Category Archives: 100 books a year

100+ books a year 2017: the good

This year I – along with the rest of the known universe – have been feeling increasingly disenfranchised with the state of modern journalism. The 24-hour-news cycle, Russian fake news farms, real news being called fake news, fake news passing as real news, fake juice being called real juice and then placed into $400 dispensers, it’s a quagmire of questionable quantity over all too rare quality. Good  journalism still exists but – much like Ryan Gosling visiting a wax museum exhibit of ‘Ryan Gosling through the ages’ – it’s difficult to find the genuine and actual amongst a forest of false facsimiles feigning the factual.

I’ve been spending less time reading the news and more time reading books. This is not to say I wish to be less informed. It’s just that when the news cycle starts to include responses to op-eds of something someone may have possibly said according to sources who cannot be named because they are imaginary best friends and/or drug-induced hallucinations, I start to develop a craving for long-form, in-depth writing that can’t be sated by listicles, tweets, or articles. In confusion: here’s a list of some of my favourite books this year.

 

RUNNING THE BOOKS by Avi Steinberg

I’ve been doing a lot of research on prisons lately, including the brilliant Ear Hustle podcast and Ted Conover’s revelatory Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, but I particularly enjoyed this book. Steinberg shares anecdotes ranging from the bittersweet to the brutal. My favourite part: learning that male and female prisoners shared the same library at this facility, but on alternating days, never being allowed to meet in person. They would write each other love letters (known as ‘kites’) and leave them in the books in the library. I’m a sucker for stories of human connection in the face of adversity, and throwing a library in the mix just sweetens the deal.

 

 

THE ANIMATORS by Kayla Rae Whitaker

I’m grateful to the relentlessly fabulous Avid reader bookclub for pointing me in the direction of this book (along with a few others on this list.) If you enjoy reading and aren’t part of a book club, not to put too fine a point on it, but what the fuck is wrong with you? Just kidding. Mostly.

What I loved about this book was the way it explored the friendship of the two lead characters and took them to places that were unexpected and thoroughly genuine in their presentation. Although it deals with some extremely dark content, there’s a verve that resonates throughout the novel that makes it feel ultimately uplifting in spite – or perhaps because of – what the characters go through. I got to see Whitaker speak earlier this year and she was charming and engrossing and also was a fellow fan of the Maxx, so she can chalk me up as a lifelong fan.

 

TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY by James Gleick

Before I read this book I had an idea of myself placed on a continuum in which I was aware of a future self who would eventually read this book. Eventually I became that self looking back at a past self who was yet to experience having read this book, but who would eventually become the self that I now was, who was formerly the person who had not read this book but intended to become the person in the future who would have read this book after having been someone who intended to read this book, and further back still someone who was unaware of this book but upon becoming aware of its existence would desire to be a future self who had read it.

 

THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty

Beatty writes like the world is on fire and he is yelling commands to put it out in some places and pour gasoline on others. His writing is vivacious, lyrical, insightful, clever, and angry. There are plenty of writers who can pen a great story and construct engaging characters, but so few where you can read a paragraph and instantly match their particular flavour and style to the writer. By way of example, this masterful snippet:

“I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?

Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?” 

 

FEVER DREAM by Samantha Schweblin

It’s been far too long since I read something so brazenly surreal. I know that Twin Peaks comparisons are woefully overused, but I think in this case it’s warranted. This a short, fascinating K-hole of a novel. Concise, hallucinatory story and scenes that whir and eddy around the page. I’ll definitely read this again.

 

 

 

 

 

AN UNCERTAIN GRACE by Krissy Kneen

Another Avid recommendation, penned by fellow Brisvakistanian Krissy Kneen, this was a bizarre and beautiful book. It shifted times, perspectives and characters to examine human relationships, sexuality and consciousness. An Uncertain Grace made me feel at turns uncomfortable, intrigued, enthralled, and appalled. Much like the human experience that novels are supposed to reflect, it was complex and surprising.

