In keeping with the tradition I started last year, rather than compiling a best-of-2018 reading list, I’ve put together a list of five books that have surprised me, have taught me something valuable at the right time, or were memorable for some other reason. Here they are, in no particular order.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: I’ve recently finished reading this book about the craft of writing. It is in no way a new release, and had been on my to-be-read list for a while. After a busy year, and finally finishing the first draft of my work in progress, this quirky, inspiring book about writing was what I needed to fire myself up for the editing process, and remind myself why I began writing in the first place. Justification, if you like, for engaging obsessively in this selfish pursuit. ‘In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.”.’
Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton: This debut novel by Australian journalist, Trent Dalton, has made an enormous splash for good reason. The characters are real, the plot engaging, and the language pitch-perfect. It tells the story of Eli Bell and his brother, August: two remarkable, sensitive boys thrown into the underbelly of suburban Brisbane in the 1980s. One of the best novels I’ve read in ages, and certain to be made into a movie in the near future. Reading this novel reminded me of the need to craft an immersive yarn with engaging characters if you want to hold on to readers, and the value of tempering tragedy with humour when tackling dark subjects.
Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh: I picked this book up at Newcastle Writers’ Festival after watching Julie take part in a vibrant panel discussion about experimental fiction with Ryan O’Neill and Jane Rawson. Portable Curiosities is a collection of dark, satirical short stories which, while well-received by critics, had somehow flown under my radar. I loved dipping in and out of these stories as the mood took me. This collection taught me that good writing comes in many shapes and sizes and, no matter how far-fetched, works best when it is relatable in some way to the reader. I loved Julie’s voice, and was reminded that rather than trying to replicate others, a writer needs to embrace his or her distinctive style.
Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose: Once again, I was slow on the uptake with this wonderful, prize-winning novel. More than one person recommended it to me, knowing I would love it, but for some reason it took me a while to get to it. When I finally did, I was not disappointed. What seems a simple, if unusual premise expands into so much more on reading. On the face of it, this novel is about the artist Marina Abramovich and a piece of performance art she undertook at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In reality, it’s about the lives of the people who become obsessed by her performance, their relationships, and the underlying reasons for her work speaking to them. It’s a masterpiece of literary fiction, achieving high-wire feats of virtuosity while being as easy to read and enjoyable as a trashy holiday novel. A timely reminder that literary fiction doesn’t need to be obtuse and pretentious to be good.
From the Wreck, Jane Rawson: For the purpose of open disclosure, I will admit that two of my least favourite genres are historical fiction and science fiction. Before you barrage me with ‘what about this classic’ comments, I have adored some historical and FSF novels over the years, but they’re not the ones I usually gravitate towards. If I hadn’t seen Jane Rawson at the Newcastle Writers’ Festival, I might not have read this wonderfully weird mash-up of historical and sci-fi, and what a tragedy that would have been. For those who haven’t heard of ‘From the Wreck’, it’s a story about the survivors of a shipwreck off the Australian coast, including a lonely shape-shifting alien cephalopod. It is lyrical and deeply empathic. I read this while the social media outrage about the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island erupted, and this novel’s themes perfectly reflected my mood. It has since gone on to win or be shortlisted for awards, and has taught me that glorious storytelling will win out, no matter the genre, and encouraged me to be more experimental and have more fun with my own work.
What have you learnt from reading this year? Any novels to recommend?