2011: And The Winner Is...

on Saturday, December 31, 2011
Well this one is a no brainer!

Forget your Murakamis and Ecos. I knew from the moment I started Jesse Ball's latest novel The Curfew that I had happened upon something very, very special. Ball had already been on my radar for a few years, being one of the few writers yet to disappoint. Samedi The Deafness was brilliant, whacked-out noir. The Way Through Doors was a gloriously surreal riff on identity and memory. Then there is his poetry and short prose (much of it collected in the wonderful compendium The Village on Horseback). But it is this, his third novel, that really cements his place in my mind as one of the great writers of our times. For those not yet to treat themselves to his work, Jesse Ball is Calvino, Kafka, Orwell, Stoppard and Chandler, rolled into one. Yes, he is that good. Don't be fooled, however, by all the name-checking. There is nothing even slightly derivative about his writing. Indeed, Jesse Ball has the most original voice in contemporary literature.

The Curfew is Ball's foray into the world of totalitarian dystopia; a world in which music has been banned, and the government causes its less favoured citizens to disappear. There is so much to love about this book - the absurdist humour of William's vocation; the beautiful tenderness of his and Molly's relationship; William's heartbreaking longing for his disappeared wife Louisa; the brilliant parallel world of the puppet show; Ball's willingness to eschew the happy ending for something far more profound and disturbing . Really, I could go on forever. Suffice to say that The Curfew is a masterstroke from the most exciting young writer at work today. One day it will be considered a classic but, for now, it'll have to sit patiently content in the knowledge that for me, and quite a few other people I know, it is the book of the year.

Check out my full review of Jesse Ball's The Curfew here.

2011: The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 30, 2011
In my life, 2011 will go down as the year of extremes. On the one hand I lost two amazing people in my life, one truly tragically, and had a close call with a third. On the other I had my first story published in an annual publication that I love and have been reading for years, and then saw another of my stories (that just happens to be the prologue to a book I've been working on forever) win The Age Short Story Award . Plus, just as the year was drawing to a close, I got Louie, my stupidly adorable, vicious, man-eating Toy Poodle puppy who will be keeping my toes company as I sit at my desk and write over the coming years.

Throughout it all I managed to get through 151 books, many of them quite exceptional. I probably could have made a Top 30, but I annoy you with my rambling as it is so I'm trying to keep it short. Tomorrow I will be revealing my book of the year, but for now here's my Top 10, books 10 through 2.

10. The Submission by Amy Waldman. Ten years after the fact, we finally have the first almost-great American post-911 novel. From the simplest of premises - a Muslim wins the competition to design the memorial at Ground Zero - Waldman weaves a startling examination of grief, fear and the complexities of healing. Although mired by a clunky ending, The Submission is a well-rounded, thought-provoking work from a debut novelist to watch.

9. Pure by Andrew Miller. I'd put Miller's debut, Ingenious Pain, amongst my favourite novels of all time. Its follow-up, Casanova In Love, was so appalling that it appeared to put Miller off historical fiction for good. Thankfully, after three mediocre contemporary tales, he's finally dipped his toe back in the historical pond, because this story of the late-19th century exhumation of an entire cemetery in the centre of Pairs was an absolute winner. Criminally overlooked by Dame Stella's Booker mob.

8. The Postmortal by Drew Magary. Debut novels really were the go this year and The Postmortal was easily the most absurd of the lot. Magary depicts an hilariously horrible future in which a cure has been found for ageing and death becomes a highly-prized niche product. Like The Submission it was hampered by an unremarkable denouement, but the complex totality of the future Magary imagines made any hiccups easily forgivable.

7. Cain by Jose Saramago. The late, great Portugeuese scoundrel went out with a bang thanks to this middle finger reinterpretation of The Bible. Often hilarious, always daring, Cain was Saramago at his very best.

6. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. Another debut, another winner. Deliciously twisted family tale of performance artists using their children as props. The stunts work (for the most part) and the consequent derailment of the children's lives make for a frighteningly funny read.

5. Caribou Island by David Vann. Unremittingly bleak family saga from Alaska's answer to Cormac McCarthy. Vann delivered on the promise of his debut linked story collection Legend of A Suicide with a novel as cold and unforgiving as the frozen wasteland in which it is set.

4. Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teule. The shortest book on this list, but still one of the best, Jean Teule draws upon the real life tale of a town whipped into murderous frenzy during the Napoleonic wars. Not too far a stretch to find parallels with the current state of the world this can be read as warning against nationalistic excess as much as a comedy of awful errors.

3. I Hate Martin Amis Et Al by Peter Barry. As I said in my review, you have to have serious cojones to give your book a title like this. A weird amalgamation of anti-publishing industry tirade and Balkan War adventure story, it's hard to believe that this could possibly work. It does. Spectacularly.

2. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. I'm not 100% certain that this isn't actually a 2010 book, but it came out in Australia this year so I'm going to let it go through to the keeper. A deeply moving exploration of the ongoing effects of childhood loss, The Fates Will Find Their Way resonates in much the same way as Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but is by far the more exceptional book. And did I mention that, once again, it's a debut!

The Barking Mad Bookworm: Sleep Deprivation and Samuel Beckett

on Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Round numbers are for chumps!

In true bookworm style, my ridiculous literary OCD has crushed my better sense (yet again), compelling me to edge my way over the 150 mark and, more importantly, finish what I started. With three days left of 2011, I intend to get through the remaining two books in Samuel Beckett's Molloy trilogy which, coincidentally, will also allow me to end the year on every obsessive's two favourite numerical phenomena, a palindrome and a prime number - 151. Oh, but hold your applause. There's more. In an act that would make any olympic diver shit in his budgie smugglers, I've gone and upped the degree of difficulty. Yes, I got a puppy to distract me. Little Louie is doing his level best to deprive of sleep at night and have me second guessing his every bowel movement during the day. I think I'm going a bit mad. He is damn cute though. Much cuter than that craggy bastard Samuel Beckett. Which reminds me, I really ought to get back to reading. The incessant yapping of a pining puppy is quite the appropriate soundtrack for this dense, intellectual mindfuck.

See you in a couple of days, when I unveil the Top 10.

2011: The "Best Of" Bridesmaids

on Monday, December 26, 2011
Close But No Cigar

Of the 150 novels I read this year, 63 were published in 2011. Compiling a top ten has been rather difficult and so I feel it would be remiss of me not to give honourable mentions to the few books that just missed the cut. Really, any of these probably could have ended up in the final ten. The fickle finger of fate dictated that they weren't.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: This was worth reading for the 'lost' Shakespeare play alone, but The Tragedy of Arthur was far more than just an act of literary ventriloquism. Phillips's explanation of how he came to find the play is one of the funniest unreliable faux-memoirs you are ever likely to encounter.

Monsieur Linh And His Child by Philippe Claudel: Another brilliant offering from Claudel, following the masterful Brodeck's Report. Claudel certainly isn't afraid to tackle the big issues, this time turning his mind to the refugee experience in France. That he does so with such subtlety and grace makes this book much more than a lecture from the pulpit.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad: It is somewhat disheartening to think that one of the finest debut novels of 2011 was penned by an octogenarian. It shows tremendous promise which time is likely to snuffle. On the flipside, Ahmad brings to these linked stories the weight of a life fully lived that most writers would kill for.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes: Barnes finally snared a Booker for this small but nonetheless affecting meditation on growing old, and questioning the idealistic assumptions of one's youth.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson: Another exceptional debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints documents New York's burgeoning straight edge punk rock scene of the mid-80's through the lens of a bunch of seriously fucked up kids. Far from an indulgent nostalgia trip, Henderson exposes the hypocrisy, violence and passion of a counter culture that most wouldn't have the nous to touch. This was the book that Jennifer Egan's A Visit from The Goon Squad wished it had been. And there's not a Powerpoint presentation in sight!

The List I Swore I Wouldn't Write!

I've spent the last month frantically trying to get through as many 2011 novels as possible in the hope that I might not have to write this list. Alas, while I read fifteen, there was still a dozen I couldn't get to. I guess that's what January is for! (PS Let me know if any of these are must-reads. I know I won't get through them all, but would hate to miss out)

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

The Revisionists also by Thomas Mullen (what amphetamines does this guy pop??)

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

There But For The... by Ali Smith

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Call by Yanick Murphy

When She Woke by Hilary Jordan

Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer by Wesley Stace

The Facility by Simon Lelic

Embassytown by China Mieville

2011: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Sunday, December 25, 2011
Only a few days to go before I reveal my top books of 2011. However, as always, my brain is bursting with other things I want to put into lists so I hope you enjoy these Secondary Stars and Other Satellites, my everything else of 2011.

Best Books Not Written In 2011

1. The Tenant by Roland Topor. Topor's claustrophobic masterpiece continues to haunt me, months after I put it down. The greatest descent into madness that I have ever read.

2. The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer. It was the first book I read this year and remains one of the best. This weighty tome by the lesser known Singer brother surpasses most of the Russian greats in terms of moral force and simple narrative verve. Staggering.

