New year, best books, new direction for newsletter
2022 was a busy year!
Happy New Year! Firstly, let me apologise for dropping the ball on this newsletter in 2022. I got a new job, teaching in the Master of Writing and Publishing at RMIT University, and so much of my energy for sharing writing and publishing tips and tricks was channelled into this new, busy and rewarding role. On top of that, I had a new novel out in October (Moon Sugar, Transit Lounge; check out this stellar review in The Guardian); I completed a sustainability report for BookPeople (formerly the Australian Booksellers Association), which will be out early this year; I worked on another online course for Kill Your Darlings (out soon); and, last but definitely not least, I got engaged and had a baby!
With ongoing commitments (all of the above: work, writing, sustainability/book industry research and parenting) I do have to reassess what’s possible with this newsletter. I don’t want to abandon it, because I have so enjoyed sharing the things I’ve learned in the writing and publishing world with you, and have enjoyed the interactions that have come out of it, too. Instead, I will have to abandon the monthly commitment. I will share with you anything worthwhile that I have to share, when it strikes me. I will also allow the posts to be a bit looser in subject, while still understanding that the primary subscribers are writers and readers.
At the end/start of the year, I usually post about some of my reading highlights. These are some of the books I enjoyed most in 2022:
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson was a slow burn, snatched in moments around busyness early in the year. I sunk into the world of this timber family in the 1970s: Rich, Colleen and Chub. Rich’s lifelong dream is threatened by environmental protests. Colleen’s dream of more children is threatened by the dangers in the environment. It’s a great central tension that is paralleled in the community and work relationships. The book is compassionate toward people’s livelihoods and family traditions while showing the stubborn deniability of damage to not only the environment but even sustaining human life when things get out of control.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is about a young woman travelling in Japan with her mother. It’s a narrative made up of gentle, profound personal and relational mysteries. It speaks of inadequacy, interiority, and the desire to understand without the ability (or impetus?) to dig. It feels quite late modernist and contemporary at the same time, with aspects of (detached) stream-of-consciousness and a light absurdist/existential overlay. Clean, easy prose but you also find yourself pausing, drawing together images and moments from the interwoven past and present narratives, which is stimulating. An elegant novel.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier was picked up on a bookshop browse. I loved it. Gobbled it up. A young, pregnant pizza girl is drawn to an older woman who orders a pepperoni with pickles for her son. It’s about a young woman coping with overwhelming change and responsibility before she’s really had a chance to decide what her life might look like. She’s cared for and cared about but she has an undeniable drive toward escapism, toward more or something else, and it’s often somewhere between an urge to destroy and one to nurture. The presence of her alcoholic father, now dead, looms large. It’s tightly written, a sympathetic and satisfying read.
Soundings: Journeys in the Company of Whales by Doreen Cunningham is a powerful book! Cunningham follows the grey whale migration with her toddler son at a transition stage of her life, heading towards Alaska. There, years ago, she had been welcomed into an Inupiaq community, joining the spring hunt and learning about the impact of climate change and capitalism on the environment and traditional culture. Soundings weaves memoir with fact, and moves back and forth seamlessly through time periods, giving a picture of change, growth, survival, love, family and mothering, memory, humans and nature and humans in nature. It moved me to tears and had me dreaming and thinking about whales the way I always did as a child.
Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill is a book about a writer grappling to reimagine and give life to a minor character, Daisy, from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. It’s a thoughtful, intensely interior and political novel. Mina is grieving as she travels for academic work, wrestling with her novel and meeting friends, colleagues and lovers along the way, experiencing racism, trauma, absorbing current events, and delving into what it means to be a writer, and a writer who is a woman of colour. In between we have the chapters of Daisy and of other characters and snapshots of people in Woolf’s real life. It’s a broad scope for a novel, but that is the point (the enormity comprehended through the lens, the intellect, the body, of one woman). It asks big questions about what writing is and does (not just for the reader but how it is grappled with in the writer’s own life). It highlights the continuing erasure of women of colour from dominant narratives.
