Why hello there! I’m very, terribly, tremendously excited to invite you all to the launch party for Six Cold Feet. If you’re in Brisbane, come and party with us in person. If you’re anywhere else in the universe, have yourself a private listening party and let us know what you think of our first episode.
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.
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.’
I make the call with the rejection letter in my hand. The phone rings for a moment, then the line goes dead. I really never thought I’d long for the days when being on hold to Centrelink for hours was the best possible option. Now the phones don’t work at all.
I drive to the office, there’s no parking. I park in a nearby shopping centre and walk out of the carpark. I’m aware that this is technically illegal, but it’s fairly hard to care about such trivialities when you have a family member – let’s call him Sam – who is homeless, physically and psychologically deteriorating, and being incessantly hounded by debt collectors. How odd that Centrelink staff are so implausibly difficult to reach and yet for some reason the debt collectors they employ appear to have infinite time and resources.
The Centrelink office is predictably packed. I join the queue of people staring at their phones and muttering irascibly. A young family lines up behind me, they are utterly incredulous about the length of the queue. Obviously, they haven’t had to do this for a while.
I reach the front after about fifteen minutes, and manage to make my request without breaking into tears, so that surely counts as a win.
“I’m trying to help a family member. We’ve been coming in here for four months I think. Maybe it’s five? They still haven’t received anything. No money. No healthcare card. He can’t afford medication, he’s running up debts, he doesn’t have stable accommodation.” I pause, the attendant is still looking at me expectantly. I’m not sure what else to say. “Is there a way to get the application fast-tracked?” He nods and says,
“Take a seat, we’ll see what we can do.”
I feel weary and ruined, but I decide to try and make the best of the long wait time. I’m lucky enough to have a flexible schedule as a freelancer, although it does mean that the hours I’m spending here will take away from my earnings this week. It’s strangely ironic to note that visiting Centrelink is going to reduce your weekly income. Still, if I had a conventional office job I wouldn’t be able to contact them at all, so there’s that. I make a few work calls, answer a couple of emails and then crack open my book.
The young family comes and sits next to me. Their son, he looks to be about four, studies my face with the unabashed curiosity that only kids get away with.
“You’re bald!” He pronounces, as though he’s telling me I have wings or a tail. I look up at him and laugh.
“Yes, that’s a true story.”
“But you’ve got lots of hair on your face?”
“Sort of the wrong way round isn’t it?” He nods.
“You’ve got a mixed-up head.”
“You know, you’re not the first person to tell me that.”
I try and focus on my book, but the kid persists. “I have a magic watch!” he announces. As far as non-sequiturs go, it’s not bad.
“Yeah, it’s really magic? That’s cool.” He looks down, thinks it over and says,
“Nah, just pretend.”
“Ah, that’s a shame.” He changes his mind, perks up and says,
“Kidding, it IS magic! It can fast-forward time!”
“Well, I could sure use that power right now.” His mum takes him by the hand and says,
“Come on, let the man read his book,” she smiles at me and they disappear outside, leaving dad to wait for his turn.
I wait for an hour. I know most of the faces here now, the people at the check-in, the gigantic security guard with the dissonantly friendly smile. I try and not think about the severity of the situation. How the dozens of back and forth discussions I have with these people that seem so promising but then go nowhere are the last lifeline that is available to Sam.
We’d spent months compiling masses of medical documentation from Sam’s psychologist and GP, submitted it to Centrelink, and after a two month wait we received…a five-figure debt notice. Once I’d managed to yelp a panicked request down the phoneline I was told to ‘just ignore it.’ This was back when the phones still worked, of course. Then, finally Sam had a phone interview a few days before Christmas. We chatted to a friendly older lady for about twenty minutes and two weeks later the letter arrived: CLAIM REJECTED.
Apparently the opinion of a genial Centrelink employee who has never met him holds more validity than the shared medical opinions of his doctor and psychologist. I felt as though I’d doubled in mass, it became harder to transport the weight of my own body from one place to the next. For a few weeks, I felt anger and depression bubbling away beneath my skin. The slightest irritation would set me to screaming. I was embarrassed at my anger, and angry about my embarrassment. The thing I feared most- ending up in the same state as Sam – seemed like it was coming closer to reality by the very act of trying to help him.
I saw a counsellor of my own, vomited the whole story in a rapid stream as soon as she shut the door. I sobbed breathlessly for a couple of minutes, the first time I’d cried in front of a stranger in decades. She told me “You should have started seeing someone sooner, this is too much for one person to deal with on their own.”
Finally, my name is called. I push the memories of the past few months away and approach the desk. The lady there greets me with a warm smile, and asks me for the password for Sam’s file. I panic. He stopped checking mail and email years ago, as a result I’d had to reset all of his accounts; email, Medicare, Centrelink, phone. I have dozens of passwords stored in a folder at home. She looks at me expectantly.
“I don’t know, I can’t remember it.” She frowns.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you if you don’t know what it is.” I feel like setting things on fire, smashing chairs through windows, jumping from the nearest rooftop. I look at her in utter disbelief, close to crying for the second time today. Then I say,
“I have ID?”
“Oh yes! That’s fine too.”
