A Moment of Frippery (Valentine's Edition)

on Friday, February 13, 2015
I am often accused, quite rightly, of favouring books that tend towards the bleak and macabre. It's how I roll. However, contrary to popular opinion, I do actually have a heart. And it pumps warm blood. Far be it from me to buy into the crass commercialisation of emotion but I thought I might take this opportunity to tip my hat in the direction of tomorrow's festivities and attempt to post something of moderate interest to the lovelorn and desperate. Never fear, whingers. You need not suffer alone. I'm sure you already know the classic tales of love but there's a whole world of amazing novels you have probably yet to discover. Pick up one of these and live (and love) vicariously:

Binu And The Great Wall - Su Tong

Censoring An Iranian Love Story - Shahariar Mandanipour

The Postman - Antonio Skarmeta

Melisande! What Are Dreams? - Hillel Halkin

Contempt - Alberto Moravia (For the Valentine Grinches)

Harping On: The Mockingbird Sings Again

on Wednesday, February 4, 2015
How many authors can boast a perfect publishing record? I've spent the morning running through my list of favourites and, try as I might to name one who hasn't sullied their good name with a stinker, I'm coming up pretty empty. Indeed, the only person who hasn't royal screwed up is Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is a bona fide classic, one of the great American novels. Add to that "Harper Lee the woman" and you have a dead set literary legend. I've long admired her reclusive ways, her stubborn refusal to be drawn into the literary world and, most of all, her hilariously understated oneup(wo)manship of Truman Capote.

For the better part of fifty years Lee has remained an enigma. She hit the news a couple of years back over a nasty legal spat with her former agent who, it seems, pretty much stole the rights and royalties to Mockingbird. But other than that she might as well have been dead. Now she's hit the headlines again. Actually, that would be an understatement. The entire internet has gone into meltdown. Harper Lee is publishing a second novel this year, a sequel (of sorts) to Mockingbird called Go Set A Watchman.

According to pretty much every news source under the sun, Watchman was written before Mockingbird. It is the book Lee presented to her editor as a young, hopeful writer desperate to break into the publishing world. The editor liked it but was particularly enamoured of the flashback scenes - those that dealt with Scout as a child. Lee was told to go back and explore that aspect in greater detail. She came back with the novel we all know and love, nay revere.

So why risk the perfect record? Why now? I have always been in two minds about a 'second' Harper Lee novel. Like any debut of such incredible brilliance, I've yearned to read more. But then, what if it is rubbish? What if she only had one great book in her? I can think of countless great debuts that were followed up by boring, clumsy or just plain bad books.

The press would have us believe that the book is being published because it was only recently rediscovered. Apparently it was attached to an old typescript of Mockingbird. Yet it seems to coincide with a couple of troubling developments in Lee's life. Firstly, there was the legal spat. She ultimately won - the case settled out of court - but it is entirely possible that she is still on struggle street. Secondly, there is some talk that Lee has been steadily slipping towards senility. She is pushing 90 and, given her general shyness, it is hard to gauge the state of her faculties. And then, perhaps most troubling, is the fact that the announcement of this new book comes in the wake of a personal tragedy that has a decidedly professional bearing. As Jezebel reports:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee's estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

That said, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm sure there is a reason Lee's editor rejected it in the first place. It may, at best, be Lee's apprentice novel - the one she wrote while learning to write. Whatever the case, I'll be reading it. I fell in love with the Finches and the townspeople of Maycomb and want to know what became of them. Sure, it may be a crushing disappointment. But then she'll just join my other heroes - Kafka, Steinbeck, Capek, Coetzee - in the halls of fallibility.

