What We're Reading / NSW Writers’ Centre staff list their favourites of 2012

As you can imagine, people who work at the Writers’ Centre are voracious readers. As we lead in to Christmas and New Year, where you hopefully will be able to grab some reading time in a hammock somewhere, we thought it was a good chance to reflect on what we’ve read that’s stayed with us […]

As you can imagine, people who work at the Writers’ Centre are voracious readers. As we lead in to Christmas and New Year, where you hopefully will be able to grab some reading time in a hammock somewhere, we thought it was a good chance to reflect on what we’ve read that’s stayed with us — the page-turners, the writers who’ve stood out, the Apps that we return to.

And first up is Sam, our (former) Project Officer who, you may have heard, is the new director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and has just moved to Melbourne. Good luck!

Sam Twyford-Moore, Project Officer


There are three novels — HHhH by Laurent Binet, How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti, and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner — which all, in some way, address their own construction by revealing their own contradictions. Binet’s novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is the anxiety attack that the historical fiction genre has needed to have for years, while Lerner and Heti explore notions of the fictional self in a seemingly meandering way, but keep the pages turning.


But the piece of writing that I keep coming back to is an introduction: an entrée with the weight of a main. Introductions to anthologies are usually superfluous affairs, easy to skim, but Astrid Lorange’s preface to her guest-edited issue of Cordite <www.cordite.org.au> — collecting poems themed around Sydney — is essential reading. Lorange beautifully captures the fractured nature of Sydney as a city — ‘There is no centre, no flush angle, no punctum.’ — but in two powerful paragraphs she does something unusual: she directly addresses the writers she has rejected, criticising submissions which ‘cited an Indigenous subject, seemingly for the sole purpose of pointing to Indigeneity per se’, as well as those that had relied on the problematic ‘city as a whore’ trope. This, of course, recalls Martin Amis’s ‘war on clichébut goes deeper than just overused phrases. Lorange explores ethical questions in a literary space rarely if ever used for such purposes and for that, she is, to put it simply, my hero.

Sophia Barnes, Project Officer


Jessie Cole’s debut is a grim, confronting and viscerally physical novel. Its premise might seem outlandish at first glance, yet in Cole’s assured grasp it steers clear of melodrama. The story opens with a car crash: young mother Rachel is running from the father of her baby and flips her car on a bad bend outside the house in which salt-of-the-earth 40-something Vincent lives with his step-daughter Gemma. Rachel’s baby is killed by the impact and Vincent finds the young woman, who is barely out of her teens, in shock on the side of the road.

The novel’s strength comes from the fresh, vivid and immediately engaging voices of the two narrators, Vincent and Gemma. The chapters trip back and forth between the two, giving us an insight into the different ways father and daughter see events unfolding. The novel is in an unflinchingly honest picture of the damage wrought by violence and fear, raising troubling questions about how we should respond to the vulnerability of another.

Despite its darkness, however, the novel never crosses over into bleakness, for the most part because of the warmth, intelligence and sheer goodness of both Gemma and Vinnie. This is an impressive debut from a young Australian writer.

Ilse Scheepers, Intern and Communications Officer


My standout book this year was Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novel. Mantel’s prose is like droplets of cold, clear water dripping from a great pine tree: brilliant, fragrant and shivering with fragility.


App-wise, I got a lot of use from Pocket (formerly Read It Later), which made saving interesting articles I saw on Twitter or online to peruse later on my phone a dream. I always seem to see things that look like they’d warrant reading, but it’s often when I’m out and about and can’t set aside the time to delve into it straight away. This App solves that problem: it’s easy to use, and a great way to keep a good stockpile of articles to dip into on a long commute or when you’ve forgotten to bring a book.


I also discovered the Longreads website, which houses some compelling and exceptionally written long-form journalism pieces — both classics and recent work. They’re affiliated with Pocket, which means you can either read their clearly presented and easy on the eye pieces live on your phone, or save them for later.

Portia Lindsay, Program Officer


Jeff Sparrow’s fascinating insight into porn and censorship in Australia is a great example of long-form narrative journalism: captivating, engaging, informative and eye-opening. It is essential reading for anyone interested in a nuanced examination of the state of pornography and censorship in Australia.


