Red Thunder: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

on Saturday, February 6, 2016
For a short while Martin Amis was obsessed with Soviet Russia. It was a weird dalliance for such an establishment kind of guy and one that he got quite the shellacking over. Now I'm as big a fan of Amis as the next guy that doesn't utterly despise him, but I have to concede that Koba The Dread was a very strange book and would have been remembered as one of his most misguided had it not been immediately followed by the awful stinker that was Yellow Dog. Such a dismal failure (though he still says it's the favourite of his novels - nice trolling, Marty) saw him flee in some kind of self-imposed exile where I'm sure he had plenty of time to ruminate on his Stalin fetish and come back with the massively underrated House of Meetings. I'm not convinced I'll ever understand that period Amis but I'm pretty glad he went through it. House of Meetings is one his best works.

Ten years after Amis's literary rehabilitation, another great establishment writer, Julian Barnes, has thrown his seeds into the fertile ground of Red Russia. Thankfully, the result is less Koba than House of Meetings, and perhaps better than both. Like the Booker-winning Sense of an Ending and Barnes's beautiful memoir of loss (and ballooning) Levels of Life, The Noise of Time is a slim little book. Don't be fooled by its brevity, though. It is a book of big ideas and immense heart. Indeed, it might be Barnes's most philosophical work since Flaubert's Parrot or my favourite, England England. Like Amis before him, Barnes uses the context of Soviet Russia to consider the greater meaning of art, especially when played out against the kind of regime intent on defining its edges. His vehicle is Dmitri Shostakovich, the celebrated composer who fell in and out of favour with Stalin and then, following the dictator's death, was rehabilitated only to find himself a pawn in Krushchev's equally disturbing 'new world'. The story is played out in three "conversations with Power": times Shostakovich is called before the party and destroyed in all but body. We first meet him amidst a squall of denunciations where those who once openly supported him are searching for new and original ways to slag him off. Next we follow his forced appearances in America where he sacrifices his integrity and dignity reading pre-written speeches denouncing Igor Stravinsky and other 'formalistic' composers. The third meeting shows that later life offers little reprieve - Shostakovich is railroaded by the cultural despot Pyotr Pospelov to accept Krushchev's "offer" to take up the position of General Secretary of the Composer's Union.

For Barnes's purpose, Shostakovich is the perfect subject. Few people were strapped to the Party rollercoaster quite like he was. Barnes does a wonderful job of conveying the sheer terror of life under Stalin; the image of Shostakovich spending his nights by the elevator waiting for the secret police to come and arrest him is truly heartbreaking as are the scenes of him on the propaganda tour of America where he is smugly challenged by Nicolas Nabokov. It is an exercise in forced self-loathing. Each question makes Barnes's tragic hero that little bit smaller. It is painful to witness, but oddly edifying when rendered in such perfect sentences.

The Noise of Time is a complex meditation on the collision of Art and Power by one of our greatest living (and deepest thinking) writers. As he quite correctly suggests, we can only truly understand art when it is threatened. I could pick out a whole bunch of passages to illustrate the beauty of his thinking. But it is the one from which the novel gets its title that I think sums it up best:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Who, indeed.

The Summer Slingshot

on Tuesday, February 2, 2016
A mere four days ago I was bemoaning the lack of interesting new releases. A mere dribble - China Mieville and Garth Greenwell - to satiate my appetite. Well, what a difference a week makes! I'm reminded of that old Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote sets up a giant slingshot. Suddenly my shelf is looking pretty damn exciting. Check out what's wedged between the cast iron poodles.

Forget everything I said last post (except how awesome the Greenwell book is). I've got me some books to catch...

