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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Hello, I’m very angry! Are you angry? Fair enough, there’s plenty to be angry about. Sometimes when people are angry they say things which they shouldn’t. Not shouldn’t as in ‘you are not permitted to do that particular thing’ but shouldn’t as in ‘it would really be in everyone’s best interest if you didn’t do that particular thing.’ Often – especially when they’re afraid – people say hurtful, hateful and racist things. Typically, immediately after that parcel of word-vomit has finished emancipating itself from their mouths they yelp ‘But I’m not a racist and anyway I have a right to free speech!’
There seems to be a lot of confusion about free speech. This is understandable, given that there are in fact many different types of free. Facebook claims to be ‘free’ because it doesn’t charge you money, but it does take all of your information and all of your friends’ information and sells that data thus profiting from the intrusion of your privacy- something that you should be a lot angrier about but aren’t because you’re busy being furious with people because who have varying levels of skin pigmentation. Stores often advertise ‘buy our overpriced plastic consumer goods to fill that empty chasm in your life and receive a FREE GIFT!!!!’ but this makes no sense because gifts are by definition free and if a purchase is required than the object in question is not actually a gift, it’s just another thing.
Given that the idea of ‘free’ is so poorly understood it’s no surprise that some people seem to have a grasp of the concept of ‘free speech’ that is as shaky as a shake weight in an earthquake in Kelis’ yard. Let’s have a quick refresher on how free speech works:
1 You ejaculate a garbled string of wordsounds from your mouth-hole.
2 People respond with their own wordsound ejaculations.
They may agree, disagree, disrespect, expand, expound, expectorate, proselytise, prattle, protest or drop a sick beatbox beat. It’s up to them! This part is actually as important as the first part because if only one opinion was permitted then this would not be free speech.
If you like you can say something hurtful to someone. Or, if you’re particularly adventurous, to an entire group of people, an entire race even! It’s not against the law. HOWEVER, that’s not to say it isn’t wrong. I could cheat on my girlfriend and it wouldn’t be against the law but it would be a pretty horrible thing to do and also quite difficult because very few people are sexually attracted to me and besides who even has the time for an affair? I barely have time to do laundry. So if you want to say something horrible and racist and your excuse is ‘IT’S NOT AGAINST THE LAW!’ you might want to try a fun game called shutting up and/or jumping in a cobra pit.
For argument’s sake let’s say you’re really super keen on forging ahead with wanting to say awful things to people, quite possibly because your world view is as sophisticated as that of an an encephalitic mountain weasel. It’s important that you remember the thing that comes after speech, which is almost always ‘more speech.’ If you say a thing, let’s say for example a racist thing, there is an astronomically high chance that someone will call you a racist. This is because you have said a racist thing. Often this is called ’cause and effect’ or ‘calling a spade a spade’ or sometimes ‘uncle Larry’s had too many tinnies and is going on about the Japanese again…’
People will respond thusly because:
free speech = the right to share your opinions and ideas
free speech ≠ the right to share your opinions and ideas without recrimination or response
If you say something which is empirically false and someone replies ‘You are wrong,’ this is not an ‘attack on free speech,’ it is an act of free speech. If you vomit wordsounds that stereotype, persecute or vilify an entire race then people will call you racist because you have said a racist thing, this is also an act of free speech. You might defend yourself by claiming to be a ‘patriot’ or ‘free thinker’ (there’s that word again!) but neither of those terms are applicable in this scenario. Similarly, if you frequently set fire to things because watching objects consumed by flame fills you with malicious, destructive glee, it is likely that someone might comment: ‘You sir/madam, are an arsonist!’ You may object and say ‘That is inaccurate! I am merely a person who places fire on things and if those things burn it is not my fault the blame lies with said things for possessing flammable properties!’ However, you will be not only incorrect but also the textbook definition of an arsonist because you have repeatedly committed arson.
Thus if you would like to not be called a racist the easiest way is not to do or say racist things. That way, we can all have the right to free speech without necessarily invoking it in order to spread hate. I’m a big fan of free speech, a hardcore fan, a superfan. I want to bribe security to get into its greenrom and have it sign my nipples. In this country I’ve been able to say things in books, magazines, blog posts, poems, songs and on stages that in plenty of other places would have seen me arrested or possibly killed. That’s not something I take lightly, which is exactly why we should use free speech as an important tool in the continuing evolution of our shared knowledge and understanding, rather than as a crutch for justifying linguistic vitriol.
