It’s that time of year again: time to play Reading Bingo. For newcomers to this blog, Reading Bingo is a framework I use for reflecting on my year of reading. It’s a friendlier format for me than a ‘Best of…’ list, as heading up the state’s peak body for writers makes choosing favourite books inadvisable, if not impossible. The down side is that I don’t always get to mention every book I’ve loved.
To that end, I’ve decided not to be too bound by what’s in the squares, but to bend them a little to suit my purposes. Does this make me a bingo cheat?–I’ll leave it to you to decide.
For the record, I read 58 books in 2019, a jump on previous years, but nowhere near the number read by the front-runners in the competitive reading challenge that I’m part of at The Wheeler Centre.
A book with more than 500 pages
I didn’t read any books of more than 500 pages this year. Instead, I’m using this square to highlight a concise book that I was delighted to puff (write a brief cover quote). Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize, The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre is translated from the French by Stephanie Smee. Pitched as ‘the female Breaking Bad’, the eponymous narrator is 53-year-old widow Patience Portefeux, a French-Arabic translator, who, tiring of a life of financial stress, decides to intercept a drug deal she learns about during her phone tapping police work. Set in the multicultural maelstrom of the Paris suburbs, The Godmother packs visceral thrills and dark comedy into a mere 170 pages. I can’t wait for the movie version starring Isabelle Huppert.
A forgotten classic
I don’t know if Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds is a ‘forgotten’ classic, but it’s certainly a classic. I read both this and her 2019 release, Exploded View, before interviewing Carrie at Adelaide Writers Week earlier this year. I feel fortunate that we became friends before I read her work or I might have been too intimidated to speak with her. She is an unflinching writer, revealing tough emotional truth in exquisite prose. Described as a novel about ‘young lust and mature love’, Mateship with Birds is set in 1950s rural Australia and tells of the relationships that develop when lonely farmer and bird enthusiast Harry takes Michael, the son of single mother Betty, under his wing (no pun intended).
A book that become a movie
I had the great pleasure of chairing a panel at Melbourne Writers Festival called ‘Watching Them Grow: From Page to Screen’, which brought together Becky Albertalli, Melina Marchetta and Christos Tsiolkas to talk about the joys and challenges of adaption. It was a fascinating and insightful discussion, despite the fact that Becky had completely lost her voice. Instead, she typed her responses to questions, which Christos and Melina took turns to read aloud. (Someone in the audience later quipped that it was the first writers festival they’d been to where actual writing took place on stage!). I’d seen (and loved) the film Love, Simon, and the book on which it is based, Simon Vs The Homosapiens Agenda, is every bit as delightful: a gay teen romance with a lovable, flawed protagonist whose family and friends adore him.
A book published this year
More than half the books I read this year were published in 2019. One I had the pleasure of launching was Room for A Stranger, award-winning short story writer Melanie Cheng’s debut novel. In Room for a Stranger, septuagenarian Meg, last surviving member of her small family, takes in Andy, a 19-year-old overseas student from Hong Kong who is struggling with his medical studies. What Meg and Andy learn about themselves through each other has implications for relationships beyond the boundaries of Meg’s none-too-tidy house with ‘its armchairs with cushions moulded into the shape of ghosts’. Cheng writes with compassion and empathy about people who aren’t often protagonists of literary fiction. Room for a Stranger also has one of the best closing paragraphs ever.
A book with a number in the title
For this square, I’m nominating Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, edited by Michael Earp. A labour of love on Michael’s part, this engaging collection includes stories by Christos Tsiolkas, Claire Coleman, Benjamin Law, Marlee Jane Ward and my Writers Victoria colleague Jax Jacki Brown. The strength of the collection is in its diversity in all forms, including genre. I particularly enjoyed Marlee Jane Ward’s spec fic story ‘Rats’, set around (and beneath) the State Library Victoria building where I work ; and Claire Coleman’s ‘Sweet’ which imagines a future in which identifying as ‘gendered’ is a social crime. Christos Tsiolkas’s story ‘Laura Nyro at the Wedding’ may make you cry.
