An Empty Chair at Tmol Shilshom: Aharon Appelfeld 1932 - 2018

on Thursday, January 4, 2018
It saddens me to start the year with a post in loving memory of one of my favourite writers. As some of you may have heard, Aharon Appelfeld, the last of the great survivor novelists, died today aged 85. Although eclipsed in the public eye by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, Appelfeld was the finest of them all. I long harboured a fantasy of meeting him in the cafe he was known to frequent, Tmol Shilshom. Whenever I went to Jerusalem, I made a beeline to Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, climbed the stairs, and plonked myself at a table. Without fail, I'd order a shakshukah, pull a book from my backpack and wait. He never showed. I did ask every now and then. He still came, I was assured. And he was famously generous with his time for anyone who cared to chat. Alas, it wasn't to be. I would only know him on the page. And maybe console myself with the knowledge that I sat where he once sat, and breathed the same fragrant air he breathed.

But back to his work. Appelfeld's compassion and unflinching humanity made him one of literature's truest moral compasses. He was also one of the few novelists I can think of who wrote multiple masterpieces: Tzili, The Iron Tracks, The Retreat, Katerina... I could go on. What sets his books apart from other Holocaust literature is the absence of the Holocaust itself in almost all of them. That's not to say it isn't there; it exists in the ether, either looming, peripheral or somewhere in the past, but we are never taken into the camps, or forced to bear witness to the horrors that have become the template for most other books. Appelfeld, in that way, was a soothsayer, a giver of wisdom and, most importantly, a town crier for what might still come.

Reflecting on his death it occurred to me that his greatest work is also his most relevant to our times. Written in 1978, Baddenheim 1939 - a slim, perfect novella - is the story of a bunch of Jews at an Austrian spa retreat at the dawn of the Second World War. As they frolic without a care, concerning themselves only with petty gossip and other such fripperies, turning away from the news that is seeping in, we sense their increasing isolation and, moreover, come to realise that they will soon be easy pickings for the Nazis. It is a cautionary tale of the highest order, and the ultimate train crash on paper: you know it's coming but you can't look away. That it ends just as the horror descends makes it all the more powerful.

A quick check of his works in translation proved an unexpected delight - he had another novel published last year that I have not yet read: The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. I ordered it straight away, knowing it will be my last "first dance" with this wonderful soul. Still, I will return to him time and time again in the coming years; for guidance, for a greater understanding of the craft, and for the familiar warmth of true goodness.

2017 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Sunday, December 31, 2017

An unnamed guy turns up in an unnamed town somewhere neither coastal nor inland in country New South Wales. He's writing a book about disappearing towns; not the kind that die off because all the young people leave but towns that quite simply cease to exist. The town he has arrived in has yet to start disappearing, but it's a prime candidate. Still, our narrator gets a job stacking shelves at the local Woolworths supermarket, finds a housemate, hangs out at the pub, kind of falls for a girl who hosts a show nobody listens to on the local radio station, befriends the town's only bus driver, goes about his business and tries not to get bashed by some random guy that supposedly has it in for him. Then holes start appearing in the town.

It's weird. It's thrilling. It's a goddamned fucking masterpiece. This, dear Bookworms, is Shaun Prescott's magnificent debut, The Town.

Riffing off of early-to-mid 20th century European legends like Bernhard, Walser and Kafka, via experimental film, underground music and even video games, Prescott manages to create a seemingly familiar world that is, at the same time, completely foreign and disorienting. It is a distillation of small town ennui, refracted through a constantly shifting lens, where entire parallel universes are created like hallucinatory side quests. Sometimes, these come through in the form of confessional parables, like when the town's bus driver recalls his failed efforts as a music tour promoter or Ciara, the aforementioned radio host, creates entirely new genres of music for no apparent reason. Other times, it is the boredom itself that reigns: in the pub, at the local Michele's Patisserie. Prescott proves a master of narrative control, ensuring the most ordinary interactions are cloaked in a haze of foreboding. It's an unsettling experience, reading the loose set pieces knowing that something isn't quite right, but not being able to put your finger on it. It is also fucking funny. You know, the kind of funny when you're one step away from shitting your pants.

I have little doubt that I will be returning to The Town again and again over the coming years. It's the kind of book that clearly rewards multiple readings. For me, it is also a watershed moment in Australian literary fiction - a reinvention of what the contemporary Australian novel can be. Published by The Lifted Brow, the quirky collective of folks that, it is becoming ever more apparent, are all freakish literary savants, The Town has already been snapped up by major publishers overseas. I intend on being first in line to order each new edition. I suggest you get behind me.

And that, I guess, brings another year to a close. Sorry for neglecting you but I hope it was all for a good cause. I've had a fun week getting this old rustbucket back into gear. Expect to see a lot more of me here in 2018. Hope to see you around. Much love and new year's goodness to you all. And, most of all, happy reading!

2017 In Review: It's The Final Countdown!

on Friday, December 29, 2017
So Europe released a new album this year... Which is of no consequence whatsoever other than to say, look at that crappy headline I've been pushing for like six years now. Suddenly it's relevant again. Though, to be fair this:

is no this:

despite Joey Tempest's cool guy renaissance thanks to a hair straightener, some Grecian 2000 and the uncanny inability to sing everywhere except into the mic. But enough 80s fanboying, we've reached the pointy end of 2017 so it's time to rattle of my favourite reads. Will things ever be the same again?

5. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
What is it about the Booker Prize these days that gets it so wrong with the winner (yeah, shoot me, but some of you will recall Lincoln In The Bardo was my most overrated book of 2016) but still manages to find a completely unknown pearler to stick on the shortlist? Last year it was Graham Macrae Burnett's magnificent His Bloody Project. This time round it was Fiona Mozley and her unsettling debut, Elmet. Blending the mythical, historical and natural in a way that aims to continually wrong foot the reader, Mozley draws us towards inevitable catastrophe without ever telegraphing exactly what form it might take. In that sense, it is like riding a moral see-saw, one from which you might be thrown at any time. John, the narrator's father is a brilliantly complex character and one who you will have a difficult time working out. He's taken his two children into the countryside, to a house he built with his own hands, in what might be an attempt to protect them from the dangers of modern life. Or he might be a savage bully at war with the world around him, abusive and selfish, who has simply stolen them away. Of course, as the children grow and the folk in the surrounding towns become increasingly concerned for their welfare, things are bound to come to a head. And that is where Elmet takes a turn for the truly shocking. Seriously, it is beyond me how this did not win the Booker.

4. Belladonna by Daša Drndić
One day, when the world as we know it has ended, and we're all left picking our noses in atomic fallout shelters, someone will be trawling through the literature of the 21st century, happen upon the works of Daša Drndić and wonder why we didn't listen to her while we still had the chance. We certainly won't be able to say we weren't warned. Drndić rubs our noses in the shit of history and forces us to inhale for our own good. She did it in Trieste (my favourite novel of the last ten years). She did it in Leica Format. And again she has done it in Belladonna. There is an obsessive circularity about her books, such that they might best be read as a triptych. And while the material Drndić mines might have a certain sameness across the three works - an interrogation of history that unfolds into an excoriation of our collective failings - each one attacks it from a unique angle. In Belladonna, it is retired psychologist Andreas Ban who embarks on the excavation. Faced with his own mortality after being diagnosed with breast cancer, he begins to trawl his old files and books, finding connections he had not noticed before, only to realise that he is only one or two steps removed from atrocity. This intense connectivity sends him (and, by association, us) down the rabbit hole of despair, where he hides away assembling the ultimate indictment against the human race. And reader beware: we are all guilty. Belladonna is a dark, demanding book, but a fiercely moral and empowering one, too. Another triumph from one of the most important writers of our times.

3. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
So it turns out we've been robbed. While we were reading the fine novels of Rushdie, Desai, Naipaul and Roy, there's been an entire body of Indian literature hitherto unavailable to us in the English speaking world. Don't get me wrong. I adore Indian post-colonial lit. But having now read Vivek Shanbhag's masterpiece in miniature, Ghachar Ghochar, I can't help but feel I've been missing out. Written in the basha (vernacular language) of Kannada, this story of sudden wealth and moral ruin is so finely wrought, so perfectly precise, that it says more than most of the epic tomes we've come to expect from the subcontinent. The title is a nonsense phrase, akin to the Hebrew balagan or, if you're a fan of 80s action films, FUBAR, meaning so comprehensively messed up and twisted that it cannot be undone. It is a concept that floats throughout the book in various guises, as we witness the material rise of the narrator's family thanks to an entrepreneurial uncle's successful spice business. Everyone reaps the benefit, but also succumbs to the pitfalls of the nouveau riche: pettiness, arrogance, scheming and downright nastiness. It is a universal cautionary tale, magnified exponentially by the rigid stratification of Indian society. And it is executed to near perfection.

2. Euphoria by Heinz Helle
Rug up, Bookworms, because this is about as cold a novel as you will ever find. Some friends go for a weekend away in the Austrian Alps. They muck about, as you do, and think nothing of the world. When the time comes to come back down, they quickly notice that something is awry. An entire village at the base of the mountain is on fire. There is nobody about. Somehow, the apocalypse has come and left only them behind. At first, they band together in the hope of survival. But, fuck it, there's nothing left worth surviving for and so they quickly descend into savagery. Set against a frozen, unforgiving landscape, Euphoria is a horrifying tale of man versus man versus the elements versus what the hell (or, Helle... sorry) happened to the world. Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and while there are certain parallels to be found, this is by far the bleaker book. In fact, Helle paints a portrait of humanity so comprehensively stripped bare that it is almost impossible to digest. At least The Road had an air of redemption about it. Not here. Just the bitter pill of our lesser selves.

Well, only one book to go. Join me on Sunday when I'll reveal my 2017 Bait For Bookworms Book of The Year.

2017 In Review: Some Books I Loved in 2017

on Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Wait! Can I count kids' books? I mean, board books like Where Is The Green Sheep or Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. What about Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas? Yeah, so forget what I said last post. I read closer to 350 books this year (including rereads of aforementioned kids' books). *sigh* But, of the seventy-odd books for grown ups - yeah this is how I distinguish my reading these days - there were a bunch that really stood out. I'm glad to note, as I write this post, that most were Australian. Yes, Australian writing is in a pretty bloody good state in 2017. I'll be hitting the pointy end of my pontificating year later in the week, but until then, here's a bunch of truly excellent books you should rush out and read:

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Quiet, sad and angry, Solar Bones reminded me of the kind of book Anne Enright might write if she were more experimental with form. Don't let the single sentence schtick put you off - McCormack's style mesmerises the reader as the novel progresses and you'll barely notice its peculiarity by the end. Ultimately, this is a beautiful novel about ordinary people in depressed times.

Atlantic Black by A.S. Patrić
Having won the Miles Franklin with his debut novel Black Rock White City (my 2015 Book of the Year, a designation that I'm sure totally crapped on that other prize), it would have been easy for AS Patrić to play it safe and continue to mine contemporary Australian suburbia for his long form fiction. Instead, Patrić opts for a big risk - a novel with thoroughly European sensibilities, set over the course of a single day in 1938 on the ocean liner, RMS Aquitana. Unlike its predecessor, Atlantic Black is a slow burn of a novel, perfectly constructed so that what you will first experience as a glacial broodiness gradually gives way to a sense of foreboding so intense that you might well break into a sweat. Throughout, we follow Katerina Klova, left to fend for herself after the complete mental collapse of her mother, as the ship lurches towards the new year and, at least in our minds, impending war. It is something of a sinister picaresque, if such a thing exists, unfolding in real time and pocked with moments of terror, both visceral and hallucinatory. There is a great deal to admire about Atlantic Black, but its true genius lies in Patrić's ability to compress the sand of history so tightly that it becomes a mirror in which we can see the impending catastrophe of our own times. A brave and important book.