Microviews Vol. 52: Love In A Time of Stoners

on Monday, February 2, 2015
Black River by S.M. Hulse
Debut novels don't come much better or more self assured than S.M. Hulse's Black River. In a literary landscape littered with Cormac McCarthy wannabes, Hulse rises above the Western cliches to deliver a crushingly powerful morality tale of memory, pain, revenge and redemption. Having just lost his wife to cancer, Wes Carver is coming home to face his worst nightmare. Bobby Williams, the man who once held him hostage during a prison riot, the man who subjected him to unimaginable torture and robbed him of his greatest love - his ability to play the fiddle - is up for parole. Word has it that Bobby is a changed man. He has found God. Only Wes can stand in the way of his release. Then there's Dennis, Carver's stepson, who once held a gun to his stepfather's head in a fit of rage. As Wes settles back into life in Black River, unsure if it's just a visit or if he's going to stay for the long run, their relationship crackles on the flint edge of a matchbox. They bear the scars of shared trauma, of loss, of uncertainty. And they both brim with paternal love for the wayward kid that works as a saddler on Dennis's farm. Hulse controls the story with the skill of a seasoned master. Carver's suffering - and Williams's brutality - during the riot play out in measured glimpses that pepper the novel like buckshot. And though the parole hearing is the central context for Carver's return, it too plays a pretty minor role. Indeed, there are quite a few 'big events' in the novel, but Hulse doesn't use them for cheap melodrama but, rather, to mine the inner working of her characters' souls. We as readers feel the depth of Carver's pain at what he has lost and, more importantly, what he fears he may never regain. Inevitably, there is redemption but it is the twisted, ambiguous kind. Some might find it frustrating but I thought it the perfect end to a near perfect novel.
5/5 Burning Haystacks

God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger
By most accounts, Haiti is a pretty crappy place to live. Wracked by poverty and corruption, underdeveloped, oppressive; even nature likes to shit on its head. It is an amazing testament to the human spirit, then, that the people have such a beautiful sense of hope and maintain a lively and rich culture. Sadly, of course, very little of it ever seeps out to the wider world. Dimitry Elias Leger's much lauded novel, God Loves Haiti, is one of the few exceptions. Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat all sing its praises. There's a pretty decent groundswell of support from the literary heavyweights, the kind of folk who can make or break a book. No surprise then, that the book is a brief distillation of all that is both good and bad about the country. Set in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake (you may recall Wyclef Jean walking through the rubble proclaiming his intention to run for president), God Loves Haiti centres around the president, his new wife (Natasha) and her lover (Alain). When the earthquake hit, Natasha was boarding a plane to flee her shithole country for Italy, having locked Alain in a cupboard at the presidential palace. It is almost a comic set piece and, to some extent it is rather funny, but it also lays the foundation for some serious national soul searching on Leger's part. How can a person (or a country) rebuild their life when they have been reduced to absolutely nothing? Can you truly know a person until you see their lives stripped bare? Can you escape your true love? Where to for this afflicted but proud country? Unfortunately the book doesn't quite have the depth to answer any of these - Leger seems to have got caught up in the difficult conflict of philosophy versus narrative, with semi-cheesy romantic narrative winning out. As an important contribution from an oft silenced voice, God Loves Haiti is well worth the read. As the compelling, great piece of literature that Diaz et al are claiming, I just wasn't convinced.
3.5 On The Richter Scale

Here by Richard McGuire
It took far too long for me to get over my snobbery and learn to appreciate the literary value of graphic fiction. Yes, haters, it's okay to like comics. Now, reading McGuire's astonishing book Here (it can't quite be called a novel - heck, I really don't know what to call it), I have come to realise something else, something, I dare say, more profound: Some stories can only be told in pictures. Here is the story of a room. Yep. Every two-page spread is of the same spot, mostly a room in a house, though McGuire does trace it back to before the house was built and long into the future when it becomes some weird sci-fi space. Characters from different eras float in and out, appear and reappear, often on the same page. The room changes with the latest design trends. McGuire even manages to work in important historical moments with subtlety and grace. Needless to say I'm doing the book a great disservice in trying to describe it. Words alone cannot do it justice; they just don't capture the fluidity of time or space that is essential to the narrative flow. So I'll just leave it at this: Here is a singular phenomenon and, quite possibly, a game changer in the way stories can be told.
5/5 Creaking Floorboards