 

 

 

THE GOOD FATHER by Noah Hawley

In the arts (as in most facets of life) jealousy can be debilitating and insidious. However, it is REALLY hard not to be jealous of Noah Hawley. Not only is he an incredible author, but also the showrunner of the brilliant Fargo and the incredible Legion. The latter is, for my money, the best show on TV right now.

In any case, what I love about this book is its perspective. It examines a man, Paul Allen, who has recently discovered that his son has been accused of assassinating a presidential candidate. The way Hawley explores Allen’s denial, fear, confusion and endless questioning of his own possible failings as a father who may be ultimately responsible for this violent act is a far more fascinating approach than simply examining the shooter himself.

In an age of violence (largely perpetrated by men) works that analyse the origins and causes of extreme acts are essential. I’ve thought about this book almost every day since I read it six months ago.

 

HERA LINDSAY BIRD by Hera Lindsay Bird

My best friend Alex brought this collection back from NZ for me and sweet jelly Jesus on graham crackers it is good! Filthy, hilarious, insightful, Bird is everything I love in a poet. I was lucky enough to tell her how much I admired her work when I met her at the Queensland Poetry Festival this year but she looked at me like I was a weirdo (which, to be fair, I am) and I slunk away awkwardly. You might’ve seen her poem Monica flitting about the internet, every one of these pieces is just as entertaining.

PS: the aforementioned Alex is currently raising money for the National Resources Defence Council  by riding across the entire mainland USA. A lot of us like to complain about politics (like me) but it’s people like Alex who actually roll up their sleeves (or bikepants, as the case may be) and get the work done. Flip him some money if you feel like donating to a worthy cause and making the world a slightly less shitty place.

 

DYING: A MEMOIR by Cory Taylor

This year I lost two wonderful friends and as a result I’ve been obsessing over death and mortality. I thought that reading this book might help. It didn’t. At all. But it was a brilliant book, so there is that. Taylor has a enrapturing candour to her writing that makes this short but fascinating book an absolute must read.

Death is one of the few things that truly unites all of us, and it’s rare to see it examined so honestly and thoughtfully. I also recommend checking out the interview she did with Richard Fidler.

 

 

WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US by Suki Kim

Given the current (appalling) state of journalism I have more respect than ever before for writers like Kim who engage in long-form investigative journalism. For this book, she undertook great personal risk by posing as a christian English teacher in order to gain access to one of the most closed nations on earth. She writes about experiences such as her students asking her things like ‘Is it true everyone in the world speaks Korean?’ A fascinating and terrifying reminder of what can happen when you allow propaganda and dictatorial thinking to subdue information (Australia and America, I’m looking at you.)

 

 

 

I’ll write up another entry with the bad and the weird picks for the year soon.* Also, if you like books, maybe you’d like to check out one of mine? My last novel, Killing Adonis, received a Kirkus Star, which is sort of like a Mario star in that it grants temporary invincibility and superspeed.

*denotes a length of time ranging from ‘tomorrow’ to ‘the heat death of the universe.’

 

100 books a year part 2: the bad and the weird

 

THE BAD

TheWaterKnife-PaoloBacigalupiTHE WATER KNIFE

First off, I have to say the concept here was admittedly great. A criminal underclass emerging to illegally distribute water is sadly a very believable near future and this aspect was well executed. There’s a scene where the pricing gauge on a commercial water pump breaks and the characters desperately try to siphon as much as they can that is incredibly tense and terrifying on a very primal level. Unfortunately, the characters and dialogue in this book are so unbearably awful that a fantastic backdrop is completely ruined by the actors maladroitly prancing around in front of it. Climate fiction (cli-fi) is a fascinating new genre, but this is not its best exponent.

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THE DIVER’S CLOTHES LIE EMPTY

Second person narratives like this are hard to get right, which is why they are so rarely used (particularly in novel-length stories). I think Tom Robbins pulled it off in Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas but that was a rare feat. There’s some interesting character study here, but the character also makes a bunch of decisions that are just implausible and irrational. Also, I found it problematic that a book set in Morocco depicts just about all of the Moroccan characters as deceitful and untrustworthy. One bonus: the cover was designed by the graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, who I absolutely adore.