Rubik by Elizabeth Tan
As a child of the 80s, I was well and truly a member of the Rubik's Cube generation. I totally sucked at it. While all my friends twisted and turned the little squares until they lined up into six beautifully solid sides, I was forced to resort to the safe space of the spatially challenged: cheating. Sometimes I'd peel off all the stickers and re-stick them to form a slightly off-kilter face with peeling edges. Other times, I'd pull the entire cube apart into its constituent squares and carefully reassemble it. All of which is a round about way of saying, I read Elizabeth Tan's Rubik with a sense of exhilaration I can only imagine was felt by those friends more savvy with the whole twist and win strategy as they neared completion. Rubik is wonderfully original; a series of stories that seem, at first, to be only tangentially related but which spiral into an intricately woven narrative that is quite clearly a novel. It's playful, weird, thrilling and, at times, rather moving. Put simply, you should read it.

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson
When it comes to genre-defying, brain-bending brilliance, nobody in Australia does it quite like Jane Rawson. It's easy to pick comparative reference points - Attwood, Ballard, Lessing, Lovecraft - but to reduce her to any combination thereof would criminally understate the sheer originality of her work. In From The Wreck, Rawson turns her pen to historical fiction of sorts - the story of a shipwreck off the South Australian coast and its aftermath. The SS Admella went down in 1859, killing 89 of its 113 passengers. Among the survivors was Jane Rawson's great great grandfather, George Hills. In Rawson's version of the story, another was a shape shifting alien who might have been rescued in the form of the only female survivor, Bridget Ledwith. Obsession, guilt and delusion play a big part in this thoroughly strange book, and Rawson has a lot of profound things to say about them all. When I finished it, I wasn't quite sure what had actually happened, but I knew I had just read something quite extraordinary.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Given its place in popular culture (and I'm not just talking about the bad 80s hair metal band), it's hard to believe that the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden haven't spawned a cottage industry in literary retellings. Apart from a couple of stories by Angela Carter, I can't really think of any worth its thwack of the axe. Enter Sarah Schmidt, who, in See What I Have Done, has ingeniously inhabited the mind of not only Lizzie herself, but three other important players in this great unsolved crime. The chain-of-voices works perfectly in keeping everything tense and uncertain, all the more so because all four narrators are decidedly unreliable. To that end it reminded me of Iain Pears's magnificent An Instance of The Fingerpost. Schmidt's Lizzie is a picture of creepy instability and is a masterwork of perfectly-pitched characterisation. As for whether she did it, though. Well...

The Man Who Took To His Bed by Alex Skovron
As a huge fan of Alex Skovron's extraordinary novella, The Poet, I was excited to hear that he was returning to the world of prose (after 15-odd years) with his first ever short story collection. I'm glad to say that The Man Who Took To His Bed did not disappoint. One of Australia's finest poets, Skovron brings a lyrical beauty few possess to these wonderful, compelling and, at times, odd stories. But it's not just the writing that should draw you in - the imaginative range and creative energy are nothing short of superb. Ranging from the hyper-realist to the downright surreal, this is a collection to not only enjoy, but to truly savour.

Dinner at the Centre of the Earth by Nathan Englander
Great to see Englander eschewing the tempting pretentiousness of the 'literary' novel and going for a straight-up John Le Carré style thriller. Of course, it still is Nathan Englander so it's chock full of complex layers and beautiful writing but, damn, is it a fun ride! Coming from Australia, there is a weird sense of familiarity and discomfort as Prisoner Z's fate closely mirrors that of the infamous Prisoner X story - a young Australian former Mossad agent kept in secret solitary and ultimately left to die after he cracked on the job. An unsettling, challenging but ultimately enthralling read.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a year that will be remembered for the mass displacement of people from their war-torn homes, and my own country's shameful mistreatment of those seeking refuge, no book seemed as relevant or humane as Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. At its most basic, this is a love story - two young people meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern country just as war breaks out. Through their efforts to simply be a couple in love, we witness the disintegration of society around them and come to understand the ease with which "normal" can slide towards catastrophic. What sets Exit West apart from other such refugee narratives is a particular magical realist twist: doors appear in the city which transport those who enter them to other countries. This strange dreamlike device works at its most basic in giving the reader some insight into the refugee experience across the globe. But it also operates on a more philosophical level; we are forced to consider the meaning of "borders" in a time of mass migration, and the moral obligation of the individual in the receiving state. All in all a beautiful love story with profound implications.

The Student by Iain Ryan
Listen up, Bookworms. It pays to listen to your local bookseller. A few months ago I was browsing the shelves of the bookstore around the corner, not really sure what I felt like reading, when the manager (hi, Amy) sensed my deep existential distress and raced across to rescue me. In her hands was a copy of Iain Ryan's The Student. Now, it's kind of weird because I almost never buy crime novels, but she insisted I buy it because, well, "you'll really like it. I promise." Of course, she was right. Set in the town of Grattan (I feel that ought to be noted because, seriously, who the fuck sets their crime novel in a Queensland country town???), The Student is a gritty thrill-ride of murder, drug deals gone wrong, outlaw bikie enforcers, sexual deviance and general criminal hijinks. It's tight, no-holds-barred Aussie noir of the best kind. I mean what a bunch of unlikeable losers, and yet here I was rooting for them at every turn. Probably the most enjoyable book of the year for me.