3. Rebellion by Joseph Roth. He may be famous for The Radetzky March, but it is this book that I would pick as Roth's greatest. As I said in my review, he had me at "crippled organ grinder".

4. Krakatit by Karel Capek. Stuff George Orwell, Jules Verne or Franz Kafka. If you want a writer who could predict the horrible future it was Karel Capek. This tale of a nuclear arms race predated the real thing by thirty years.

5. Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa. Yes, I'm putting a graphic novel on the lists. Dark, atmospheric and truly tragic, Pedrosa's riff on losing a child ranks amongst the best things I read this year.

Honourable Mentions: A Palace In the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Upright Piano player by David Abbott, The President by Miguel Angel Asturias, Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

Book Podcasts That Helped Me Survive the Long Drives and City Traffic

1. BBC Open Book. The folks at the Beeb have really lifted their game this year, putting out a great mix of interviews, book club sessions, reportage and, my favourite, the "Good Read" program, where two people of note come and recommend their favourite books before dissing the other's choice.

2. The Bookrageous Podcast. It might be rough around the edges, but these guys are clearly having a ball talking about books. Always a fantastic place to discover new titles. A podcast by book loving nerds for book loving nerds.

3. KCRW Bookworm. Michael Silverblat continues to dish up top quality interviews with today's top writers. Yes, his voice is still incredibly annoying, but nobody picks apart a book or author like this guy. No wonder they literally line up to come on his show.

4. New York Times Book Review Podcast. News, reviews, interviews and a bit of goss, the NYTBR is a great way to catch up on what's happening in book world each week.

Soundtrack To My Downtime

I don't only read or listen to podcasts, you know. Occasionally I also listen to music. And 2011 was a pretty good year in that regard. These records stood out for me, though there was a whole bunch more that I loved and probably could have included:

1. Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 My Nightmare. Oh guilty guilty pleasure! With Welcome 2 My Nightmare the God of schlock rock served up a filthy, fun and decidedly worthy follow-up to his classic album, awful album title notwithstanding.

2. Frenzal Rhomb - Smoko In The Pet Food Factory. On the subject of returns to form, Australia's punk prankster kings finally delivered the album they've been threatening to make for ages. By far their best offering since Meet The Family.

3. I Am The Avalache - Avalache United. Gritty, honest punk rock from a band I'd never heard of before but hope to be hearing a lot of in the future.

4. The Decline - Are You Going To Eat That? Newish kids on the Aussie punk block, this record is chock full of speedy, fun and socially aware tunes.

5. White Wives - Happeners. I've always hoped for a new Pixies album. This side project from two of the dudes from Anti Flag gave me the next best thing.

6. Janes Addiction - The Great Escape Artist. I'm probably the only person who liked this, but I doff my hat to Perry Farrel and Co for taking me back to my teen years. Funky, ethereal and stomping when needed.

7. Dead To Me - Moscow Penny Ante. A great, honest punk record from these bearers of The Clash's torch.

8. SixxAM - This Is Gonna Hurt. I liked the last Motley Crue album and, finally, I really like one of their side projects. So shoot me! Fantastic songs played brilliantly. It's like the last two decades never happened!

9. The Holy Mess - The Holy Mess. Kinda punk, kinda rock, totally awesome. Criminally overlooked.

10. Mixtapes - Maps and Companions. I have been loving this quirky collective for a couple of years now. A totally unique blend of folky acoustic balladry, chipper pop and down-and-dirty punk.

Feeding the Reader

Thought I'd add a new category this year, seeing as my other great love is stuffing my face. Sorry it's so Melbourne-centric but if you do live here take heed!

Favourite New Food Stop: Ren Dao Vegetarian in Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick. I like meat. I hate killing animals. This seeming contradiction can best be addressed by visiting any number of those awesome Chinese places that do mock murdered carcass. Ren Dao is the newest kid on the block and, in a year that saw my former favourite (Vege Hut in Box Hill) go to the dogs, I'm glad to report that Ren Dao has swooped in and stolen the crown. Plus it's way closer to where I live. Double win.

Favourite Fancy Feed: Anada in Gertrude Street Fitzroy. Still the best Spanish joint in town, good vege options and KILLER everything else.

Food Discovery of the Year: Cholula Chipotle Hot Sauce. Makes the word a better place. Suitable for squirting on pretty much anything, including more Cholula Chipotle Hot Sauce.

Alright, so that's about it. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for the unveiling of my Best Books of 2011. Word on the street has it there's quite a tussle at the top end!

Technical Difficulties

on Saturday, December 24, 2011
We interrupt 2011 In Review to bring you this annoying message:

Technology has a weird way of reminding me that no matter how much I kick against it, it still rules my life. As I was compiling my end of year lists, my computer decided to up and die in spectacular fashion and so, armed with my brand new (empty) hard drive, it's back to the drawing board for me. Stay tuned over the next few days when I will be unveiling my Top Ten of 2011, some honourable mentions and a bunch of non-literature related favourites.

Apologies and happy holidays. I should be ready by the time you come out of your egg-nog haze.

2011: The New Year's Aspiration Report Card

on Sunday, December 18, 2011
As 2010 drew to a close, I set myself five New Year's Aspirations that I thought might help in guiding me through the following twelve months. In June I revisited and was pleased to have been going quite well towards fulfilling them. Suffice to say I became rather complacent about the whole thing. Now, as we wave goodbye to 2011, it's time to see whether pride came before my fall. I'm ready to either pat myself on the back or flagellate myself with a stinging nettles while wearing rough hessian hosiery.

Read One Great Classic Per Month: Following a gung-ho first six months, I clearly slacked off in the classics department. I could try and fake it, having ripped through Struwwelpeter (which hardly even counts as an entire book), The Man Who Was Thursday, Molloy, The Quiet American, Peter Schlemiel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Great Crash 1929, but if I'm honest I have to admit than none of those could be considered amongst 'The Greats'. I offer only one book as the flimsiest of defences here: Ethics Of Our Fathers (with commentary), the greatest Jewish religious tract on the ethical relationship between humans. It technically doesn't get more classic than that. I went in hoping that it would never get too God-y. Alas, it did goshdarnit!

Read One Debut Novel Per Month: Big pat on the back in this department. Not only did I hit the mark, but I upped the ante to two or three. Some suffered from the obvious pitfalls of literary debuts, but others were really exciting. Of particular note was The Postmortal by Drew Magary, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard and I Am Max Lamm by Raphael Brous. Plus I still have Eleanor Henderson's much-praised debut Ten Thousand Saints on my pile. A literary take on the early American punk scene? Hello Joey!!!

Read outside My Comfort Zone: A pretty decent effort, slightly exceeding my expectations. Non-fiction got a decent showing with The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson really standing out. Genre fiction was another big winner as I revisited my childhood obsession with crime fiction. As I mentioned in my last post, most of the 'new Stieg Larrsons' disappointed, but I did greatly enjoy The Man On The Balcony by Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo as well as The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. Other 'uncomfortable' reading winners for me came from the world of graphic fiction (Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa), young adult fiction (The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham) and drama (Cormac McCarthy's The Stonemason). Terry Pratchett's Snuff is still on the pile so, if it turns out that I like it, I might deign to consider myself well-rounded (as opposed to well round, which I have conceded long ago).

Read More, Buy Less: Absolute fail. Enough said.

Read One Series In Its Entirety: I didn't really progress beyond my mid-year tally of the Cities of The Plain trilogy and the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges. I still hope to knock over the last two novels in Samuel Beckett's classic Molloy series but, with only 11 days and at least 4 other books to go, I'm not holding my breath.

All in all a pretty good, although not exceptional, reading year for me. As the new year approaches I'm beginning to compile the next set of aspirations. Suggestions are always welcome. And don't hold back; I intend on setting the bar much higher. Yep, I'm challenging the reading gods to a game of Roshambo!

2011: The Shelf of Shame

on Thursday, December 15, 2011
Well, we've hit that time of year again, which means I feel compelled to rattle off my best, worst and pretty much any other category of books for the year. As always I'm starting with the dishonourable mentions or, as I like to call it, the Shelf of Shame. 2011 has been quite the doozy, full of unwarranted pomposity, false messiahs and fallen idols, and I'm not afraid to call shenanigans on all of them. Granted it's the sort of thing that might lose a person friends, but luckily I don't have any to begin with. So without further ado, I bring you 2011's Shelf of Shame.

Most Overrated Books of 2011

These books weren't necessarily terrible. A couple were actually quite good. But none came close to living up to the hype that was heaped upon them. Time to knock 'em down a few pegs:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: The excitement began to build sometime around March for the release of this supposed masterwork by Japan's literary colossus. Such was the hysteria that Murakami was being touted in the bookies' top 5 for the Nobel. And then, come October it was upon us and, while it was eminently readable, it crumbled under the weight of expectation. Perhaps had it been released over time in its three volumes, as had ben the case in Japan, the narrative ellipses would have been less obvious, the repetition less tedious and the excitement sustained. Instead, it turned out the equivalent of being forced to read the first four Harry Potters in one go, complete with retellings of the same story for the first half of each new volume (and no, that's not a compliment).