Stoner by John Williams
I've had Stoner sitting on my shelf for years collecting dust. It's long been the book I've been meaning to read, the one that slips quietly to the bottom of the pile every time the next best thing comes along. Even the recent frenzy of attention (for those living on Book Mars, Stoner was suddenly rediscovered by every writer under the sun a couple of years ago and held out as the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time) didn't get me to pick it up. Not quite sure, then, what caused me to pack it on my recent trip to Mexico. Possibly the hope of novel attrition - I knew I'd have to get to it once the other books ran out. Or maybe I'd just need something gentle when the inevitable food poisoning struck. So, halfway through my trip, after lifting my face from the puke-splattered toilet bowl, I finally blew off the cobwebs, opened to the first page and... Well, what can I say that hasn't already been said? Stoner is quite possibly the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time. I am a fool for having ignored it. Yes, it's almost whisper quiet and it does a comprehensive hatchet job on your heart but it is one of the most beautiful stories about an ordinary man that I've ever read. William Stoner is a classic meat and 'taters American. Life carries him along - from farm boy to promising college student to tenured academic to tormented husband to besotted father to middle aged nobody etc etc - and then he dies. Pretty humdrum, I know. But Williams portrays Stoner's struggle through everyday life with such beauty, such compassion and such generosity of spirit that you will close the book thinking you've met the most wonderful human being of all time. Truly worthy of every single salivating, hyperbolic rave.
5/5 Fading Inscriptions

2015: The Brick and Mortar Revival

on Friday, January 2, 2015
The sun has risen over Playa Del Carmen and the awful techno music from the nearby beach club continues to pump through the very foundation of my hotel. Needless to say, I've had a fair few waking hours to contemplate any new year's resolutions. For the most part I try to avoid them; I'm still smarting from my 2013 "Review Every Book I Read" Resolution. Sure I did it but at what cost? Resentment! Anxiety! Total blogger burnout!

This year I have only one resolution and it's one that I urge all of you to make as well. 2015 will be the year of bricks and mortar. I will only buy books from actual bookstores. No Amazon. No Book Depository. If the book I'm after is out of print I'm allowed to hit up Abebooks or Alibris but that's it. It's time we did our part to stop these online powerhouses from pillaging our authors and publishers. It might be a little more expensive but it will be worth every cent.

2014: And The Winner Is...

on Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This time last year, while most people were getting drunk and waiting for fireworks to light up the night sky, I was sitting at home, on my couch, with a copy of Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun on my lap. It was an exercise in self-control, nay self-abnegation, unprecedented in my 37 years (mainly because I've never bothered to delay gratification in the past). There was, however, method to my madness. Although the novel was not scheduled to be released for another month and, moreover, I had received my copy three weeks before, I knew that if I read it before the strike of twelve on the first of January I would have to count it as a book read in 2013. Which meant it would miss out on this year's list if it proved to be as good as I was hoping. I've made no secret of my love for Ball. He is the most exciting young writer at work today. His previous novel, The Curfew, was my Book of 2011. Now signed on with a big publisher (or at least an imprint thereof) and with his first work in hardcover, there was a hell of a lot riding on Silence Once Begun.

Cue past the countdown, the clock chimed twelve, and I cracked open the cover. And read. And read. And read. Until the sun rose and I closed the book in a state of transcendental bliss. Not only had Ball delivered, but he had done so in spectacular fashion. This story of a man who confesses to a series of disappearances then remains totally silent throughout his arrest, trial and execution is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. It might seem absurd but absurdity is Ball's stock-in-trade. He makes dreamscapes seem totally normal and the further he leads us down the rabbit hole the more we become willing to give ourselves over to him. Testing the limits of reliability, the voices in Silence Once Begun resonate with utter conviction and persuasiveness so that, by the end, we know very little other than that Oda Sotatsu is innocent and the crimes were not even what they seemed. We are left to shake our fists at a system that runs on its own steam towards the destruction of anyone who slips among the cogs.