Agree, disagree? Great! I look forward to hearing your affirmations, remonstrations and sick beatbox beats.
Click here to purchase J.M. Donellan’s Book of Things Which Should Be Completely Obvious But You Clearly Still Don’t Understand for just twelve easy payments of $3.1415 with a FREE GIFT!!!
Good morrow, readers and rabble-rousers! I’m very excited to be travelling down to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival next week. Although I must admit I am slightly terrified by the fact that my road tripping buddy and fellow Pantera Press author Graham Potts issued a (suicide) request for people to suggest the most horrible songs possible for his driving mix. If I come back home a sweaty, convulsive mess you’ll know why.
I’ve never been to Bellingen and everyone says it’s wonderful so I’m grateful to have this excuse to visit for a couple of days. If you’re in the area or know someone who is, come and say hi. The line up includes other Pantera authors such as the aforementioned Graham, Lynette Noni and CEO Alison Green as well as other amazing writers like David Williamson, Richard Glover and Debra Oswald.
Over the last few years I’ve had many aspiring writers come to me for advice as they seek to make their way through the confusing labyrinth that is the publishing industry. Sometimes it’s simple queries like ‘should I get an agent?’, sometimes more bizarre requests like ‘for the love of God could you please stop talking about royalty payments and call an ambulance I think this man is having a heart attack!’
Many of these young, hopeful writers have subsequently released novels which have not only outsold mine but also been far more critically acclaimed. This means that they end up being given headline slots at literary festivals while I’m shuffling around in one of the weird rooms on the top floor of a secondary venue for a panel that is attended by half a dozen octogenarians who were expecting a workshop on efficient calendar management (it was actually scheduled for the following evening).
I thought for this reason that it would be a good idea to give some advice to my future
rivals peers. Follow these wise words and you too could become a New York Limes Bestsmelling Author!
Make sure all of your submissions are written in size eight and covered in glitter.
Here’s a little industry secret: submission editors actually want to read everything in size eight font. I know, I know, all the style guides say never hand in anything outside of 11-13, but this is actually an elaborate ruse to throw off the easily misled. There’s a saying in publishing: “If it ain’t size eight, it ain’t that great.” Remember to cover your submission in as much glitter as you can get your hands on, and spray it with the scent of old feet and mildew (submission editors have unusual olfactory senses owing to the fact that they spend a lot of time in tiny rooms reading size eight font manuscripts). This will give your submission the edge it needs to make it all the way to the publishing queue.
Industry etiquette and relevant blood-oaths and battlecries
When engaging important figureheads of the publishing industry in conversation remember that they are a bit like rare birds; they are easily scared off and they feed their children by regurgitating into their mouths. The key to making a good impression is to use the secret handshake: firm grip and two bone-crushing pumps as you conspiratorially whisper “The blood moon approaches!” while slowly pouring your drink on their shoes. Once this secret greeting is uttered, you will be invited into the hallowed halls of the Literary Industry’s Elite Sanctuary.
Dress to depress!
So you’ve managed to arrange a meeting with your dream publisher. Wow, things are really looking upwardstyles!!!! Pay close attention to these dress tips and you could soon be a best-selling author like Stieg Larsson, Margaret Atwood or that girl who was on the Jersey Shore. Men: make sure you are showing as much chest hair as possible, preferably arranged in braids. If you are lacking in chest hair, you’ll want to shave a large jungle cat or Sumatran orangutang and glue its hair to your chest. Ladies: it’s a sad truth that women are always judged more on their appearance than men, but for job interviews you want to look serious, professional and intelligent. This is why you should wear whatever the hell you want AS LONG AS it is accompanied by a sign hung around your neck that says in large red letters I AM VERY SERIOUS, PROFESSIONAL AND INTELLIGENT.
Contract non-negotiables: Attack helicopters et al
If you’ve followed all these steps, then it must be time to sign that contract. Hot diggity Dogstoveksy, the dream is real! Your mum was right, you really are special! Maybe that weird old martial arts expert you met in the cave was also right about you being the Chosen One! Now, I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve signed some less than perfect contracts in the past, so let me help you avoid the same mistake by looking out for what pitfalls to avoid. Aside from minor details like royalties and film rights, you’ll want to focus on making sure that your contract includes both an attack helicopter with twin laser canons as well as one of the rings of power.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to ask for the ONE RING, because that is just a dick move. However, there are many rings of power and it is standard that each new author receive one as part of their contract with any respectable publisher. They may try and throw you off by saying ‘The rings of power aren’t actually real?’ or ‘Are you completely insane?’ or possibly even ‘Have you been listening to that idiot J. M. Donellan?!?’ But stand your ground and tell them: ‘Gimmie that ring, or this contract ain’t a thing.’ If your potential publisher is not willing to give into these perfectly reasonable demands then the only honourable thing to do is set that contract, and possibly their building, on fire and walk off into the sunset.