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Another book that just could not have hoped to live up to the hype, David Foster Wallace's last hurrah (not counting the shopping lists and other ephemera that cynical publishers have been churning out of late) was a good, sometimes brilliant but ultimately underdeveloped riff on the white collar world of tax. Two or three of the chapters stood amongst the best the tragic hipster ever penned, but other than that there was a lot of fat just begging to be trimmed. The literati had to wipe any number of bodily fluids from their patent leather shoes. I merely shrugged.

The Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer: Smoke and mirror wankerism by someone who ought to know better. I'm a massive Bruno Schulz fan and am generally quite fond of Foer but, wow, this was a gimmicky stunt that just didn't pay off. At least Foer answered the question he set out to ask: Can meaningful literature be created anew from the words of a pre-existing text? Put simply, no.

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller: How the hell did this mediocre thriller get shortlisted for the Booker? I'm still speechless.

More Hype but No Hurrah: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, We The Animals by Justin Torres, Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson, The Boy In The Suitcase by Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis, The Wind-Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi (technically a 2010 book but still way over-hyped).

Biggest Disappointments of 2011

Again, not terrible by any standard, but hardly what I had hoped for.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco: As I said in my review, The Prague Cemetery might as well have been written with me in mind. This re-imagining of the genesis of history's most ghastly literary hoax, The Protocols of The Elders Of Zion, started off well but quickly unravelled into something slightly too smart, too vitriolic and, ultimately too unconvincing to deliver on my expectations. Someone said to me recently that they thought Eco had lost the plot a while back. And while I'm not quite ready to give up on the portly one just yet, I have a sneaking suspicion it'll only be a matter of time.

The Angel Esmerelda by Don Delillo: I'd like to just put it down to a late-era flailing on Delillo's part, but these stories have been culled from his entire career, which leaves me to think that while he might have been the long-form prophet of American decline, brevity was never his strong suit. Delillo gets the singular distinction of producing one my most disappointing books two years running. Bravo!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre: Granted it is not a new book, but thanks to the wonders of Hollywood, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a bit of a renaissance this year. I had high hopes for this classic of the espionage genre, but coming to it for the first time in 2011 showed how badly it has dated. Now let's wait and see whether the wonders of CGI can make Gary Oldman better than Alec Guinness. As if.

More Books That Broke My Heart (For All The Wrong Reasons): Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward, The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman, The Messenger by Yannick Haenel, Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, Gargling With Tar by Jochym Topol (a 2008 book, but one for which I had high hopes).

Most Annoying Trend of 2011

"The Next Stieg Larsson". Just because your ancestors were vikings and you have a name I can't pronounce, doesn't make you the next great crime writer. I get that it's all an opportunistic cash grab by publishers but, seriously folks, are book buyers so gullible that a simple sticker on every second hardboiled release will get them to empty their wallets? Heck, I didn't even like the first Stieg Larrson so what's with all the fuss? Buy a warm coat and be done with it! On the flipside, this rush to publish (and republish) Scandinavian crime fiction led me to discover the team of Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo. Crackingly good stuff penned in the late 60s and 70s, making them the original (and easily best) Stieg Larsson.

Flat Out Worst Book of 2011

The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge: Some editors and publishers need to be slapped. Sure, Dame Beryl might have been working on this when she died but it was clearly still just a lump of clay with very little sculpting. It should never have seen the light of day. Bravo to the Booker crowd for distracting her fans with a Best of Beryl Prize, which allowed us all to overlook this tragic blight on an otherwise wonderful career.

Storming Home!

on Monday, December 12, 2011
There's nothing like a holiday to salvage a slack reading year! After whinging about the unlikelihood of reaching one hundred and fifty books in 2011, I've really hit the ground running this month, knocking over twelve books in the first eleven days. And, no, I didn't resort to Roger Hargreaves. Right now I'm ploughing through book one hundred and forty, Erin Morgenstern's much lauded debut, The Night Circus. I was expecting to choke on saccharine, but so far it's utterly charming and a nice break from the drudgery of some of the other stuff I've read lately (once again, I'm looking at you Don Delillo).

I've also begun compiling my annual bevy of lists for your end-of-year entertainment. However, a brief glance over the one hundred and forty titles read thus far seems to suggest a paucity of 2011 books, which means it's going to pretty much be new(ish) releases from here on in. I don't want to have one of those "Books I'm Sure I Would Have Liked Had I Read It" awards again. So before the I explode one of those stupid streamer-filled poppers in someone's face, I'll be sure to get through Snuff by Terry Pratchett, Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, The Postmortal by Drew Magary, Zone One by Colson Whitehead and City of Bohane by Kevin Barry.

Expect a flurry of posts from me towards the end of the month, but for now it's back to the circus.

Best Books of 2011: Eat Him If You Like by Jean Teule

on Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Never have I laughed so hard at humankind's capacity for horrific depravity as I did while reading Jean Teule's deliciously vile novella Eat Him If You Like. Based on a true event that took place in the French village of Hautefaye during the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, it is a bold testament to the dangers (and idiocy) of the mob in desperate times. Deputy Mayor Alain de Money heads to the village fair for purely altruistic reasons: he wants to buy a heifer for his poor neighbour and find someone to repair another unfortunate friend's roof. Only a week from joining the French army, he is initially greeted by all around in the usual, friendly manner befitting a popular public figure. But the villagers are on edge, with the region ravaged by drought and its people beaten down by a constant flow of bad news from the front. When one of them believes he hears Alain utter a pro-Prussian comment, the Deputy Mayor is singled out as a traitor and set upon with increasing savageness by pretty much everyone in Hautefaye.

Each short chapter brings a new level of wanton violence to the unfortunate Alain; he is beaten, tortured, drawn, quartered and ultimately burnt alive in extremely graphic detail. Yet there's something vaguely Monty Pythonesque about the absurdity of the whole affair. It is hard not to laugh when they start referring to him as "Prussian" (I couldn't help think of the blasphemer scene in Life of Brian), or when they refuse to believe it is their popular Deputy Mayor, having beaten him to an unrecognisable pulp. Similarly I found myself choking with laughter and incredulity at the townsfolk's ability to twist every word Alain or his friends say in his defence to bolster their belief in his treason. God knows why, but I even chuckled when they spread his bubbling fat like butter on their stale bread.

Like Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel, one of my favourite books of last year, Eat Him If You Like is a savage rumination on collective guilt that will sit uncomfortably with you long after you put it down. And while it might be a ghastly little book, it's one that I'd recommend without hesitation. I just wouldn't read it over breakfast. Particularly if you're having toast.

Holy Crumbs! It's The Age Short Story Award 2011

on Saturday, December 3, 2011
KAPOW! Take that, crappy year of extreme sadness. Following eleven months of tragedy, fear and disappointment, December has swooped in and delivered a knockout blow of super awesomeness to 2011. Not only did my first ever piece of published fiction, The Prisoner of Babel, appear in the wonderful Sleepers Almanac Volume 7, but HOLY AMAZEBALLS(!!!) my short story Crumbs has just won the 2011 Age Short Story Competition. Kind of hard to believe, given that the short story is a form with which I am profoundly uncomfortable (as evidenced by only one - now two- of the 175 posts on this blog being about short fiction).

Of course there are the masters: Bruno Schulz, Daniil Kharms, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, JG Ballard, Alice Munro, Robert Walser and pretty much every Yiddish writer that ever lived. But other than these dark fabulists I have struggled to read, let alone appreciate, much of the stuff, even when it was written by authors that I otherwise love (I'm looking at you Don Delillo and E.L. Doctorow!). If reading them presents a challenge, writing them is even harder. At least in long form you can overstep your mark and be forgiven. With short stories there is a crushing pressure to fully contain a world in less than ten, or in my case three, thousand words.

Luckily my background is in punk music so I've learned to think of short stories accordingly - blistering bursts that do the work of a Pink Floyd epic in the time it takes Roger Waters to play the first bar. Not that it's greatly helped my literary output. The vast majority of stories I have written are dismal failures. Two, however, appear to have worked. Thankfully they account for two of the three I've ever submitted for publication. And Crumbs is actually a modified version of the prologue to a novel I've been working on for five years so arguably it does not count.

For what it's worth, I do have a holy trinity of stories that I think anyone who loves to read ought to hit up at some point in their life. First is Kafka's In The Penal Settlement, a story that is just as harrowing as any of his novels. Next is Edgar Allen Poe's The Telltale Heart. Probably the greatest meditation on the nature of guilt, you're at least likely to recognise it from the classic Simpsons Diorama episode. And finally there's the saddest of them all, the absolutely heartbreaking Bontsche The Silent by I. L. Peretz. Also, if you like story collections that are thematically linked or that form a tenuous narrative, I'd recommend Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, Jim Crace's Continent or, most recently, The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad.

