O BROTHER, HERE THOU ART: Census by Jesse Ball

on Friday, March 2, 2018
When it comes to fiction, grief makes a lousy muse. Far from inspiring imaginative responses, it tends to trap the writer in a narrow realist frame, often to the point of sentimentality. Sure, schmaltz sells books, and it can be genuinely moving, but it very rarely demonstrates anything beyond the writer’s fear of losing perfect sight of the person they are mourning on the page. Indeed, I can think of only one novelist who has pulled it off successfully in the last decade. Miriam Toews wrote her sucker-punch to the heart, All My Puny Sorrows, in the wake of her sister’s suicide. But even that remained firmly rooted in the 'real'. Most other novelists think better than to take the risk and, instead, sidestep into memoir: Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, and Philip Roth all wrote powerful books as part of their creative shiva. Now Jesse Ball has entered the fray with his latest novel, Census, and, I dare say, completely changed the game.

In a brief introduction, Ball tells us of his older brother, Abram, who had Down syndrome and died twenty years ago at the age of twenty four. “What is in my heart,” Ball writes, “is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” For a while he struggled with how he would go about it. Then: “I realised I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.” Yes, Jesse Ball would honour the memory of his brother by doing what he does best: being Jesse Ball, contemporary literature’s lovechild of Calvino, Borges and Ballard.

Census opens at the end of the story, with an old man digging a grave. He once was a doctor but is now a census taker. For what we aren’t told. We know only that the census is older than the nation. The old man has a son, we learn, and once had a wife. The boy is gone, the wife is dead. His journey began a while back with a notification: he, too, would soon be dead. His heart was literally breaking. It was this that caused him to become a census taker, so that he could take his son along, spend time, prepare him for what was to come. And so they set off into the northern lands, each district identified by only a latter (in alphabetical order), each town with its own history and distinct population. In this regard, I was reminded of Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, in which a doctor also takes his son on a journey through a strange land. As in Bernhard’s book, they meet a number of people and listen to their stories, giving the reader fly on the wall access to the unsettling familiarity of a world just outside our experience.

Where the books differ wildly, of course, is with the sons. Bernhard’s boy is a budding scientist, who the father seeks to ply with data about how horrible the world can be. The son in Census, while never explicitly described as such, has Down syndrome. Here is the brother around whom the book is written. As an avatar to engage with an ever-changing environment, he is perfect. His condition provides an experiential innocence that removes the layer of cynicism polluting the way we tend to view the world. There is a certain delight to be had simply in his presence, particularly when viewed from a loving father’s perspective. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of those they encounter, and Ball brilliantly gives us the range of reactions, from the heartwarmingly tender to the infuriatingly cruel. Some gave me pause to think about moments in my own life, one of which stands out thirty-five-odd years after it happened. On a family holiday to America, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm. Dad took me on the spinning saucers (I was too scared to try the rollercoaster with my brother). As the ride came to an end, a kid with Down syndrome ran to our saucer and jumped in, whooping and laughing with unbridled joy. I burst out crying. The kid’s father ran over and apologised, saying his son just loved to play. For some reason, the memory has stuck with me, though it has transformed from one of fear to one of wistful shame.

There is a profound existential dimension to Census. What, Ball asks, makes a person? What makes a life worth living? And who are we to judge? The census itself serves as a powerful metaphor in this regard, and not only in the most obvious sense. The old man does more than count the people he meets. He tattoos a mark on their ribs - a shape that differs from census to census. Some welcome the tattoo and proudly show the marks of censuses past. Some are more reluctant. Some oppose it violently, though the old man notes early on that it makes no difference to him; he doesn’t really care about the work of the census. The act of tattooing in the book is reminiscent of Kafka’s horrifying machine from In The Penal Settlement. What it leaves behind on the skin is the ultimate truth: existence. That some people do not get the mark adds a caveat: one can exist without seeming to be being counted.

These same considerations surface when we are told about the old man’s wife. She was a clown of sorts who once attended The Shape School, a mysterious training college. Her act, more performance art than entertainment, riffed heavily (and absurdly) on the idea of being. In one show, she mimicked a member of the audience until the two were indistinguishable. In another, she sat on a chair with a trumpet and did nothing until the audience left, bored. Over the following week she tracked each one down, blew the trumpet in their face and handed them a note. It read: It is your life, your presence is required. You can’t say where a thing will happen.

With Census, Jesse Ball has achieved what he set out to do in a beautifully original way. He has built a world in which his brother can simply be, and allowed us as readers to appreciate and come to love him. If there is such a thing as what I will, with apologies, crassly call disability literature, then surely Census must be both a major work and a watershed moment. Yet any attempt to reduce it to one of its constituent elements would be doing it a disservice. Census is a deeply humane and tender novel, brimming with compassion, deep and original thought, sweetness and, yes, even humour. It asks big questions, and offers gentle guidance towards meaningful answers. It also throws down the gauntlet for how future writers might consider engaging artistically with their loss. Ball suggests that while breaking from the 'real' might not bring someone back to life, it can give them new life. To this end, there is a particularly poignant passage where Ball breaks the fact/fiction divide. On the final pages, there is a series of family photos in which little Abram (he appears to be no more than ten in the most recent one), is captured going about his everyday life with his family. The photos are referenced in the novel - the son literally becomes Ball’s brother - but new context is imagined for him. These are the old doctor’s memories. It is a touching nod to the ultimate purpose of what is an astoundingly good book.