And then Leonard Woolf features in This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham. His ghost haunting a 21st century writer living through the pandemic and climate change. There are themes of care (for loved ones), privilege, grief, and trying to make meaningful work during catastrophic times. I found it so absorbing!
A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi is a concise novel about the rise and fall of a bookshop in Algiers, alternately narrated by the locals (a collective ‘we’), and real-life bookseller, publisher and Camus’ first editor Edmond Charlot (through journals). In the present there is a young character tasked with dismantling the bookstore. Through place and these distinct, intimate points of view, it tracks the turbulence in Algeria through the mid-20th Century, and how it contributed to shaping people, writers, readers and literature in Algeria, France and beyond.
I was lucky enough to be asked to blurb a couple of books in 2022. About Paul Dalgarno’s A Country of Eternal Light, out in February, I wrote: A balance of electric brightness and sequestered shadows – a powerful, rollicking and memorable narrative. The reader is invited to be intimate with the experience of revisiting the past, hoping for the future and regretting what cannot be changed. A philosophical, emotional and entertaining work, startlingly imagined.
About Grace Chan’s Every Version of You, I wrote: This is an intimate character study and an expansive vision of a possible future. Tao-Yi’s story is one of authenticity and resistance in the face of the unquestioned adoption of advanced, life-altering technology. Chan explores the appeal of illusion when what is in front of us has been diminished, and raises complex ethical questions around the integration of physical and virtual selves and tech’s monopolisation of everyday life. A moving, transportive, thoughtful and entertaining read!
And I got to launch the wonderful novel Hydra by Adriane Howell. Hydra has a strong and unique voice, it has mysteries – psychological and actual – it has movement and tensions and the writing itself is both natural and striking. It has both a wryness and a strangeness to it that made me fall in love with it. There’s joy in discovery and surprise, with this novel, and it’s exciting and rewarding. Jackie Tang in Readings Monthly sums it up well when she says that Hydra is without a doubt, one of the strongest debut novels of the year, that it’s ‘an addictive concoction of caustic humour, painfully accurate psychological scrutiny and Gothic wildness.’
Recently I read Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, in snatches while feeding my baby in the middle of the night. It’s simply written with striking moments of insight into self and experience and being in the world. It’s about a strong passion Ernaux/the protagonist had for a man over two years, how the desire bled into all areas of life, took over. Loved it.
Crime novels I enjoyed this year include The Ghosts of Paris by Tara Moss: glamorous, mysterious historical PI-capering escapism. Fun. Immersive. And The Unbelieved by Vicki Petraitis: compelling crime, multiple strands, small town, strong protagonist. Contemporary themes of violence against women. Enjoyable and easy to read.
As for SFF, Enclave by Claire G. Coleman is memorable with its strong concept, a town cut off where people live an illusion and outside is painted as dangerous. As usual with Claire’s work, it’s best not to say too much as there are many surprises. Christine, the protagonist, senses all is not right in her world, and this is partly awakened by a forbidden attraction to a woman that works for her family.
On audio I listened to The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. To avoid being trapped into a life of marriage and servitude, a young woman makes a deal with ‘the darkness’. She becomes immortal and free but leaves no trace in the world and no one remembers her. In modern-day NYC, she meets a guy who works in a bookstore and who somehow remembers her and can say her name. A tad too much backstory but it ends up having a strong build and a purpose. Very fun.
I also recently enjoyed Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones, set on a Scottish isle: a moody, haunting novel. Loved the characters, their scars and shadows. Wild and wet and windy. And The Lessons by John Purcell was smart, sexy and with characters that really come to life.
A couple of books that helped me on my fertility and pregnancy journey: It Starts With the Egg by Rebecca Fett is about supplements and nutrition for egg health to improve chances of conceiving and carrying to term. I followed Fett’s advice very closely! And Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Ostler is a smart and accessible pregnancy book. Ostler is an economist who trawls through the literature and debunks a few ‘norms’ around pregnancy and childbirth. It helped me feel more prepared, confident and able to make informed choices.
How was your reading and writing year? What were the highlights? I look forward to connecting throughout 2023!
Take care, and all best wishes to you and yours,