As for me, I'll just be content with my two little additions to the sea of stories. You can read The Prisoner of Babel in The Sleepers Almanac Volume 7, available at all great bookstores in and around Australia and New Zealand. Please pick it up and help support independent Australian publishing (plus you might just find your next favourite author amongst the thirty two wonderful people in the book). Crumbs will be published in The Age newspaper on the first Saturday of January 2012 in the Summer Reading lift out. You can read the announcement here.

Hopefully this will give me a much needed kick in the arse to finish the book!

The Roger Hargreaves Confabulation

on Thursday, December 1, 2011
Please excuse the second rate Big Bang Theory reference, but I'm about to get all mathematical on yo' asses (well, arses actually). It's December and I've only managed to get through a paltry 129 books. Granted, a few of them exceeded the 800 page mark, but still it's a pretty unimpressive haul. My obsessive need to achieve round numbers suggests that the nearest milestone I can reach without going absolutely crazy is 150. This would also represent a fair total in light of my average since I first started keeping track five years ago. 2006 saw me knock over a somewhat unremarkable 105 books. In 2007 it was 101. I peaked in 2008 with a massive 251 books (and a totally fried brain), but offset that with 2009's measly 85. To be fair, that was the year of classics and epics, so most of the books were massive. Last year I managed a satisfactory 155, which leaves me with an average of 139.4 books read per year over 5 years.

I'd like to think 2011 is an above-average year, so I'll have to get through at least 10 to be at all satisfied. I'll do my best not to make it into the crazy obsession it became in 2008, when I spent all day and night throughout December trying to top 250. Perhaps I ought to just cheat and rip through the collected Mr. Men series by Roger Hargreaves. That kind of crap worked when I was a kid doing the MS Read-a-thon. However, I'd really like to read Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and the latest from Aharon Appelfeld. Ditto David Grossman's To The End Of The Land which I neglected to read last year. Now I think about it, I also really need to finish the last two books in Beckett's Molloy trilogy seeing as one of my new year's resolutions depends on it.

So there's the December challenge. Can I possibly do it? Oh the petit bourgeoise sufferings of a semi-employed litnerd!

Big (though not Best) Books of 2011: Murakami's 1Q84 and Eco's The Prague Cemetery

on Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Ok, let me knock over two of the biggest books of the year with the shortest reviews you are likely to read of them.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
There's a certain sense of achievement one is supposed to feel upon finishing a thousand page book. I remember feeling it when I closed Infinite Jest, despite the frustratingly abrupt ending. Others have told me of a similar feeling with War and Peace. To us readers, the thousand page book is our everest. Why then did I feel nothing with Haruki Murakami's much-lauded new brick, 1Q84? I was so excited for it to come out, and was instantly enthralled by its pacy, off-kilter beginning. It had me hoping that the book would turn out to be the 12-inch megamix of my favourite Murakami novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. But as the dual storyline progressed - Aomame, the righteous assassin, executing wife-beating scum and Tengo, the hack wannabe novelist, roped into rewriting the mysterious novella (or perhaps revelation) of the 17-year-old daughter of a cult leader - I slowly began to feel a disconnect that I still cannot explain. There is something vaguely China Mieville-ish about the whole thing; the multi-layered contemplation of duality, the peculiar sci-fi tropes, even the echo of a Shakespearean romance. And yet I found it all lacking in substance. Murakami didn't really seem to be saying anything. Eight hundred pages in and I was praying for it to end. Indeed, if I didn't have my annoying book-finishing OCD, I'd have put it down. Reading 1Q84 is like eating forty litres of sorbet. But at least my wish sort of came true. 1Q84 was a wild sheep chase. Just not in the way I'd hoped!

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is a literary force of nature. Nary a year goes by without something from him, be it a philosophical treatise or a complex work of literary theory. His novels are much fewer and far between, and so the arrival of each one is heralded as a major event amongst book nerds. When I first heard about The Prague Cemetery, fireworks exploded in my heart. A novel by one of the greatest historical fiction writers, revolving around an alleged event in my second homeland, about one of the darkest periods in the history of the Jewish people. It's like Eco was writing the thing just for me. The moment it arrived at my doorstep I plunged in head first, sans floaties, and was overcome by a sensation I'd never before associated with Eco; mirth. The first chapter of The Prague Cemetery is damn funny. Yes, so full of piss and vinegar is the narrator Simonini that I had to stop reading periodically just to catch my breath. No religious group comes out unscathed in those first few pages - Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, Jesuits, you name it. And for the next four-hundred pages he just doesn't let up. Simonini is a master forger, and as such is well-placed to be an important player in the raging conspiracy-mongering of late-Nineteenth century Europe. From minor frauds to the Dreyfus Affair and ultimately the greatest forgery of them all, The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, Eco posits Simonini as the scoundrel behind them all (though, in a poor plot decision, he gives Simonini a Hyde-like alter ego to operationalise the unrelenting vitriol). As always with Eco the writing is flawless and the research impeccable (pretty much everyone in the book bar Simonini and one or two others actually existed), but there is something unsettling about the whole undertaking which only becomes apparent as the novel progresses. What I first took to be hilarious soon became grating and then, borderline offensive. Although I realise it was done for a certain end, and it might have been redeemed in the final couple of chapters, there was an air of ambiguity about the anti-semitism which, if read by the uninformed reader, might add fuel to the conspiracies Eco is lampooning. Ultimately it is a dangerous gamble that might only have partially paid off.

The Bookworm, Exposed: My First Published Story

on Wednesday, November 23, 2011
After one hundred and seventy-odd posts about other people's writing, I figure I might be forgiven for taking a brief moment to yap on about some writing of my own. Next week sees the release of the seventh volume of The Sleepers Almanac which, for those who don't know, is an always-exciting compendium of short stories by new and established writers, put out annually by Australia's finest independent publisher, Sleepers. The publication of the first six volumes were, to me, worthy of celebration, but I'm shouting this one from the rooftops because it contains my first piece of published fiction (as opposed to the reams of newspaper columns, reviews and academic articles), a story called "The Prisoner of Babel". I'm told the story is funny, though I thought it horrifying when writing it. I guess, as I told the editor, one cannot judge one's own children (actually I told her that I was willing to accept that my child is a little shit, even if I can't see it). Either way, hopefully, you'll like it because right about now I feel like I'm standing in front of the class naked!

The Sleepers Almanac is being launched at Bella Union Bar in Trades Hall (corner Lygon Street and Victoria Street, Carlton in Melbourne) at 6.30pm on Thursday December 1. Jessica Au will be hosting the show and I shall be doing a brief reading from my story, as will four of the other authors, Rosanna Stevens, Julie Koh, Eric Dando and Pierz Newton-John. If you're in Melbourne and can drag yourself away from the computer screen for an hour, please come down and help celebrate great Australian writing (hey, it'll be worth it just to find out if Pierz is related to Olivia and Eric is related to Evan). If you are unable to make it to the launch, make sure you pick up a copy of the Almanac at your favourite independent bookstore when you next stop in. There will also be a Sleepers Almanac iPhone App, but more on that as it comes to hand.

Costa Kicks Booker's Butt

on Thursday, November 17, 2011
Just when you thought it was safe to click your way back to B4BW without having to hear me rant about literary prizes, along come the Costas. But wait... You're never going to believe it. I actually like the shortlist! In the year that the Booker Prize committee criminally failed to recognise a number of awesome books, Team Costa have picked up the slack. Actually, I'm really only talking about one book: Pure by Andrew Miller. One of the great Booker bridesmaids, poor Andy probably thought he had it in the bag when he wrote his best novel since Ingenious Pain. But no, instead they go and give a nod to the other Andrew Miller (aka A. D. Miller) for his lacklustre Russian 'thriller', Snowdrops. Perhaps they just made a clerical error on the day they announced the long list and then felt compelled to keep up the ruse by pushing it all the way to the shortlist. Apparently egg is much harder to spot on people's faces from such lofty heights.

Anyway, I'm gunning for the real Andrew Miller to take out the Costa for best novel. He'll have stiff competition though. The other shortlisted titles are John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning, Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You and the great, giant-killing midget of a novel, Julian Barnes's The Sense Of An Ending. It's interesting to note that only one of the four was considered by the Booker committee and it was the one that went on to win the bloody thing. Another Booker longlisted novel has made it to the shortlist for the Costa Prize for a First Novel. Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is facing off with the much-hyped City of Bohane by Kevin Barry as well as Christie Watson's Tiny Sunbirds Far Away and Kerry Young's Pao.

Both Costa fiction lists are interesting, considered and, ironically, more literary than the Booker shortlist. I've always been a fan of the Costa Prize (and its previous incarnation, The Whitbread Awards) and this year really rams it home. By picking up the other prizes' slack, the Costas might yet become the premiere British literary award. Which, I guess, would make the Booker the ultimate bridesmaid.

