What We're Reading / What You’re Reading

Take a look at the great things you’ve been reading this past year — lots of new work on this list! Go you, supporting each other! And revisiting some old ground with fondness.

Writing NSW is proud to be celebrating 30 years of supporting writers. In December, we ran a competition tasking our audience to review a book they read over the summer break, with the winning review being awarded a generous book pack from Pan Macmillan. 

Congratulations to Sanchana Venkatesh! You can find Sanchana’s review as well as those from the rest of the shortlist below. 

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down

Sanchana Venkatesh

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down (text Publishing 2021)

Everywhere I go, I said, it’s like I never existed. (p. 141)

In 2018, Maggie receives a Facebook message from an unknown man who claims to have known her when she was younger. This brings back memories she hasn’t thought about for a while. Despite her best efforts to change her name, her identity, and herself, can she truly outrun the past?

Bodies of Light is a character-driven novel which follows the life of Maggie from when she is a young girl to a woman in her mid-forties. From foster care in Melbourne, all the way through to her adult life in Victoria, New Zealand, and America, the locations act as markers for her memories. The book is about Maggie’s trauma, her grief, her resilience, and ability to grow despite the odds. As a reader, you really get to know Maggie and it is obvious that Down has thought out every little detail about Maggie before setting her free in the world for us to have compassion for her and curiosity about her life. Despite the heavy themes, it is a novel filled with hope and love. 

The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar 

Dr. Kylie Boltin

The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar (Pan Macmillan 2021)

This summer I read The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar. It was a profound and urgent book that opened a window on an Australian experience that we have never heard. The book was intimate and honest. It was vulnerable and generous. I recommend the book to all Australians as we expand the dialogue of violence against women to include all women, especially intersectional women, whose voices have traditionally been silenced.


The Keepers by Al Campbell 

Lisa Kenway

The Keepers by Al Campbell (UQP 2022)

The Keepers is the story of Jay, the devoted mother of twin teenage boys with autism. A full-time carer with an absent husband, her world revolves around her sons and their needs. Frank, a funny, talented artist, is bullied about his weight, his stutter, and his otherness. Teddy is non-verbal and requires constant high-level care. Jay’s love is fierce and her frustration with an inflexible system and uncaring society immense. Lonely and haunted by her own difficult childhood, Jay turns to Keep, her half-real lifelong companion, for support and guidance.

Drawing on the author’s lived experience, the characters are authentic, and their stories told with unflinching honesty. The narrative is fragmented: a contemporary timeline interspersed with memories of Jay’s traumatic childhood; her interactions with Keep, which veer towards magic realism; and a scrapbook of news articles cataloguing disasters that befall disabled people in a society which should care more. The prose is consistently beautiful, and the story threads woven together seamlessly. A powerful, lyrical debut about people whose voices are rarely heard, The Keepers is ultimately about the power of love bestowed and withheld and deserves to reach a broad audience.

The Spill by Imbi Neeme 

Sally Jane Smith

The Spill by Imbi Neeme (Penguin 2020)

A car slides out of control and into a near miss. Its occupants emerge without serious physical injuries, but the incident’s aftermath pulls a family apart. Each chapter reveals part of the puzzle, building a cleverly crafted image of the complex dynamics that make up a family. Like a jumbled jigsaw, the pieces sometimes need to be held up one way, then another, then turned around until they can click into place. And it’s impossible to see the big picture until the last piece has found its home. Instead of a straightforward chronology from a single point of view, the narrative follows two sisters as they reflect on moments that drove their lives onto new paths – or blocked off old ones – often with very different interpretations of the same events.

The Spill is a stirring tale of memory and misconception, weakness and redemption, resentment, thwarted good intention, and acts of profound love. It left me pondering the secrets that might bolster relationships, or undermine them. The secrets born from kindness and those kept out of fear. The ones we don’t know how to tell, and those that we should never have told.

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson 

Dr Jean Burke

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson (Hatchette 2021)

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson, is a novel for these times of fire and pandemic, uncertainty and hope. The narrative begins quietly following Rachel’s reclusive routines as a glass artist on the South Coast of NSW. Her river home is disrupted by the arrival of a woman and her sick baby running from Them, mysterious harbingers of instant death. We are then taken on a thrilling, frightening journey with these women through bush, country towns and Canberra, made shockingly unfamiliar by the apocalyptic atmosphere.

This modern novel reflects and speaks to our current emotional reality – many of us now more aware of our basic drive to survive, and our need for family bonds as we face nameless anxieties. Readers, expect excitement, horror, sorrow, and puzzlement as well as quiet moments of delight in nature, as ‘light streaming in like a bright idea’. At times the writing is so beautiful that I reread sections to enjoy again the flight of a pelican or ‘the usual straggle of cormorants arranged on the dead river gum’, something I have come to anticipate in Inga’s writing. This book is a satisfying read that is likely to leave you with a hopeful attitude and much to consider.

Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan

Jenine Westerburg

Leaping Into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan (Allen and Unwin 2021)

I first stumbled upon Gillian Mears’ writing in the Prahran Library in 1988: Ride A Cock Horse was propped up on a wire book display-stand on the ‘New Fiction’ table. I took it home, and it blew my mind. How could a 23-year-old (my age at the time) write with so much life experience? Bernadette Brennan has answered me that question, and many others, in her exquisite literary biography, Leaping into Waterfalls. In it, she explores the connection between life and work, of this oft-overlooked Australian writer of significant talent.

Mears writes in the realist tradition and tells stories about the Australian female experience in a richly imaginary and poetic way, and yet for some reason, she did not gain the same traction as predecessors such as Garner and Jolley. Brennan explores Mears’ talent as an artist and the beauty of her writing, and determines that it is absolutely essential to understand what was going on in Mears’ life to see why she was driven to explore what she did. By exploring the inner dynamic of Mears, Brennan magically illuminates the already published works that are at risk of being forgotten. Reading this biography has made me excited to revisit them.

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