odd combination of futuristic and retro/dated. Often because humanity is flying around on spaceships but women are still making the coffee and being good girls. (This novel avoided that issue by having almost no female characters at all). It’s about both humanity’s ever-reliable self-destructive tendencies, but also about its stubborn willingness to rebuild and treasure knowledge and learning. A very funny and tender book about the end of the world.

26. Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories by Catriona Mitchell

A collection of autobiographical writing by a diverse group of Indian women. The range of experiences within this collection really reflects the extremes of India’s culture, from rich to poor, powerful to disenfranchised.

27. Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

For some reason, the main character of this book reminded me (in the best possible way) of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle – something about a tale told from the first-person perspective of a girl with a somewhat eccentric family and supporting cast. Rush Oh! is about a whaling family in New South Wales in the early 1900s. It’s quirky and warm-hearted and (of course) has a lot in it about whales, both the ones that are hunted and the pod of orcas who assist the whalers. Based on a true story!

28, 29 & 30: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

I read this trilogy on recommendation from friends, and also on the strength of the fact that the series won three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel, three years in a row. That’s an impressive level of consistency. Set in a geologically unstable fantasy world of volcanoes and rifts and sinkholes, with a magic system based around the manipulation of geological energy. See, this is what I love about fantasy: the series is about prejudice and discrimination, but it’s also about cool floating crystals and mysterious ancient cultures. Good, solid, imaginative fantasy with a social conscience.

31. The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub

This book was trying very hard to be the next Melina Marchetta, but it just didn’t quite get there. I’m not sure why, as it followed the format closely – a group of unlikely friends and frenemies are thrown together (some against their will) to make up the school’s yearbook committee, and we get to watch the characters and their relationships develop over the course of the school year. All of the pieces were there, but the alchemy didn’t happen. The ending felt like it was trying to hard to have a big emotional impact, but I never quite bought it, for some reason.

32. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg

The history of the English language from its early roots to its modern-day permutations. The author was quite successful in making a language the central character of an adventure story, and it was very interesting and well written. Possibly even someone who’s not an English lit nerd would enjoy it!

33. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

I don’t read widely in the genre of historical fiction, but Brooks is an author that I’ve grown to trust implicitly with this type of story. The Secret Chord is the story of King David (of Goliath-slaying-fame) from his childhood to his death. Not my favourite from this author, but still very readable.

34. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Long before J.K. Rowling ever even finished the Harry Potter series, I always said that if she were to go on to write something else, it would be crime fiction. Again, not a genre I usually read in, but I trust the author’s ability to lay a satisfying trail of breadcrumbs, and I wasn’t disappointed.

35. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

A weighty book in many ways – physically (it’s a doorstopper), emotionally (you will cry), chronologically (it has been long-awaited, and it took Markus Zusak over a decade to write). It’s also set in Sydney, which I love. There’s so much affection for the area soaked into every word of the story. It’s the tale of five brothers (and a small menagerie of pets) and of their parents, so it jumps around in time quite a lot, and takes a while to really get going. But it’s most definitely worth investing the time and emotional energy and several boxes of tissues in.

36. The Second Cure by Margaret Morganthe second cure

Not only is this set in Sydney, but the main characters are based literally in the next suburb over from mine. This was a pleasant but unexpected coincidence, as I picked it off the library shelf based on the cover and the interesting-sounding blurb. A pointedly contemporary pandemic story about a disease that has deeply political consequences, effectively splintering the world into the left/centre and far-right conservative movements. (Sounds familiar, right?) I wasn’t sure I liked the final ‘twist’ of the story, but with such a solid set-up and great characters it was difficult for it to live up to its promise. The extra juiciness of reading a political and scientific thriller set in my own backyard more than made up for this, though.

37. A Very Unusual Pursuit by Catherine Jinks

I read Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles in high school and they were gritty and compulsively readable YA, so when I bumped into this on the library shelves, I thought I’d give it a go. This one is for younger readers, but still good. Urban fantasy set in Victorian-era London.

38. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

I hadn’t read this book for almost 20 years, but it all came flooding back. An autobiography of the author’s time spent on the Greek island of Corfu when he was a boy. This re-read made me desperately want to visit the Greek Isles, and also reminded me that the book was a powerful source of my obsession with animals and nature and the ocean as a kid. Another book to thank for my biology major! I mainly remembered the book for all of the wildlife writing, but discovered on re-reading that the author’s writing about his family members is hilarious, something which I probably didn’t appreciate as much on my first read when I was younger. A perfect summer read.