Premium Drafts: On Publishing Discarded Or Otherwise Unfinished Works

on Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Legend has it that my favourite book of all time never got past the drafting stage. Truth is, there's no way to know how close to completion Franz Kafka's The Trial actually was but I suspect that it was much further down the track than Max Brod would have had us believe. Same goes for David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, irrespective of the hoo-ha that accompanied its release earlier this year. The only thing that monolith lacked was a good edit. Either way, at least both of those books can be read as entire works which is more than can be said for 2009's publishing sensation (read: fraud), The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov; a few cue cards, beautifully presented but ultimately inconsequential. Nabokov would have choked on a butterfly had he known his jumbled thoughts would see the light of day.

The publication of unfinished works is hardly new, but for some reason we seem to currently be drowning in a sea of offcuts. Even as I write, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Narrative of John Smith, written before the appearance of Sherlock Holmes, is hitting bookstore shelves worldwide. So what's with this deluge of (for the most part) dross? Perhaps it is a crass money-grabbing exercise by publishers who are reluctant to invest in new talent at a time when the book market is in such an extreme state of flux. Maybe demand is dictating supply; readers are simply desperate for words from the grave by authors they know and love. Or maybe it is a toast to a disappearing process; we read abandoned drafts because, thanks to the scourge of technology (and yes I appreciate the irony of bitching about it on a blog), 'drafts' as such are likely to become a thing of the past. Most likely it's a combination of all these. And more.

Having read a fair number of these 'newly discovered' drafts I can safely say that very few do anything to further the names of their authors. There is, however, one wonderful exception and, not surprisingly, it comes from one of the most exciting small publishing houses in business today. Without fanfare, Other Press has just put out Two Friends by Alberto Moravia. Regular readers would know how much I love Italy's post-war litgod. Yep, I'd read pretty much anything with his name on it. Thankfully, Two Friends is more than the preliminary scribblings of a great mind. Indeed, what makes it particularly enticing is that it was written (and abandoned) between my two favourite Moravia novels, The Conformist (1951) and Contempt (1954) and not only shows the development of his political thinking but does so three times over. You see, Two Friends isn't just one draft. It is three. Each with significant differences - in perspective, outcome and emphasis. The central question, however, is the same: to what extent will an individual compromise their personal morality to the greater cause? Sergio desperately wants to convince his rich friend Maurizio to join the Communist Party. Maurizio isn't the slightest bit interested but seizes the opportunity to play with Sergio's heart and test his conviction by offering an indecent proposal. He will join the party if, and only if, Sergio can convince his beautiful, loyal girlfriend to sleep with his him.

All three versions have their strengths, but it is the second that really shines. Taken on its own, it would have made a creditable addition to the Moravia canon. It is therefore intriguing to think that Moravia went on to discard many of its strongest aspects in draft three before ultimately giving up altogether. Reading this book in its entirety provides a prescient warning for budding authors: keep your drafts because sometimes it takes failed progress to appreciate what you already have. I hope other publishers now learn from Other Press's example and only publish unfinished works for which there are multiple drafts. Cobbling together a "final product" does the writer a disservice. There is, after all, a reason the thing was abandoned. However, exposing the entire process gives the reader a remarkable insight into the literary mind. Plus it doesn't hurt to be reminded that our heroes don't just click their fingers and have a masterpiece appear.

Best Books of 2011: The Submission by Amy Waldman

on Monday, November 14, 2011
I'm going to try and pepper the rest of my 2011 posts with reviews of the best books of the year. They won't be in any particular order and, of course, on December 31 I'll post my full annual Top 10. So here goes with one that I'm sure we will be seeing on almost every Best of '11 list:

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 have proven a spectacular stumbling block for America’s literary giants. Don Delillo failed dismally with his novel, Falling Man. John Updike similarly penned a stinker called Terrorist. Indeed, it took an Irish expat, Colum McCann to write the first great novel about that terrible day; Let The Great World Spin came out in 2009 and has yet to be surpassed as a work of true compassion, subtlety and insight. And it didn't even mention the attacks.

Now it seems a debut novelist has written the first great post-September 11 American novel, one which captures the pulse of a nation crippled by fear and grief on the one hand and buoyed by hope and defiance on the other. The Submission rests on a simple premise: the city of New York holds a blind competition to design the permanent memorial at Ground Zero. The selection committee, made up of government lackies, socialites and a single representative of the victims’ families, reviews the submissions without knowing the names of the entrants. Following considerable argument, they defer to the preference of the victim’s representative, Claire Burwell, and choose a beautiful garden surrounded by walls with the names of the fallen, only to discover its creator is one Mohammad Khan. Hardly the apple pie name they had hoped for.

What follows is a mad scramble to backtrack, justify and second-guess in which Waldman subjects all sides to wide-ranging excoriation. There are the obvious targets: the press who feast on the controversy and lace their stories with half-truths and sensationalist provocations; the flag-waving zealots baying for blood, who start a wave of racist attacks on Muslim women, pulling off their burqas at every opportunity; the flip-flop politicos who chase the vote at the expense of even the most basic decency; and, of course, the Muslim extremists seeking to co-opt Khan for their cause.

To her credit, Waldman is not satisfied simply taking easy pot shots. Even the more sympathetic characters have agendas and are prone to infuriating thoughts and actions. Burwell is divisive and self-righteous. Khan himself is arrogant and unwilling to do anything to quell the controversy. Only Asma Aswan, a woman whose husband wasn’t listed among the victims because he was an illegal immigrant sweeping the Trade Centre’s floors, comes across as truly innocent but hers is ultimately the saddest fate.

For the first three quarters, The Submission is an almost perfect novel, examining the dangers of knee-jerk reactions and questioning what it means to be a victim, what it means to be Muslim and, ultimately, what it means to be American in the wake of the this century's defining moment. Unfortunately, Waldman veers wildly off the rails towards the end, with a fairly predictable crescendo and one of the most unnecessary epilogues I have ever read. Students visit Khan twenty years later to discuss the controversy, and we learn the fates of all the characters. It is a clumsy, desperate end in which perhaps lies a crucial, if unintended, lesson of this otherwise outstanding book; some tragedies are just so immense that there can never be satisfactory closure.

Microviews Vol. 14: Kaufman, Wilson, Tyszka

on Friday, October 28, 2011
Somehow I read a couple of happy books. How unlike me. At least I rounded it off with a suitably morose offering. So here you go litnerds; moderate your mood with one of these:

The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman
Andrew Kaufman's geektastic debut All My Friends Are Superheroes is one of those books I like to dip back into whenever I need an emotional power-up. I first bought it on a whim. I'd never heard of the author or the book. But the title spoke to my costume wearing primary school self and to this day it remains one of the most charming, funny and heartwarming little books I've ever read. Now Kaufman is back with another novella that, while not quite as great as Superheroes, has nevertheless cemented his place on my DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) list. Kicking off with the weirdest bank robbery in history - the thief, dressed something like the Scarlet Pimpernel, demands everyone's most personal sentimental item - it follows each of the victims as increasingly absurd things begin to happen in their lives. Tattoos come to life, babies shit money and the protagonist's wife begins to shrink. Imperceptably at first, then faster until she becomes the size of a thimble. The Tiny Wife is a bit more straightforward than Superheroes (it is essentially a meditation on marital discord) but Kaufman still manages to splash enough moments of pure imaginative wonder throughout its eighty-five pages to make it another useful antidote to the daily doldrums.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
The Family Fang had me at the binding. Not quite hardcover, not quite paperback, it is a format with which I can see myself becoming strangely obsessed. Then there's the cover artwork - a mix of Monty Python lettering and late-period Saramago cartoon characters. Win. So what about the book itself? The Family Fang is pretty much a primer on how to totally fuck up your kids. Camille and Caleb Fang are 'performance artists'; their art is the creation of chaos in everyday environments - elaborate, absurd practical jokes. Their kids, A (Annie) and B (Buster) are essential props in each stunt. The story jumps back and forth between descriptions of their various pranks, and the adult lives of the two kids. Annie has become an Academy Award nominated actress, prone to scandal and self-destruction. Buster is a flash-in-the-pan literary star, relegated to playing video games while he struggles with his next novel. The two are drawn back to the Fang world when their respective careers tank. But going home to mum and dad ends in disaster when Camille and Caleb disappear, suspected victims of a serial killer. Has the unthinkable truly happened or is this just another elaborate hoax, the great swansong of the Fang family? Like most comic novels, Wilson struggles to sustain the laughs, but he fills the void with large dollops of empathy and pathos. And while it doesn't quite deliver on what it first promises, The Family Fang was still one of the kindest-hearted, totally loopy books I've read this year.

