What I read in 2018

This was the most stressful year of my life!

And… the most successful.

I learnt so much – some hard lessons, but I learnt a lot about my own strength and capacity, too, which is a positive I’m sitting with at the end of the year.

I went through a company restructure and took on a great deal of responsibility (with all kinds of side effects including a return of panic attacks). I hung in there for the books and authors, and worked bloody hard through a time of uncertainty and loss (and simultaneously the time of the biggest success of my publishing career – an international number one bestseller). Thankfully, everything has worked out. I have a wonderful small team now, and am working closely with the UK on more opportunities for our Aus authors, too. So 2019 will be busy, but hopefully calmer, and I’m extremely proud of the books we have coming up.

While all this was going on, my dog had some issues, and I thought I’d have to put her down. It was absolutely heart-wrenching. Sitting in meetings with your new boss wondering if you little pal was going to die. Again, all is now okay. Mallory the greyhound is alive, well, and happy.

I was also doing the edits on my debut novel at this time, in the very few hours I had around work (one of the hardest things about this year was the lack of time, and energy, for my friends). And when A Superior Spectre came out in August I was, to be honest, absolutely exhausted. Publishing a novel is something I’ve worked long and hard for, and thankfully, it has been very well received. The launch was packed, the reviews have been amazing, and I’ve had incredible, detailed emails and messages from people who have been engaged with the novel, its layers, characters and themes. THANK YOU!! In 2019 Spectre will also come out in the UK, with Saraband, and I am also 20,000 words into a new manuscript, which I will continue to work on diligently on Saturday mornings.

One of the biggest blessings of this year has been my relationship. Chris has been showing up all year, taking my mind off things, making me laugh, reminding me of the bigger picture, valuing me for who I am and not what I achieve, cooking me nourishing meals, listening, caring. I understand how fortunate I am to have such a stable, loving relationship. In 2019 I look forward to more time with him – more fun, adventures, sharing, and chill nights in.

Despite this unbelievable year of massive ups and downs, I read books! I even read more than last year, thanks to audiobooks finally ‘clicking’ with me (can’t do them in the car, only walking and on public transport). Here’s what I read in rough order, and please note these are not reviews but ‘responses’ upon finishing the books. These are only the books I finished but there are many more I have gotten three-quarters through and still plan to complete (it’s how I roll, reading like eight books at once…).

The Passage of Love – Alex Miller

My response to this is quite personal, not impartial – a mix of having read his work, discovering his voice, at such a formative time in my life (and in my own burgeoning writing and literary life), and also due to the subjects of the book – love and writing as life – which are so relevant to me and my worldview (and perhaps this is why his writing always struck a cord, because of the way his work articulated as yet unarticulated or underexplored things for me). I related to Robert, at various stages, particularly the class aspects, his ambitions and realisations around ‘truth’ and often in his desires and his capacity for love (and different kinds of love); in his fascination, curiosity and even construction of lovers; and in the way love, and people he has loved, never leave him, but layer within him. I was also frustrated with him at times, only because (and this is a strength of how the women characters are drawn) I felt what Wendy, Lena and Ann were feeling, what they wanted! I understood the way they wanted a lot all at once; you can frustrate yourself as much as be frustrated by a man not knowing or not being able to accommodate such wanting. But I thought Robert did his best at the age he was at, and with his own burgeoning artist self in demand of attention. I think the complexity between him and Lena was very well handled, very honest. I felt for them both. It was a very intimate read, for me. I found what may be the origins of some of the themes and aspects of Miller’s other books. I noticed things I don’t think I would have when I first read some of the others, particularly related to class.

Kafka: A Life in Prague – Klaus Wagenbach

A small, essential volume for any Kafka fan. Read to help draw out further the already present Kafkan threads in my novel – the wound, the escape from both a woman and the world, love as tyranny, the questionable morality of living in and as literature: ‘His classmate is quite right to speak of the “glass wall” that separated Kafka from the world. His inner world is being furnished; the outside world is seen purely as a mass of material.’

