When I started making this list, I had more than 40 books scrawled on a piece of paper. Getting it down to 20 books was difficult. Whittling it down to 10 was excruciating. I could actually feel it in my gut each time I crossed one out. Fact is, this list would probably be slightly different depending on the day you asked me to make it. On any other day, Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, and R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys — not to mention a whole host of others — might’ve made it. But ultimately I think my Top 10 fairly and evenly represents the books that I think stand above the rest this year.
As I deliberated over my favourite books of 2019 so far, I realised: Oh my God, I’ve read a lot of great books this year. And also: Oh my God, the back half of the year is packed— packed! — with amazing books, including the thriller of the decade (Adrian McKinty’s The Chain) and an Australian love letter to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men (Ben Hobson’s Snake Island). Not to mention a new Sarah Bailey, Nina Kenwood’s stunning YA debut, Tristan Bancks’ Detention…
But this list — The 10 Must-Read Books of 2019 – So Far! — is about books available from your local independent bookshop today. Don’t worry about the future. There’s plenty to enjoy now.
I’m convinced that under the hood of Mark Brandi’s novels thrums a noir engine.
Wimmera and The Rip — both intoxicating, unsettling masterpieces — feature characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration, induced perhaps by events outside their control, but perpetuated by their own actions. One bad choice begets another in the hopes to solve or rectify the first. It starts as a gradual slide, then progresses into a nosedive from which there is no return. To use Otto Penzler’s words: the protagonists of Wimmera and The Rip are “entangled in the web of their own doom.”
We’re attracted to such stories because its human nature to ruminate on the bad decisions people make, and avow to avoid walking that same path. We witness their mistakes so we don’t have to make them ourselves.
Or so we hope.
With sparse, yet beautiful prose, Mark Brandi portrays destitution and addiction with neither voyeurism or judgement; instead he paints a devastating portrait of two people (and a dog) running the long marathon of struggle and survival on the streets of Melbourne. But on the streets, interpersonal relationships are just as likely to open you up to salvation as damnation. Which is precisely the case when Anton — our narrator’s companion — welcomes Steve into their lives.
Sure, Steve’s got an apartment they can crash in, and he’s got access to drugs; but there’s something wrong with the guy. Prone to fits of violence, not to mention the strong smell — like vinegar, but stronger — wafting from behind his padlocked door. Staying in this apartment, with a temperamental stranger for a flatmate, and Anton forced back into a life of crime to maintain the creature comforts of their new home, is a gamble; if it doesn’t pay off, the consequences are catastrophic. But when the alternative is life back on the streets, maybe it’s worth it; maybe it’s acceptable to close your eyes to the incongruities of the apartment, and Steve’s violent tendencies, and just accept and enjoy the daily hit that briefly whitewashes reality. When you can’t afford your next meal, can you really afford to take the moral high ground?
This is a story of real life: of human frailties and violence. It is chilling and completely credible as it speeds towards a dark inevitability. It is an incredible step forward for a writer of commanding gifts, who seems poised on the threshold of even greater accomplishment.
Available: 26th February 2019
We’ve reached that point of the year when the tower of 2018 proofs on my bedside table (and on my floor, behind the door, so visitors can’t see the madness) wobbles precariously with even the gentlest footfall. Which means it’s time to pull the plug on 2017 and start diving into next year’s titles. But before that, there’s the small matter of declaring The Best Books of 2017… otherwise known as my favourites. There are so many books I haven’t mentioned here that I adored, but what follows are the ones that my brain simply refused to forget.
Wimmera tracks the friendship of two boys from a defining moment in their childhood, when a mysterious newcomer arrives in the small Australian country town of Wimmera, through to the discovery of a body in the river twenty years later. Mark Brandi’s debut is a simply extraordinary literary crime novel, delivered with intelligence, power and heart.
The novel opens in the midst of the 1989 summer holidays, where we’re introduced to best friends Ben and Fab. These almost-teenagers spend their days yabbying, playing backyard cricket, hypothesising revenge against school bullies, and leaving unsaid their shared discomfort over the way Fab’s father hits him, and the suicide of Ben’s next-door neighbour. When a man moves into the now-vacant neighbour’s house, Fab and Ben contemplate his presence in their hometown now; what brought him here, and where was he before? He’s a big man, obviously strong, built like a linebacker. There’s something not right about him; a meanness in his smile, a dubious glint in his eye. Unbeknownst to Ben and Fab, his arrival in Wimmera will have a major impact on their young lives — the ripples of which are still felt twenty years later, when their friendship has long since eroded, Ben now living the big city life in Melbourne, while Fab remains, stuck in a dead-end job, burdened by the weight of a decision made in his youth, soon to be crippled by it when the police discover a body in the river.
Wimmera is rural Australian noir perfected. The tone of the novel is bleak, its characters steeped in defeatism. You know from the start: nobody is going to get what they want, and everyone is going to get what’s coming to them. In his foreword of The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler described noir works as “existential pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral and their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.” That’s Wimmera in a nutshell. It is unsettling and bittersweet bearing witness to two young men orbiting a black hole, but more importantly, it’s unputdownable.
Comparisons to Jane Harper’s The Dry (my 2016 book of the year) are inevitable — both Australian debuts, both set in rural Australian towns — but besides their sheer readability, these are two very different novels deserving of equal merit. Harper’s was a relentless page-turner; a race to determine the perpetrator of the crime. Brandi’s is more of a slow-burn; a character-driven, emotionally-wrenching tour-de-force.
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 27-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: Australia