The Mirror, Smeared: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You

on Saturday, January 30, 2016
With February fast approaching, I was overcome by an uneasy feeling that I was about to fail the Reading Game of Life having not yet read a single book published in 2016. Never mind that I have read twelve other books thus far. If I didn't get my hands on a book from this year stat, I'd not only have to live with the shame but, moreover, the formatting of my reading spreadsheet would be irredeemably skewed, thus messing horribly with my OCD aesthetic sensibilities. There was, of course, an added problem. January is a wasteland when it comes to new releases. Even more so in Australia. A quick scan of the release schedule showed only one book of immediate interest, China Mieville's This Census Taker. I ordered it, hoping it would arrive in mailbox before I nicked off to Tasmania for a week. Well, you know what they say about best laid plans... Sitting at the airport I resigned myself to two very disappointing imminent realities. Firstly, I'd have to buy an e-book. I vomited a little in my mouth - mostly bile - then forced it back down the gullet. It's not like anyone would ever find out. Secondly, I was going to choose a book that I knew absolutely nothing about. The obsessive curating of my reading experience would be thrown to the wind. Bookworm don't play that game. Unless, of course, we reach Literary Defcon 5. Yes, it was that bad!

Scrolling through the Kindle new releases (I reset my location to the USA because there wasn't a single interesting book among the local ones) I happened upon Garth Greenwell's debut (assuming you don't count his small indie press novella) What Belongs To You. I don't know what it is that drew me to it. I toyed with several other contenders but I kept going back until I realised I was wholly captivated by the idea of this book. I hadn't even read the blurb - it just had a mesmerising aura. Odd, I know.

That the book should have had such a mysterious allure turned out to be fitting. What Belongs To You is an intense examination of desire, particularly the way in which we sacrifice what we know to be right, sensible or safe when the sexual tidal wave hits. The novel kicks off with a lesson in uncontrolled lust - the unnamed narrator is visiting the National Museum of Culture in Sofia when he goes to the toilets and meets a young hustler called Mitko. Money is exchanged and they disappear into a cubicle. What might seem tawdry or lascivious is rendered quite the opposite thanks to Greenwell's perfect prose. It is a homoerotic pressure cooker of a scene, even if the sex itself is cheap and nasty. The deed is done and the narrator returns home to his job as an English teacher. Life continues as normal for a short while until he feels the need to see Mitko again. And so he returns to the Museum. The wiry rent boy becomes his drug. Their relationship deepens - it is more than desire, it is desperation - but it masquerades as friendship. Mitko, for his part, abuses the situation. He weasels his way into the narrator's life, turning up at his door, fucking him senseless, knowing he won't be turned away. The addiction is all-consuming even when the narrator watches Mitko set up liaisons with other clients on his computer. And then, like many addictions, it is done. The narrator sees Mitko for what he is - an opportunist and a user - and cuts off the financial flow. The relationship has lasted two months.

I'm guessing that the story up to there is Greenwell's previously published novella, Mitko. Here, it is only Part One of three. Part Two is a claustrophobic, Thomas Bernhard-like, bush bash through the narrator's sexual awakening. There are no paragraph breaks. There is only sparse punctuation. There is little room to breathe. It is the verbal manifestation of young lust. We find ourselves back in the narrator's teen years; he is in love with his neighbour but has to negotiate the watchful sexuality policing of his parents. It all comes to a head one night when the two boys end up in bed together. It doesn't go well. The narrator has learnt the hard way about love. It is intense, it is awkward and it fucking hurts.

Flash forward to Part Three. Happily ensconced in a relationship, the narrator is shocked when Mitko shows up at his door again - two years after their arrangement ended - to announce that he has tested positive for syphilis. He needs money for treatment. The flames of desire explode from the embers in a storm of passion, pity and raw sexual energy. Whatever his boyfriend might offer - stability, love, depth - turns to ash when held up to Mitko's inferno. Greenwell here posits a very perceptive but painfully unkind view of human sexuality - our willingness to knowingly act to our own detriment for an immediate thrill. He is, of course, right. The thrill is crack, it is heroin. Taste it and you can't turn back. It will eventually destroy you.