Terra Nullius – Claire G. Coleman

The Settlers have invaded and are destroying & repurposing the original inhabitants of the land. It’s a fantastical version of an absolute reality. As readers we are invited into different points of view, & reaction, to the horrors unfolding. I found the character of Jacky very moving.

The Ethical Slut – Janet W. Hardy & Dossie Easton

The bible of free love. (Fully updated with all modern terminology.)

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson

Extraordinary, an instant favourite. I slid around through existence, space, time, water, with these characters. Hard to describe. Magic. Beautiful. Loved.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

His curiosity, generosity and intellect. Inspired hugely by the way he doesn’t go for an easy answer and pushes for further interaction and inquiry, and encourages his colleagues to do the same. Many cases and people in the book will stay with me but some that captured my imagination include the man with temporary olfactory enhancement, who could smell the world like a dog (‘Oh, for the happy smell of water, the brave smell of a stone’); the woman who lost her sense of proprioception (the ‘eyes of the body’); the twins who have incredible calendric skill and play around with prime numbers (and the expansive way Sacks imagines their inner world and the way numbers might be perceived by them, as visual or as ‘friends’; and lines like this, re disorders of ‘excess’: ‘Dangerous wellness, morbid brilliance. A deceptive euphoria with brilliance beneath.’

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

Three characters in three different time frames working with bees – in the past, William tries to invent the ultimate hive; in the present, George, a beekeeper, tries to adapt to change; in the future, Tao & her family become involved in something much larger than themselves. In each part, the characters’ relationships with their children are explored – their need to connect, leave a legacy, accept, protect. This was my favourite aspect of the book, and I enjoyed how different each arc was (all equally absorbing). I also learnt a lot about the danger and devastation of the very real potential of bee extinction. At the beginning I thought the translation quite spare but then I found the novel more affecting because of it, once I got going – the glimpses we get of each character slowly letting us build our picture of them, and become invested in their futures. George was the most well-drawn, I thought. Lunde captures stubbornness, fear, and incapacity (to comprehend and to share emotions), and the way it expresses as sharpness and frustration.

Bluebeard’s Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann – Michael Marr, trs. David Fernbach

A strange little book that wonders if Mann had a big secret in the early diaries he burned (so they would not fall into the hands of the Nazis) & what impact that ‘secret’ potentially had on his works.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Very entertaining, puzzling over the characters and who could have ‘dunit’ while listening to the book on audio on the train & walking to work. Loved the isolated island setting. Parts I found waffly, particularly the denouement. Darker (more detailed) than I suspected! I liked the layer of the characters’ guilt around the people they may have killed (before coming to the island) and the access we had to their thoughts.

Walkaway – Cory Doctorow

Took a little while to warm up to this one; its structure is unconventional and it felt like I was skimming a surface for a while – all clever language & world-building. But once I knew the characters better I cared more about their experience, their futures. A complex future world, class and tech are main explorations; human relations – friendship, love, sex a concern too.

Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills

One girl (to woman), and a town, struggling against powers beyond their control, struggling against inevitability, and the girl slipping, sickly, through time. The weight of responsibility for the world, future, placed on individuals. A mood piece – a book with wet and dry, stink, luminescence, rasp, slipperiness. Just enough given, bursting at itself, so you turn pages & the mind alights to fill in gaps. And so it lives in you when you are reading it, too – a disturbance.
The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst

[For some reason I left no note on this one. Too busy, probably. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Alan H at Adelaide Writers’ Week. His books are rich, worth reading.]

In the Garden of the Fugitives – Ceridwen Dovey

Guilt v shame & reconstructing / reckoning w the past. A compulsive read w elements that puzzle before you know it’s a puzzle. Intelligence & coherence of themes. The stimulation of play – of ideas, of time, of perception, of creation & interpretation itself. And there… a gender thing after all, too. Commonalities w my themes in Spectre, though Dovey is more precise, advanced, intellectual, calm. But the guts of it, too. The touch. Love the depressive phase in SA. And obsession/compulsion themes. Desire to possess.