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THRONE OF GLASS

This year at Supanova I had a catchup with my publicist and we stopped to talk to some of the other Pantera authors who were appearing there. Seated next to them was Sarah J. Maas, facing a legion of zealous fans queuing for her signature. I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I picked up a copy to see what the fuss was about. I have to say, it really didn’t speak to me. I know this series has a devout, passionate following (and I love seeing readers so invested in stories) but to me it read like sub-par fan fiction. The characters were one-dimensional and the dialogue was bland. I hear Sarah is a really nice person though so I feel guilty for not enjoying her work more.

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ELANTRIS

I first heard about this series in a Tor.com article examining Sanderson’s vast multiverse known as the cosmere. The concept sounded fascinating and a quick search revealed a vast legion of fans avidly discussing his works and their interweaving narratives. I was also impressed with how prolific he was. However, while I loved the setting itself and the central concept, the execution was really disappointing. I have no doubt it would make a fantastic film, but the clunky writing made it a slog to get through. Plus, it’s over 600 pages and the story felt like it needed 400 at most.

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ELEANOR & PARK

I’m realising as I type that this is the third universally adored book in a row that I hated this year. I swear I’m not trying to be a contrarian! I will admit that I like to read widely outside of my own immediate interests and sometimes this means that I don’t really connect with the subject matter. Obviously, I am way outside the target audience for this book (a YA romance). I have to admit I thought Eleanor was a great, complex, interesting character. I also really enjoyed all the musical references. However, the classic YA trope of ‘characters create problems for no obvious reason other than to shape narrative drama’ was chronically over-employed in this one. There was plenty to work with in terms of drama without Eleanor & Park trying to out-angst one another. All that said, Rowell’s twitter feed is pretty great.

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WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE

Like an estimated 99.99995684% of people who have read this book, I am a fan of the deliciously outré podcast. The humour is outlandish and brilliant, and each episode manages to be funny and entertaining in new and surprising ways, which precisely why this book was so disappointing. Although some of the trademark humour was there, eg.

“The search for truth takes us to dangerous places,” said Old Woman Josie. “Often it takes us to that most dangerous place: the library. You know who said that? No? George Washington did. Minutes before librarians ate him.”

Sadly, the plot was meandering and meaningless and the writers inexplicably chose to focus on uninteresting sideline characters rather than those from the podcast, which makes little/no sense. I found this boring and pointless.

THE WEIRD

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THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES

A Little Life was one of my favourite books last year, I found it hard to believe it was even written by a human rather than some sort of consortium of divine superintelligent interdimensional species. Obviously I was keen to immediately check out Yanagihara’s other work. This book was…very different. It’s a sort of anthropological sci-fi about a researcher who travels to a secret island and studies a lost tribe who have gained immortality through ingesting the flesh of a rare turtle. It’s also about sex. And violence. And guilt. And responsibility. It’s a weird book, and not so earth-shatteringly brilliant as A Little Life, but definitely worth checking out.

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ZERO K

I’m currently drafting a novel about a cult that’s obsessed with cryonic technology. When I found out that Don Delillo was releasing a novel focused on similar subject matter I was equal parts proud (I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist! I think on similar lines to one of the greatest writers of the modern era!) and terrified (I’m too late! This story has already been written by one of the greatest writers of the modern era!) Luckily, this book is nothing like my own, so after my fear of lawsuits subsided I was able to enjoy this bizarre and brilliant story. Delillo’s recent work lacks the dry wit of his earlier writing but his strange, sparse prose is as brilliant as ever. He has this knack for writing dialogue that is completely unrealistic but somehow seems to sit perfectly within the framework of his narrative. I recently read Pynchon’s latest book, Bleeding Edge, and there were a lot of similarities in terms of style and execution between these two luminary post-modernists.