The Lost Papers by Marija Peričić
My old friend Franz Kafka had something of a resurrection on the page in 2017. Nicole Krause played the chutzpah card in Forest Dark, imagining that Kafka faked his own death only to set up in Max Brod's Tel Aviv apartment where he could write undisturbed. It was a masterful play on the literary obsession with "Kafka's suitcase" and was, to me, the highlight of an otherwise uneven novel. But Krause's lark was nothing next to the sheer gaul (and I mean that in the best possible way) of Marija Peričić's reimagining of the friendship between Brod and Kafka in The Lost Papers. Rather than propping up the party line of a supportive friendship, Peričić nails what those of us who love Kafka have always thought - that Brod was insanely jealous of his far more talented friend. In The Lost Papers, it drives him to obsession, to compulsion, to delusion. As the novel unfolds, the layers of chicanery are peeled back, leaving us with something that owes more to Dostoevsky or Saramago than Kafka himself. A deliciously playful delight.

Well, that about does it. Join me on Friday for my final countdown of my five favourite books of 2017.

2017 In Review: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Saturday, December 23, 2017
Confession time. I only read 70 books this year, 74 if you count unpublished manuscripts (and, like, 174 if you count drafts of my own book during the final edit). Which means, of course, that my sample size is embarrassingly small. Oh, well, you know what they say - never let your small, small knowledge base stop you from forging ahead with whatever the hell you plan to do. It's the kind of strategy that gets you high political office these days. So let's begin this year's cavalcade of grandiose pontification with smatterings of bookwormish ephemera: the things that are either not about this year, not about judging books for what lies between the covers, or not about books at all.

Here Come The Dogs by Omar Musa
I've always been meaning to read Here Come The Dogs. I remember when it came out; all the excitement, the palpable buzz. And then, you know, time... As luck would have it, I did a radio thing with Musa this year and so took the opportunity to read this and a couple of books of his poetry before we met. Even a few years on, Here Come The Dogs is a riveting, fresh novel that sparks and bristles on the page. The story of Jimmy, Solomon and Aleks is the real deal, a glimpse into an Australia that many seem to fear simply because they don't bother to engage with it. But most of all, Here Come The Dogs is street music committed to the page; authentic, painful and oftentimes hilarious.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria
Written in 1977, this hallucinatory mindfuck of a novel, charting the twenty days during which the people of Turin experience a collective psychosis brought about by the mysterious "Library", would be the stuff of nightmares if only it didn't mirror the current climate of mass paranoia. Equal parts Borges, Poe, Orwell and occult text, The Twenty Days of Turin disturbed me more than anything else I read. Come from the horror, stay for the prescience.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
Before Ian Fleming, there was Eric Ambler. The great grandaddy of the genre; the spy thriller writer's spy thriller writer. You get my drift. Usually, I'd not have thought to pick up one of his books - heck I'd never even heard of him. But my brother-in-law brought this as his plane read from England and I wanted something fun to kick of the year. Kismet, I suppose. The Mask of Dimitrios is about as old school a spy novel as you could hope for. A mystery writer gets caught up in a web of intrigue and espionage when he tries to piece together the last days of arch criminal Dimitrios, whose body has turned up in a Turkish morgue, No fancy gadgets, no whizzbang technology, just proper dirty dealings and double crossings. Sure, it's hokey and a bit too po-faced for its own good, but it's a joyously indulgent throwback.

Ok, so shoot me, but I think WH Chong's cover design for my book was simply extraordinary. Even if it wasn't mine, I'd still have picked this.

Other books to judge by their covers:

This year I'm not going to do proper a countdown because, frankly, 2017 just wasn't a great year for music. That's not to say there weren't some really good albums, but not good enough to have me burn the midnight oil, tearing my hear out trying to decide which one goes where on my list. So, with that in mind, some music I dug in 2017:

Mystery Weekend - Surprise
Halfway through the first song, Theodore, it occurred to me that Mystery Weekend might just have put out the Protest The Hero album I've been waiting for since Scurrilous. Then I discovered MW is fronted by PTH's Rody Walker. Makes sense. Fast, fun and technically furious.
Pick of the Crop: Everyone's a Liar
Mystery Weekend Bandcamp

The Movielife - Cities In Search of a Heart
I'm quite convinced that Vinnie Caruana is a magician. Or a mutant. Or a magical, mutated wünderkind. His recent output with I Am The Avalanche and last year's solo album have been exercises in pop punk perfection. But let's face it, we've all been hoping for a new Movielife album. Now it's here and goddammit it's sublime.
Pick of the Bunch: I honestly can't choose.

Ezra Kire - Speakers in the Sky
I'll never quite understand why I connect so deeply with Ezra Kire's poetry of the gutter but he has a way of piercing my heart like almost nobody else. Morning Glory's Poets Were My Heroes was my album of the year way back in 2012 and still stands strong as one of my favourites of all time. Speakers In The Sky doesn't quite reach that album's heights but, as the first solo outing for Kire, it does a fine job of growing his catalogue with characteristic heartbreak, misery, wistfulness and hope.
Pick of the Bunch: Civilian Song

Direct Hit/PEARS: Human Movement
I've never really "got" Direct Hit before, so I picked this up because PEARS are undoubtedly the most exciting punk band to appear in the past three years. Needless to say, I was quite surprised to find my expectations turned on their head by this consistently kick-arse split album. PEARS's contributions are as fun and fiery as I'd hoped, but, holy mother of out-of-control trains, Direct Hit's six songs are just awesome.
Pick of the Bunch: Shifting the Blame

The Sherlocks - Live For The Moment
Raucous pop from these British lads. Hooks a plenty, attitude for miles, Live For The Moment does exactly what its title says.
Pick of the Bunch: Was It Really Worth It?