The Fish Girl – Mirandi Riwoe

Beautifully detailed and ultimately devastating. A superb, meaningful and contained work of fiction. Not a word wasted.

Her Body & Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

She takes teeth or an unpicker or surgical tools to tear open, in your own mind, and release past, present, other-realm-time, that memory where you were outcast as a child, the unacknowledged parts of (woman) self, the fullness & lack of body, jolts of (queer) desire & nightmarish anxiety, as a cosmic mass. Deeply affecting stories that scratch, unleash & expand.

Curriculum Vitae – Muriel Spark

MS’s autobio of her earlier life: vivid details of childhood in Edinburgh, Africa w first husband, wartime London & the years of literary effort that led to a successful career. Her intelligence, wit, sense of humour, & that confidence & knowledge she could pursue writing.

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn

Loved the opening: slow-burn character study of an agoraphobic woman drinking too much, taking too many pills, spying on the neighbours & watching Hitchcock films. When the mystery began it didn’t hold up for me. I really felt the construction of the suspense (infuriating – there were three main ‘DUH’ moments; I couldn’t believe each piece of knowledge would truly take so long to click for the protagonist), and I guessed the ending early on. Joke’s on me – I listened (audiobook) right to the end. I really did like both the setting and set-up, so I may still give Finn’s next book a chance…

Widows – Lynda La Plante

First published in the ’80s, as a tie-in to a TV series, this book feels surprisingly fresh (and so there’s no wonder it’ll be a new feature film later this year, too). When a heist goes wrong, the men’s widows step in to take over the job, led by Dolly Rawlins. The four women really grew on me, and were the main reason I wanted to keep turning the pages, but the pacing and story ‘beats’ were skilful. It definitely made me want to read the Tennison series (which became the show Prime Suspect).

Journey by Moonlight – Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

Bought in Hungary as a recommended Hungarian read. It had me with the protagonist, a man on his honeymoon, compelled all night down the back-alleys of Venice. It was strange to read this after my Island essay was published, as it played out the running away fantasy, and for Mihály there are strains of nostalgia, eroticism, and a death drive – all appealing to me in fiction. There are contrasts between daylight and darkness; in darkness paranoia, unreality and a warping of all elements of the environment (including sound). And in both day and night some spirituality just out of grasp. Spiritual sweetness, spiritual horror. And many intelligent psychological observances. But then some that just about ruined the book for me, about women: used, ‘smelly’, and compared to dogs. These date the book, unfortunately, and show through some true, terrible fear, that makes your stomach a bit sick.

20. Staying – Jessie Cole

A memoir
of life and grief
of affection and touch
of love
of children’s hearts
of liquid and sharp, and grain and air
of a forest
of living with loss in your breath, in the walls
of silence and speaking
of staying

Into the Night – Sarah Bailey

Addictive plot, visually very vivid – like watching a movie – and Melbourne feeling like Melbourne. Some admirable choices, and a very strong female character. If someone were to call Gemma flawed I’d probably want to slap them. I had a few issues but they didn’t matter too much, it seems, as I inhaled the book over one weekend.

Call Me Evie – J.P. Pomare

Claustrophobic and puzzling – you need to know what has happened to this teenage girl, and why she is being ‘kept’. Many twists and turns. A solid thriller. Echoes of The Collector and The Well, but with a very contemporary crux to the action (exposure on the internet). Set in New Zealand.

The Girl on the Page – John Purcell

A novel that reflected and dramatised many thoughts that keep me awake at night, about ‘commercial’ fiction and literature, and about writers and their minds, their lives, their motivations and even their morals. It starts out a real romp and turns more acidic. This is the real blood and guts of living a bookish life (in contemporary times). I didn’t always (or even often) agree with the characters, and when I did it was often the characters I most disliked. They challenged me. I liked my cameo!

The Rúin – Dervla McTiernan.