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THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS

Rather than writing any kind of reflection, I’m just going to offer up some sample text:

I’m not my polygons. Physical coercion is a dead letter here. If you want to get something out of me, you’re going to have to try harder than that. For example, you could try for a quorum of administrative accounts to decompile me and examine my state and logfiles. Though, I have to tell you, the admins aren’t kindly disposed to noobs who go supergenius and multiplicitous without regard for the overall system performance, so you’ve got a lot of digging to do just to get up to zero credibility. 

See what I mean?

 

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THE VEGETARIAN

You know, I was all finished with this post and was about to hit ‘publish’ on Friday when I got called away and never got around to it. Then over the weekend I read the Vegetarian. I’m not sure what to say about it other than it was both one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year. Extremely dark, unflinchingly bizarre and yet so poetically, hypnotically beautiful. Someone else hurry up and read this so we can talk about it please.

PS If you want to add my books to your list, you can grab them here. Killing Adonis is on sale for just TEN BUCKS HOLY WHAT?!?

PPS People always say to me: “How do you read 100+ books a year? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” It’s really not. Here’s a few tips.

100 books a year 2016 part one: The Good

2016 has been an uncommonly awful year, luckily it’s in its final death throes. As we listen to its final hideous gasps and groans, perhaps it’s time to think about how we got to this terrible, stupid place. I would argue that the two underlying concepts that brought us here are lack of education and lack of empathy. You know what you can do to address that? Read more books. Tell your friends to read more books. On that note, I thought I’d write up some of the standout books I read this year; the good, the bad and the weird.

Here’s part one: THE GOOD.

150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalBETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

This was the first book I read this year, penned by MacArthur genius grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a thoughtful, rich and intelligent exploration of America’s long and troubled struggle with racial injustice. Told in the form of a letter to his son, Between the World and Me is beautiful, tragic and hugely important. I found so much of what he described to be unfortunately paralleled here in Australia with the racial injustice towards our indigenous people. Fun fact: Coates now writes Black Panther comics.

 

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HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY

I saw Jesse Ball speak at Avid reader earlier this year and found him supernaturally strange and fascinating. This novel, his latest, is brilliant and insightful. The narrator’s voice and observations are vivid and revealing, alternating from hilariously sardonic to bleak and philosophical. After I read this I picked up everything else he’d written, the man is a stone cold genius.

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THIS ISLAND WILL SINK

I was excited to see Lifted Brow publishing release their first novel, and this one did not disappoint. We read this for my book club and I absolutely loved it. It was strange and confusing in all the best ways. I’m thrilled to see more intelligent, complex genre fiction coming out of Australia. MORE OF THIS PLEASE.

 

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VIGIL

Speaking of intelligent genre fiction…I am a sucker for books set in Brisbane, and this one was a real gem. I managed to win a free copy (even though I get a lot of books for free these days, it never stops being exciting) and loved this story set in a strange, supernatural version of Brisbane. Part detective noir, part supernatural thriller, wholly entertaining. Looking forward to the sequel.

 

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JUST MERCY

I first heard Bryan Stevenson speak on one of my favourite podcasts, Criminal. I found him hypnotic. This book is not just a study of the legal system in America, but a complex exploration of the concepts of justice, morality and redemption. The line ‘each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’ stuck with me so much I wrote a short story inspired by it (should be out next year, hopefully). Like Coates, Stevenson is also a MacArthur genius grant recipient. His TED talk is here.

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VANCOUVER

One of Brisbane’s best loved writers has recently turned his attention to novellas. The first two in the Wisdom Tree series, Gotham and Venice, were both great but this is by far my favourite. Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between a writer and a gigantic footballer turned professor, I loved the way this story felt both magical and utterly grounded in reality in the same time.