I deflate with relief and hand her my driver’s license. She tells me that the claim is taking so long because it’s with the complex assessors. I tell her that we were informed that even though the disability claim had been rejected, we could reapply and in the meantime, Sam would be able to access Newstart. Until the claim is approved he can’t get a healthcare card and therefore can’t get medication. Apparently, one of the reasons his claim was rejected was because ‘he hasn’t consistently stayed on medication long enough.’ He can’t get medication until his claim is approved. But he can’t get his claim approved until he’s been on medication.
While I confess a great fondness for Kafka’s novels, I honestly never thought I’d end up inside one of them. She tells me she’ll attend to it personally, I’ll hear from her in a few days. I say thanks, exit into the blazing heat of the afternoon and walk the several blocks back to where my car is semi-illegally parked.
Everything on the radio annoys me, even the songs I usually love. The question that keeps buzzing furiously in my brain is this; I’m a well-educated, well-resourced Australian citizen who speaks English as a first language, if navigating Centrelink’s diabolical labyrinth is this harrowing for someone like me, how the hell does someone with limited English and/or education manage to make it out alive?
I compose this little reflection in my head as I drive, feeling guilty for not having made a follow-up appointment with my therapist. The problem is; writing is much cheaper and more convenient than therapy. The news comes on. People are talking about how the Prime Minister has been yelling at his opponent, calling him a sycophant. The newscaster talks about the head of Australia Post earning over five million dollars last year. Much like the haggard, frustrated occupants of the office I’ve just left, these two receive their income from tax dollars. If men like this had to go through the same Kafkaesque nightmare as Centrelink clients to get paid, I wonder how quickly the systemic infrastructure problems would get fixed?
Great news everybody! The first reviews for the US release of Killing Adonis have come in and they are the literary equivalent of a proud teacher sticking millions of gold stars over a student’s face. Extremely excited to announce I have even managed to score a coveted Kirkus Star, which makes you temporarily invincible (like in Mario Kart). Also this means I’m in the running for the Kirkus prize, which is also good. Publisher’s Weekly Review also said some very kind and ego-inflating things about it, which was awfully kind of them. This reviewer even called it ‘this year’s most mind-blowing and droll crime fiction book’.
It’s now available worldwide in bulletproof* hardcover and paperback from Amazon, Poisoned Pen Press and all good bookstores (as well as some of the bad ones). Amusingly, I haven’t actually received my author copies of the US edition yet so if one of you could let me know how it feels, tastes and smells that would be great.
ALSO, people keep asking me when I’m going to put up more videos of some of my poetry performance. Unfortunately I hate being filmed and photographed. I once had a photographer tell me “The camera loves you JD! Actually, no it doesn’t. But I’m a great photographer so these’ll still be good.” However, the good folks at Word Travels recorded me performing at the Sydney Opera House last year and those videos are now online at last. The second one is even swearing free, fun for the whole family!**
**Except racist uncle Todd, but no one likes him anyway.
You rise from your bed, shaking the embers of a hangover from your addled brain, look in the mirror and say “Well, this is it. This is going to be MY YEAR.”
“Fucking excuse me?” You turn around, 2017 looks very unimpressed.
“Oh! Hey there, I didn’t mean—“
“You don’t own me.”
“No, of course not! It’s just that, 2016 was awful and I’m hoping for a big change. This is the year I better myself.” 2017 grimaces, takes a step closer.
“So you want to build a cathedral to yourself on the ruins of my dead sister, that it?”
“No, you’ve got me all wrong! Like, I want to IMPROVE myself. I’m going to do a juice cleanse!”
2017 snorts reproachfully and says, “A juice cleanse? I mean, to begin with, maybe don’t take your health advice from models unless you’re going to also take make-up advice from your GP, but you’ve got a whole world teetering on the verge of widespread destruction and you think downing some liquefied kale is going to shake things up? Get a grip.”
“Hey, listen! I care about The World! I even, like, remember last year I raised awareness for—“
2017 throws its head back and laughs. “FUCK raising awareness. Raise funds. Raise fists. Raise your consciousness. Raze the palaces of the institutions that perpetuate the cycles of poverty and suffering to the ground. It’s all this fucking half-stepping that got you here in the first place. What else is on your list?”
You steel yourself, stand up straight, clear your throat and say, “2017, you are the year I finally quit smoking.” It nods in approval and strokes its chin,
“Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good one. I should do that too. I’m only nine hours old and I’m already smoking like Dante’s Inferno. That it?”
“Well, okay, I think you’ll like this one. This year I aim to be More Present.” 2017 manifests the physical representation of the concept of a wall for the express purpose of smashing its face into. It turns to you, nose bloody, and says, “Well, yeah, fucking for sure spend less time on Facebook and be more present, but maybe it’s time to put your face in a book and read some history? You’re all bumbling around like Cause and Effect are completely new concepts. ‘Oh look, we bombed this country and they’re angry at us for some reason! I hope they don’t retaliate like every single country that’s ever been bombed!’ It’s pretty embarrassing frankly.”
You stare down at the ground, saying nothing. 2017 sighs and says, “Look, sorry if I was a little harsh. I’m only brand new. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of year I’m going to be.” 2017 reaches its hand out to you, a hand that you instinctively sense could either crush or caress you.
“That’s okay. I forgive you. Hey! You wanna go get Fro-yo?” 2017 frowns and says,
“I can’t, I’m lactose intolerant.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.