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.

An extraordinary novel to start the year.

The Dignity of Dependence: The Door by Magda Szabó

on Saturday, January 16, 2016
As I trawled my way through the multitude of Best of 2015 lists, one book stood out above all others as a strange, if not totally misplaced, inclusion. Not that I knew anything substantive about Magda Szabó's classic novel The Door. It's just that, for a book that was just named one of the five best novels of the year by The New York Times, it was kind of old. First published in her native Hungary in 1987, it came out in English translation back in 1995. A decade later it came out again in England with a new translation. It is this latter version that has recently resurfaced, with a new jacket, and from a new publisher, New York Review of Books as part of their Classics series. All very odd. It smelt to me of nepotism; a peculiar tilt from one august publication to what, in many ways, is its sister. Then word began to leak, nay burst, out of the book's true magnificence. Suffice to say I was intrigued. I bought the book. Three pages in and I was completely converted.

In what is a brilliant framing device, Szabó instantly wrong foots the reader. We are told at the outset the narrator has killed her maid. There is a slight, dare I say it, Stephen King sense of foreboding, a creepy Misery vibe that made me expect a book akin to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female. I was ready for that kind of book. After the confronting prelude, Szabó steps off the accelerator and we are introduced to the struggling writer, Magda, who has just been politically rehabilitated in post-War Hungary. Living with her husband, the two of them busy with work, she has recently moved into a new apartment and needs help with its upkeep. She asks around until a friend recommends a particular lady in the neighbourhood, the mysterious but extremely hard working Emerence. So begins a unique and intense relationship, one that hinges on interdependence, perhaps even love (of the plutonic kind), but is damned to end in tragedy.

Emerence is one of the great enigmas of European literature. She is brash, uncouth, anti-religious and aggressive. She speaks her mind and takes control of the apartment like it is hers to rule. She is also intensely private - there is a clear demarcation between her work and personal lives. In Magda's house, everything is Emerence's business. She is mortally offended when secrets are kept from her. Infinitely greater, however, is the offence she takes when Magda asks about her life. Rumours abound in the neighbourhood but it is hard to know what to believe. Whatever the truth, those on the street rely on her - she sweeps everyone's snow and keeps the sidewalks clean. She silently takes it upon herself to do the kind of things most people feel are beneath them. Along with two of her elderly friends, each part crone, part saviour (the three of them locked in some sort of struggle for dominance), she has established herself as a crucial cog in the machine of neighbourhood life.

The relationship between Emerence and Magda comes to a head when Magda's husband falls gravely ill. Emerence, it transpires, is her lifeline, helping her through the emotional strain but also picking up the physical slack. As he recovers, Emerence encourages Magda to get a dog which she does. The dog cares little for Magda and bonds with Emerence who ignores the name the couple have given him in favour of, quite humorously, Viola. The dog becomes a kind of glue between them and they become what you might call friends. Indeed, the trust increases to the point of Emerence allowing Magda into her home, a privilege never before afforded to anyone else. Inside we catch a glimpse of the real Magda, a woman of so many contrasting colours that it is hard to know what to make of her. Her house is filled with the stolen belongings of a wealthy Jewish family that was shipped off to concentration camp and killed. But we also know that she has saved a baby girl from the Nazis. Then she hid various people - victims, perpetrators, communists and such. She is a storm of moral ambiguity. When Magda leaves, the door is closed on our understanding of her friend and their relationship is left to track along at a slow, if steady, pace while the creeping dread of a fate foreshadowed continues to build. If only I could work out what would bring me there.

It is the greatest strength of the book that I had completely misread it. When the tide turns it opens into the most profound examination of dignity that I can remember reading. Emerence stops turning up for work. She won't answer her door. Speaking through the crack she is clearly sick. Her voice is hoarse and her breath choked with phlegm. Magda tricks her in to opening up whereupon she is grabbed by the public health officials and taken to hospital. Stepping inside for the second time, Magda finds the place turned to a rubbish tip filled with rot and mould and excrement. It is condemned. Visiting her sick friend in hospital, she is forced to lie - to say the house is just as Emerence left it. It is the start of a complete, tragic unravelling that you must read to truly appreciate.