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THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

I first became interested in this book when I read it had topped the most censored books in American libraries list. This book was banned primarily because it contained drug references, swearing and references to masturbation. This content was judged to be inappropriate for its target audience; teenage boys. Of course, if you’ve ever spoken to or been a teenage boy, you’ll know that drugs, swearing and masturbation are completely foreign concepts to them. In any case, this book is incredible, Alexie is also a poet and this shows in his writing which is in turns coarse and lyrical. One of the few books I’ve read that really captures that strange, bewildering era of adolescence, and in important insight into the numerous injustices and difficulties endured by Native Americans.

 

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ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY

I found Anders’ work through her work for i09, which used to be a pretty great website but these days is pretty average. Nevertheless, I read this whilst drinking cheap beer on a rooftop in Seville, and I would definitely make that a ‘serving suggestion’ for this and every other book ever written. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but the humour was great and I loved the authenticity of the relationships between the characters. It referenced and toyed with a bunch of classic sci-fi/fantasy tropes and it had fantastic dialogue. If this isn’t made into a movie then Hollywood should die in a fire. (To be fair, Hollywood really should die in a fire.)

 

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THE MIND’S EYE

It was bittersweet reading this book so soon after Sacks’ death. I heard a friend describe him as ‘my favourite mind’ and I think that sums it up perfectly. There are precious few writers who can describe complex medical concepts in a manner that is so fascinating and captivating. Also, I learned in this book that Oliver Sacks had face blindness, which I always thought was a ridiculous thing that Arrested Development invented but turns out to be real. The world is a strange and stupid place.

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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES

I loved the way this book examined everyday people in difficult circumstances in such real, palpable detail. Tempest charts each character back to their parents and their childhoods, something which I really think more authors should do, and brings us to their current, damaged states. Probably the best ‘this is the way things are right now and it’s terrible but we could fix it if we stopped being such jerks all the time’ novel I’ve read this year. I realise that’s not a genre, but it bloody well should be. Her album Everybody Down tells the same story in a more hip-hop format. It’s very good, but her most recent offering Let Them Eat Chaos is THE BEST.

I’ll be back next week* with part two: The Bad and the Weird.

PS If you want to add my books to your list, you can grab them here. Killing Adonis is on sale for just TEN BUCKS HOLY WHAT?!?

PPS People always say to me: “How do you read 100 books a year? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” It’s really not. Here’s a few tips.

 

*or later if I have a lot of laundry/editing. 

 

 

100 books a year

For the last five years I’ve read a minimum of 100 books each lap around the sun. Here’s a quick rundown of my most rated, most hated, most celebrated and most complicated from the first half of 2015.

kazuo ishiguro buried giant

Have you ever wished that a renowned author would tackle Arthurian legend in the form of an insufferably dull quasi-fable that employs scenes where two knights spend multiple pages discussing sword etiquette? Me neither, which is probably why I hated this so much.

I adored Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (even if the movie was a huge disappointment) and I have a huge amount of respect for authors who aren’t afraid to switch up styles and genres. However, this book is terrible.

The central themes of love and memory and revenge are all great starting places, but it reads like a cast of senile army vets trying to remember where they left their keys. Also, one of the main characters, Axl, refers to his wife as ‘princess’ after every goddamn sentence, which is just as annoying as it sounds, princess. See, it’s annoying after even one sentence, isn’t it princess? Let alone two, or even three, am I right princess? Princess, why are you unsheathing a broadsword princess? Did you want to spend several hours discussing sword etiquette princess?

 

great jones stI remember when I read DeLillo’s Underground some years ago, it was one of those books that makes you want to give up writing forever because you know you’ll never be that good whilst simultaneously wanting to pour your heart and soul into just attempting to capture a sliver of that genius. In any case, this is one of DeLillo’s ‘lesser’ works, which means it’s a million times better than most people’s greatest novels. The premise is weird; a rockstar named Bucky Wunderlick – who is a vaguely Cobain/Morrison style cult leader of the world’s most popular rock band retires mid-tour and resolves to sit around and do nothing. Obviously this sounds this the worst premise ever imagined, but because this is DeLillo we’re talking about he scribes an incredible study of excess, madness, isolation, a study of the human condition etc. It’s weird and it’s beautiful and now I have to go back and read everything he’s ever written.