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
There is a certain skill in being able to unnerve a reader. Ian McEwan has it down pat. So does Patrick McGrath. And then there's all those Eastern European creep-masters: Meyrink, Ungar, Walser et al. For the first half of The Sickness, I though Alberto Tyszka had joined the gang. Alas, this tale of cancer and stalking resolved so unsatisfactorily that I was left shaking my head at the waste of a brilliant setup. The Sickness is, above all else, a family tragedy; the story of a doctor who finds an aggressive brain tumour on his father's scan and struggles to find a way to break the news. Had the book just followed this line, it would have been perfectly beautiful, if very sad. However, Tyszka weaves a subplot of an obsessive hypochondriac patient, Ernesto Duran, who reacts angrily to Dr. Miranda's brush offs, until the doctor's secretary takes it upon herself to answer on his behalf. The email correspondence starts off genuinely discomforting. For a few moments it is even scary. But Tyszka does nothing with it - there is no confrontation, no crescendo. Duran just fades away. As did my interest in the ending, no matter how poignant it might objectively have been. So very, very disappointing.

Bravo as Barnes Bags A Booker!

on Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Following in the footsteps of fellow consolation Booker Prize winners Ian McEwan (should've won for Enduring Love, won for Amsterdam) and John Banville (should've won for The Untouchable, won for The Sea), Julian Barnes has finally bagged a Booker for The Sense of An Ending. Sure, it's a better book than either of the other two consolation winners but still... Flaubert's Parrot anyone? England, England?

So after all my bitching I finally have to take my hat off to Dame Stella Rimington and her panel of judges. She got it right. And she played a masterful endgame around the very idea of worthy competition to ensure it happened. Oh well, it might not be how you play cricket, but at least it didn't sully the Booker brand.

Flipped Off By Le Carre

on Tuesday, October 18, 2011
For some really strange reason I was recently overcome by the need to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. After scouring several sections of my local bookstore to no avail I asked at the counter if it might be found somewhere that I never venture (pretty much anywhere outside the literary fiction section). Turns out the only copy they had was one of those new Flipbacks, which I'd been wanting to try out for a while anyway. Fate, it seems, is a wacky mistress.

For those unfamiliar with this weird little publishing format, it's basically a mini-book, printed vertically and designed to be held in one hand, with your thumb acting as designated page-turning digit. Perfect, so the guff goes, for reading on the train, at the dinner table, on the toilet or following an amputation. There's a whole bunch of excellent titles on offer (David Mitchell, Steven King, Melvyn Bragg, Chris Cleave) and a couple of crap ones (James Frey, David Nicholls). I opted for a well-regarded, but to me hitherto unknown quantity.

Stuffing the thing in my pocket, I was immediately seized by a crippling fear of being seen reading it. Would it make me as much of a douche as people who read on e-devices? There have been no studies; the evidence just isn't there. I may become a statistic in some academic journal!

Figuring I was, at worst, taking one for the team, I settled into a comfy chair at home and worked my hand into a suitably contorted state to read it as intended. And yep, I hated it. Now, I can't work out if it's just that I'm not loving the novel itself and am projecting on the format or if it's the other way round. Or maybe I just don't like both. I didn't get very far with science at school. I do think, however, that a more apt experiment would be reading a book I love in Flipback format and seeing how that goes. After all, I enjoyed a couple of books on the Kindle and still hated that stupid piece of plastic. So if I ever get around to it I'll report back after reading Flipback Misery. Until then I'll just grumble about the RSI in my thumb.

A Last Ditch Booker Bitch

So it's the eve of the big announcement and Stella's club of cretins are no doubt still patting themselves on the back for choosing the most popular Booker Prize shortlist ever. And by popular, they mean the highest selling. Well done. What a fabulous achievement. It's like that time the Pulitzer committee nominated Dan Brown, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, Lee Child and James Patterson to take home America's big one. Or when Barbara Cartland won the Nobel Prize. Oh... wait a minute.

Meh, I guess they needed to hang their hats on something after the resounding shelacking they have received. I'm just going to pretend this year never happened.

(I am also prepared to offer a mea culpa should Julian Barnes win. In true cloak and dagger style, Dame Stella will have cunningly packed the list with average books so that Barnes could finally win it with one of his lesser works. In that case, bravo!)

Microviews Vol. 13: Bolano, Houellebecq, Appelfeld

on Monday, October 17, 2011
Thought I'd take a break from ranting about prizes (hey, it's two days from Booker day so I'm just reloading the cannon) and go back to bookworm basics. So here's the latest instalment of Microviews:

Tres by Roberto Bolano
Wake up ye slaves to literary fashion, it's Bolano'clock again! Yep, just when you thought the publishing earthworms had chomped all the flesh from the great Chilean's bones they hit us with another salvo of works to stuff in the festivus stockings. Later in the year we'll have the eagerly-awaited third mega-novel, The Third Reich, but to tide us over we have Tres, his second poetry collection to be translated into English. It is well-documented that Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet. Flicking through the pieces that make up the three cycles in this collection, I'm a little confused as to why. They're good, sure. The circular rhythms are hypnotic, the images mostly beautiful. But they read more like bite-sized pieces of prose (yes, I'm aware of the concept of prose poetry) reminiscent of Kafka's aphorisms or Thomas Berhard's brilliant Voice Imitator sequence than anything in Bolano's first collection, The Romantic Dogs. Even The Neochileans, the one 'poem' in traditional form, seems more like a short story chopped into tiny lines. This new bi-lingual edition is, however, beautiful to behold and overall Tres is a worthy addition to any Bolano collection, even for metrophobes like me.

The Map And The Territory by Michel Houellebecq
I've never really bought into the whole Cult Of Houellebecq. After the undeniably brilliant Elementary Particles (aka Atomised), he seems to have underwhelmed on a regular basis with books that might have been the toast of some literary subcultural cadre but had little substance with which to back up the hype. That might all change with The Map And The Territory, a seriously good book that managed to snare the ageing enfant a Prix Goncourt. Unsurprisingly full of Houellebecq's usual self-aggrandising pretensions, this time the author assuages our collective annoyance by killing himself off, but not before riffing on the creative process and the nature of art (particularly portraiture) itself. Centred around the relationship between artiste extraordinaire Jed Martin and the author Michel Houellebecq (quelle post modern!!) whom the former cajoles into writing the text for his latest exhibition, it shows a more mature, even funny writer grappling with his own aspirations for immortality. And just when the philosophising begins to grate, the novel takes a weird art crime twist reminiscent of George Simenon (with an embarrassingly Patricia Cornwell denouement), with Houellebecq's body found torn to shreds and Martin's portrait of him nowhere to be found. Cue police procedural. I'll avoid giving any spoilers because for once this is a Houellebecq novel that is really worth reading. Maybe he should have topped himself earlier.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld is, to my mind, the finest ever Holocaust novelist. His single-minded focus on those six years is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has, in almost twenty novels, never written about the camps themselves. Rather, Appelfeld dwells on the margins of catastrophe with particular focus on the decay of European society immediately beforehand (Baddneheim 1939, All Whom I Have Loved, To The Land Of The Cattails, etc). When he is writing about the war itself, he chooses to view it through the lens of the escapees, the Jews who managed to avoid roundup and went into hiding. For the most part, these are the untold stories, though they are every bit as harrowing as any other. Blooms of Darkness falls into this category; the story of eleven-year old Hugo, who is entrusted by his parents to the safekeeping of a kindly prostitute. Mariana tends to Hugo by day, feeding, washing and playing with the boy, but by night she locks him in her closet while she "entertains" the German troops. Although this is not one of his better books, Appelfeld has still managed to hit upon a fascinating variation of the saviour story. The dynamic between the two is suitably tense - Hugo is approaching puberty - and there is a permanent sense of impropriety pervading the story. Eventually, human weakness prevails; prostitute and young boy cross the line. It is awkward and sad, but terribly powerful. As the novel draws to a close, the relationship is inverted - Mariana is arrested by the liberating Russian troops for aiding the Germans and Hugo attempts to become her rescuer. And although he is only a thirteen year-old kid, there is something tragic, almost pathetic about Hugo's ultimate impotence in the face of her ordeal. Blooms of Darkness is a powerful, albeit minor, work that raises many questions about the nature of rescuers. Why were some elevated to the status of the righteous gentile while others were summarily executed? It is to Appelfeld's great credit that he doesn't even attempt to offer an answer.

Transtromer (doo doo doo doo): More Than Meets The Eye

on Friday, October 7, 2011
As I'm sure you already know, Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer was named the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature with the Academy citing his "condensed, translucent images... [that give]... us fresh access to reality". Um... okay. Great. Way to go, me. Of all the unfamiliar names I could have plucked out of the Ladbrokes Nobel formguide I had to go and mock the one who eventually wins the bloody thing. Yep, contrary to my post of several hours ago, I didn't suspect he'd win, haven't read any of his stuff and most certainly won't be thanking him for my tropical island. Triple whammy!

Obviously I know nothing about the guy. Heck, I know nothing about poetry full stop so why would I? But it's nice to see a poet win given that nobody really reads the stuff and, but for the odd big prize, it's a bloody thankless pursuit. So yipee for a belated return to poetry's brief mid-90's hegemory over the Nobel. I can't wait to ignore Transtromer in the same way I conveniently forgot to brush up on Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney or Wislawa Szymborska. And as for Bob Dylan... well... I'm sure he's mumbling incoherently in the opposite direction of anyone willing to still listen to him.