Microviews 59: The Summer Reading Stack Edition

on Thursday, February 15, 2018
Well, it's been a twenty five book kind of summer (and by summer I mean the first six weeks of 2018) which, I hope, goes some way to explaining why I've already fallen behind on updating this here blog.

I'm not going to review them all in depth (obvs!) but a few worth noting before I get into the longer form pontification:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie didn't quite live up to the hype, but I still found it to be a powerful and very timely reworking of Antigone, exploring some of our most pressing contemporary paranoias. Terrorism, Islamophobia, political upheaval and, well, forbidden love all get a good look in with more nuance (and less razzle dazzle) than, say, Houellebecq's sensationalist Submission. I was particularly taken by Isma and Parvaiz (the latter mostly because I'm interested in the process of radicalisation), which I suppose almost made up for the overly cartoonish Aneeka and total wet-blanket dickwad Eamonn.

Jim Heyman's Ordinary Sins was a rather intriguing collection of tiny character sketches of regular people going about their business while wrestling with their personal failings. There was something recognisable in each of them, something uncomfortably relatable. Worth a quick dip, I say.

At last I get the love people have for George Saunders. No I didn't like Lincoln In The Bardot. And I was only mildly entertained by Tenth of December. But holy shit, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders's batshit crazy novella, was a revelation.

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman was a thoroughly beguiling novel about a young man (a hack writer, really) entangled by his grandfather in a scheme to defraud the German government with Holocaust claims for survivors deserving of compensation but who did not fit the very strict criteria for getting any. A somewhat ethically challenging, though witty and moving, book.

And now onto something a little more substantial:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
The years have not been kind to the former rock stars of English letters. Ian McEwan now cranks out fair-to-middling minor entertainments on a semi-regular basis while Martin Amis has gone all scattergun on his readers, misfiring more often than not. Their books have become something akin to Dorian Gray’s portrait in the attic: withered, unseemly, a mere shadow of what came before. For Julian Barnes, however, the portrait remains intact. Time took a far more personal toll: stealing away his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Since then, Barnes has been producing books of immense depth and beauty. Sure, they might resemble his early work but something more profound has crept between the covers, an understanding of life that most never come to possess. Sense of an Ending finally saw him win the Man Booker Prize. The Noise of Time was one the best meditations on art and power that I’ve ever read. And then there was his strange, uneven but moving memoir, Levels of Life. The Only Story continues Barnes’s quiet exploration of love and loss that seems to characterise his later oeuvre. What starts as a fairly standard May December romance - 19-year-old Paul meets 38-year-old Susan (married, of course) at tennis club, and begins torrid affair - gradually shifts into something much more significant and complex. The affair continues - the two run away and try to start a life in London. Paul begins to study law. Susan does her best to make something of her independence. The years pass, age creeps in: the depredations begin. Conventional wisdom has it that these kind of romances collapse with the weight of time. In Paul and Susan’s case, time is a trash compactor, crushing them against one another, leaving no avenue for escape. As Susan descends into chronic alcoholism and, later, dementia, Paul cannot let go. Perhaps love runs deep, but it seems that Paul is driven more by guilt and obligation. He has lost the chance to know what love really is. And, as a result, he lets opportunities for a fulfilling, dare I say normal, life pass him by. The Only Story is a sad book, wistful and philosophical. It is also throughly, thoroughly British. What might come as a bit of a surprise to Barnes fans is its stylistic experimentalism; Barnes slips between first, second and third person throughout, making the reader sometimes witness, sometimes accomplice, and sometimes protagonist. I doubt The Only Story will go down as one of Barnes’s strongest offerings - it is a little too quiet and slightly overwrought - but it remains a novel of considerable beauty and wisdom from a writer who, unlike his contemporaries, still clearly has a lot to say.
3.5 out of 5 Michael Douglases