The Door is a novel of exceptional beauty, with a depth of human understanding usually reserved for only the greatest of writers. Having only read one of her books, I am led to suspect that Magda Szabó was one of them. That she is little known outside Hungary speaks volumes of the intellectual poverty of the English speaking literary world. I am told there will be another of her novels published this year. I, for one, cannot wait. Indeed, I suspect that I have found the final member of a Hungarian Holy Trinity that otherwise consists of László Krasznahorkai and Ágota Kristóff. Yes, she is that good.

The Other "That Time of Year Again": Salutations, Aspirations and Pachyderm-Related Conflagrations

on Friday, January 8, 2016
A daytime long haul flight in the most uncomfortable plane the devil could have devised - thanks a bunch Jetstar - while stuck next to a slumbering businessman with the sinuses of an asthmatic hippopotamus provided me with a good few hours to ponder life, literature and everything else that's important (which, now I think about it, isn't much). In many ways 2015 was a terrible one for me - I hardly did any writing, I read a paltry 122 books and I was pretty slack on this whole blogging caper. Thankfully, I had a great reset in Hawaii (yeah, yeah first world solutions to first world problems) so I've leapt in to 2016 with a side table stacked with excellent looking books and an eagerness to foist my opinion about them down your throats. I also bought some new notebooks and refilled the ink cartridge in my pen, but that's neither here nor there. I probably have the greatest collection of notebooks with only one page of writing that the world has ever seen.

Anyhoo... The last day of my trip was spent running from bookstore to bookstore (of which there are, sadly, not very many in Honolulu) hoping to snap up anything that had escaped my attention on the 4000 other visits I'd made while I was there and also offloading the stack of paperbacks I'd read and didn't want to schlep back. Bookoff agreed to buy all but one (something about water damage, apparently) so I did the only thing I could think to do: scribbled the blog address on the title page and left it on a bench outside Barnes & Noble. Here's hoping someone picked it up and followed the link.

If it was you, please let me know.

So, onto, 2016. I'm not going to list many aspirations. I'm happy to read a little less (apparently it's not a competition), write a bit more and just generally enjoy the year. That said, a few things I'd like to achieve:

1. One brick a month. That's any book longer than 400 pages.
2. Read outside my comfort zone: More genre novels, graphic fiction and, gasp, some non-fiction. I'm happy to take suggestions here.
3. At least one blog post a week.
4. Write the kids' book that's been doing backflips in my mind for the past few weeks.
5. Finish a draft of the book I've been working on for longer than I care to admit and which I am well over deadline to deliver.
6. And, yeah, I can buy the odd book online again...

Well, that ought to do me. Eight days and eight books in to the year, I'd say I'm off to a good start. Time to go brick hunting.

The One That Got Away: In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomás González

on Saturday, January 2, 2016
Well this is unusual. I tend to be one for clean breaks - once my lists are done the year is dead to me. I've never really had cause to question what I'd included because in those three or four days between the final compilation and the dropping of the shimmering apple I've never before read a book quite so astonishing as Tomás González's In The Beginning Was The Sea. Had I read it in time, it no doubt would have made my Shooting Stars and Other Satellites as one of the best books not published in 2015. Released in its native Colombia back in 1983, though only translated into English in 2014, it has to be one of saddest, creepiest, yet most exhilarating books I've read in a long time. Joseph Conrad meets Cormac McCarthy meets Robert Louis Stevenson with a dash or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is both documentary and horror story, testament and morality tale.