Silence Once Begun is, in my opinion, a watershed moment not only in Ball's career but in contemporary literature. I posed the question in my initial review: Is it possible that I read the best book of 2014 on the very first day of the year? The answer is yes. A very resounding yes.

2014: By Which I Mean 2015

on Tuesday, December 30, 2014
A day to spare means I have time for a quick peek over the horizon at what 2015 has in store. Seems it's already shaping up to be one hell of a year with new books from literary titans Kazuo Ishiguro (The Buried Giant), Toni Morrison (God Help The Child), Milan Kundera (The Festival of Insignificance) and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Discreet Hero). On a more personal note, I'm hanging out for the latest from Dasa Drndic (Leica Format) and Jesse Ball (A Cure For Suicide), as well as Tom McCarthy (Satin Island) and, sadly, the first posthumous release from Kent Haruf (Our Souls At Night). Australian literature is getting an exciting kick in the butt with debut novels from A.S. Patric (Black Rock, White City) and Miles Allinson (The Fever of Animals) while SJ Finn is back with her second book (Down to the River). So all in all a promising forecast for our reading futures.

2014: The Final Countdown

on Monday, December 29, 2014
The sun is setting on yet another year and, as always, the pile of books I'd intended to read rests forlornly on my bedside table, their pages withering with lost hope. Here at the pointy end, where I rattle off the books I loved most, where I make high faultin' claims based on highly subjective criteria, I humbly apologise to these (probably) great works:

Redeployment by Phil Klay
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
10:04 by Ben Lerner
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

But enough of the jibber jabber. It's time we got to the almighty list.

The Top 10 of 2014: From 10 to 2

10. The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. I still bristle with indignation when I think of the injustices that play out in Denfeld's stunning debut novel. It's like The Shawshank Redemption but without the redemption and a hell of a lot more shanking. (See my full review here)

9. Ludwig's Room by Alois Hotschnig. Kurt inherits his great uncle's country house and goes through the one door he was never allowed to open as a child. Cue the flood of awful truths about his family's involvement in the operation of a nearby concentration camp during the war and the desperate attempts to bury the evidence afterwards. A ghost story of sorts, where everyone in town turns out to be a Nazi poltergeist.

8. Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub. A gorgeous and structurally brilliant meditation on the fragility of memory, Diary of The Fall centres around the fallout from a childish prank that has repercussions well beyond the children involved. The grandfather's diary of fabrications stands as one of the best narrative devices I've come across in recent years. (See my full review here)

7. The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. A frightful collision of groundbreaking science and moral ambiguity in this tale based on the Nobel laureate who discovered kuru. How much can we forgive a genius, especially if he turns out to be a monster? Critics might have gone nuts for Lily King's Euphoria, but this was the year's best book about the perils of anthropology (not to mention humanity). (See my full review here)

6. The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. It beggars belief that the guy who wrote the truly awful Yellow Dog and almost-as-awful Lionel Asbo, the guy who anyone with good sense or taste gave up on a decade ago, managed to pull off one of the most remarkable books of 2014. A Holocaust novel like none other I've read, it brings the everyday operation of Auschwitz to life with droll humour and impeccably observed detail. A high wire act of humanised horror.

5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. An ordinary marriage plays out in gorgeously crafted nuggets of prose. To see a life reduced like this makes me understand how diamonds are formed. (See my full review here)

4. Falling Out of Time by David Grossman. Grossman revisits the grief of losing a child with this splendid take on the Orpheus myth. Surreal, dark and immensely powerful, Falling Out of Time moved me more than any other book this year. (See my full review here)

3. Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes. Hitler wakes up in modern Germany and becomes a reality TV star. Totally bonkers. Bloody hilarious. And absolutely perfect. (See my full review here)

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Step one: Watch this video. Step two: Read An Unnecessary Woman. Step three: Thank me profusely. An hilarious, life affirming celebration of all things bookish set against a backdrop of turmoil, war and personal loss. (See my full review here)

Which, of course, leaves only one. Check back on Wednesday for the Bait For Bookworms Book of 2014.

