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.