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It Sounded Better in My Head
Nina Kenwood (Text, available now)

It Sounded Better in My Head is our First Book Club pick for August – Join us at Readings St Kilda on 22 August for a free in-conversation event with the author.

When someone I know is publishing a book, and I am going to read that book, I feel a combination of excitement and dread. Excitement because they’ve achieved something wonderful by being published, and I will get the opportunity to experience their art. Dread because: what if I hate it? Nina Kenwood is not just a debut author, she is also both my boss and my friend. So, when I sat down to read It Sounded Better in my Head, the arbitrary what-if-I-hate-it dread was doubled. But thankfully (and unsurprisingly, as winner of the 2018 Text Prize), I loved every word of it.  

There are few times in life more painful than the late teenage years. You’re trapped between adolescence and adulthood, and there are huge amounts of emotion to contend with. Natalie has just finished up school, and is smack bang in the centre of this awkward stage in life. She’s the kind of teenager who always does the right thing – she doesn’t party or break the rules, and she is very close with her family. She has a plan for how her first year of uni will unfold – so when her parents tell her that they’re getting a divorce (on Christmas day no less), it feels like a slap to the face. And worse than the divorce itself is the fact that her parents are not treating it like a big deal. This split is a huge change for Natalie, and the fact that they’re ending things amicably does not sit right with her at all. Natalie is going through more changes than this. For one, her two best friends are dating, and she’s struggling to navigate the new dynamic. And she’s got feelings for a guy who seems completely wrong for her.  

Kenwood captures so many late-teenage feelings so perfectly – the clear, conversational prose is absolutely spot on, and every scene is keenly observed.

Kenwood captures so many late-teenage feelings so perfectly – awkwardness, fear of things changing, fear of missing out, the pressure of other people’s expectations, the pressure of your own expectations, that strange feeling of doing something just because someone doesn’t want you to do it, and so many more. I really couldn’t stop thinking of Sally Rooney’s work while I read this book – the clear, conversational prose is absolutely spot on, and every scene is keenly observed. Natalie is a perfectly flawed protagonist – she is both memorable and lovable because of her less-than-perfect moments. This balance of good and bad traits is extended to the whole cast of characters, both in what they say and how they behave. While there is certainly a dash of serendipity in It Sounded Better In My Head, there are very few scenes or interactions in this book that feel fabricated, or too good to be true.  

I may be accused of nepotism, but it won’t stop me from raving about this book to everyone I know. If you only read one YA book this year, make it this one.  

– Ellen Cregan

Growing Up Queer in Australia
Ed. Benjamin Law (Black Inc., available now)

‘Few people grow up queer in Australia: we’re not allowed to,’ writes Thom Mitchell in his contribution to Growing Up Queer in Australia. ‘Heterosexuality guards its supremacy.’ Yet, of course, all queers have had childhoods – to grow up queer is therefore a both a process of retrospective meaning-making and also one of becoming. The latest instalment in Black Inc.’s Growing Up in Australia series of anthologies, edited here by Benjamin Law, gives a kaleidoscopic view of the contradictions involved in the terms ‘growing up’ and ‘queer’: in over fifty individual entries, the writers collected here explore not only sexuality and gender identity, but also the complicating factors of ethnic and cultural identities, homophobia and transphobia, HIV/AIDS, and the effects of the recent same-sex marriage plebiscite.

One of the cruel ironies of the current salience of the term ‘queer’ is that it is often deployed as an identity when its intellectual genealogy – the queer theory boom of the early 90s that brought thinkers such as Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and David Halperin to prominence – explicitly challenges identity politics. As Law notes in his introduction, ‘queer’ is ‘a noun, an adjective, and – perhaps most importantly – a verb. To ‘queer’ something is to subvert, interrogate, and flip’. The most compelling entries in Growing Up Queer in Australia do exactly that – they do not assume the stability of queer identity, but rather engage with the paradoxes of it. Stephanie Convery’s ‘Jack and Jill and Me’ is a tender exploration of her relationship with an ex who came out as transgender after dating Convery; the piece interrogates what this means not only for ‘Jack’, the ex, but also for Convery’s own queer identity as a woman who once dated ‘Jill’. Oliver Reeson writes movingly of the retrospective view afforded by their transition – ‘The gift of being queer is in the close contact it gives you with the nature of identity, the great many possibilities for becoming and for telling stories.’

The most compelling entries in Growing Up Queer in Australia do not assume the stability of queer identity, but rather engage with the paradoxes of it.

An interesting thread that emerges over the course of Growing Up Queer in Australia is the tension between ‘queer’ as an identity based on sexual and gender difference, versus the ‘homo-normative’ respectability politics that have come to dominate Australian LGBTQI+ life in the lead-up to and aftermath of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. For Fiona Wright, ‘queer’ is ‘a word without expectations, with undiluted difference, a word that can be everything in every way’ – a definition that emphasises the potentially radical nature of queer identification. By contrast, for Joo-Inn Chew, ‘Our love has come in from the fringes, into the muddle of humanity in the middle.’ If being queer is no longer exceptional or controversial, can it be normal – or even banal? While some of the weaker entries in this collection do not so much interrogate that banality as demonstrate it, there is something quietly reassuring about the juxtaposition between the ordinary and extraordinary in Growing Up Queer in Australia. In its sheer diversity of voices, this collection shows that ‘queer’ can indeed be ‘everything in every way’. 

– Chad Parkhill

From Here On, Monsters
Elizabeth Bryer (Picador, available now)

‘Here be dragons’, or ‘from here on, monsters’, are how medieval cartographers labelled maps to indicate hitherto unknown parts of the world. Elizabeth Bryer’s debut novel opens with bookseller Cameron Bryer being tasked to investigate the provenance of a medieval codex in an unidentified language. It’s a mystery of charmingly bookish intrigue: a stranger appearing to hire a wordsmith; literary journals making curious changes to their style guides; a request for the valuation of a library collection consisting of painted books. Bryer plays ironically with the conventions of the detective genre ​while paying homage to the written word. 

The act and implications of translationas well as that of writing history, are central to this story. Bryer, herself a translator and translations editor, poses the question: how does one make an ancient text comprehensible to a modern audience? Must history replicate the conditions of its source material? Should translation transform the original, rather than recreating it? For a time, the narrative threatens to get bogged down in abstraction; nothing seems to be at stake, and the urgency of the more traditional detective novel is absent. But then, as the codex reveals itself as an account of early attempts by Europeans to make contact with the Antipodes, connections form and the story avalanches into an examination of the legacy of colonisation (that fantasised simulation of an original) and the suppression of plain-speaking. 

From Here On, Monsters is a detective novel whose sleuth investigates her country’s history and future…both a warning and a promise of the importance of language.

At the heart of the novel is Australia’s asylum seeker policy. What happens if we continue to pursue these policies into the uncharted territory of the future of forced migration? As the hidden meanings of the codex begin to manifest around Cameron, a literal monster can be heard at night in the space behind the bookshop and her translator observes, Monsters were not something Europeans found in the Antipodes…They brought the monsters with them.’ At the same time, Cameron’s fixation on language leads her to notice strange ellipses in the conversations society is having. While the record number of boat arrivals make newspaper headlines, there is no mention of the people on them. 

From Here On, Monsters is a detective novel whose sleuth investigates her country’s history and future. It is theory and allegory heavy, and though not immediately accessible, it is ultimately rewarding. It is both a warning and a promise of the importance of language in shaping political landscapes. Bryer takes us into uncharted literary territory while sounding the alarm about what may lurk beyond this country’s political horizons. What monsters lie there? 

– Fernanda Dahlstrom