2014: "Best Of" Bridesmaids

on Sunday, December 28, 2014
Well, there are only three days left until the end of the year and short of me inhabiting the body of Bill Murray and reliving them on an endless loop I'm going to have to bite the bullet and make some decisions. I had nineteen books in contention for the top ten and, though I failed year ten maths, I still managed to work out that nine had to go. Thankfully, I always allow myself a safety net so that the also-rans get a look in. You will no doubt remember them in the years to come, just like you remember who came second in every sporting contest, or who ran for political office against George H. W. Bush or who came third in the fourth season of Austalian Idol. Or second. Or first. Anyway, here are the books that very almost reached my top ten of 2014:

A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano. Somewhere in literary heaven I suspect there's a drinking game being played by Roberto Bolano and Irene Nemirovsky. Every time a publisher manages to squeeze another book out of their rotting corpse they down a tequila and run around the table with their pants around their ankles. I'm not sure who is winning but, fair to say, they are both totally smashed, on the floor, with ghost puke dribbling from their mouths. Bolano's posthumous output (so to speak) has been pretty patchy but A Little Lumpen Novelita stands as one of his best. It simmers with all the seediness, melancholy and straight out action that I tend to love about his stronger books. Better yet, it ends well before it wears out its welcome (Hello 2666 and The Savage Detectives). You can almost smell the smoke and hear the frantic clatter of his typewriter.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. It was an audacious stunt that really ought to have failed. Three books released over the space of a single year - hard sci-fi nerdgasms positioned for readers of literary fiction. The first, Annihilation, was a creepy delight; the tale of a doomed expedition into the mysterious Area X, where nature has begun to reclaim what we humans have destroyed. The second novel, Authority, was less successful and dragged a little but the world VanderMeer had created was so mesmerising that I was willing to forgive the book's weaknesses. Thankfully, Acceptance proved a return to form, providing many answers but leaving the reader to ponder our collective path to mutual destruction. With echoes of Lem's Solaris and Margaret Attwood at her best, VanderMeer showed us the literary heights to which genre fiction can sometimes soar.

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle. I'm not a rabid Mountain Goats fan but I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up lead singer Darnielle's debut novel. A surprising work from someone his age (it reads like it was written by a twenty something), Wolf In White Van is a hymn to the golden era of gaming - you know, the pen and paper, D&D, pre-Playstation variety. Sean Phillips is a beautifully rounded, tragic character and though I wasn't entirely convinced by the novel's ending I loved the interplay of Phillips's real and imagined worlds. A tender elegy to loneliness and displacement.

Young Gods by Katherine Faw Morris. When an author chooses to have their publicity shot with a fuck-off monster of a dog you know you're in for a rough ride. When that author happens to be a sweet as pie blonde youngster like Faw Morris you can bet it's time to double down and reach for the biscuits. Young Gods is a brutal knife fight of a novel, fuelled by drugs, booze, bile and double-wides. A suckerpunch debut by a very promising writer. Now get that dog away from me.

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. Graham Greene storms Africa in this fast-paced political thriller with serious literary chops. It's the kind of thing we take for granted from Johnson but that doesn't make it any less of a ripper.

A few flower girls: Wherewithal by Philip Schultz, The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris and Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer.

2014: The Shelf of Shame

on Tuesday, December 23, 2014
2014 saw many wonderful books take root and flourish but, as always, there were a fair few weeds popping up around the garden. So it is, fellow Bookworms, that we strap on our collective garden gloves, grab our secateurs and jump in for some good ol' hack n' slash.