PS Thanks to Adam for the awful Transformers pun...

Countdown To Distinction

on Thursday, October 6, 2011
Four hours left and the bookies have the Nobel race looking even weirder than yesterday. Check out the top ten:

Bob Dylan 5/1
Haruki Murakami 6/1
Assia Djebar 7/1
Adonis 7/1
Peter Nadas 9/1
Tomas Transtromer 12/1
Les Murray 16/1
Philip Roth 16/1
Nuruddin Farah 16/1
Ko Un 18/1

I've read 5 of them and bought a couple of Dylan records if that counts. Of course the list is a big load of crap seeing as the winner has never been drawn from the betting favourites. So don't go getting your hopes up yet Transtromer (whoever the hell you are)! Anyway, I'll be back in a few hours to register my distress/elation/bemusement and probably take the opportunity to pretend that (a) I suspected it all along, (b) I've been a fan for years, and (c) I just won a lot money on the announcement. That is unless I'm already on the tropical island that I intend to buy with the takings.

PS I'm chucking Obama into the mix. He's written two good books and the Academy like giving him accolades in advance so it's not totally out of the question. He will also be a more deserving winner than Elfriede Jelinek (no, I won't stop harping on about her).

PPS Could they maybe just give it to Les Murray already, if only to stop the Australian press's annual blab about him being in serious contention? It's getting silly now.

Roast Swede: A Riff On The Literary Nobelity

on Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Two days til the big Nobel announcement and yet again I find myself in a state of apoplexy. Will it go to a writer long-celebrated in the wider world a la Chinua Achebe, Haruki Murakami or Umberto Eco? Will it be a lesser known, but highly deserving writer from far afield a la Nurrudin Farrah, Antonio Lobos Antunes or Peter Nadas? Could the great anti-imperial trend finally end with those stuffy Swedes conceding that American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo and E. L. Doctorow are, at the very least, worthy of consideration? Or will it just go to another ho-hum forgettable like Elfriede Jelinek?

Interestingly, Ladbrokes has Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) as favourite and - get ready for this - Bob Dylan as number two. I assume they mean Bob Dylan the fiery troubador of old, not the more recent boring fuddy-duddy mumbler who embarrasses himself every time he staggers on to a stage. For my part I'd love to see it go to Milan Kundera, William H. Gass, Margaret Atwood or Ismail Kadare. And yet I have this sinking feeling I'm gonna be bitching about J. K. Rowling on Friday... Brace yourselves folks!

Profanity of The Bonfires: Banned Books Week 2011

on Monday, September 26, 2011
Revel in your degeneracy peeps, it's Banned Books Week again! Billed as a 'national celebration of freedom to read', this brilliant initiative is designed to point readers in the direction of great books that various governments have tried to stop lit-loving folk from every seeing. Whether it was the Nazis consigning them to the flames or some small-minded Bible belt town council dumping them in the local tip, thankfully these literary pariahs have proven much more resilient and long-lasting than their persecutors. Check out the list of frequently banned classics, or some more recently challenged works and then make like Gandhi and engage in some passive resistance by sitting in your favourite couch and debasing yourself with a filthy, filthy book. Personally I'm tossing up between Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and The Call of The Wild by Jack London. Then I'll get down and dirty with Nicholson Baker's newie House of Holes (not yet banned, but watch this space) and the German cult classic Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. Take that Adolph!

Plodding Into Another Century

on Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Given that it took me til the start of September to hit the big hundred mark, it is a fitting tribute to my laziness that I wait until the month is almost out to mark the occasion. Guess this ain't gonna be one of those 200-books-a-year years after all. Disappointing. And I don't even have a greatly productive excuse to make it all okay.

What can I tell you? It's been slim pickings; few books have really resonated. Sure, there have been a bunch of decent reads, but as for really great books, ones that I will continue salivating over years into the future (a la Censoring An Iranian Love Story or Brodeck's Report from last year) few titles jump to mind. Definitely Roland Topor's claustrophobic masterpiece The Tenant, but that was from 1965. Ditto I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi from 1937. I guess there was Hannah Pittard's haunting debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way (technically a 2010 book), Jesse Ball's The Curfew (and The Village On Horseback for that matter), I Hate Martin Amis Et Al by Peter Barry, and Jose Saramago's swansong Cain. Oh, and lest I fall victim to the same malaise of abject idiocy that possessed this year's Booker Prize judging panel, I feel obliged to give props to Yvette Edwards's A Cupboard Full Of Coats. Great book. But it still doesn't get me over the line when it comes to compiling a top ten.

Come on 2011, pick yourself up. You have two and a half months to prove yourself. I'm quite open to suggestions here, but until then I'll stick to mining the classics. Since book 100, G. K. Chesterton's absurdist spy classic The Man Who Was Thursday, I have kept almost exclusively to the road most travelled. Beckett, Orwell, Buzzati, Abe. And The Age Good Food Guide. Heck, I might as well have a good eating year!

The Booker Bashing Backlash: Dame Stella Shaken and Stirred

on Friday, September 9, 2011
It might have earned me the quite humorous sobriquet of Comic Book Guy at my local bookstore, but I certainly wasn't alone in mounting the barricades and shouting "Worst. Shortist. Ever!" to anyone who cared to listen. The reaction to Tuesday's Booker announcement has ranged from furious condemnation to complete indifference, but hardly any support, so much so that the Dame done gone and spat the dummy at a recent industry party. Yep, chair of judges and former spy master Dame Stella Rimington, let fly at the unsuspecting (and unappreciative) audience saying, "Take it or leave it... Like it or not, we're very proud of it". Sure, sure. My parents said the same thing about my primary school efforts in the sporting arena. Didn't stop them being complete rubbish.

At least this little episode has added some colour to what otherwise has been a disappointing Booker year. And while I plonked the blame directly at her Royal Spyness's feet in a previous post, I kind of feel for her. After all, what exactly did the faceless puppeteers at Bookerland expect when they appointed the former head of MI5 as chair? It's not like she came with a false-bottomed suitcase full of literary bona fides. And therein lies the problem. Each year they appoint an entirely new team to pick the winner. Each year they try to use the appointment to garner excitement which, in the current cultural climate of celebrity mania, can only mean one thing. If it continues along this path, it won't be long before we see Keira Knightley or Kate Middleton getting tapped on the shoulder. Or Katie Price.

Judges aside, maybe I need to face the fact that the prize just ain't what it used to be. No longer is it a serious beacon of literature, pointing the way for those who might not otherwise read novels of that kind towards particularly worthwhile examples. No, these days it seems to have evolved into the gimpy cousin of Oprah's Book Club. Heck, they even put that awful Emma Donoghue book Room on the shortlist last year. Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with populist prizes but, as one commentator on the Guardian Books Podcast noted, that's what the Costa is for. Or countless other awards.

I guess we all have to be careful what we wish for. Team Booker wanted to give the prize wider appeal and ended up with a shortlist that belittles the most prestigious of English language literary prizes. I, on the other hand want it to go back to its more highly strung roots, but that recognise the danger in that too. Remember John Banville's The Sea? That was literary; highly literary. It was also a turgid pile of sludge, so difficult to wade through that I wanted to drown myself fifty pages in.

I've no idea how Team Booker intend to reconcile the populist vs literary conundrum in the future. Perhaps they should go fishing for someone who can sift through the white noise of culture; someone with a background in making sense of mixed signals and meaningless chatter. Someone, that is, with a background in intelligence. Come October I can think of one person who'll be looking for a job.

The Library Diaries Vol. 3: To The Drawing Board and Back

on Thursday, September 8, 2011
After resigning myself to having lost five or so boxes of books in the move (including two that contained eight volumes of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary), I diligently set about organising the south wall of my library with what was left of my hardcover English novels. With each letter I became more aware of what I had lost - books by many of my favourite authors simply weren't there. So I hit up the internet - Alibris and Abebooks - to track down new copies in fine condition of books that had long been out of print. I managed to find a fair few, and put in the orders. A few hundred bucks to ensure my library had good copies of books I loved seemed an understandable, if somewhat painful, sacrifice.

I'm betting you can guess what happened next. I went back to Dad's office and was checking the warehouse for those elusive volumes of the OED when one of the guys there asked what I was doing. After I had a fairly protracted whinge he asked whether I'd checked in the room 'over there'. Needless to say he was pointing in a direction that I didn't even know hid another room. "We had a spring clean a few months ago," he said. "I vaguely remember carting a stack of boxes in there." A mad scramble to find the key ensued and when I opened the door... Well, imagine the closing scene of Raiders of The Lost Ark but with boxes of books. I hadn't lost five or six boxes. I had lost about twenty. Suddenly my collection seemed far more immense that I remembered it. So began the great task of removing them and, suffice to say, I have never sweated so much in my life, and I managed to screw my back for the better part of a week. Thankfully the adrenalin kept me oblivious until that night.