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A beguilingly beautiful collection of the personal and the political. Words that weave like limbs on trees. Simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. Make sure you grab at the opportunity to see her perform if she’s ever in the same corner of the world as you.

 

 

 

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I just started writing the first volume of the YA sci-fi trilogy I’m working on (Jennifer Cellardoor, it’ll be in stores…whenever I get it finished) which means I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff in the same ballpark. I was interested in this because it was billed as ‘literary YA science fiction’ which is one of those literary terms that makes no sense at all, much like ‘indie’ in the music realm. In any case; the plot has a comet rapidly approaching earth with a 66% per cent chance of catastrophic impact. Everyone goes crazy, anarchy ensues and we watch it through the eyes of five teenage protagonists. To be honest I found the character development quite shallow and I’m still not sure about the ending, but it was entertaining enough. The author does get massive points for also recording a companion album though, nice skills.

 

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Reading this novel felt like trying to run through molasses whilst having dictionaries thrown at my head. It is reads like literary math rock; appallingly weighty prose coupled with sentences constructed in much the same way as the Winchester Mystery house. I assume there was some kind of plot in much the same way that I assume Greenland has cafes, although I am unable to provide personal evidence of either.

By way of demonstration, here is an honest to god authentic actual excerpt:

 

So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song. 

If you got to the end of that sentence without screaming at your screen, congratulations and also could you please tell me what is it like being a Zen master?

 

oliver sacks hallucinations

 

I read this after hearing a hilarious an insightful interview where Sacks described using hallucinogens as an inspirational tool as employing a ‘chemical launchpad’. In this book he explores the nature of hallucinations – drug-induced and otherwise – in his famously entertaining and engaging prose. I’m still haunted by the stories of musicians who lose a portion of their sight and then start hallucinating sheet music in that section of their vision.

 

 

Feed MT Anderson

 

Over the last couple of months I’ve read dozens of books targeted at teenagers; some good, some bad, some that actually seemed like they shouldn’t so much be sold in bookstores as preserved in museums as examples of the appalling literary atrocities committed in the early 21st century. What makes Feed stand out is that Anderson treats his audience with respect rather than thinking of them as a ‘target market’. He uses actual swear words rather than having characters say ‘and then I swore at her’, and he tackles difficult and complex philosophical questions using inventive and believable slang. If you’re one of the many people who is worried about how a constantly connected digital world is affecting our human interactions, I urge you to check this out.

 

 

sum forty tales from the afterlives david eagleman

 

One of my favourite things to ask someone I’ve just met is: “What’s your all time favourite book?” If they reply “I don’t really read” then I know they probably aren’t worth talking to and they must hate life and spend their weekends punching puppies. If they answer anything else then I have a new book to check out. This one was recommended to me by director Nathan Sibthorpe, and I’m incredibly grateful for the tipoff. These forty vignettes describe various imaginings of potential afterlives, and they are all impossibly beautiful and captivating. In style and concept it also reminds me of one of my all time favourite books Einstein’s Dreams. An absolute wonder of a book.

 

miranda july the first bad manIn my experience, if you ask someone “What do you think of Miranda July?” they’re either going to say “Who the hell is that?” or “OH MY GOD are you kidding me she’s the best and most amazing and I want to have ice cream and cake with her and can we please spend three hours talking about everything she’s ever done? Okay great I’ll start…”

I would definitely place myself in the latter category. This is a strange, beguiling and wonderful novel that draws you in and wraps you up and spits you out a slightly better person. The plot (such as it is) explores the relationship between a shy, confused introvert and a young girl named Clee. What makes this novel such a joy is they way the July unmasks the wonder, anxiety and beauty of the everyday.

If you can’t relate to this novel, you are probably some kind of sentient killer machine and if so hello how are you please don’t kill me.

PS If you feel like reading/reviewing my latest novel, Killing Adonis, I would be very grateful. Unless you hate it, in which case SHUT UP! 

xoxo