Most Overrated Books of 2014

Brace yourself, Murakami sycophants because I'm going to say it: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was far and away the most overhyped book of 2014. The anticipation before its release was Jonestown level feverish. I'll admit to having been swept up in the hoopla, too. Oh yes, I was waiting for this biblical revelation. Then it hit and... well... Okay, it was perfectly pleasant; fun, quirky, kind of cute. It had many of the classic Murakami magic tricks. But when all is said and done it wasn't a patch on The Wild Sheep Chase or Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Indeed, this one had the suspicious aftertaste of Kool Aid.

I was at a loss to understand the plaudits poured upon Akhil Sharma's slim offering, Family Life. It supposedly took him ten or twelve or twenty (or some other multiple of a ferret's average life span) years to complete and drew heavily from his personal experience of grief and dislocation. Stripped of its forest of laurels it is a fair to middling shrub of a novel about about the immigrant experience. I can't help but feel that Sharma has a lot of friends in high places, none of whom could muster the guts to tell him that those umpteen years might have been better spent working on something else.

One other book that rolled around in a well-oiled orgy of love was Ali Smith's How To Be Both. Critics and readers alike were falling over themselves to praise its structural innovation, sly narrative experimentation and ingenious mirroring of two different eras. To be fair, it's not hard to be swept up in Ali-mania. Her writing is absolutely stunning and this book was no exception. Still, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. Another pretty good book put on some unreachable pedestal by those who probably eat a teaspoon of caviar and claim they are full. Or maybe I was just too dumb to get it.

Dishonourable Mentions: Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea proved that great authors can choke in unfamiliar surrounds. Sci-fi was not his friend. Also, Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise was good but a little too self-consciously po-faced for my liking.

Biggest Disappointments of 2014
I suppose these are really personal disappointments because I was so excited for these books when I first heard of their impending release and then... *sigh*...

American Innovations by Rivkah Galchen. Okay, seriously: How incredible was Galchen's novel, Atmospheric Disturbances? From the moment I put it down I have been chomping at the bit for something new, something sparkling, something splendiferous from this bright young star. Enter American Innovations. Never mind that it's a collection of stories. That could have been just as exciting. But these show little of the imaginative pizazz that made Atmospheric Disturbances one of my favourite novels of the past ten years. Maybe it was just sorbet. Maybe there's something exceptional waiting in the wings. Another novel to knock me off my feet. Here's hoping.

Consumed by David Cronenberg. I was intrigued when I heard Cronenberg had written a novel. That it was said to lean heavily on JG Ballard, whose iconic masterpiece, Crash, Cronenberg had made into a film filled me with an underlying sense of dread. Still, I kept the faith. It might be good, right? Alas, no. There's "leaning on" and there's straight up imitation. When your model is someone as distinctive and singularly brilliant as Ballard you don't stand much of a chance. And so we end up with this: Fan fiction from a deranged fan.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers. Yellow Birds still stands as my all-time favourite war novel. Three years on and I still shiver when I think about it. When I saw that Powers would be following it up with a collection of poetry I was cautiously optimistic. I don't usually go for the form - I'm fairly convinced I just don't understand it - but I trusted in Powers (he is, first and foremost, a poet) and, I heartily reassured myself, one of my other favourites war books, Pink Mist, happens to be an extended poem. Alas, it all went over my head and it has been consigned to the shelf of books I'm glad to own but will probably never pick up again. At least it makes me look more cultured.

I'm not quite sure why I still hold out hope for Ian McEwan. His glory days are clearly well behind him. Solar was a momentary blip of light (sorry) but otherwise it has all been drab greyness from this former master. The Children Act was, however, a new low - a plodding, workmanlike novel of family law that lacked any of the taut plotting, intrigue, danger, excitement or insight that made Black Dogs, Enduring Love or Atonement such modern classics. I'd have to put it alongside Saturday as his weakest novel to date, but at least that had a brilliantly frightening villain. If it weren't for the fact that Martin Amis, who seemed to be on a similar career trajectory, published one of his finest novels to date this year, I'd give up on McEwan altogether.