Really solid police procedural with characters you care about and want the best for. Perfect as an audiobook. Very enjoyable.

The Second Cure – Margaret Morgan

A parasite that causes synesthesia = decreased fear, decreased disgust, increased recklessness & so decreased political conservatism. And then, so, the socio-political response (from the religious right). Some of the aspects I most enjoyed were the exploration of identity politics tied in w the ‘thetes’ and those not infected, the music-induced orgasms and the enterprising character who capitalised on this phenomenon, and the very strong cast of characters (well-balanced and well-handled). Overall a very entertaining and stimulating read.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Saw her at BWF 2017 and thought she was wonderful. An informative, in-depth look at structural inequality.

The Agonist – Shastra Deo

Finished prior but forgot to add. LOVED these poems.

Wintering – Krissy Kneen

Cohesive, a mood, a full-bodied read. Tasmanian gothic, tension, guessing. All senses walking through the dark of a cave or tasting fish, feeling cold. A very satisfying read.

The World Was Whole – Fiona Wright

Such a wonderful book of essays that has been popping into my thoughts constantly since reading. Complex ideas of home, routine, of what kind of experiences we value in consumer capitalism. Of the body, of illness. Fiona’s writing is essential.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Bringing the world down to something small, close, half-imagined. The two sisters and what orbits them and the expulsion of anything that interrupts or confuses the lifestyle. Weird comfort in the darkness, the possession of each other (&, as the reader, being held captive with them). The writing itself is eerie, careful. Repetition is used well, space is in the right places, perfect descriptions of the household items.

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

A woman’s husband leaves and she is shattered by it. A deep emotional, psychological, and physical study of what happens in the days, weeks, months after she is abandoned, as she learns of his betrayal. Relentless and kind of tumbling. We can’t see past her edges, and there is no sparing the reader in terms of the anger, depression, numbness, the effect on her children and the dog. Devastating and also I had to finish it. Truthful and tearing.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

I’m so glad I didn’t read too much about this book. What a delight to discover this realm of souls clinging to their bodies and to earth. And Willie Lincoln, the boy-soul who shakes up their existence. A kindness and understanding within the book, for humans. Strange to read parts of it during a side-effect-induced terrible insomnia after a draining illness, where I felt like I had tendrils in that other realm, could see the character with too many facial features in front of my eyes, the gaunt dead child. Beckett meets Shakespeare meets Tim Burton.

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates – Blake Bailey

An in-depth, lively biography of one of my favourite authors (sad books forever). Devastating and fascinating – the way someone who so skilfully and piercingly wrote about how people get in their own way continually thwarted himself or lacked insight into his own behaviours and their consequences. Mental illness and alcoholism, and money issues (and this all part of a cycle), played into this. Bailey’s insights into the works themselves, in the context of the life, are brilliant. And his sharing of much of Yates’ own thoughts/teachings on writing, which I studiously dog-eared. And there was so much I didn’t know, including how autobiographical his works were, and that he’d been a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy. Or that Vonnegut was a fan and friend. Overall, it’s as complex and sad a read as one of his novels. But he wouldn’t want us to pity him.

Killing Floor: Jack Reacher #1 – Lee Child

Uh… Loved this WAY more than I expected to. Great pacing. Kick-arse anti-hero. Fun. Easy.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

Epic SF/fantasy. A well-built world to escape into, a thoughtful structure, great pacing, sophisticated style choices, and characters you become deeply invested in. Contemporary, diverse. Wished I had #2 to start straight away! Perfect escapism.

Circe – Madeline Miller

The audiobook is narrated beautifully by Perdita Weeks. Sumptuous, vivid and emotive narrative of the goddess/nymph Circe. I’m such a fan of isolated settings and so I loved every description of her exile. A terrific, absorbing book that contemporises (in terms of literary style,  not setting) mythical stories and characters.

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I hope you all had a wonderful 2018 (and read some excellent books). Happy New Year x

3 thoughts on “What I read in 2018

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