This is (beloved Centre tutor) Emily Maguire’s fourth novel, in which she delves into the relationship of 35-year-old Mischa with the much younger Cal, in steamy Hanoi. Maguire details the heat, the history, the poverty and the wonders of Hanoi; she is skilled at capturing the beauty and the ugliness of both her characters and location. Maguire presents an accomplished narrative voice, fascinating characters, and a developed cultural backdrop to a nuanced emotional and sexual drama.


I also frequently find fantastic writing in Kill Your Darlings journal — most recently, pieces by Benjamin Law and Mel Campbell on male waxing and Downton Abbey respectively. The Seizure Style Issue (featuring NSWWC member Sam Cooney on men in skirts) and Island Magazine’s ‘WOMEN’ are packed full of terrific writing.


Online, Elmo Keep’s piece Against Depression, which can be found on The Vine or on her excellent blog (as can much of her other fantastic writing: read it) comes to mind months later, as does Ben Jenkins’ blog rant about Paul Sheehan in the wake of the Gillard misogyny speech. At the time, it did the rounds on Twitter, but if you missed it you can track it down on his blog A Baffling Ordeal. If you like your political and media commentary clever, cutting and absolutely brimming with coarse language, then this is for you.

Julia Tsalis, Acting Director


Carrie Tiffany got really good reviews when this book came out early this year but seemed to slip away underneath the onslaught of book news. It’s worth going looking for. Quirky and wonderful — in that it doesn’t tell you what you expect to hear — it has its own unique perspective, not homogenised and generic.

A dairy farmer tries to pass on what he knows about love and sex to a neighbour’s boy. At the same time he is trying to work out his feelings for the boy’s mother and she for him. Their stories unfold surrounded by the daily life of milking cows and observing a family of kookaburras. It is real and fleshily personal.


This is Favel Parrett’s beautiful first novel. It’s such a pleasure to read as it has been well-edited and seems to have received the development work needed to be ready for publication, something often missing in debut novels. It has obviously benefited from the Australian Society of Authors’ mentorship that Parrett received, and further development support (through the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program).

Three brothers — whose mother has died and whose father is an alcoholic, over-mortgaged and abusive fisherman — struggle to find their own way and some gentleness in a harsh world. Parrett captures their young voices and the near hopelessness of the situation. It made me cry.


Chad Harbach’s book is exceptional. I came to it by reading Keith Gessen’s article in Vanity Fair about the 10-year journey it took to write and publish The Art of Fielding. It’s worth reading the article as it’s an insightful look at the reality of not only what it takes to write a book, but the essential role of editors and publishers in getting that book to print.

The Art of Fielding is about baseball, a game I have no interest in. At the beginning I held it at arms’ length but by the third chapter I could no longer resist, and fell in love with these quirky and unfamiliar people. This is the sort of book that makes you want to go to bed early just so you can read it.


With Madeline Miller’s beautiful and magical book you are in the hands of someone who knows Greek mythology so well that she can spin it alive again with a magical retelling.

Her story of the love between Achilles and Patroclus is deeply intense and sexy and real. Miller brings out the mystery of Greek mythology but adds a human dimension that is moving and beautiful and sad.

Kirsten Krauth, Editor, ‘Newswrite’


I have bought many copies of this book. For friends and family. It’s my standby for a gift because everyone I know who’s read it has loved it. That’s saying something. Anna Funder’s debut novel is meticulously researched and lovingly crafted. For a first fiction outing it is almost faultless. Moving between Germany, Britain, New York and contemporary Sydney, Funder traces those escaping a war and forced to live in exile. While based on real characters, Funder’s prose is direct and inescapable, working at the surface and beneath, full of mystery and longing.


Jon Bauer’s debut novel is visceral and gut-churning. His perfectly nuanced narrative moves between a boy’s voice, and his adult self years later — as he returns home to confront a mother dying from a brain tumour (and losing her sense of self in the process). How do you get closure if the person you so desperately need to communicate with — your fears, your anger — can no longer understand the words you are using? At times reminiscent of American Psycho and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bauer writes with explosive force about violence and vulnerability.


I stumbled onto the work of Wendy James via a comment made on my blog by one of her fans. With a background in crime fiction, she describes her work as ‘suburban noir’. In her latest novel, The Mistake, she explores the media furore surrounding the illegal adoption of a baby and the repercussions on a mother and her family. Positing herself between literary and popular fiction, James writes at a cracking pace, and is one to study for narrative punch. Her short story collection, Why She Loves Him, is built around the theme of abandoned children, and the collateral damage wreaked by parenthood; here, her writing is often subtle and delicate, moving effortlessly between time and genre.


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