Dishonourable Mentions: He's always hit or miss, but I'd still hoped for something better from Dave Eggars. Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? was a particularly lame effort at a State Of The World novel. And then there was Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer. Oh how I've longed for something even half as amazing as The Good Doctor. The Imposter was pretty good but this one, while lush and 'classic' in style, was just kind of boring.

2014 Trainwreck of the Year
Oh how the mighty fall. Or stumble. Or at least stub their big toes. Long time readers may recall my unhealthy love for Tom Rachman's hilariously brilliant debut, The Imperfectionists. Not quite a novel, but more than a collection of short stories, it deftly skewered the world of wanky international journalism with its perfectly pitched sketches of all those involved with a failing newspaper. To my mind, it was almost a perfect book. Sad to report that the exact opposite must be said of his follow-up, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. A meandering mess, with no discernible direction it pained me to plod through the whole thing. I'm still trying to work out what the hell it was actually about but then I am reminded that I just don't care and go back to my Rachman shrine, kneel before the last flickering embers and pray that this, not the other, was an aberration.

2014: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Friday, December 19, 2014

Of the measly 160-odd books I read this year (I'm still going - don't want to tap out just yet), 79 came from the cold, distant past. You know, 2013 and those forgotten years that preceded it. A few of the books were pretty damn excellent and, had I read them in the year they were actually published, I'm sure they would have been contenders for end of year honours. Then again, had I read the ones that came out before I was born in the year they were published, I'd have seriously screwed up the space/time continuum. You can thank me later. Or earlier. Mind blown.

A Meal In Winter - Hubert Mingarelli (2013). Sparse, piercing and entirely gripping, this story of two war-weary Nazis sent to find a Jew in the forest was in the top 3 books I read this year. Sure to set your moral compass spinning wildly out of control, it is an absolute masterpiece in miniature.

Christ's Entry Into Brussels - Dimitri Verhulst (2011) I've always liked Verhuslt - his sense of the absurd is second to none and he is not afraid to shove something sharp and pointy into the neck of our collective stupidity. This novel is by far his most enjoyable; an hilarious excoriation of our celebrity/religion/consumer obsessed society. The whole city goes into conniptions when word leaks out that Jesus is back and he's coming to Brussels. Yep, as crazy as it sounds.

Visitation - Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). A dense, difficult fable centred around a small town and the fate of its various denizens during the Holocaust. Kind of in the vein of Aharon Appelfeld - the horror lurks mostly in the background - it is an incredible portrait of a decimated Europe. Oh, and the writing is just sublime.

The Graveyard - Marek Hlasko (1956) A crushing portrait of life in Communist Poland, The Graveyard tells of a hapless factory worker systematically destroyed by the faceless powers that be after he drunkenly abuses a policeman. And you thought Kafka could kill you with bureaucracy!

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death - Otto Dov Kulka (2013) A bit of a departure for me, this isn't a novel but rather a survivor's deeply philosophical account of his time in the Czech Family Camp, a small sector of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp. To my mind it ranks up there with the very best of them - think Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel or Viktor Frankl.

Special Mentions to The Property by Rutu Modan, Underwater Welder by Jeff Lamire, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang and In The Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs.


Holy paintballs there were some amazing book designs this year. Much like the vinyl resurgence in music, it's clear that publishers are giving a lot more thought to the book as physical object so that readers want to own them instead of just downloading some crappy digitised simulacrum. To that end, three books really stood out. Haruki Murakami's The Strange Library was a gorgeous experiment - the marriage of art and words. To my mind it was far better than the other overhyped thing he published this year. My other two standouts are more conventional in their format but they were just so beautiful that I had to have them on my shelves. So props to Jane Rawson for A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists (also, best title of the year) and Wittgenstein's Nephew by Lars Iyer. Also, a quick nod to the beauties that were Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle, Leaving The Sea by Ben Marcus and The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.