A book written by an author under thirty
Vietnamese Australian writer Joey Bui first caught my attention with her writing in Voiceworks, the Express Media magazine devoted to publishing younger writers. Now, at a mere 25 years of age, Bui has published Lucky Ticket, an impressive debut collection of short stories, based on interviews with migrants around the world. With echoes of Nam Le, who is clearly a major influence (one story is dedicated to him), Bui’s stories are told in vastly different but distinctive voices, with settings ranging from Saigon to Melbourne at the United Arab Emirates. The writing is assured and fearless. The title story, ‘Lucky Ticket’ reminded me of living in Vietnam in the 1990s, while furnishing me with insights I could never gain as an outsider.
A book with non-human characters
‘Do we spend our lives managing the tensions between these two worlds of fantasy and the literal?’ asks the narrator in Tom Cho’s short story, ‘Cock Rock’. Cho doesn’t manage the these tensions so much as atomise them in his 2009 collection, Look Who’s Morphing. The stories feature multiple non-human characters. In ‘I, Robot’, the narrator, a low-income earner, is converted into a robot under a government employment program. In Pinocchio, the narrator is transformed into a Muppet. In the titular story, the narrator morphs into a ‘giant reptilian creature…exactly like Godzilla, except that I also had a combination of the best qualities of the world’s lizards.’ Bizarre, mind-bending fun.
A funny book
Another 2019 release I had the great pleasure of launching was Nick Gadd’s Death of a Typographer, a murder mystery about typography, featuring a lead character with a special sensitivity to fonts, a Dutch design genius, a hard-boiled private font detective, and a Benedictine monk among others. I read the novel while on holiday in Japan, which turned out to be a problem as my laughter kept waking the family members with whom I was sharing a hotel room. As I noted in my launch speech, there’s a high degree of difficulty involved in writing fiction that is both clever and funny, and in which the humour is entirely without malice–what I call Comic Sans cruelty (pun intended)–and Nick totally pulls this off. For crime fiction fans, as well as lovers of language, design and puns.
A book by a female author
I read more books than usual by male writers this year, though books by women writers still made up for than 62% of my list (36 out of 58 titles). One I’ll mention here is The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta, which centres around the complex relationship between two women, twenty-something Rosie Gennaro, and Martha, the woman whom Rosie’s father Seb married less than a year after the death of her mother. Seb’s death has left the two women at a stand-off, both living in the place on Dalhousie but by no means sharing it. Into this fraught dynamic comes Jimmy Hailler, who, when Rosie meets him earlier in flooded north Queensland town, ‘looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls’. Warm, compassionate and authentic, The Place on Dalhousie made me cry. Twice.
A book with a mystery
I read 17 crime novels in 2019, just under 30% of my total reads. Among a number of great books, Anna George’s The Lone Child is the one that has stayed with me most vividly, a tense, atmospheric and unsettling story set in coastal Victoria. The central character, Neve, is struggling to adjust to life as a single mother after her partner abandoned her during her pregnancy. Retreating to her beach-side holiday house with her infant son, Neve becomes drawn to a young girl, Jessie, whose own mother’s struggles include homelessness and poverty. A novel about class, judgment and the disorienting effects of motherhood, I was not surprised when The Lone Child was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award.
A book with a one word title
Fun fact: I read nine books in 2019 with a one word title. For this bingo square, I’m singling out Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, a novel that kept me enthralled, even as it unnerved me. Set in Tasmania, Wintering centres on the story of Jessica Weir, a glow-worm scientist (the descriptions of her cave worksite are exquisite), whose partner Matthew disappears on a rural road one night. The book’s Gothic, mystery, horror, erotic and social realist elements defy categorisation–one reviewer describes Wintering as ‘at once a supernatural thriller and a sharp meditation on the legacy abusive men leave behind’–while Kneen’s prose is breathtaking. Creepy never read so beautifully.
A book of short stories
I met Alice Bishop when we were both interviewed on 3CR radio’s Published or Not and, after hearing her read from A Constant Hum, I impulsively suggested we swap books–and I’m so glad I did. A Constant Hum is collection of short stories, some of them mere fragments, inspired by the events of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Somehow, Bishop manages to write beautifully about terrible events, bringing to life both the horror of the catastrophe and the reverberations that are felt for years by affected individuals and communities. ‘Soft News’ was a stand out for me, a single page of powerful storytelling. With bushfires raging throughout the country as I write, A Constant Hum is timely, if terrifying. Also recommended: Alice Bishop’s interview on The First Time Podcast.