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor
Early money had Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 a high chance to win the 2017 Man Booker Prize. When it failed to make the shortlist there was a collective gasp. Poor Jon had been robbed! I was more ambivalent; I had appreciated the subtlety of Reservoir 13, but couldn’t get quite as excited as my writer friends on Twitter who devoted entire threads to fawning about it. Maybe it was the buzz - they generally have impeccable taste and I came to the book quite late so my hopes were impossibly high. Or maybe it was because Reservoir 13 reminded me too much of one of my favourite novels of the past decade, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. That book also deals with the fallout from the disappearance of a child in a small town, and the ongoing ripple effect on those who knew her. As a study of grief, and the legacy of lost friendships, it is beyond compare. For me, Reservoir 13 lacked its emotional weight and narrative drive. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a very good book - it most certainly is! - but I felt there was something missing. Enter The Reservoir Tapes. Billed as a sequel, it is really more of an equal. Fifteen short pieces - interviews, snippets, side stories - in a slim, elegant volume that makes the main novel look like War and Peace. Here we hear the voices of those who knew poor, lost Becky, those who saw something, or heard something, or thought they saw or heard something, or might just be contributing to the scuttlebutt. Here we get to see McGregor doing what he does best: concise, daring, razor sharp storytelling. Indeed, had I just read this and not bothered with Reservoir 13, I’d have hailed it a masterpiece. It tells the same story better. Yep, this is the book that should have won all the prizes. This was the one robbed of the Man Booker. Whether or not you’ve read Reservoir 13, I implore you to rush out and buy this. For although it was conceived as a series of pieces to be read on BBC Radio, and perhaps almost an afterthought, The Reservoir Tapes is contemporary literary fiction at its absolute best.
4.5 Out of 5 Phantom Menaces

Lullaby by Leïla Silmani
Okay, seriously. What the fuck is with the whole “Next Gone Girl” thing? Sure, I get you need to shift units but whoever thought it would be a good idea to flog Leïla Silmani’s far more sophisticated Lullaby as some cheap psychological thriller should be made to read Gone Girl over and over again while sitting in a tub of week-old, lukewarm, curdled milk. Silmani won the Prix Goncourt - one of the world’s most prestigious prizes and consistent indicator of excellent literary cred - with this for heaven’s sake. Lullaby opens with a horrific scene: two little children are brutally murdered by their nanny. Rewind to Myriam, a driven, successful lawyer, and her aspiring music producer husband Paul, searching for a carer for their two kids. A bunch of decidedly unremarkable applicants are interviewed. Myriam and Paul are ready to give up when Louise appears. She seems perfect. Her references check out. The kids take to her almost immediately. Problem solved. Of course, as you would expect from any book billed as the next Gone Girl - particularly one that opens with a grisly murder - the cracks soon begin to show. Louise becomes a little too obsessed. Too clingy. Think Single White Female or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. We get flashbacks to moments in her former life. We learn she had an abusive ex-husband and wayward daughter from whom she is estranged. She is by and large homeless. She sees in Myriam’s family a chance to belong. The disappointment of her standing in the pecking order, when pointed out to her, is inevitable. as is her completely unhinged reaction. Lullaby is a pretty passable thriller but readers looking for the next Gone Girl are likely to be rushing back to the store and asking for a refund. What the book really does, and does well, is hold a magnifying glass over the relationship between servant and master. Louise is a fine study in the frustration of life when stuck on the lowest end of the socioeconomic totem pole. There is no question Louise had a terrible run, and Silmani demonstrates the kind of conditions that might (though she in no way determinative) result in catastrophe. For me, this strength is also the book’s greatest weakness. Because when it comes to examining the kind of relationship Silmani has chosen as her subject, there already exists an unassailable masterpiece: Magda Szabo’s The Door. No killing. No Gone Girl. Just a perfect observation of human relations. By all means read Lullaby - it is a throughly enjoyable book (though maybe if, like me, you are a new parent, you might want to give it a miss). But do me a favour. When you’re done go and read Szabo. That’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
3.5 Out of 5 Rebecca De Mornays

Peach by Emma Glass
Beware all who come to this book: it may well destroy you. In prose rich and visceral, Peach recounts the few weeks in the aftermath of a violent rape as the narrator struggles to make sense of her experience. The opening chapter is the most memorable thing you are likely to read this year. A woman stumbles home; battered, bruised, bleeding, defiled. It is as poetic as it is harrowing, written with a jarring rhythm that gives agonising immediacy while you are forced to bear witness. What follows is a hell ride into the hyper-real: Peach’s torment becomes your own. We learn little of the crime other than the name of its perpetrator - Lincoln. He is a sinister presence throughout, haunting Peach’s psyche, the counterpoint to her boyfriend, Green. How does she explain it to those who love her? How does she come to terms with her own body that has been so egregiously violated? How does she piece herself back together? And what of the child that might be growing inside her? Even the sympathetic characters have a ghoulishness about them: Peach’s parents try to force her to eat meat. That is when they aren’t bonking with gay abandon in the room next to her. Mr Custard, her teacher, begins to literally fall apart. Green seemingly metamorphosises into a tree. And Peach begins to disappear. To a large part I was reminded of the break from reality that also characterised Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Indeed, the two have a lot in common, in their brevity, their form as prose poem, their haunting, surreal interpretations of loss and their astounding originality. Both are difficult reads, but essential ones if we want to glimpse the extreme edges of the human condition.
4 Out of 5 Straw Dogs

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.