Alright, I officially give up on trying to make Top 10 lists when it comes to music. Sure, 2014 might not have been the greatest year but there were still a bunch of top notch standouts and it would be unfair to jettison them for the sake of some End of Year OCD. And yes there were some absolute stinkers from the likes of Steel Panther, The Pixies and Pennywise, but they were more than made up for by these great specimens of sound:

21. The Orwells - Disgraceland
20. Morning Glory - War Psalms
19. Hostage Calm - Die On Stage
18. The Copyrights - Report
17. Cheap Girls - Famous Graves
16. Shihad - FVEY
15. Smith Street Band - Throw Me In The River
14. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Christmas Island
13. Lagwagon - Hang
12. Linkin Park - The Hunting Party (Yes, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it is really good)
11. The Shell Corporation - Mandrake

And for the top 10 (oh well, OCD wins out in the end):

10. Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Maybe it was the return of Ric Ocasek, maybe my defences have been battered down by the cavalcade of mediocrity since The Green Album but somehow Weezer managed to pull out something that doesn't disgrace their name. In fact, it's rather excellent. Catchy buzz pop at its geeky best.

9. Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Educatiom, Education & War. So get this - a band I've never really cared for puts out a concept album (something I've also never cared for) about the drudgery of work (about which, you guessed it, I really don't care for) and it turns out to be an absolute stunner. There's hope for Kasabian yet. Just kidding.

8. White Lung - Deep Fantasy. I've never understood why these girls (and guy) continue to fly under the radar. Fast, gutsy, fun and ferocious. Twenty something of the best minutes you'll spend with your ears.

7. RX Bandits - Gemini, Her Majesty. After a long hiatus these guys storm back with what I'd say is their second best album ever. Dreamy punk reggae as it's supposed to be done. Stargazer is a serious contender for song of the year.

6. Mastodon - Once More Round The Sun. Yeah, yeah, I'm ridiculously late to board this particular ship but I'll happily swim behind if I must because this is the most ball-crunchingly, monstrous punch in the ear I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a long time. The melodies are stupidly catchy despite the incredible density of everything else going on around them. Seriously, this album made me want to go wrestle bears.

5. Johnny Marr - Playland. While Morrisey was busy being a total douchebag, his old Smiths bandmate quietly dropped a masterpiece of guitar pop. Simple, great songs played with heart and vigour. And humility.

4. World/Inferno Friendship Society - This Packed Funeral. Gogol Bordello might get all the attention when it comes to folk punk, but these guys have been bashing it out just as long and arguably more consistently. Never before have they reached this level of madcap artistry though - a concept album based around the funeral of a woman who reminded me a great deal of Cabaret's Elsie from Chelsea. A dark, celebratory symphony.

3. A tie. Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World and ANTEMASQUE - ANTEMASQUE. I know this is cheating but I love these albums equally and for the same reason. Thumpingly good dirty garage rock from gods of the alt-punk scene. Granted, Omar and Cedric could fart in a jar and I'd think it was a masterpiece but seeing them edge away from the more chaotic style of their former bands was a pure joy to behold. And as for DFA, well who'd have thought they would up the ante like this? Two truly exceptional records.

2. Dragonforce - Maximum Overload. Three albums and one singer after THAT song, Dragonforce have finally come into their own with this orgy of speed metal excess. My fist was in the air so much that I hardly had time to reach down and pick my jaw off the floor. Technical brilliance backed with perfect song writing, this is quite simply the most enjoyable album of the year.

1. PUP - PUP. I can't remember the last time I was this exited by a new band. Listening to PUP feels an awful lot like the time I first heard Guns N' Roses in 1987 or Nirvana in 1991. In other words, a game changer for my music life. Abrasive, jangled, buzzsaw pop genius, this is the best album of the last 5 years, hands down.