In the library it was back to the drawing board for the south wall. Chaos ruled once again.

Another week was spent trawling through boxes; reorganising all my lost friends and carting books back and forth between my place and my parents'. Their shelves filled up quickly with my rejects (still good books, but not quite good enough to win space on my shelves). Two weeks later and I finally have a complete south wall.

So there you go. Hardcover editions (mostly firsts, many signed) of all my favourite novels written in English. Plus a bit of space to grow. Now I just have to work out what to do with all the doubles arriving daily in my mailbox!

Booker's Bucket of Blah: The Worst Shortlist In Living Memory

on Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Well, the short list for the Man Booker Prize is out and I'm glad to say that I've read them all. Yes! I've escaped having to read Alan Hollinghurst again. Plus I get an entire month of reading for pleasure. All in all a happy ending. Except for the list. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Just to recap, the nominated titles are:

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English by Steven Kelman
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller

Yawn. No... Here comes the righteous anger! What on Earth were they thinking?

This has to be the most disappointing list ever. Sure, I already waxed lyrical about the unremarkable long list a month ago but this is ridiculous! J'Accuse Stella Rimington. Two substandard works pop up because they are essentially spy novels? Quelle suprise!?! Heck, there were only a few deserving novels on the long list (though, to be fair, I didn't read three of the contenders) and only one of those (Barnes) has landed up in the final running. Even worse, the two least deserving novels made it - so we might end up with the awful Pigeon English or the even worse Snowdrops taking it out. And before you accuse me of being a lit snob or try to defend the list as being courageously eclectic, I wasn't even gunning for the big names. I wanted Yvette Edwards to win. A Cupboard Full of Coats was one of the most thought-proking, moving works of fiction I've read in a long time. It has continued to haunt me since the moment I put it down.

For what it's worth I now hope Barnes wins. He has long deserved the prize and The Sense Of An Ending is a weighty addition to his body of work, even if it is only one hundred and sixty pages long. I also wouldn't be upset if Patrick De Witt won - there's something to be said for an enjoyable picaresque rescuing the Booker from its own arsehole. Unfortunately I don't expect that either of them will. Methinks this year's prize is reserved for Birch or Kelman. Please let it be Birch. I'd pick another tiger over a flying rat any day!

The Spoils of Awe: Jesse Ball on KCRW's Bookworm

Two of my favourite literary stars collided this week, and while it was not quite the spectacular supernova I'd long dreamed of, it was still immensely satisfying. While reading through Jesse Ball's newly-released collection of verse and prose, The Village On Horseback, it just so happened that the author was featured on my favourite literary podcast, KCRW Bookworm. Those who have heard this fantastic weekly show would be familiar with Michael Silverblat's frustratingly droll voice and overly pregnant pauses but, like me, choose to still listen thanks to his brilliant insights and obvious rapport with anyone even vaguely literary. He is an writer's reader, a beacon of considered opinion; everyone who is anyone seems to queue up to be interviewed by him and each episode makes for mesmerising listening even if you have no interest in the particular author or topic. Perhaps Silverblat's greatest strength, however, is his willingness to throw new and exciting writers into the mix - so for every Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates we also get to discover the likes of David Vann, Tao Lin or indeed Jesse Ball. What's more, Silverblat gives the same time and depth of consideration to the rising stars as he does his heroes.

It was intriguing to hear Ball talk about his own work, all the more so to realise that he is as elusively elliptical in person as his is on the page. Half an hour wasn't nearly enough time to really break beyond the surface but if you are just discovering this promising heir to Calvino, Abe or Borges it's well worth a listen. Check it out at KCRW's website or subscribe on iTunes. Also worth picking up is The Village On Horseback, if only to witness the growth of someone who is sure to become one of the most important writers of our time. Comprised of aphorisms, prose poetry and two novellas, it is consistently surprising, prescient and full of imaginative explosions that will have you smiling while you scratch your head in sheer astonishment. I won't go into too much detail here - just trust me and buy the thing - but I will point out that, while he won the Plimpton Prize for the novella The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr, it is the earlier one, Pieter Emily (also included in this collection), that truly shone for me; a highly discomforting tale that might have even unsettled Poe.

I'm excited to have hopped on the Jesse Ball bandwagon nice and early. I'm also glad that his rise is not meteoric but slow and steady. Flashes in the pan tend to burn out while reputations built over time and on solid foundations are here for good. Expect big things... eventually.

The Man Booker Prize Fallacious Form Guide Vol.2: Almost There

on Saturday, September 3, 2011
Ten down, three to go. Not sure I'll bother with the rest unless they make the shortlist; I want to read for pleasure again. But a promise is a promise, so here's the next lot of Booker longlisted novels for your betting edification:

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
It's been a while since Margaret Atwood last made an appearance on any Booker list, but she is well and truly here in spirit thanks to this middling sci-fi pastiche. Set in a near future that has been crippled by a worldwide bio-terrorism attack, it nods so furiously to canonical texts in the genre such as The Handmaid's Tale, Ballard's The Drought (and Running Wild for that matter) and even 12 Monkeys that I'm surprised it doesn't have whiplash. In this incarnation, the 'apocalyptic threat' is Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), a man-made airborne disease that causes women to die during pregnancy, thereby making mince meat of our species' long term viability. Jessie Lamb, the 15 year old narrator, offers herself for martyrdom when a potential escape hatch for the human race opens up - the implanting of pre-MDA embryos into willing surrogates - much to the chagrin of her scientist Dad. Cue the metaphysical arm wrestle. Rogers throws up various moral conundrums about human and animal experimentation but dilutes it with some unremarkable parent/child drama and a vein of anti-patriarchal feminism so unsubtle it just seems clunky. Push aside the genetic soup and The Testament of Jessie Lamb never really rises above the level of homage to the greats.
Ladbrokes Odds: 16/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
God knows quite how Kelman has been plonked at number two on the bookie's list with this frustratingly twee take on the British knife crime epidemic. Little Harry Opuku is a precocious little scamp. Recently arrived from Ghana, he is obsessed with everything pop-culture, from sneakers to CSI. Especially CSI. So when one of his classmates is stabbed to death, he takes it upon himself to solve the crime with the help of his best friend Dean and a pair of crappy thrift store binoculars. What follows is an increasingly ominous descent into a violent world of teen gangs that he cannot appreciate until it's too late. Kelman's previous life as a successful script writer shines through - the dialogue is snappy, the voices authentically ghetto - but the book never felt more than an excessively padded-out short story. And did I mention there's a talking pigeon? Yeah, it's probably best that I don't. If this wins, it will be almost as great a travesty as the whole Vernon God Little debacle. Seriously team Booker, stop trying to be down with the kids.
Ladbrokes Odds: 5/1
Bookworm's Odds: 10/1

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
I suspect when his life's work is done, Sebastian Barry will have written one great family saga, with each novel counting only as a single chapter. On Canaan's Side sees the focus shift to Lilly Bere, sister of Willie Dunne (you may recall him being the hero of A Long Long Way), who is raking over the embers of her life in the wake of her grandson's death. Through her mournful haze, she recalls her early days in Ireland, her youthful love and subsequent marriage to Tadg Bere, and then the collapse of her dream when the newlyweds are forced to flee to America after Tadg gets mixed up in an IRA double cross. But the promised land proves only a temporary shelter, with Tadg being tracked down and murdered in a Chicago street. Lilly stays on, and through her subsequent highs and lows, hardships and relationships, Barry finds the perfect vehicle to explore not only the immigrant experience but the racial dynamics of mid-to-late 20th Century America. The novel spans seven decades, and it is to Barry's credit that he touches on the important historical events with a subtlety that prevents the book ever feeling like a high school history lesson. There's no reason On Canaan's Side couldn't be the one that finally nets Barry a Booker. As always, it is warm, understated and possesses a generosity of spirit that is extremely rare in contemporary literature. But then again, I thought the same about The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way.
Ladbrokes Odds: 7/1
Bookworm's Odds: 5/1

Far To Go by Alison Pick
Pick shines a light on a fairly well-known, but under-explored (in literary fiction at least) aspect of the Second World War - the evacuation of Jewish children from occupied Czechoslovakia in what became known as the Kindertransport. Far To Go imagines a Jewish family forced to flee the Sudetenland when Chamberlain gives it over to Hitler in the name of "peace in our time", and then helplessly watch as the walls close around them in Prague. Their escape is thwarted when they are sold out by their well-meaning maid, but seize upon the opportunity to at least get little Pepik the hell out of dodge. Melodrama rules, stereotypes abound and, if you happen to have any knowledge of the Kindertransport already, annoyingly patronising factoids keep bubbling to the surface, all of which significantly lessen the impact of what might have been a very powerful novel. Nostalgic and only mildly engaging, this belongs on Oprah's Book Club, not the Booker Longlist.
Ladbrokes Odds: 14/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Don't forget, the shortlist is announced this Tuesday, so keep your eyes on the Booker Prize website