J. and Elana are dreamers. Without much backstory, we know only that this young Colombian couple have decided to pack up their comfortable city lives and move out to a small Caribbean Island. There they buy a run down estate and start anew; no urban pressures, no materialism, no fake high society nonsense. At first it seems their dreams have come true. They lose themselves in renovations, plan for their future, get to know the locals. It doesn't take long, however, for things to begin to unravel. Elana, in particular, struggles to adjust. J. might be lost in his dreams but she is more practical and can't stand the squalor for which they seem to have settles. Business plans fail, money is stolen, the workers on their estate grow restless and the bank threatens to foreclose on their loan. Reading the decline has an added element of dread. We know from the outset that some great crime has been committed. We know that police are called to the estate afterwards to investigate. We know that either J., Elana or both have died. Or perhaps they are the criminals, that they have been driven mad to the point of murder. There is a tense battle of wits raging between the various characters and anyone could be victim or perpetrator. I don't want to spoil anything but, suffice to say, how it actually pans out is as horrific as it is banal. Chances are you'll see it coming, too, which makes it all the more ghastly.

Ultimately, In The Beginning Was The Sea is a heady warning against the arrogance of absolute idealism. Warning signs pepper the narrative; you will want to slap J. across the face and, in crass English pantomime style, scream "Watch Out!" There is an angry energy to the storytelling. González is on a mission. He wants to understand but he also wants to condemn. It is little surprise to learn that the story is based on the tragic fate of the author's brother. In that way, it is also a eulogy. There is love behind the rage; a sad shaking of the head at what didn't have to be.

2015: And The Winner Is...

on Thursday, December 31, 2015

Late last year I was handed a book, hot off the presses, that was to be released in April by the consistently excellent and criminally underrated small Australian publisher Transit Lounge. I should declare at the outset that I know its author. He works at my local bookstore. We talk. Lots. Indeed, it's fair to say we have very similar literary tastes and sensibilities and could probably crap on about Kafka until the cows come home (emaciated, dying of consumption and loneliness). I've also very much liked his previous work, especially the novella Bruno Kramzer. Pushing all that aside, I did my best to come to the book with little expectation. There is nothing worse than being handed a novel by a friend and then scrambling to find words to cover your disappointment/disapproval/utter disdain. Indeed, I was so worried I'd hate it that, despite having it in draft form on my desk for several months, I never dared to crack it open.

Well, it is with great relief and excitement that I can say that I was an absolute idiot. AS Patrić's Black Rock White City is not only an extraordinary novel but I'd go so far to say that it is a modern Australian classic. It is also my Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year.

The story of Jovan and Suzana sheds profound new light on the Australian immigrant experience though to limit it to the category of immigrant novel would be like saying Anna Karenina is about potato farming. Rather, Black Rock White City is the new benchmark in books about outer suburban Australian life. Never before have I seen my own city so insightfully portrayed as this. Patrić truly understands the way the city has changed with the most recent waves of immigration and charts it in subtle, perceptive ways. Hell, I reckon that Black Rock White City taught me new things about the place I've called home for thirty-something years (or at least lifted the curtain on aspects of it).

This isn't just some parochial fanboy rave, either. Critics nationwide, in pretty much all the major newspapers and literary magazines, have been falling over themselves to heap praise on this extraordinary book. It's really no surprise. Patrić is honest, at times brutal, funny and very smart in the way he plays out the central drama of 'strangers' negotiating a new life against a perfectly authentic portrayal of bayside Melbourne. I was totally captivated by Jovan and Suzana, not just as characters, but as people I know are out there quietly sacrificing their dignity for my comfort. Their shared fate, their journey back to a love that had been torn away from them in horrible circumstance, is one you will care deeply about. As you will about almost every aspect of this book. Gorgeous and spare, Black Rock White City is one of the few books I've ever read three times. I somehow suspect I will return to it again. And again. And again.

See my original review of BRWC here.

Happy New Year fellow Bookworms! Until next we meet, happy reading.