Next week: J. M. Donellan’s guide to INSTANT weight reduction!!!!! (STEP ONE: cut off your legs.)
Hello there humans and any AI programs reading this, I’ve been a bit quiet of late but there are lots of exciting announcements to come in the next few weeks. The first of these is that I’m very proud to announce that I’ll be at the first ever Rock & Roll Writers Festival. There’s not really anything quite like it anywhere in the world, in that it brings together iconic musicians alongside writers who focus on music in their work. I’m very excited to have such a festival born in my home city, and absolutely thrilled to be on a panel alongside Deborah Conway and Don McGlashan:
3.00 pm – Dancing In The Dark (Sunday)
From novel-length saga to three-minute pop song, choosing the right words and correct structure is paramount in getting your message across. But how do you effectively combine the two? And how different is writing for a reader, as opposed to writing for a listener?
Moderator: Samuel J. Fell
Panellists: Deborah Conway, Don McGlashan, J.M.Donellan
The festival is structured so that there are no clashes (my pet peeve of festivals of any kind) and there is just one easy, all inclusive ticket price for the whole weekend. 1st release tix have already sold out but you can still get tickets here and check out the full program here.
I’m really looking forward to this one. Hope to see you there!
My dearest Vodafone,
You have wounded me, right in the very centre of my coal-black heart. We’ve been together for six years now, ever since way back when Rudd was PM (the first time round). Back in those youthful halcyon days I always swore I’d never go on a contract. All my friends were settling down, signing their lives away while I was living free and easy. I casually switched month to month from Optus to Virgin to Telstra. It was a beautiful, debt-free era and a part of me thought it would be like that forever.
But then you came along, and I committed to two years. And another two. And another. Before I knew it we’d changed PMs four times and you and I were looking at our 6 year anniversary. I’ve never even rented the same house longer than 3 years, so you should know this is a pretty serious commitment for me.
I thought that meant something. You always there for me when I called, unless I wanted to call anywhere outside the CBD and then your coverage would be as absent as dignity at a frat party, but I accepted that you just weren’t the outdoors type. I also accepted that you didn’t even know how to spell ‘phone’, despite the fact that the primary purpose of your existence is to provide telephonic services. I forgave these faults and plenty more besides, because I thought you cared.
Lately, however, things have taken an ugly turn. First, I find out that despite earning 3.6 billion dollars in13/14 you paid no tax whatsoever. Sure, the tax evasion hurts, but you know what really twists the knife? The fact that you kept it from me.
Finally, you decided to check in with me, to see how I’m feeling about you. I respect that you care about my feelings, but I wanted clarification on the nature of our relationship. Here’s what happened:
I’m hurt Vodafone, I’d call one of my friends and cry into the phone at them if not for the fact that I just KNOW you’d listen in. We’ve had some good times, but I’ll be keeping our relationship strictly business from now on. You can assume my reply to all future surveys is ZERO, unless of course the question is ‘how much tax should Vodafone pay after earning 3.6 billion in profits?’
I’m tremendously excited to be have worked on The Theory of Everything as a part of the Brisbane Festival. The director, Thomas Quirk, produced one of my all time favourite theatrical works, The Raven, which was an interactive performance piece about Edgar Allen Poe. It also starred one of my best friends, the supernaturally brilliant actor Erica Field. It’s an honour to be working with Thom on this show, alongside other amazing theatre folk like Yvette Turnbull and Marcel Dorney. When I was in my early twenties, I had a massive band crush on his group Flamingo Crash, so it’s rewarding and bizarre to be collaborating with him on this project.
For this show I was asked to write a bunch of loosely connected vignettes on subjects including physics, philosophy, love, death, elf magic and tentacle porn. Brisbane Festival shows always sell quickly, Friday night is already sold out and Wednesday is nearly gone as well so if you want to come along you should clickety click here. There are also tons of other amazing shows and some great multi-ticket deals. Check it out!