Propagandhi - Victory Lap
The bad news: It's not quite Tomorrow's Empires or Supporting Caste level amazingness.
The good news: It's still Propagandhi so, ya know, it's politically-charged, technically-spectacular punk rock brilliance.
Pick of the Bunch: Letters to a Young Anus

Rancid - Trouble Maker
Old punx do a reasonably convincing job of sounding like young punx again. By far their best since Indestructible.
Pick of the Bunch: An Intimate Portrait of a Street Punk Trouble Maker

Bad Cop/Bad Cop - Warriors
It's hard to listen to this album without thinking about Stacey Dee's star performance in the punk rock musical Home Street Home. The snarling passion she now spits out on Warriors might come straight from the heart of Sue, with anarcho-feminist anthems and songs of struggle to keep the fire burning. Politically, it a raised middle finger to much of what's shit about the world right now. Thoroughly enjoyable, straight shooting and full of surprises, this is one of the most important punk records of 2017.
Pick of the Bunch - I'm Done

Harry Styles - Harry Styles
Kill me now. I loved this album. Overblown, bombastic pop with enough left turns to keep it interesting.
Pick of the Bunch: Sweet Creature

Brand New - Science Fiction
A strange surprise album from these remnants of the emo era, Science Fiction is quite unlike anything Brand New have done before while still feeling creepily familiar. It's dark, brooding and rather magnificent.
Pick of the Bunch: Can't Get It Out

Nothington - In The End
No frills. Just some good, honest, gravel-voiced org punk of the highest order.
Pick of the Bunch - End Transmission

The Lapelles - The Lapelles
Great band. Tragic story. They would have been around a while.
Pick of the Bunch: Snakehips

D-Metal Stars - Metal Disney If you don't love this, then you hate your childhood self. Seek therapy.
Pick of the Bunch: I See The Light

The Lillingtons - Stella Sapiente
Bunch of old dudes come out of retirement to make a weird, semi-themed surf punk album about templars and medieval shenanigans. And it's a total, unadulterated triumph.
Pick of the Bunch - Insect Nightmares or Villagers

Hi-Standard - The Gift
These Japanese goofballs have always been madcap fun at a billion miles an hour. This new album, 18 years after their last, is no different. Party on.
Pick of the Bunch - The Gift

What's 11 Months Between Bookworms?

Ok, so eleven and a half but who's counting?

As 2017 speeds to a close, I thought it might be time to see if this little rust bucket still had a few sparks left. How I've missed pontificating from my cyber-bubble about all things bookish - lavishing praise like a sycophantic schoolboy suddenly thrust before his favourite pop star (for me that would have been Matt Goss circa 1988), or snarkily lobbing potshots over the fortress walls 80s video game style. Admittedly, I've been kind of busy. I seldom talk about my own writing here but 2017 saw the publication of my own novel.

I'm not going to crap on about it, but, if you want to know more, you can check it out here.

I also had my first kid who, I am pleased to report, is a cheery, hilarious little girl already obsessed with the books of Aaron Blabey and Franz Kafka. The future looks good for this one.

As you long-suffering bookworms know, it's long been my tradition to do a detailed countdown listing my favourites and not-so-favourites of all things even semi-related to books (and a few things completely unrelated). This year I'm keeping it simple. Over the next few days I plan to list:

December 25: Secondary Stars and Satellites
December 27: A Few Books I Loved in 2017
December 29: The Final Countdown
December 31: And The Winner Is...

2016 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Saturday, December 31, 2016

Talk about reading out of your comfort zone!

Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You is an unrelenting, lustful, homoerotic carnival of obsession and sacrifice. Kicking off with a tawdry quick fuck in the toilet cubicle of Bulgaria's National Museum of Culture, it follows the unnamed narrator's descent into near-madness as he falls for Mitko, an opportunistic rent boy who swans in and out of his life. It might seem an unlikely setup for an insightful examination of the modern human condition but let's face it, we all live in a world of anomie and unfulfilled desire. And Greenwell demonstrates a capacity for profound understanding that most philosophers would kill to possess.

In reviewing the book back in January, I said

Despite its rawness, its confronting sex scenes and its uncompromising penetration (pun only semi-intended) of the darker human heart, What Belongs To You is actually quite a tender novel. It is about what stands in place of love for the lonely and dispossessed. Above all else, the narrator wants to be needed in the way he comes to need Mitko. He wants their relationship to be something more than a financial transaction, even if he must give in to delusion to make it so. Greenwell's warm and supple touch strikes a perfect balance in his exploration of the competing facets of his narrator's fractured soul. In so doing, he draws out universals that transcend the easily dismissible context of the action. It is far too easy to pass off the more disturbing elements in the novel as particular to the gay beat scene. You would, of course, be wrong. It would be tantamount to denial. What Belongs To You is a well-polished mirror in which we can all see our deepest sexual selves. That is, if we dare to look.

I can't count the number of times I have stopped to think about this book, how many times I've been reading something else and just longed to be back in Greenwell's world. It is a stunning, sometimes shocking, novel of universal relevance and importance. Check your outdated, prudish discomfort at the door and pick up a copy today. It's a wild fucking ride!

Happy New Year fellow Litnerds and, once again, thanks for reading!

2016 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 30, 2016
Keep your amuse-bouches, it's straight on to the good stuff. Here are the best books I've read this year. Get them in your eyes.

10. The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
With his steadfast refusal to be shoved into any literary pigeonhole, it's easy to forget that Colson Whitehead is one of the best damn writers in the English language. Seriously, the guy can write rings around almost all of his contemporaries, and he can do it while riffing on zombies or elevators. Or zombies in elevators. Following his much lauded Zone One, Whitehead returns to the world of Civil War America to deftly dissect one of its most interesting phenomenons, the secret rail network that ferried slaves out of the South on to freedom. It was, of course, a noble endeavour but one fraught with extreme danger. In Whitehead's hands, it also takes on an element of ambiguity - there were a lot of seedy opportunists involved in the project and he does not shy away for exposing them for what they were. Nor does he omit the nasty, complicit bastards on the Dixie side. In fact, to that end, the book brings to mind Cormac McCarthy complete with a nasty bounty hunter that might well have just stepped out of Blood Meridian. The Underground Railroad is a lesson on how historical fiction should be done: it is packed with information but never feels bogged down by the weight of Whitehead's knowledge. And for that, it is a thoroughly enthralling read even if it doesn't have zombies. Or elevators.