2015: The Year of Bricks and Mortar

on Wednesday, December 30, 2015
This time last year I was racking my brains trying to come up with a good challenge for myself for 2015. After toying with a bunch of reasonably rubbish ideas, I settled on one simple resolution: to only buy from bricks and mortar bookstores. No Amazon. No Fishbowl. No Book Depository. No e-Reading. Well, I'm glad to report that fifty two weeks later I have managed to buy over one hundred and fifty books across a physical counter in an actual shop where I got to speak to real people who actually give a shit about literature. Special shout out to my favourites: The Avenue Bookstore, Readings St Kilda, The Grumpy Swimmer, The Paperback Bookshop, Embiggen Books, Alice's Bookshop and The Sun Bookshop. Here's hoping you'll be feeding my insatiable addiction for many more years to come! Oh, and if there's one message to be shared from my year it's this: support your local independent bookseller for that is where the soul of literature resides.

Books I Can't Wait To Read in 2016

I'm not usually one to rattle off lists without commentary but let's just say I'm very excited that these books are coming out next year:

And, if you'll excuse the slight artistic license I may or may not have taken here:

2015: The Final Countdown

on Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Strap on your judgey hats, fellow Booknerds. The time has finally come. In the past fortnight I have somehow managed to churn through the ten books I'd hoped to read (I've actually read twelve) and now feel I'm in a pretty good place to rattle off my favourites for the year. Before I do I want to tip my library card to two more albums that I hadn't heard until a couple of days ago, both of which would have made my countdown had I discovered them in time. So apologies to two great albums: Leavin' La Vida Loca by Antarctigo Vespucci and Bad Habits by Not On Tour. In the words of our greatest Akubra-hatted icon, do yourself a favour and check them out. But enough of that second rate dilly-dallying. Let's get straight to the main event. Here is the final countdown in the Bait For Bookworms Books of 2015.

10. A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball. Having twice awarded him the Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year, I came to this latest novel by Jesse Ball with ridiculously high expectations. In many ways they were met - the unsettling dystopia where a supplicant is shunted through a system of villages in an attempt to reset his memory (think Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but weirder) is sheer genius, the typically Ballian (Ballesque? Ballish?) structural acrobatics are something to behold, the absolute skewering of reality is just delicious - but then he went and did the one thing I'd hoped Jesse Ball would never feel the need to do: he included a fifty page passage explaining what the hell was going on. Had it not been there, had he trusted in the intelligence of his readers and their willingness to follow him into whatever surreal mind bending world he wants to lead them this would have been a real contender to complete the hat trick. Still one of my favourite books of the year but just not quite in the same league as The Curfew or Silence Once Begun.

9. A Tie!! Satin Island by Tom McCarthy and The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. Two books, both daring in their own way, have come in equal 9th place mainly because I needed to cheat to get all the books I wanted in my Top 10. Once again McCarthy proves himself the king of the almost accessible postmodern mindfuck with this brilliant satire/polemic/novel/diatribe. Tasked with distilling modern life to its essence for the mysterious entity known only as The Company, U. begins an obsessive jigsaw-like assemblage of moments, themes and other snippets from the world around him. Chock full of insightful observations, geopolitical takedowns and perfectly executed witticisms it is quite possibly my favourite of his novels to date. Meanwhile, Kamel Daoud pulled off a feat of unimaginable daring by inhabiting an alternative universe and rewriting Camus's The Stranger from the perspective of the brother of the unnamed Arab killed by Merseault on the beach. Not so much ventriloquism as total usurpation, The Mersault Investigation is a wholly original novel that toys with questions of identity, colonialism and the ownership of narrative.