A free square
This year’s free square is dedicated to the latest work by my partner Andrew Nette, co-edited with Iain McIntyre, Sticking It To The Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980. A gorgeous, full-colour production, Sticking It To The Man examines how major social and cultural upheavals–such as the civil rights movement, gay liberation, feminism, antiwar activism–manifested in popular fiction, by authors both in favour of and opposed to these social disruptions. The anthology includes profiles on individual authors, scholarly articles and reviews, offering fascinating historical and popular culture insights.
A book set on another continent
I read a greater proportion of novels by Australian authors in 2019 than usual at 39 out of 58 (67%), though 11 of these were set at least partly outside Australia. The next most common setting for novels I read was Japan, which I visited for the first time in September. But the book I want to mention here is Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, released this year. As sprawling and beguiling as the Thai capital itself, Bangkok Wakes To Rain is a multi-generational novel told across multiple periods in time, including a near future in which the city is permanently flooded. A novel about belonging and estrangement, memory and forgetting, Bangkok Wakes to Rain brings recent Thai history to life in exhilarating prose.
A book of non-fiction
I read six works of non-fiction this year, all of them so excellent, I am going to list them here: The Genius of Birds – Jennifer Ackerman, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire – Chloe Hooper, Imperfect – Lee Kofman, Sticking it to the Man – Andrew Nette & Iain McIntye eds; Close to Home – Alice Pung; and Axiomatic – Maria Tumarkin. Having just spent Christmas with my mother on south coast New South Wales, where I spent more time watching native birds in the birdbath (satin bowerbirds, crimson rosellas, king parrots, Eastern spinebills, fantails, etc) than watching TV, The Genius of Birds has a special resonance. Read this and you’ll never use the term ‘bird-brain’ as an insult ever again.
The first book by a favourite author
Christos Tsiolkas is one of my favourite authors (as well as one of my favouite people!). This year, I re-read his 1995 debut Loaded in preparation for our Melbourne Writers Festival panel on adaptation from page to screen. I later said to him I’d forgotten what a sad story it is. Christos’s 2019 release, Damascus, explores how Christianity took hold as a world religion through the story of St Paul and his contemporaries in the ancient world. At its heart, though, Damascus is a contemporary novel, in which Christos explores class, gender, politics and ethics—as he does in Loaded, albeit in the very different context of 1990s Melbourne. Also recommended: Christos Tsiolkas’s interview on The Garrett Podcast.
A book you heard about online
Host of Three Triple RRR’s Backstory, Mel Cranenburgh, raved about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman on Instagram. So when I came upon it in Tokyo’s fabulous Daikanyama Tsutaya Books (T-Site), I snapped it up. The story is narrated (not always reliably) by Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old, single woman who faces considerable pressure to aspire to something more than her job as a convenience store attendant, which she finds deeply satisfying. This witty, concise, quirky novel renewed my respect for both cultural outliers, and the significance of the combini (convenience store) in Japanese society.
A bestselling book
Boy Swallows Universe is one of those books I put off reading due to a (misguided) distrust of best-sellers. But when Brian Nankervis chose it for his book club session at Melbourne Writers Festival, I agreed to chair so as to have an excuse to read Trent Dalton’s much vaunted debut. And I’m not ashamed to say I loved it! Set in 1980s Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe is narrated by teenager Eli Bell, whose brother August refuses to speak, whose mother is in prison, and whose father might as well be. Eli’s babysitter, Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday (who gets some of my favourite lines), is an infamous ex-con. With memorable characters, evocative settings and a story filled with humour, pathos and narrative surprises, Boy Swallows Universe is a book with a huge heart, which dares to suggest that love will always trump violence.
A book based on a true story
The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic is based on the true story of the unsolved 1930 murder of Mary ‘Molly’ Winifred Dean. In an author’s note, Kovacic outlines the bones of the story, onto which she puts fictional flesh in this engaging debut. Set in Melbourne, the narrative alternates between Molly Dean’s last days in 1930, and 1999, when art dealer Alex Clayton comes across a lost portrait of Dean, painted by Colin Colahan, Dean’s real-life boyfriend. As Alex investigates the provenance of the painting and learns more about Dean’s untimely death, it becomes clear that she is not the only person interested in the portrait. Intriguing and convincing, with two Melbourne eras skillfully evoked.