9. The Fighter - Arnold Zable
In a world of mostly unadulterated shit, Henry Nissen is - to borrow from Jon Lovitz's character in Happiness - a refreshing glass of champagne. A former boxing champion, Nissen has dedicated his life to helping others. I've had the good fortune of knowing him a while, and like everybody that's ever met him, I can say without equivocation that he is one of the kindest, hardest working, most beautiful humans I've ever known. For most of his life, Nissen has gone about his work without recognition or fanfare. Enter Arnold Zable, the poet laureate of human compassion. That there should be synergy between these two men comes as no surprise. They come from similar backgrounds - the children of greatly tormented Holocaust survivors - and grew up near one another in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. They both have hearts the size of minor planets. And they are both tirelessly committed to bettering the world for those less fortunate than themselves. But I don't think I could have predicted quite how gorgeous the product of the synergy would be. The Fighter is a remarkable book - a biography of sorts, spun in the fashion of a novel. And while Henry and his boxer brother Leon are no doubt its narrative centre, its true heart lies with their mother, Sonia. For me, The Fighter is really her story. Zable renders her scars with remarkable sensitivity but there is no hiding the extent of her trauma, nor the damage she inflicts on those who love her. It is in turns heartbreaking and terrifying. I had to stop a few times just to catch my breath. Thankfully, Zable knows about balance, and returns to either the boxing ring, the docks or the streets just as the reader is about to go down for the count. Having read almost all of his wonderful work, it strikes me that Zable has finally found his perfect subject. The Fighter is a magnificent achievement in narrative non-fiction.

8. The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes
For some time now (notably since the death of his wife), Julian Barnes has been regularly gifting us with small gems that might seem slight in comparison to the weightiness of his early work but stand alongside such brilliant books as England, England, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in terms of depth, power and profundity. Oddly, it took one of these short books - The Sense of an Ending - to finally bag him his long overdue Booker. Now, with his tender memoir, Levels of Life, acting as a conceptual bridge, Barnes returns to his fertile contemplative field of art or, more precisely, the meaning of art in The Noise of Life. This time round he smartly posits his meditation in a place that art could not flourish freely: Stalin's Russia. The Noise of Time is a fictional telling of Dmitri Shostakovich's fall from grace, redemption and ultimate destruction in the Soviet maelstrom. Shostakovich provides the perfect vehicle for Barnes to distill many of the ideas he has toyed with over the years - the interplay of art and power, individual identity, the place of the artist in society and the fragility of human dignity. In Shostakovich's tragic decline, we can see all these things play out and, perhaps, learn a thing or two about how we might fortify ourself in the face of threats to our basic humanity. It all might sound rather dour but, trust me, in Barnes's hands it is quite the uplifting experience.

7. The Tobacconist - Robert Seethaler
Last year, I picked a small book from the shelf simply for the beauty of its design. That silly impulse buy turned out to be one of my favourite novels of the year, Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life. This year, I was scanning the shelves of a bookstore in Dubai when I happened upon a new Seethaler. Holy shit. I actually had palpitations. The Tobacconist is a similarly gorgeous book and, like its predecessor, takes as its subject a barely significant 'nobody' - an everyman - around whom history unfolds. What makes The Tobacconist somehwhat less successful, however, is its use of a very famous person as a narrative device. Franz, the tobacconist of the title, is sent to Vienna by his mother in the hope of a better life, and becomes the assistant to Otto Trsnyek, a local corner shop owner. The shop happens to specialise in fine cigars. One of their most loyal customers - and I'm sure you can see this one coming - is none other than Sigmund Freud. As the dark clouds of Nazism cloak the city, things get bad for Trsnyek and Freud, both of whom, of course, are Jewish. Meanwhile, Franz is caught up in the typical confusion of young love and turns to Freud for assistance. It sounds kind of twee and I think it often skirts right on the edge of sentimentality but Seethaler is, thankfully, better than that. In fact, he shares many qualities with the European greats, something that both of his books will no doubt bring to mind as you read them. The Tobacconist is not the revelation that A Whole Life was, but as a chronicler of historical rupture as it pertains to the ordinary man, Seethaler once again proves himself to be the contemporary master.

6. His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnett
Well nobody saw this one coming. When Team Booker announced its 2016 Long List, a few eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of what appeared to be a not-very-literary thriller. To be honest, most people had simply never heard of the book and didn't know what to make of it. The publisher, for sure, hadn't thought they had a hit on their hands. Within minutes of the announcement, they were out of stock. I was secretly chuffed. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for historical crime fiction and, reading the promotional guff, I got a warm, fuzzy feeling that His Bloody Project might be something akin to Iain Pears's masterpiece of the genre, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Turns out I was right. What an absolute delight this is! Set in rural Scotland and told from a bunch of perspectives - newspaper clippings, doctors' reports, court transcripts, witness interviews and a lengthy written confession - it is the story of sharecropper Roddy MacRae, a seventeen-year-old boy tried for the brutal murder of Lachlan Broad, the domineering bastard who has made his family's life hell. That he killed Broad, as well as his two children, is not in question. But was it the inevitable snap back against the cruel injustice of class subjugation? In that regard, I was truly rooting for the kid - the dastardly schemes Broad concocts to fuck him and his father over were often painful to read. But there was another possible motive. Maybe it was a crime of passion fuelled by sexual jealousy and the humiliation of rejection? After all, MacRae loved Broad's daughter but she had publicly rebuffed his advances at the local fair. Burnett leaves it sufficiently ambiguous so that you'll have to draw your own conclusion. I'm still not sure. Bloody brilliant.