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Reflections On Childhood Wardrobe Adventures

(Thoughts prompted partly by the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture by V. E. Schwab, which you can read here; also by attending the book launch of Leaf Stone Beetle by Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, published through Dirt Lane Press).

***

Even before I read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, I always suspected there were doorways hidden in wardrobes. As a very young child I had recurring dreams about the secret passageways inside the walls of my house, which you could access from the built-in cupboards. As with many of my childhood dreams, the lines blurred between what was dream and what was reality, for me. In the same way that I was utterly convinced I could fly if I just tried hard enough, I knew that the secret passageways were there. I was so sure that it didn’t even occur to me to check while I was awake – I just knew. (Luckily, this same rock-solid certainty ensured that I never bothered to jump off the balcony to test out my flying skills).

Playing hide and seek by clambering up to the top of my parent’s closet (nose full of the smell of Mum’s clothes), I found tucked away in the back of the top shelf a short sword – an actual, freaking, curved-blade-in-a-leather-scabbard sword. This was an utterly unexpected find in our comfortable, quiet, suburban house – and yet not unexpected at all, because of course secrets are hidden in cupboards. Dad was probably a secret king of a fantasy kingdom and one day of course I would inherit the throne – there was probably a magical prophecy to that effect. I would probably get my own unicorn.

(Turns out the sword came from Afghanistan via carry-on luggage on a plane to Australia 20-something years previously. The 1970s were a very different time for airport security.)

***

I had a cubby on the top shelf of my own bedroom cupboard where I used to go to enjoy the view of the world from ceiling level – the next closest thing you could get to tree-climbing inside of the house. Hidden inside the top of the doorframe was a little wooden ledge that stuck out maybe a couple of centimetres, and here was where I stashed all of my tiny found treasures. And it is amazing what a four-year-old would consider to be a treasure; a lost button, a chipped blue-glass marble, a fuzzy silver ball from an early-90s craft kit, some sequins, old coins… etc.

I was thirteen years old when I first went to Bali, and I remember being absolutely captivated by the little offerings of woven palm and flowers left everywhere, on doorsteps, windows, alcoves – ordinary, everyday objects imbued with wordless magic. I knew nothing at all of faith or religious devotion or ritual in those days, and these little parcels of colour and scent held a powerful and mysterious fascination for me. They moved me, in a way I couldn’t explain to myself then and still can’t really articulate now.

I have always been unashamedly materialistic in this way: even before I had read Tolkien, I always knew that tiny objects (which are really tiny symbols) can hold great power. I can’t help it; I like stuff. Stuff holds stories, just like houses do. I am terrible at throwing things away, because I get attached to the most ridiculous junk. Recently I’ve discovered that there is a legitimate interior decorating trend called ‘maximalism’, which I’ve totally embraced. As a messy person by nature, it’s a somewhat accidental embrace, but I’m leaning in to it. Even if there was a door to Narnia inside my cupboard, I’d never find it through all of the stuff that’s in there.

***

It’s a different cupboard now; my childhood home is three bedrooms ago. I still hide tiny treasures about the place, but these days they are more often in the form of words scribbled down and tucked away, little shiny secrets that I get to hoard for myself.

Since my partner and I have our own place now, Dad told me it was finally time to clean out the last vestiges from my childhood wardrobe. I spent a day or two becoming tipsy and nostalgic with my Mum and some white wine, over boxes of old primary school workbooks and diaries and laughably terrible drawings (a visual artist, I most certainly was not). When the cupboard finally stood empty, recycling bin overflowing and a few too many boxes of things I couldn’t bear to part with stuffed into the boot of my car, Dad and I stood in my old blue bedroom and I told him fondly about my Secret Childhood Stash, having totally forgotten about it for the last two and a half decades right up until that moment.

He looked at me with a curious expression, and then reached up above his head into the cupboard (with the height I never inherited) to feel blindly along the inside lining of the doorframe. I didn’t say anthing, but I reached out, and into my two cupped hands he placed all of the shrapnel treasure of childhood, all still there, still waiting.

What a gift.

***

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.

Image result for swan princess monster

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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).

Image result for fantasia night on bald mountainImage result for fantasia night on bald mountain

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.

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.

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