Doddy’s Top 5 (ish)s of 2017

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I read a lot of amazing books in 2017. Here are some of my Top 5s by genre/category. Some of them I’m not going to be able to whittle down to 5 – hence the “ish”. #Soznotsoz.

Memoirs/Biographies

  1. Reckoning by Magda Szubanski – heart shattering tale of one of Australia’s favourite comedians, her relationship with her parents and their parts in the WW2 resistance in Poland, her own struggle with her sexuality and coming out.
  2. Spectacles by Sue Perkins – I had no real idea who Sue Perkins was when I read this, but I have never laughed out loud so hard at a book before.
  3. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan – This book is terrifying. Cahalan contracted a rare autoimmune disease which affected her brain. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic and put into a facility. Without the insistence of her parents and the assistance of the doctor who finally diagnosed her, she would probably still be there.
  4. In The Darkroom by Susan Faludi – after many years of estrangement, Faludi’s father, who she remembers from her childhood as being violent and awful, contacts her to let her know that he has had a gender reassignment. This is Faludi’s attempt to uncover the person that her father is now.
  5. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – Lockwood’s father is a catholic priest. As he started out as a Lutheran priest he was allowed to convert and take his family with him, as long as none of them were psychopaths. I would recommend this one on audio (it’s read by Lockwood). It was nothing what I expected and I really enjoyed it.
  6. The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke – another memoir by a poet, Clarke recounts what it was like growing up black in very white suburban Sydney in the 80s and 90s.
  7. The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova by Kelcey Parker Ervick – I read this one to satisfy the Micropress requirement for the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, and I’m so glad I did. It’s not your usual biography, and is instead written more like poetry, using excerpts from letters to and from Nemcova and from her works. (Nemcova is on the Czech currency, and is renowned for her fairy tales). Beautifully written.

Literary Fiction

  1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty – This book was amazing – funny, though-provoking, absolutely scathing and so very relevant.
  2. The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield – This is an older book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a wonderfully told tale of books, siblings and family secrets.
  3. Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko – Set in and around the town of the same name, this is a gorgeous story about Jo, who has left her life as an academic to buy a property on her country. Her teenage daughter is less than impressed. Things become more complicated wqhen a handsome stranger comes to town. This is a lovely exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal people and county, and it opened my eyes to the difficulties of claiming Native Title.
  4. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio – I loved the crap out of this book. It made my inner Shakespeare nerd very happy. I loved the style used to tell the story and the liberal scattering of quotes throughout.
  5. Black British by Hebe de Souza – de Souza recounts the life of Indians so anglicised by English rule that they are completely estranged from the local culture, and don’t even speak the language. When the English leave the country, they also have no real choice but to leave as they are essentially strangers in their own country. Based on de Souza’s own life, this was a fascinating read.

YA

  1. Breathing Underwater by Sophie Hardcastle – This book was a punch to the feels. Grace and Ben are twins, and Grace has always felt second to Ben’s natural ability in everything – she is the moon to his sun. When Ben dies suddenly and tragically, Grace goes off the rails. This book is beautifully written, realistic and incredibly powerful. Have tissues on hand.
  2. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde – This Book gave me loads of happy feels! A really sweet tale about three friends who make their dream trip to a convention in the US (one of the three is a Youtuber who has a fan base). The diverse characters are wonderful.
  3. Dreadnought/Sovereign by April Daniels – Okay, I’m cheating a little with this one. Dreadnought and Sovereign make up the Nemesis duology. Dreadnought starts with Danny who is transgender, but not yet out of the closet, sitting behind a chemist painting his nails with polish he has just bought. Out of the sky falls the hero Dreadnought who is dying, and passes his powers on to Danny. Along with a bunch of superpowers, Danny also receives his ideal body. But that only creates more problems for her.
  4. The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis – The swimmer, the rebel and the nerd, all orbited around Isaac. But now Isaac is gone, who are they now? This is a wonderful exploration of both grief and identity.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – I can’t imagine a YA top anything without this book on it. Starr and her friend Khalifa are pulled over by a policeman and Starr witnesses his fatal shooting. This book is raw, powerful and angry. For someone like me who lives outside the US, it gives a really eye opening account as to what happens in these communities where violence occurs and the impact of the trauma. Heartbreaking.