5. The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
And the award for outright weirdest book of the year goes to Charles Lambert's The Children's Home. Ten months after having finished it I'm still none the wiser as to what the fuck it actually was. But confound me as it did, it remains one of the best books I read this year. Okay, slight caveat before you have a go at it: I love a book that unsettles and discombobulates me. And I have a thing for creepy children, hermits and the suggestion of war in seemingly dystopian counter-futures. I don't, however, think I've ever read a book that got the mix quite as right as this. The appearance of the strange kids at the secluded house of some weird Phantom of the Opera-like guy totally sucked me in. Even if his name was Morgan. Why were they there? Who was he? And what was all this about other children appearing and disappearing around the house? And those wax dolls in the attic... WHAAAAT? The arrival of government agents to question Morgan about the children (Morgan, of course, doesn't come down to talk to them, leaving it instead to another creepy character - his doctor) only makes it more unsettling. Is he some kind of monster? Has he killed the other children? Is the house haunted by their ghosts? It all takes a turn when one of the children is taken away and Morgan finally leaves the house to confront his sister who, we learn, might be the fascist leader of the war-torn land. To get a better sense, check out my review. Or just throw yourself into its house of mirrors. Amazing.

4. The North Water by Ian McGuire
Rumour has it that 2017 will finally bring us the release of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Passenger. Then again, the same rumour floated about for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Still, we live in hope. In the meantime, I spend my days looking for McCarthy methadone - novels that might not quite be what I really want but are enough for the fix I need. This year, that book was without a doubt Ian McGuire's brutal novel of despair and survival on the high seas, The North Water. You need only read the first twenty pages to get a sense of what you're in for. Henry Drax - the best bad guy I've read in ages - beats one man to death then bashes and rapes a young boy, all the while revelling in his villainy. When he signs on to the crew of a whaling ship, you know it ain't going to fare well. Enter Patrick Sumner - troubled former army surgeon with a few bloodstains on his lily-white soul - seeking a means of escaping his past and making amends. He's also on the ship. Shit's about to get real. It's not hard to find connections between The North Water and Moby Dick. Both are ostensibly about whaling expeditions gone awry without really being about that at all. In that sense, The North Water is the book Melville might have written if he were a perverted sadist who hated the world (but loved Joseph Conrad). That's a compliment, by the way. The North Water is a cataclysmic showdown between good and evil, pitting one of the nastiest sons o' bitches you'll ever meet against a man seemingly not cut out for the job of stopping him. Add to it a quite brilliant underlying conspiracy - it is set, after all in the dying days of the whale oil trade where former magnates are looking for ways to get out - and a cast of truly memorable characters and you've got one hell of a good book. How it didn't end up on the Booker shortlist is beyond me. I'm just going to go ahead and say it: it should have won.

3. Shelter by Jung Yun
Last year I, along with many others, had my heart smashed into little pieces, fed to a pack of wolves, shat out and thrown into a vat of acid by Hanya Yanagihara's magnificent novel, A Little Life. Just when I thought it was safe to open a book again, along comes Jung Yun with her debut novel, Shelter, and forces me to drink that acid through a barbed wire straw. Set in the wake of the America's 2008 housing crisis, it initially lulls you into thinking it's a novel of familial obligation and the immigrant experience. Kyung Cho, a young biology professor with a wife and infant child, is meeting a real estate agent to talk through selling a house he can't afford. It is an admission of failure, one that Cho struggles to reconcile with his sense of dignity and his family's expectations. Mid-meeting, his mother, Mae, appears in the backyard, naked and bloodied. What the fuck? Something bad has happened at her home, a violent attack. She has escaped. Cho's father, Jin, is still there. When the dust settles, it is clear that Mae and Jin can no longer live in their home. Cho asks them to move in. What was already a tense familial situation - money woes have brought Cho and his wife to the brink - just got a whole lot worse. As the novel unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Cho and his parents weren't exactly the happy family either. Indeed, Jin was an abusive monster, a dictatorial autocrat in his own home and now, in the wake of the attack, unable to cope with the diminution of his authority. He has been humiliated. And it doesn't make for a smooth recovery or some kind of family healing. Reading Shelter is a harrowing experience. You might well be traumatised. But as a slice of modern American life it is right up there with Yanagihara as a contemporary classic.

2. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
So here's the deal. You open your book with pickles and you are pretty much assured of landing in my Top 10. Start waxing theoretical in ways I don't understand but that still make me laugh and we're talking Top 5. Make me think I get physics while thoroughly enmeshing me in the intergenerational shenanigans of a truly eccentric family (and chucking in a few great barbs about Orson Scott Card and L. Ron Hubbard to boot) and BAM, you almost land top spot. The Lost Time Accidents is a big book in every conceivable way. Bursting with ideas, social commentary, historical trivia and enough narrative verve to power a small country, it's the kind of novel that will completely consume you. As you navigate its time-travelling, genre-flipping, mind-bending, side-splitting pages, you'll find yourself thinking about it almost every waking moment. And once you're done, you'll think about it even more. In my original review I likened it to Michael Chabon's masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A few months of stewing on it and my enthusiasm hasn't dampened in the slightest. In terms of pure enjoyment, this was my favourite book of the year. Come back tomorrow to see what knocked it off the top spot.

Books I Can't Wait To Read in 2017

on Thursday, December 29, 2016
Gird your loins, Litnerds... Here come these beauties:

2016 In Review: Best of Bridesmaids

on Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Dateline: December 28.

Progress: 94 books. 51 published in 2016. 43 published in other years.