8. Black River by S.M. Hulse. Since the rise of Cormac McCarthy, the redneck noir has become one of the most crowded genres on the serious literary scene. To get noticed is hard. To do it with a debut is almost impossible. Hats and boots off to SM Hulse then for this, her first novel, which is a crushingly powerful morality tale of memory, pain, revenge and redemption. Framed around the imminent release of a violent prisoner and the man whose life he destroyed, it hits all the right chords without ever sinking into the world of cheap melodrama. A sweet musical undercurrent - both Hulse herself and her broken protagonist Wes Carver are fiddle players - lends a much-needed softness to what is otherwise quite a brutal, unforgiving book.

7. Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson. As much a work of visual art as it is a novel, Fever of Animals heralds the arrival of an important new voice on the Australian literary scene. Spotting a lone painting in a local restaurant, Miles (a simulacrum of the author) begins an obsessive quest to learn all he possibly can about its creator, the obscure Hungarian artist Emil Badfescu. The search will lead him deep into his own psyche, destroying much of what he holds dear along the way. A whip smart meditation on the nature of art, a eulogy for a relationship gone sour and a beautiful toast to a lost father, Fever of Animals works on many levels. The fact I though Badfescu was a real artist and not Allinson's creation speaks volumes of the novel's descriptive and persuasive power. Truly exquisite, it is a novel to be savoured.

6. Submission by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is both provocateur and, it seems, prophet in this bitingly satirical dystopia of near-future France where a Muslim president is elected and begins to transform the country into the very thing many modern French people fear. Both sides of the political fence get a right royal shellacking for their respective idiocy though Houellebecq shows equal disdain for those who choose to sit on the fence. Far from cheap xenophobic populism, this is a very thoughtful book that goes far beyond the goading of its premise. It is also a spot-on satire of academic life and a wonderful nod to the much neglected king of literary decadence, JK Huysmans.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. No book divided readers and critics this year as much as Hanya Yanigahara's second novel, the brick-like megatome A Little Life. Some couldn't handle Yanagihara's endless assault on her tragic hero Jude St Franics but I found him wholly captivating and was completely invested in his fate. I'm told by a psychologist friend that the novel is one of the most accurate portraits of the legacy of extreme child abuse that's ever been written and, as a glimpse into a world that I'd otherwise (thankfully) never see, it was a revelation. Thankfully it wasn't 900 pages of complete bleakness. Cracks of light shone through in simple acts of kindness giving Jude moments of reprieve, even if he was too far gone to recognise them.

4. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. Picked up on a whim (mostly for its stunning cover), this gorgeous, gentle little novel really drew me in from its opening page. It is the story of a very ordinary man, a cripple carving out an unremarkable existence in the Austrian Alps, who is swept up as a bit player in historical moments of the 20th century. He works on the first alpine cable car, falls in love, survives an avalanche, gets conscripted by the occupying Nazi forces and returns home to live out what's left of his life as a hermit. I really can't speak highly enough of its subtle, radiant beauty. Rare is the book that can so profoundly move me in so few pages.

3. Leica Format by Daša Drndić. Once Croatia's best kept secret (at least from me), Drndić continues her fierce intellectual assault on the English-speaking literary world with this, another spectacular stylistic kaleidoscope of a novel. Treading similar ground to the sensational Trieste, Drndić completely resets the reader's understanding of identity with what can only be described as daring photographic devices. There is beauty in its brutality and, when you finally catch your breath, you might just want to go back to the start and find a new way of navigating through its maze. 2016 promises another book from this great master and I for one cannot wait.

2. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Was there a more perfect whisper of a novel this year than Kent Haruf's parting gift to the world? Simple, beautiful, funny and heartbreaking it spoke to the very essence of humanity with a wisdom only available to the dying. Through its two main characters, Louis and Addie, a widower and widow respsectively who find comfort, solace and physical warmth in each other's arms we learn the importance of staving off the loneliness of old age and the dignity in friendship and communion. It saddens me to think that I only discovered Haruf after he died but I'm looking forward to working my way through all his books. A true, understated treasure.

Well, that's it for the countdown. Come back on Thursday to find out which book takes home the 2015 Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year.