A book at the bottom of your to be read pile
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins had been on my TBR pile/towering stack since it was released in early 2018, but a rave review by Sue Penhall (mother of Mindhunter creator Joe Penhall), who volunteers with me at Writers Victoria, bumped the book up the pile and into my hands. Set during a freezing winter in England in 1962, the story centres on 17-year-old Radford, who is sent to Goodwin Manor, an isolated country house for boys who have been ‘found by trouble’, all of whom–like Radford–have something to hide. Recommending it as his favourite debut on The First Time Podcast, author Ben Hobson called The Everlasting Sunday ‘a very profound and beautiful piece of art’ and I’m inclined to agree.
A book your friend loves
Less by Andrew Sean Greer was recommended to me by the above mentioned Nick Gadd. Arthur Less, nearing fifty, is dismayed to learn that his boyfriend of nine years plans to marry someone else. In order to avoid the wedding, Less accepts random invitations to attend literary events and sets off on a journey that takes him around the world and back again in search of love and understanding. Greer’s use of language is striking and beautiful (‘Freddie put on his red glasses, and in each aquarium a little blue fish swam’) and Arthur Less is a character you just want to hug–though you might have to settle for a pat on the shoulder. Both satirical and lyrical, the novel left me wanting more Less.
A book that scares you
The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson was one of my stand out reads for 2019. The reason it scares me is because it brought climate change to life in a more visceral way than anything else I’ve read. This is partly because, unusually for a dystopian novel, a relationship between a mother and daughter is central to the story–and I could imagine fighting for my own daughter the way Isobel fights for her three-year-old Matilda. It’s also a feature of Robinson’s narrative structure, which alternates between familiarity of contemporary Melbourne, and a near future in which climate change—in this case, catastrophic flooding—has caused the city to fail, transforming the MCG into a refugee camp. Winner of the 2019 Readings Prize for New Fiction, The Glad Shout is powerful, moving and all too real.
A book that is more than 10 years old
Double Indemnity by James M Cain was Robert Gott’s choice for ‘CSI: Crime Story Investigation’, a series that Writers Victoria ran in the first half of 2019 on classic crime fiction for writers. Published in 1936 (and filmed in 1944), Robert admitted that Double Indemnity ‘is not a great novel…but I love it.’ Cain himself was said not to like it and only wrote it to cash in on the success of 1934’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Whatever it’s problems, I greatly enjoyed reading this concise noir. After all, how can you resist a line like, ‘I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.’ Honorable mention, too, to Robert Gott’s 2019 novel, The Autumn Murders, which looks at the rise of extremism in 1940s Melbourne.
A book with a blue cover
There were quite a few books with blue covers among my 2019 reads, but the one I’m mentioning here is Past The Shallows by Pavel Parrett—not because of its blue cover, but because it is such a sad and beautiful read. Set on the remote southern coast of Tasmania, the story centres on three boys, Joe, Miles and Harry, and their volatile father, who ekes out a living as a fisherman. Joe moves out to avoid his father’s violence, leaving Miles to protect the youngest, Harry, whose sensitivity to the natural world only seems to inflame their father’s rage. The sense of place is deeply evocative, the tragedy all the more poignant due to the credibility of the characters. I read with my heart in my throat as the story built to a heartbreaking climax.
And that’s my Reading Bingo for 2019. But I can’t finish up without mentioning a poetry collection that I read this year, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, by Andy Jackson. In recent years, I haven’t been a big reader of poetry, though this could be set to change, thanks largely to Andy’s work. Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold is a series of portraits of people–both historical figures, some in Andy’s own circle–with or reputed to have had Marfan Syndrome. As Andy notes at the front of the collection, ‘Marfan troubles the boundaries between ‘disability’ and ‘extraordinary ability’, and illustrates the complex relationship between the individual body and the social world.’ It was a thrill to hear Andy read from this work on festival panels in Horsham and Melbourne in 2019, and to watch audiences come under his spell.
My summer reading isn’t a pile so much as three teetering towers of books. I suspect some cold-blooded de-cluttering is in order. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to are Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men and A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved. And I’ll probably be seeing in the New Year with Lucy Treloar’s wonderful Wolfe Island.
What about you? What are your stand out reads for 2019 and TBR toppers for 2020?