I'm writing from deep inside my reading hidey-hole, having just done the spectacularly stupid thing of starting a 400 page novel. I no longer hold on to hope. This could well be my last missive. I've seen The Blair Witch Project. Still, I must press on. There are books to laud, for Godsakes.

I've been playing with my top ten for almost a month now. The top four or five were clear but after that there were quite a few novels that contended for list space. Had I written this yesterday it might have been different. The day before and it'd have been different again. But there comes a time I have to commit these things to the screen (well, that felt weird to write), so big cheers to the following books that just missed out.

Good People by Nir Baram
Although Baram has published three novels in his native Israel and been translated widely in Europe and South America, Good People is the first book to make it into English. A morally complex tour-de-force, it dares to suggest that those caught up in the early stages of the Nazi and Stalinist machinery, the lesser cogs, might actually have believed that they were being good citizens without necessarily subscribing to the underlying ideology. Our views, after all, are shaped by the societies in which we live. And we all look for how we might utilise our skills to get ahead. In some ways, I was reminded of The Conformist by Alberto Moravia or The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. But Baram is much more subtle - his characters are not monsters. And for that they are even more frightening because in them we just might see ourselves.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
I'm a sucker for a slim hardcover volume. Throw an intriguing cover and a title referencing classical literature (here it's Emily Dickinson) into the mix and I'm pretty much anyone's. If you love to hold a beautiful book, run out now and get your hands on Max Porter's debut. If you're at all skeptical about what lies between the covers, let me assure you: this is a stunning piece of fiction. You will come to treasure it both as object and as a reading experience. Be warned: it is strange and experimental. It tackles the concepts of grief and consolation in an entirely original way - flitting between a husband in mourning, his two young children and a straight-up weird black crow that swoops in and out of the narrative to give its surreal observations. But persevere and you will be rewarded with a unique meditation on what it means to lose someone you love and how you might find your way back to life without them.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
There is no living author that I admire more than J.M. Coetzee. That said, I have had a rather equivocal relationship with his post-South Africa novels. Each of them have moments but nothing stands alongside Waiting For The Barbarians, The Life and Times of Michael K., or Disgrace. When Coetzee put out his last novel, The Childhood of Jesus, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed suitably intriguing - an immigrant/refugee narrative shot through a prism of Kafkaesque refraction. That Australia, Coetzee's home since 2006, was failing dismally in the humanitarian treatment of its refugees made me think that Coetzee had once again found a cause to fire up his writing. As it turns out, Childhood was okay. In fact, it had one of the best few first chapters of any of his novels. Then it kind of wandered off into nowheresville. When I heard that his next novel was going to be a sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Expectation management dictated that I not get my hopes up. But heck, it's Coetzee. What chance did I have? I begged my publisher for an advance copy and the day it arrived in the mail I locked myself away and began to read. Well... what can I say? The Schooldays of Jesus was about as close to a return to form as I ever could have hoped. Gone was the twee obiter that let down Childhood. In its place was a sinister, powerful vivisection of the outer limits of obsession and loyalty. It was an unexpected turn from Coetzee but a very welcome one. The ending was left open. I look forward to a third instalment.

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
How to convey the extraordinary power of this short novel without giving too much away? The clue, I suppose, is in the title. Set mostly in a Tamil refugee camp that is repeatedly attacked by government forces, The Story of A Brief Marriage wastes no time in depicting the horrors of war. Mutilated children, the starving, the hopeless and, of course, the defiant. Amongst it all, people go about trying to salvage something from the carnage. They must, after all, live their lives. And so it is we meet Dinesh and Ganga, two young people brought together by a father's desperate opportunism. They are married without fanfare and stumble uneasily into the roles of husband and wife. Theirs are the struggles of any young couple but magnified and disfigured by extreme circumstance. At times it is excruciating to witness but there are also moments of great tenderness, even humour. The Story of a Brief Marriage is a devastating novel but, as we watch the destruction in Aleppo unfold on our televisions, an altogether necessary one. It is, when all is said and done, the story of our times.

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam
I've always been a fan of Steven Amsterdam's work but this might just be his most daring and successful novel to date. Courageous, morally challenging, wise and thoroughly entertaining, The Easy Way Out is the novel Don DeLillo could only wish to have written instead of that tripe Zero K. Like Delillo's novel, it is set in an alternative near-future, both instantly familiar and subtly unsettling. Also like Zero K, much of The Easy Way Out takes place in an assisted dying facility. However, where Amsterdam's book really outshines Delillo's is in the depth of its understanding, its empathy, its ability to meaningfully engage with the blurry ethical lines of helping someone die. What, ask Amsterdam, are the limits of advocacy? That he does so within the context of a book that is fun, action-packed and kind of sexy is quite the achievement. Amsterdam always impresses. Here he astonishes.


Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. Having never really rated Swift, I was throughly charmed by this lovely little book about a young maid and her brief dalliance with the boss's son. It wouldn't be British if he wasn't about to be married but the sting in the novel's tail lies very much in the girl's development into a writer of some renown and her obsessive return to the moment that changed her life. Brilliant meta-fiction in disguise.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. How many Booker loyalists were repulsed by this bleak gem? It's dark and gritty and doesn't pull any punches. Eileen is a singularly pitiful character and her unwitting complicity in an act of shocking violence and betrayal plays out like a train crash. But Moshfegh is a superb writer who knows just when to pull the right string. You'll hate the world a little more after you've finished, but that's okay. It's worth it.

The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst. Consistently wacky and macabre, Verhulst is becoming a bit of a regular on my end of year lists. This time round sees him tackling the question of ageing, in particular the existential dread that comes with the realising you might no longer be relevant. Désiré, a retired librarian, decides to fake dementia to get himself into a care facility. It can't end well. It doesn't. Great book.