Science Fiction

  1. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon – I’ve heard this book described as “The Antebellum South on a space ship” and that seems pretty apt. Aster lives in the slums and is not really understood by those around her – and has no desire to be. She is happy to go about her business. She works in the fields like the others, but she is also a gifted healer. She is trying to unravel the meaning behind her mother’s old journals discovering much more than she was expecting. This book is pretty brutal at times, but it’s just so good.
  2. Ninefox Gambit/ The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee – A disgraced general is given a last chance to redeem herself, but this involves using the undead Shuos Jedao, who has never lost a battle, but who is also a bit insane. I have all the flailing Muppet arms for this series. There’s gender-bending, there’s incredible brutality and graphic violence, but there’s also a sense of hope. I have no more words – queue the Muppet arms again.
  3. The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden – Sorry folks, more Muppet arms for this one. There’s so much to this story. A little girl finds a new friend who shows her that she’s a powerful demigoddess. There is another demigoddess who isn’t doing so great. – she works in a nail salon at the moment, but she has plans. There are two friends who try the new hallucinogen doing the rounds – they end up transforming into sea creatures and having fabulous sex. Throw in a robot uprising and we have a wild ride!
  4. John Scalzi (Collapsing Empire, Redshirts) More cheating and I’m not even sorry. I don’t know why it took me so long to read Scalzi, but I’m so happy I did. Redshirts is a tonne of fun (if you’re a Star Trek fan then you should get an idea of the story just from the title) and Collapsing Empire is a great series starter. The new Empress is having a rough time – not only has her father just died, but her new office is full of really valuable antique shit and but someone keeps trying to blow her up. This book has some great strong female characters and is laugh out loud funny. Get on it!
  5. Synners by Pat Cadigan – This book was written back in the 90s, and I wish I had read it then as it would have blown my tiny mind. Foreshadowing computer networking and viruses by many years, Cadigan a dark world where humanity and technology are becoming more and more entwined, which is fine until something goes badly wrong in interface between humans and the technology. A) Never get the implants, you know it’s going to end badly; b) it makes me really mad that you never hear Cadigan’s name when people are talking about cyber punk. (One of my all time favourite books is her Fools, also from the 90s. Find this book, read it, and remember that it’s nearly 30 years old.

Enough rambling from me. What were your favourite reads from 2017? What are you looking forward to in 2018?

Read on!

Paul Beatty in Brisbane with Wesley Enoch

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I was bitterly disappointed to read this article about Paul Beatty’s interview with Michael Cathcart at the Sydney Writers Fest. It leaves me cold and embarrassed – how could the festival organisers get it so wrong? How could a middle class white guy be the right person for this interview (especially with some of the lack lustre questions and his use of the n-word?!? Dear white people, check yourselves! That is never ok!)

I was both grateful and excited the week before to have attended an event in Brisbane where Paul Beatty was interviewed by Wesley Enoch. Enoch is a playwright and artistic director. He has worked as the artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company and is currently the director of the Sydney (Theatre) Festival. He is of Murri descent and is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man.

I can see why Beatty can be thought of as a “difficult” interview subject. Enoch’s questions were wonderfully open, and gave Beatty lots of room to move with his answers. He answered lots of questions with “I don’t know” or “It’s not for me to say” but then was able to discuss his ideas in a way the audience seemed to enjoy (I know I certainly did) and Enoch was able to bounce off his responses to get the best out of the conversation. 

Beatty spoke about his decision to write at the age of 25, and how he tried to put it off, but eventually he can’t help himself. He said “I write because I can’t fight.” Enoch mentioned that he felt a responsibility to the Aboriginal community and asked Beatty if he felt similarly. Beatty responded that he was a member of a bunch of communities and quoted Kafka: “What do I have in common with the Jews when I have nothing in common with myself.”

It seems more that Beatty doesn’t want to speak for anyone apart from himself. He said that he wasn’t writing to change the world – that was too much. He doesn’t believe that there is anything untouchable. He is not writing to be liked – he hopes people like his work but that is not what makes him create. Beatty mentioned that he had done slam poetry once, but found it off putting. He also mentioned that he feels people pick up books thinking of them as a “black book” or even “the black book” which is not the way he reads (and, I’m inferring, not the way he writes). Beatty revealed that one of his first pieces of fan mail was from a young Vietnamese man about his book The White Boy Shuffle who saw it as just like his own life.

When asked if it was a conscious decision not to name the main character of the Sellout, Beatty said “A little bit” and reflected that he’s not that good coming up with names. He also mentioned that the timeline of the book was unclear as he was wanting to give a sense of “this is how it always is”. 

Enoch asked about the bringing back of slavery and segregation in the book, and the “heresy” that these things could have positive sides. Beatty spoke a little about his own experiences of segregation, and the difference between segregation and self-segregation (ie choosing to live in a community of like people vs not having that choice). Beatty mentioned that he had heard people say that blacks had it better under segregation with their own restaurants and so forth, to which his response was “Really?”  Beatty also talked about the difference between being proud and not being ashamed or embarrassed. Not being ashamed or embarrassed allows you a space in which to be, he said, but pride narrows thinking.

To me, Beatty came across as humble, self deprecating and very real. For me authors are like rock stars are to most people, so I have a bad habit of being both star struck and tongue tied at signings, blurting inanities like “I think you’re amazing” and then being too embarrassed by my stupidity to say anything else. At the book signing afterwards, I found Beatty very easy to talk to, and he took time to chat with everyone in the queue.

I’m so glad that the Brisbane Writers Festival engaged Wesley Enoch for this event. Sydney, have a long hard look at yourselves.

Note: Enoch also mentioned the practice of “blackbirding” that had occurred in Australia’s past. Blackbirding was a practice of white people sailing around the local pacific islands, luring the indigenous people on board through trickery and bringing them back to Queensland to work the sugar cane fields. This occurred from the 1860s through to the early 1900s.  You can find more information here and here